by Kristen Bealer

o O o

Sandi stood on the sidewalk outside of Lawndale High and stared at the front doors, willing herself to move forward and go inside and begin the first day of her senior year. Somehow, though, she found she couldn't move.

No more Fashion Club. I'm not the President of anything now. I'm just Sandi Griffin.

In the past, that statement would have been enough to keep her chin up and her arrogance high. In the past, she would have strode through the doors without hesitating and taken the school by storm. In the past, nothing would have made her doubt herself.

That was then. Before the loss of her beloved club, the stiffened spines of her once-subservient friends, and a complete obliteration of confidence in herself. She had nothing to fall back on now; her safety net was gone.

"Out of the way, loser!" a familiar voice yelled out, and a moment later someone shoved roughly past her.

"Watch it, creep!" she snapped.

The kid who'd pushed her didn't look back on his way into the school, but Sandi hadn't expected an apology or even an acknowledgment. Her brother Sam might have become a high schooler, but in her opinion he was just as immature and annoying as ever.

Realizing that if she waited any longer she would risk having to-ugh-run to get to class on time, Sandi shifted the weight of her backpack and began walking toward the doors. Maybe today won't be so bad, she reassured herself.

o O o

Today is going to be awful! Stacy was walking through the hallway before class, outwardly calm but massively panicking on the inside. Or at least she hoped she looked calm. Oh, no. One more thing to worry about.

It had been an eventful summer, but now that school had started again she had no idea what to expect. On the one hand, Sandi was probably still upset about Stacy cursing her into laryngitis and accidentally attempting to poison her. On the other hand, Stacy had finally stood up for herself and even quit the Fashion Club. On another hand, without the Fashion Club Stacy didn't really know where she stood on the Lawndale High pecking order anymore. On yet another hand, this could be an opportunity to really flourish as a confident, popular young woman...if she didn't totally screw it up like she always did.

Stacy was running out of hands. She could also feel a hyperventilation episode coming on. She looked down at the floor and tried to "center herself," which was something she'd read about in one of the many self-help books her mother had bought for her, but she'd never been entirely clear on what it meant.

She was pretty sure it didn't mean noticing the mud she'd somehow managed to get on her brand-new shoes and driving herself further into panic mode, but that's what happened all the same.

The first bell hadn't even rung yet and Stacy could already feel her day spiraling out of control.


o O o

Sandi sat up straight in her desk during first period, trying to appear completely aloof, completely unperturbed, and completely indifferent to the fact that Quinn was totally showing off, dammit!

It was bad enough that most of the senior class-girls and boys alike-started fawning over her from the moment she walked into the school. Now she was answering questions in class. Answering them by choice. Answering them correctly.

She was acting like a brain, and no one cared. A few students even looked impressed. Sandi was quickly reaching the point where she wanted to throw her desk at that smug little-

"Ms. Griffin?"

Sandi's focus abruptly swiveled from Quinn to Mr. DeMartino, who was standing at the front of the classroom and waiting for something.

"Um, yes?" she asked.

The teacher sighed and glared at the ceiling. "I said, can you describe the effects of the 1970s oil crisis?"

"Oh." Sandi realized that she hadn't actually listened to a word the teacher had said since roll call. "The effects were, uh, that people in the 70s had really oily skin in addition to the terrible hairstyles?"

Mr. DeMartino turned his glare from the ceiling to Sandi. "I'm not sure it's possible to come up with a worse answer than that, even if you'd actively been trying to be wrong!" The glare intensified. "If you're done with your health and beauty report, perhaps we can get back to discussing the gas rationing that resulted from exploding oil prices?"

Sandi wished she could slide right under her desk and hide from the embarrassment.

"Hey, speaking of gas and explosions, my dad ate like three whole cans of pork and beans this one time and an hour later I swear there was actual fire coming out of his-"

"That's just fascinating, Kevin, and I'm so glad you could rejoin my class this year and share such thought-provoking revelations with us!"

With a quiet sigh of relief, Sandi relaxed as Mr. DeMartino-and everyone else in the room-started paying attention to Kevin instead. The relief was short-lived, though, because only moments later Sandi saw a hand up, waiting to reply to the teacher's question about the oil crisis.

Quinn's hand.

Mr. DeMartino called on her, and before Quinn even opened her mouth Sandi knew that the answer was going to be not only correct and brilliant, but also impossibly cute and popular.

o O o

The bell rang, ending the first class of the day, and Stacy flew out of there like she was being chased by a stampeding herd of acid-washed jeans. She could feel the waves of hostility coming from Sandi all through Mr. DeMartino's class, and she didn't intend to stick around and risk becoming a target.

As she walked through the crowd of students all hurrying to their next class, she felt like a pinball. Everyone seemed to be smacking into her or crashing against her shoulders or kicking her ankles as they passed. It was as though Stacy was invisible. That wasn't exactly a new feeling, but in the past the other students had gotten out of her way when she was walking through the halls.

Then she remembered that in the past she always walked to class with the other members of the Fashion Club. It wasn't me they were getting out of the way for, she realized with a sinking feeling. It was only for them.

Suddenly, she caught sight of a familiar face-Bret Strand. "Bret!" she exclaimed, trying to be heard over the noise of slamming lockers and loud voices. He didn't look her way, and even as she called his name again and again he seemed unable to hear her.

Stacy stood in the middle of the hallway and watched him go, oblivious to all the people still jostling past her. He heard me. He must have. Right? So was he ignoring me? Why would he do that? What do I have to do to get him to notice me?

Trying desperately not to cry, she turned around and concentrated on getting to her next class on time. As she did, her feet collided with a backpack someone had dropped on the floor next to their locker and she found herself sprawled facedown on the floor.

"Ugh!" she cried, feeling less hurt than embarrassed. She pulled herself back up and looked around quickly to see who was watching.

The answer was no one. No one had even noticed. I guess that's a good thing, she tried to tell herself, but somehow the thought didn't make her feel any better. She felt even worse when she glanced down and saw that the front of her outfit was now covered with dust, lint, and even a piece of chewed-up gum.

"Ewwww!" she squeaked, changing course to head for the nearest restroom.

Would anyone care if I just stayed in here all day? she wondered as she pushed the girl's room door shut behind her. Would anyone even notice?

o O o

Sandi closed her locker, straightened her shoulders, and tilted her chin up as she prepared to move on to second period. So you had a little setback, she could hear her mother telling her. Who cares? You get back up and keep going. Above all, don't show weakness.

She took a deep breath and tried to forget about everything that had happened before. What matters is right now, she decided. And right now you are invincible.

And then something exploded against the back of her head.

For just a moment Sandi thought the ceiling had caved in or something, but then she looked down and saw the broken balloon lying next to her feet.

Someone hit me with a balloon? Before she could wonder about that, she felt something oozing down the back of her neck. She reached back to touch the substance, but she could smell it before she even brought her hand back to look.


Sandi's immediate reaction wasn't shock. It wasn't horror. It wasn't even disgust at the foul-smelling, slimy goo now soaking into her designer shirt.

It was pure rage.

She whipped her around, not caring that mayonnaise flew all around her as she did, as she searched for the source of the balloon. It only took her a few seconds to notice Sam, doubled over with laughter a short way down the hall.

Still ignoring the disgusting mess still spreading over her outfit, Sandi shook with rage and took a few steps toward her brother before realizing that he was pulling another balloon filled with who-knew-what out of a bag and was prepared to throw it at her.

Self-preservation overrode Sandi's righteous indignation and thirst for vengeance, and as her anger faded her awareness that she was still coated in mayonnaise rose.

She let out a strangled "urg" before bolting for the girl's restroom. She pulled the door open and just barely avoided colliding with another girl, who scurried out of the way with a startled "Eep!" Some part of Sandi's mind registered that the girl looked familiar, but she had more important things to worry about.

o O o

Stacy managed to get through science class without any major incidents, but her anxiety was still building. By the time the bell rang, she decided she needed to talk to her friends. I need their support more than ever, she decided. Well, maybe not from all of them.

Sandi had nearly trampled over her in the restroom earlier that day, then ducked into class almost twenty minutes late, smelling awful and looking even worse. From past experience, Stacy knew better than to ever talk to her when she was in that bad of a mood. Still, I'm sure I can count on Quinn and Tiffany to be there for me.

As she gathered up her things, she spoke over her shoulder toward where Quinn was sitting. "Hey, Quinn! How's your day going? You won't believe what..." She turned to see that Quinn had her back to her and was giggling at something Zachary had just said.

Stacy tried to join them, but her way was suddenly blocked by Corey. And then Ronnie. And several other boys who were in their class.

"Um, okay then. See you later, Quinn!" she called over the heads of the crowd now hiding her friend from view. There was no reply, so Stacy turned her attention toward Tiffany instead. "So...how about you? Are you having a good day?"

Tiffany lowered the compact she'd been using to check her makeup. Then she closed it carefully and placed it into her purse. Next she looked up at Stacy and thought about her question. Finally, she tilted her head as she considered, then took a deep breath and opened her mouth.


Stacy waited a few seconds to see if Tiffany had anything else to add. When she didn't, Stacy looked sadly at the floor and went on. "Well, I've gotta tell you, I've actually been having kind of a rough time today. I fell on my face before school and almost wrecked my outfit. I can't seem to pull myself together. And the worst thing is, all day I've been feeling invisible. Like no one wants to pay even the slightest bit of attention to me!"

Feeling a little better after getting all of that out in the open, Stacy looked up again to see her friend's reaction. Tiffany had pulled her compact out again and was focusing her full attention on reapplying her lip gloss.

Resisting the urge to snatch the compact and throw it at Tiffany as hard as she could, Stacy picked up her things and left the room without another word.

o O o

Sandi paid for her lunch and carried her tray to the popular table. The day is half over, she told herself with a sigh. Just a few hours to go and it'll all be over. She groaned quietly. Until tomorrow, when I get to start all over again.

"Oh, hiiii, Sandi!" chirped a friendly-sounding voice that years of experience told Sandi was not in the slightest bit friendly.

Still, she pulled together the best smile she could and looked up. "Hello, Brooke. It's good to see you. Did you have a nice summer?"

Brooke smiled back at her in the same way a boa constrictor would smile at a mouse. "I'm sure it wasn't as interesting as yours was. I heard the Fashion Club broke up. Is that true?"

"Yes," Sandi replied slowly.

"Ha!" Brooke barked in what Sandi considered a very unattractive way. "So I guess I totally dodged a bullet when you wouldn't let me join, huh?" She smirked and crossed her arms. "Although if you had, maybe your pathetic little group wouldn't have fallen apart!"

Sandi grabbed the edge of the table to stop herself from jumping out of her seat and grabbing a fistful of Brooke's limp, stringy hair. Why the hell does Brooke think she can get away with talking to me like that? was her first thought.

Her second thought was Because she can get away with it, of course. She released the table and gave Brooke an icy stare. "If the cream of the Lawndale High crop decided that the Fashion Club was no longer necessary, what makes you think a nobody like you would make a difference?"

Brooke snorted, which sounded especially unpleasant coming out of her badly reconstructed nose. "You don't get it, do you?" She leaned in toward Sandi with a smug look. "You're a snotty little bitch, but everybody used to kiss your ass because you were the president of the Fashion Club. Without the Fashion Club to back you up, you're the nobody at this school."

Sandi opened her mouth to unleash a devastating retort...but nothing came to mind. She couldn't think of a single thing to say to shut Brooke up.

Seeing that Sandi was speechless, Brooke straightened up and tossed her hair behind her back-showing off her split ends in the process. "Well, I suppose I'll leave you alone with your lunch," she said pointedly. "Oh, and I brought you something to go with your sandwich."

Just before spinning on the heel of last season's shoes, Brooke tossed something on the table in front of Sandi. After a brief glare at Brooke's back, Sandi looked to see what it was and groaned.

Mayonnaise packets.

o O o

Stacy tossed her food into the garbage, completely untouched. Lunch had been a total disaster. She'd sat with the Fashion Club as usual, but Sandi had scowled at the table in silence the entire time. Tiffany had spent the whole lunch period asking what Stacy thought of her new eyeshadow. Quinn had shown up late and left after only a few minutes, claiming she had to talk to a teacher about an extra credit assignment.

As Quinn left, Stacy was pretty sure Sandi had muttered something about a "brain," but her voice didn't have any of the sharpness Stacy was used to. Instead she had just sounded tired.

Pushing open the door, Stacy started to leave the cafeteria but froze when she heard a tiny "snap." She looked in horror at the hand she'd used to open the door and realized she'd just broken a nail.

"Crap!" she groaned, then began rummaging through her backpack for a nail file. She couldn't find one. Just great. Now I'm probably going to end up biting that nail until it looks all ragged and gross.

She tried to ignore the damaged nail and continued down the hallway, almost running into a girl wearing the same shirt she was. Not only that, but an unpopular girl. I knew I should have brought an extra shirt just in case!

Stacy could feel the day getting even worse than it already was, and the thought made her tear up. She brought her hand up to wipe away the tears, and her fingers came away black.

What? she wondered, then understood with horror. My mascara! It isn't waterproof!

She dug into her backpack again, this time pulling out a compact. She opened it quickly and confirmed that her mascara was indeed starting to run. While she was checking, she also happened to notice that she was getting a zit right in the middle of her forehead.

Oh no no nononono! Stacy was using every bit of her strength to keep herself from freaking out, but the effort was making her heart rate skyrocket and she felt herself growing warm...and sweaty.

Dreading to look but unable to resist, she glanced down at her underarms where, as she suspected, two sweat stains were quickly growing.

Stacy was beginning to feel dizzy, so she staggered to the nearest wall and leaned back against it. After forcing herself to take several long, deep breaths, she took a cautious step away again and finally noticed the "Wet Paint" sign.

The rest of the afternoon was kind of hazy from that point onward.

o O o

Sandi mechanically pulled books and papers out of her locker and dropped them into her backpack. The last class was over, and it was finally time to go home. She let out a small sigh of relief, then crouched down to zip up the bag.

Immediately she sprang back up again, screeching as something wet and incredibly cold slid down her back. She pulled her shirt away from her body and heard something small hit the floor. Looking down, she saw a partially melted ice cube.

She didn't need to look to see who had done it, but she whirled around to see Sam, once again grinning at her in triumph.

She started to lunge toward him. "You little-" she choked out before it finally occurred to her that Sam wasn't so little anymore. He'd hit a major growth spurt over the summer and now Sandi realized that she was no longer able to give him the pounding he truly deserved.

All right, you lousy little freshman, she thought with sudden inspiration. You might be bigger than I am, but what about the football team?

She looked around and, for the first time that day, had some good luck. Coming down the hall toward her were Jeffy, Joey, and...that other one.

"Excuse me?" she called, and was happy to see their faces light up as they looked her way. The three boys scurried in her direction. As they came near, she said, "Perfect. Now I need you to..."

She trailed off as they continued on right past her, to someone standing further down the hall.

Quinn. Sandi's short-lived joy crumbled as she understood that the boys hadn't noticed her at all-or if they had, they'd chosen to ignore her in favor of the one person who had already succeeded in making her first day of school a nightmare. Fine, she decided. I'll just have to make Sam suffer on my own.

She turned back to her brother, only to find that he was gone. Ran away, the little-

"Can I carry your backpack, Quinn?" Sandi froze, hearing Sam's voice among the group of boys gathered around Quinn.

Sandi stared at him, studying the worshipful expression on his face as he gazed at Quinn Morgendorffer. Then she looked at all the other guys, who looked similarly adoring.

"I brought you a soda!" Joey told Quinn eagerly.

Sandi tossed her hair, trying to force herself not to care, but knew that had been a mistake when the motion sent out a whiff of old mayonnaise.

"And I brought you some ice to go with it!" Sam added with a grin.

That. Is. It! Sandi finally snapped. With a sudden surge of rage-fueled adrenaline, she grabbed Sam by the back of his shirt and threw him into his own open locker. Before he even realized what had happened, she slammed the door shut and kicked it for good measure.

The degree of satisfaction she got from that single action almost made up for everything else that had happened to her that day.

"Ms. Griffin!"

And within seconds, there it went. Any remaining happiness drained right out of Sandi again as she recognized the voice of Ms. Li behind her. She slowly turned around, trying to think of a good defense and coming up empty.

"Report to my office at once!" the principal ordered.

Sandi just sighed and plodded down the hall. So much for this crappy day being over, she thought glumly.

o O o

Stacy gripped the straps of her backpack tightly as she headed for the school exit, reminding herself that it was the only thing blocking the paint stains on the back of her shirt from view. Get home. Get changed. Get transferred to a new school.

She turned the corner and stopped dead when she saw Bret Strand just a few yards away. Her heart began to pound-or was that sound coming from a locker over there?

Before she could say anything to Bret, he grinned charmingly and said, "So, do you want to go to Chez Pierre with me on Saturday?"

At first Stacy was too excited to speak. Then she started to reply.

"Sure, that would be great!"

Stacy realized only after a few seconds that it hadn't been her voice that said it. She turned her head very slightly to see the person she hadn't noticed before. The person that Bret had actually been talking to. The person who had just accepted his offer for a date.

Quinn Morgendorffer.

At first Stacy just stood there, staring at the two of them. Bret and Quinn continued to talk to each other, completely oblivious to Stacy's presence.

Stacy was suddenly consumed with a tortured scream that only she could hear. She still clutched the straps of her bag, but now it was because she had the hazy feeling that if she let go she would start falling and never stop.

Quinn and Bret started to shrink, and Stacy was dimly aware that it was because she was backing away from them. Without consciously intending to, she backed all the way into one of the restrooms.

The first thing her gaze landed on when she turned around was a mirror. The mirror. The one that made everyone look several pounds heavier than they actually were. Staring at her own reflection, Stacy was sure it was adding at least ten pounds this time.

Shut up! she screamed at it in her head. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!

At some point it occurred to her that she was now screaming at the mirror out loud, but she didn't care anymore. Hauling her arms back, she took a swing and slammed both hands against the mirror.

It shattered with an enormous crash that was oddly cathartic, and Stacy watched with sudden calm as the shards fell to the floor.

"That's much better," she whispered.

"What the hell?"

Stacy spun on the spot and found herself face-to-face with a very angry Ms. Li. "Eep!"

"To. My. Office," Li sputtered, barely able to form the words as she stared in horror at the broken mirror. She glanced over at Stacy, then looked again more closely at her arm. "Stop at the nurse's office first," she amended. "Then straight to my office."

Stacy looked down and noticed for the first time that her arm was bleeding slightly. She nodded and scurried away, resigned to her fate.

o O o

Angela Li stormed down the hallway and paused only briefly to tell the janitor, who had just finished prying Sam Griffin out of the locker, that he was needed in the girls restroom immediately. She continued on toward her office, struggling fiercely not to swear out loud in front of the students.

This was supposed to be a good year, she thought furiously. All of the worst troublemakers have graduated, and things were right on track for a school year full of glory and honor for Lawndale High! What on God's green earth is going on today?

She burst through the door to the outer office, startling Sandi Griffin briefly. She gave a quick gesture for the girl to follow her into the inner office, and shut the door behind them.

Lowering herself slowly into her desk chair, Li fixed a level glare at Sandi. "I think you'd better explain yourself," she began.

Then, for the first time ever, she watched Sandi Griffin burst into tears.

o O o

It was almost half an hour before Stacy got out of the nurse's office. The cut itself had only taken a few minutes to deal with, but Stacy was desperate to stall her visit to the principal's office for as long as possible. At last, though, Nurse Chase began to get tired of listening to Stacy make up random symptoms for diseases she clearly didn't have and kicked her out.

By the time Stacy reached Ms. Li's office, the entire school seemed to be deserted. Maybe Ms. Li has gone home! Stacy thought with sudden hope as she entered.

"Come in, Ms. Rowe," Ms. Li ordered.

Or maybe not. Stacy took a deep, shuddering breath and walked in to face the principal.

Ms. Li raised an eyebrow. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Stacy clenched her fists and opened her mouth. For the next twenty minutes, her half-coherent shrieks could be heard from outside the building.

o O o

The sun was starting to set as Angela Li sat alone in her office. She had both Sandi and Stacy's school records in front of her on the desk and was staring at them wearily. They aren't great students, she thought, but they've never been in any real trouble before, either.

She leaned back in her chair and sighed. I don't want to suspend them, but I can't just ignore these incidents, either.

No answer came to her, so she set the issue aside and turned to some other paperwork on her desk. She picked up a memo from Mr. O'Neill and read it, then waved it in the air in triumph.


o O o

The phone rang at the Griffin house that night, and Sandi grabbed it before the first ring even ended. "Hello?" she asked nervously.

"Hello, may I speak with Tom or Linda Griffin, please?" asked the easily recognizable voice of Ms. Li.

Sandi closed her eyes in dread. She knew this call would be coming sooner or later. She'd managed to keep Sam quiet about what had happened at school by reminding him that if he told, their mother would also find out about the pranks he'd played and then they'd both be in trouble. "Just a moment, please," she said politely into the phone.

She lowered the receiver and slowly counted off the seconds in her head. Taking a deep breath, she brought the phone back up. In an impression of her mother's voice that she'd been practicing all afternoon, she said, "Hello, Linda Griffin speaking."

She listened for a few minutes, her eyes growing wider and wider. At last she replied, just barely remembering to stay in her mother's voice. "I...see. Okay. Sure. I-er, she'll be there."

Sandi hung up the phone, still staring straight ahead in shock.

o O o

Stacy punched the "delete" button on the answering machine, glad for once that her parents were both working late again and hadn't been home for Ms. Li's call. "But that's for freaks and losers!" she whispered in horror.

And are you so sure you're neither? She tried to ignore the thought, but it wouldn't go away. You spent the whole day spazzing out and then broke a mirror!

Stacy sank down until she was sitting on the kitchen floor. It doesn't matter if you belong there or not, she realized. You're about to spend the next four weeks there, so you might as well get used to the idea.

She buried her face in her arms and shuddered. I just hope nobody I know finds out about this.

o O o

At that moment, even though they were half a mile apart, Sandi and Stacy had the exact same thought.

Self-esteem class?

o O o

When the last bell rang the next day, Sandi pretended to have a date immediately after school and hid in the girls bathroom until she was pretty sure Quinn, Stacy, and Tiffany had left. Then she made her way to Mr. O'Neill's classroom and braced herself for the worst.

She was expecting geeks and misfits. She was expecting complete and total lameness. She was expecting tedious boredom.

She did not expect to see Stacy Rowe staring back at her.

"What the hell are you doing here?" she demanded.

Stacy shrank back in embarrassment for just a moment, then frowned and looked back at Sandi with suspicion. "Me? What about you?" she asked. "You said you had a date!"

"Well, I, um...well..."

"You lied!" Stacy exclaimed, trying to hide her glee and failing at it. "You're stuck in this class, too!"

"I'm only here because there was a mix-up!" Sandi snapped, crossing her arms defensively.

"Yeah, right," Stacy said, bouncing slightly in her seat. "Everyone's been talking about you shoving Sam into his locker yesterday." She stifled a giggle. "And about the mayonnaise, too!"

Sandi let out a huff of air and scowled. "I noticed someone broke that weight-adding girls' room mirror that you hate." She looked pointedly at Stacy's bandaged arm. "Did you get cut somehow? What bad luck. Seven years' worth, even."

Stacy's fists clenched as any amusement she'd seen in the situation vanished completely. "You can't push me around now," she hissed, narrowing her eyes. "You aren't the President of the Fashion Club anymore."

Sandi looked like she'd just been told her credit card was declined. "You ungrateful little-" she started to say.

"Hey, guys! Is this the place for the self-extreme class?" Everyone turned to see Kevin standing in the doorway with a wide grin on his face.

"Why are you here?" Sandi and Stacy asked him in unison.

"Mrs. Manson said I should come here," he said cheerfully, walking in and sitting at an empty desk.

"But...why would she say that?" Stacy asked.

"She thinks I feel bad about myself or something. But I told her I won the fight!"

"What fight?" Sandi asked, already starting to regret getting pulled into the conversation.

"The fight with Lance," he explained slowly, as though talking to someone dumb.

"Why did you get in a fight with Lance?" Stacy asked. "I thought you were friends!" Lance Collins was a senior that year, like them, and he and Kevin had both been on the football team together until Kevin got held back-making him ineligible to play.

"We used to be friends. Then I got kicked off the team and now Lance is the new QB." He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs out under the desk. "He's also a stupid asshole who needs to learn how to keep his mouth shut." His casual attitude and dopey expression didn't change as he spoke, but with each word his voice got harder and sharper until some of the students sitting near him began to shrink away with nervous looks.

Everyone in the room glance uneasily at each other, but before anyone could think of anything to say to break the awkward silence, Mr. O'Neill burst into the room and bounded up to the front.

"Good afternoon!" he chirped, beaming at everyone as if waiting for them to break into applause. When no one responded, he cleared his throat and began. "Esteem. A teen. They don't really rhyme, do they? The sounds don't quite mesh..."

As he droned on, Sandi and Stacy sat in their desks and quietly glared at each other.

o O o

After the class ended and everyone else had left, Sandi and Stacy stayed behind. "I don't get it," Sandi said as she leaned back in her seat. "I mean, everyone knows you belong here, but why would Ms. Li stick me in this stupid class?"

Stung by the casual insult, Stacy snapped, "Maybe she thought it would be good for you to see how we lesser mortals live."

Sandi turned to glare at her. "And what is that supposed to mean, Stay-cee?" she asked, drawing out her name disdainfully.

"Eep!" Stacy cowered out of reflex, but then sat up straight and crossed her arms. "It means that some people are getting tired of you looking down your nose at us all the time." Her flash of courage faltered as she quickly added, "I mean, that's what I've heard. From other people."

"Hmmm," Sandi replied thoughtfully. "I take it back. You don't have low self-esteem, after all."

"Really?" Stacy said, suddenly cheerful.

Sandi nodded. "You have no self-esteem whatsoever. If you ever find it, check to see if it got lost in the same place your spine did."

Stacy's mouth dropped open at the hurtful comment, but she soon closed it again and set her face into an expression of anger and defiance. Grabbing her backpack and heading for the door, she turned at the last moment and hissed, "It is on."

o O o

"I've got a little challenge for you. Today we talked about turning your daydreams into reality. Tonight, I want each one of you to go home and do just that. What do you say?" Mr. O'Neill glanced around the room before pointing at Stacy. "How about you? What's a daydream that you'd like to see come true?"

Stacy glanced briefly at Sandi before saying, "I'd like to go back in time and tell certain people to back off and stop trying to control every single thing I do and say."

"I...see," Mr. O'Neill said with a nervous chuckle. "Well, I don't know if time travel is a feasible-"

"Like you'd have the courage to say it, anyway," Sandi muttered, quiet enough that only Stacy could hear it.

Stacy narrowed her eyes at her. "Just keep pushing. You'll find out."

Sandi blinked in surprise and for once had no comeback.

o O o

"And so, for tomorrow, I want you to make a list of ten ways the world would be a sadder place if you weren't in it."

"Easy," Sandi murmured. "Number one: far more people at this school would be walking fashion disasters." She shot a smug look at Stacy and added, "In stretch pants."

Stacy snorted and crossed her arms. "Says the girl who wore a muumuu last year."

"I see you're still wearing a childish cartoon watch," Sandi remarked. "It really sets off that shoulder asymmetry of yours."

Stacy flailed for a moment. "Overalls!" she snapped.

Sandi smirked back. "Butterfly clip."

Turning pale, Stacy turned back in her seat to face the front again. I can't believe she would stoop that low.

o O o

"Now, I want everyone to remember: the next time you start to feel bad about yourself, you need to stand before the mirror, look yourself in the eye and say, 'You are special. No one else is like you.'"

"Oooh, bad idea," Sandi commented. "Stacy doesn't really get along well with mirrors these days. They have a tendency to get broken when she's around." It was Friday, and her temper was wearing thin after four straight afternoons of self-esteem class.

Stacy snorted, feeling similarly bitter. "Which is too bad, because I think you could use one right now. You've got a little something right...there." She gestured toward Sandi's hair. "What is it? Oh, I believe it's mayonnaise."

Sandi slammed both hands on the top of her desk and whirled around in her seat to face Stacy. "Got something to say, Rowe?" she snarled.

"Nothing that you'd be willing to pay attention to!" Stacy snapped back.

Sandi rose out of her desk and leaned down so her face was inches from Stacy's. "Maybe if you said something worth hearing every once in a while I'd be more interested in listening to you!"

"Yeah, right!" Stacy jumped up with clenched fists. "You never-never-listen to anyone but yourself! You always treat me like crap!"

Mr. O'Neill hurried over and stood worriedly next to them. "Now, really, girls! I think perhaps everyone should just take a few deep, cleansing breaths and-"

"Shut. Up!" they both screeched at once, turning the full force of their glares on the teacher.

"Eep!" O'Neill yelped, then turned and sprinted out of the room without another word.

After a few moments, Kevin pumped his fists in the air. "Woo hoo! Class dismissed!" He bounded out of his desk and ambled out the door. The rest of the class shrugged or rolled their eyes and followed, leaving Sandi and Stacy alone in the room.

"Nice going," Sandi said. "After your little freakout, we're both probably going to be stuck in this stupid class for the rest of the year."

"Don't blame this on me!" Stacy said, stabbing the air between them with a finger. "You started it!"

"Except that it's your fault that we're both here in the first place!"

"Me? I'm not the one who crammed your little brother into his own locker!"

"Whatever," Sandi huffed, tossing her hair over her shoulder and looking away. "Not like it matters, anyway. As soon as everyone finds out we're stuck in this class, we're complete toast on the popularity scale."

"Then it's really important that no one find out about it, isn't it?" Stacy asked. She didn't like the calculating look Sandi gave her in return.

o O o

The following Monday, the two girls maintained a polite but chilly silence that lasted until lunchtime. As they picked at their food, Quinn was oblivious to the tension between them as she prattled on cheerfully in equal parts about fashion and schoolwork. Tiffany was the only one who responded, generally with one word answers that no one really paid any attention to.

Eventually Quinn ran out of topics to ramble about and turned to the others with a smiling face. "So what are you guys doing after school? Do you want to hit Cashman's and see if they have the new fall clothes in stock?"

Sandi and Stacy glanced briefly at each other for a few tense moments before a slow smile appeared on Sandi's face. "I already have plans, but I'm sure Stacy would be happy to join you. Do you have anything to do this afternoon, Stacy?" she asked innocently.

Stacy gave her a look that could have frozen water from a mile away. "I'm afraid I can't make it," she said calmly, "but I'm curious. What are your plans for after school?"

"Oh, nothing important," Sandi said quickly. "I'm surprised that you'd pass up a chance for a shopping trip, though. What could possibly prevent you from going?"

"A prior engagement that I can't get out of," Stacy replied through gritted teeth, "but I'd sure love to hear why you can't make it. Please do tell!"

The two girls made eye contact and neither one was willing to break it until Quinn coughed nervously and said, "I guess everyone's too busy. Maybe another time. Oh look at the time gotta go seeyoulater!"

As Quinn grabbed her empty tray and launched herself toward the exit, Tiffany looked up from her salad and said, "Weee're going to Cashman's aaafter school?"

"No!" both Sandi and Stacy snapped before grabbing their own trays and leaving.

"See you in class," Sandi hissed as they parted ways.

"Looking forward to it," Stacy muttered sarcastically.

o O o

The next morning before school, Sandi and Stacy came face-to-face in the hallway. Stacy grabbed Sandi's arm and pulled her aside. "Listen," she hissed, "our stupid grudges don't matter right now. We've got to agree to stop trying to sabotage each other and just keep the self-esteem class a secret. All right?"

After a moment's thought, Sandi nodded. "You make a good point," she said reluctantly. "From now on, even hinting about the class is totally off-limits. Under no circumstances can it be revealed that-"

Then Kevin Thompson waved at them and blared out at the top of his lungs, "Hey, see you in selfie-steam class after school!"

The girls froze as several heads turned their direction. Two teenage minds whirled furiously, searching for a way to prevent disaster. Sandi's got there first.

"Like, Stacy!" she exclaimed. "You never told me you were in that loser self-esteem class! Ugh, how humiliating for you." Before Stacy could even react, she spun around and stalked away down the hall. Some small part of her felt bad about what she'd done, but a sharp voice in her mind insisted that Stacy would have done the same thing if she'd been given the chance.

The voice sounded astonishingly like her mother's.

o O o

All afternoon, Stacy tried to ignore the sneers and giggles that kept coming her way as the news of her assignment to self-esteem class spread throughout the school. Worse than any of that, though, was the pity she saw on Quinn's face. She had to resist the urge to slap that look every time she saw it.

Her first impulse after Sandi's betrayal had been to tell everyone that Sandi had also been put in the class. She knew that it wouldn't work, though-no one was going to believe anything a newly-formed outcast like her would say.

So where revenge was concerned, she had to plot harder. More devious. And, above all, as she reminded herself every time she passed Sandi in the hall or sat near her in class, more cruel.

o O o

The answer came to her after classes let out. She was on her way to Mr. O'Neill's classroom-openly, now that she had no reason to hide where she was going-when she noticed Sam Griffin taking books out of his locker. Smiling with sudden inspiration, she walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

Sam yelped and dropped his books, then turned and spread his arms wide as though trying to protect himself from getting pushed into the locker. When he saw Stacy, he relaxed but glanced around nervously. "Yeah?" he asked.

"I need your help," Stacy said.

"Sucks to be you, then," he said, rolling his eyes.

"But it's really, really important!"

"Then it really, really sucks to be you."

Stacy thought quickly. "It'll totally demolish Sandi."

His face lit up and he grinned. "I'm in."

She explained what she needed him to do and he agreed quickly. Stacy continued on to self-esteem class, where she ignored Sandi and fantasized about both a weekend free of Mr. O'Neill and a plan that would bring ruin on Sandi.

o O o

Sandi strode into school the following day, ready to face another day of classes and even a fresh round of self-esteem drivel. She noticed a few students having hushed conversations as she walked by, but didn't think anything of it until she reached her locker.

Glued to the door was her class picture from fifth grade. She was grinning widely, showing off her huge braces for all the world to see.

She snatched the photo off her locker and looked around quickly to see how many people had seen it. That was when she finally noticed the same picture pinned to the bulletin board. And another propped up inside the school's trophy case. And even more taped along all of the walls.

Everywhere Sandi looked, she saw her own gawky, metal-filled face smiling back at her.

I thought I destroyed every copy of that picture! she thought frantically. Then it hit her. Of course. My brothers must have had one stashed away somewhere.

She was about to go searching for Sam when someone stepped in her path, blocking her from moving forward.

"I think it's a very flattering likeness," Stacy said, holding up a copy of the photo.

"You!" Sandi growled. "You did this!"

Stacy shook her head. "Oh, no. Sam did it." A smirk slowly spread across her face. "Of course, the idea was all mine. I just needed some help. We freaks and losers can't do much on our own. Not that you'd know anything about that."

"Is that what this is about?" Sandi demanded. "Look, thanks to Kevin and his big mouth the whole school was going to find out about at least one of us being in self-esteem class. I just didn't see any reason why both of us needed to get caught."

"Ohmygod, really?" squealed a voice behind Sandi. She spun around and saw Brooke standing there, grinning like deformed noses had just been declared fashionable. "You're in self-esteem class, too?" Before Sandi could reply, Brooke bounced off down the hall, no doubt ready to spread the newest gossip far and wide.

Sandi turned back to see Stacy's smug expression. "Oh, Sandi," she said in mock sympathy. "That's just too, too bad."

o O o

The news was already spreading through the school by the end of second period. As if hearing people whispering about self-esteem class wasn't bad enough, Sandi's third class of the day was Language Arts with Mr. O'Neill.

She slid into her desk, pointedly not looking at anyone-especially Stacy in the seat next to her, from whom she could feel waves of gleeful satisfaction.

"It's not as bad as you think," Stacy finally said as they waited for class to start. "It's not too late for damage control. Not everyone's heard about us being in the class yet. If we can convince enough people that this whole thing was just a nasty trick we were playing on each other or maybe some kind of-"

"Good morning, students!" Mr. O'Neill chirped as he strode into the classroom. "Before we begin, I'd like to address some rumors I've overheard in the halls today."

Most of the class perked up, eager to hear about anything other than that day's lesson.

"Several students have been saying some very unkind things about the participants in my after-school self-esteem workshop. I think this would be an excellent time to set the record straight!" He looked toward the back of the room. "Sandi? Stacy? Will you please stand up?"

The two girls sat rigid in their seats, then turned to look at each other in utter horror.

"Come on," Mr. O'Neill insisted with a wide smile. The rest of the class began turning around in their desks to look at them with curiosity.

Realizing that the longer she refused, the longer her humiliation would last, Sandi stood up and motioned for Stacy to do the same.

"Thank you!" Mr. O'Neill said with a grin. "Now, everyone, teens with low self-esteem aren't 'squares' or 'weirdoes.' They're normal students, just like you, who just happen to have a problem. Okay? Now, I want everyone to give Sandi and Stacy a big round of applause for being brave enough to take on their self-esteem problems head-on!"

Only two or three students clapped, resulting in a lackluster smattering of applause that provided the perfectly complement to the sneers and eyerolls they got from the rest of the class.

So much for damage control, Sandi thought as she and Stacy sat back down. She tore a piece of paper out of her notebook and scribbled something on it, then folded it up and tossed it onto Stacy's desk the moment Mr. O'Neill turned to write something on the chalkboard.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Stacy open it up and read the message: Emergency meeting tonight. My house. 7:00 PM. New objective: destroy Mr. O'Neill.

o O o

That night, Stacy and Sandi sat in Sandi's bedroom and discussed their options.

"Couldn't we just ditch the class?" Stacy asked nervously.

Sandi shook her head. "Ms. Li would find out, and then she'd call our parents."

Stacy shuddered. "My mom cannot know about this class!"

"Mine either," Sandi agreed. "It's bad enough the whole school knows; if she got wind of this my life would be over."

Stacy nodded and chewed on her thumbnail. "What about getting out of the class early? I heard some people have done that by acing the test before the class was over."

Sandi stifled a tiny snort of laughter. "Us? Ace a test? You're not serious."

"Mmm," Stacy hummed with a sheepish nod. "Fair enough." She sighed. "Okay. Maybe if we-"

"No." Sandi crossed her arms. "This isn't about escaping the class anymore. This is about taking down Mr. O'Neill. Not just as revenge, but as a public service to the school. If we're successful, no one-or at least not as many people-will care about us being put in the class in the first place. We'll be the people who defeated the worst teacher Lawndale High has ever had."

"We'll be...heroes!" Stacy whispered, thinking about it.

Sandi pointed a slender finger at her and nodded. "If we play it right, we can pretend we were in the self esteem class because we were, like, undercover or something."

Stacy leaned forward to look seriously at Sandi. "Okay, I'm in. But. We do this together, right? No backstabbing."

Cringing, Sandi nodded. "I deserved that." She smirked and added, "But I know better than to cross you now."

"Same here," Stacy said with a rueful smile. "But I learned that lesson over a few years."

The girls were quiet for a few minutes, thinking. At last Sandi broke the silence. "All right; we've made each other miserable in our own unique ways. Now we just have to join together and make someone else truly miserable. Together."

"Right," Stacy agreed, brightening. "But...how? I mean, let's be honest about our talents. We know fashion. We know hair and make-up. We know dating. I don't see how any of that is going to be useful in getting revenge on Mr. O'Neill!"

"Don't you?" Sandi asked quietly. Stacy looked at her expression and, for the first time in her life, felt sorry for someone other than herself.

o O o

They set their plan into motion the next day. "Did you call the Dutchman Inn?" Sandi asked Stacy as soon as they met before school.

Stacy nodded. "I made the reservation in Mr. O'Neill's name and asked them to confirm it this afternoon-after school but before he'll get home from self-esteem class."

"So Ms. Barch will be the only one home when they call back," Sandi finished with a satisfied smirk. Thanks to the school gossip mill, everyone at Lawndale High knew that O'Neill and Barch had moved in together over the summer...everyone except Ms. Li, anyway.

Stacy glanced toward the parking lot and saw a familiar sedan pull in. "There he is!"

The girls waited until O'Neill got out of his car and went into the building before heading over. Stacy opened the door, relieved to find that the too-trusting teacher had left it unlocked. Sandi tossed a large bag onto the passenger seat and began pulling items out of it.

"Put these in the backseat," she told Stacy, handing her a pair of red stiletto heels. She dug a package of condoms out and shoved it into the glove compartment, then pulled out a small plastic baggie and opened it to remove a few blond hairs and place them on the passenger seat headrest. Plucking them off Chris's head that morning had earned her a painful kick to the shin, but it would be worth it if their plan worked.

"One more thing," Stacy said as Sandi grabbed the bag and started to shut the door. She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a bottle of perfume, which she spritzed into the car. "It's the skankiest scent PayDay had," she told Sandi as she dropped the bottle back into her purse. "And I know for a fact I've never smelled it on Ms. Barch."

Sandi wrinkled her nose, smelling the perfume. "Definitely not. That's not the kind of...odor...you'd forget."

Both girls slammed the car doors shut and strolled back toward the school, arm in arm.

o O o

For the rest of the school day, Stacy and Sandi found it even harder than usual to focus on their classes. Every once in a while they'd make eye contact and would have to look away again quickly before one or the other began laughing.

"I wish I knew how long we'd have to wait to find out if this worked," Stacy told Sandi as they walked to self-esteem class that afternoon.

It turned out they didn't have to wait very long at all. Mr. O'Neill was right in the middle of a big speech about "the you-ness inside" when they heard the squealing of car tires in the parking lot. Most of the class glanced over but, seeing no car crash in progress, turned their attention back to the teacher or, in most cases, their naps.

Sandi and Stacy, however, kept looking as it stopped right next to Mr. O'Neill's car. Ms. Barch erupted out of the driver's seat and yanked his car door open, then dove inside. She pulled back out again, retching and waving her hand in front of her nose, then stuck her head back in.

The girls watched as she made one discovery after another-the pumps, the hairs, and finally the condoms. With each new revelation they could see, even from a distance, that she was getting angrier by the second. Slamming the car door closed again with a "bang" that could be heard inside the classroom, she stormed toward the school with fists clenched and eyes practically shooting sparks.

Sandi looked sideways at Stacy and held up one hand. Slowly she lowered one finger, then another, then another, until only her index finger remained. Just as she lowered that one, the door to Mr. O'Neill's classroom crashed open to reveal Janet Barch, her entire body heaving with rage.

"Oh!" Mr. O'Neill squeaked in surprise, then walked over to her. "Hello, Janet. What a nice-"

Grabbing the front of his shirt with both hands, she hauled him off his feet and then flung him into the hallway as though he weighed no more than a sack of potatoes. The entire self-esteem class immediately jumped out of their desks and piled through the door as Ms. Barch stalked over to him and leaned over where he lay, face-up and staring at her in shock.

"You," she began, quietly but with great menace.

"Barbaric," she continued, her voice getting louder but still mostly under control.

"Shameless," she added, now beginning to shriek as her face turned red.

"Two-timing," she howled at the top of her lungs.

"Man!" she ended with a bellow before launching herself with fists waving at O'Neill, who had preemptively curled into a protective ball. The security guard arrived just in time to drag her away from him, but she continued to screech and swipe at the air even as she was pulled back.

Standing innocently near the back of the crowd with Sandi, Stacy looked around and saw that the commotion had drawn the attention of more than just the self-esteem class. The football team, having just come in from practice, was standing slack-jawed outside the locker rooms. The cheerleaders were gathered a short distance away, gaping at the outburst. Several students were trickling into the hallway from various other after-school activities.

"Oh, wow!" Ted DeWitt-Clinton exclaimed, holding up his camera and snapping a few pictures. "This is going to look great in the yearbook!"

The sound of heels clicking against linoleum at a rapid pace made everyone turn as Ms. Li raced toward them. "What is going on here?" she demanded, pressing her fingertips against her temples as though trying to ward off a particularly nasty headache.

Still struggling against the security guard's hold, Ms. Barch immediately shouted, "That sleazy bastard cheated on me! I should have known he was just like all the others-a degenerate, two-faced scumbag just like-"

"Enough!" Ms. Li roared, silencing Ms. Barch and making Mr. O'Neill flinch in terror. "Not only have you disregarded my rules prohibiting fraternization among the faculty, but now you've dishonored my school by making this...this... spectacle of yourselves?"

Ms. Barch finally stopped talking. A hint of nervousness joined her angry expression.

Mr. O'Neill shakily got to his feet, dusting off his shirt and smoothing his ruffled hair. "If I may say something-"

"You may not," snapped Ms. Li, and her words were accompanied by a threatening glare from Ms. Barch. The principal looked at both of the teachers in turn, then took a deep breath. "You leave me no choice but to terminate your employment, effective immediately."

"But-" cried Ms. Barch.

"You can't-" sputtered Mr. O'Neill.

"Both of you, in my office, now." Ms. Li turned and strode back down the hallway, and the two teachers-or ex-teachers-scrambled to follow.

The students were quiet while they left and the security guard ambled back to his post, but the moment the adults were gone the entire hallway erupted into cheers.

"I didn't think we'd ever get rid of those two!" Joey cried, pumping his fists in the air.

"Yeah, I figured it would take a miracle!" Jamie added, slapping him on the back and grinning.

"Or a brilliant plan," Sandi cut in, stepping forward to stand in the center of the group.

Robert looked at her in confusion. "What do you mean, ma'am?"

Stacy came over to stand next to Sandi. "She means that we coordinated this whole thing."

"Easier than pairing skinny jeans and ankle boots," Sandi added with a smirk. Smirking with self-satisfaction at the feat they'd accomplished, she held up her hand, palm out, to study her nails with affected nonchalance. To her great surprise, an equally happy Stacy reached over and slapped her open palm without hesitation, giving her a high-five.

"Oh, yeah, right," sneered a voice behind them. They turned around and saw Brooke standing with some of the geeks from French Club. "As if you two has-beens had anything to do with this!"

Sandi and Stacy glanced at each other warily, then looked at the dubious faces surrounding them. "We did," Stacy insisted, but her voice was weak and shaking.

"You all know Mr. O'Neill would never be brave or stupid enough to cheat on Ms. Barch," Sandi added, feeling even less confident than Stacy sounded.

A few students were rolling their eyes and most of the crowd was losing interest in the whole thing. Sandi could sense Stacy's panic rising without even looking at her, and she was fighting the urge to freak out herself.

"They're telling the truth." Emerging from the crowd was a familiar redhead who, to Sandi's eyes, had never been more welcome. Quinn looked around the group, which was now paying close attention. "If there's one person at this school who knows how to plot against people in the most devious, underhanded way on the planet, it's Sandi Griffin."

"Um, thanks..." Sandi muttered.

Quinn wasn't done yet. "I mean, after years of being the target of her cruel tricks and passive-aggressive insults, I can say without complete certainty that you're looking at the most manipulative evil mastermind this school has ever known!" She was clenching her fists as she spoke, and her eyes were wider than Sandi had ever seen them. "The stories I could tell you about this scheming, diabolical little bit-"

"Okay, I think everyone gets it now!" Sandi practically shouted. "Thank you very much, Quinn!"

Panting slightly, Quinn nodded and stepped back, looking a little bewildered by her own outburst.

Brooke crossed her arms and looked away with a frown, but the rest of the students were looking at Sandi with new respect. "So you really planned this whole thing?" Zachary asked in an awed whisper.

Sandi nodded, then gestured at Stacy. "But I couldn't have done it without Stacy." Stacy stared at her in shock, and Sandi realized that it was the first time she'd ever given the girl credit for anything. "Seriously, the cheap perfume in his car? That was brilliant."

"Yeah, but the whole plan was your idea," Stacy said, smiling slightly.

"It was your comment about knowing fashion and hair and makeup that gave me that idea," Sandi reminded her.

Stacy beamed at the rare praise, and it took a few seconds for Sandi to notice that she was smiling back. Leaning in close, Stacy murmured, "If we're going to tell everyone that we were only in the self-esteem class because we were undercover, then now's the time."

Sandi nodded and raised her hands to quiet the crowd. "Excuse me," she called. "I just want to say..." She looked around at the group. "...that is, I think it's important..." At Brooke, who was stomping away down the hall with a look of frustration. "...for all of you to know..." At Quinn, who looked supportive but slightly dazed. "...that the only reason... " And finally at Stacy, who waited with an eager look on her face. "...I was in Mr. O'Neill's stupid class..." Suddenly Sandi stopped talking, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. "...was because I actually do have low self-esteem."

Stacy stared at her in shock. So did everyone else. Even Sandi felt a little surprised by her own sudden revelation.

Before anyone else could react, Kevin burst through the crowd and yelled, "Yeah! Self-extreme! Woo-hoo!"

Now thoroughly confused, a few students tentatively began to clap while others just looked at each other and shrugged. Seeing that no more fireworks were forthcoming, the group began to disperse until Sandi and Stacy were left alone in the hallway.

Turning to a still-bewildered Stacy, Sandi quietly told her, "It was obvious, wasn't it? You said it yourself last week: I always treated you like crap. I treated everybody like crap. And I know exactly why."

Stacy tilted her head, waiting for her to continue.

"Because I feel like crap. All the time. It wasn't until I started working with you instead of against you that I realized how nice it feels to just be someone's friend."

Staring at the floor and speaking so quietly Sandi could barely hear her, Stacy said, "I liked that, too." She lifted her gaze a little and said, "So what does this mean for us now? I mean, everyone knows about the self-esteem class, but Quinn stood up for us. Are we...still popular?"

"Stacy, tell me the truth. After everything that's happened, do you really care anymore?"

Her expression shifted through several different emotions before lapsing into a kind of tired resignation. "Honestly? Not really."

Sandi hesitated only a moment before putting an arm around the other girl. "Face it: we're just a couple of self-esteem losers."

Stacy giggled a little in spite of herself and said, "Not anymore, though, right? I mean, there's no teacher now. Unless Ms. Li can find a new one, fast."

"And maybe this time it'll actually be a competent teacher," Sandi added, then let out a discouraged sigh. "But probably not. You'd have to be really desperate for the extra money to take on a class this dull."

o O o

"Esteem. A teen. They don't really rhyme, do they? The sounds don't quite-gah! Who came up with this garbage?!"

Mr. DeMartino hurled the notes over his shoulder and glared at the class. "First of all, I'm pretty sure that about half of you are only here because our illustrious principal is an idiot. As for the rest of you, of course you have low self-esteem. You're attending a school full of morons, run by a tyrant, and the most some of you can look forward to after graduation is a job at Cluster Burger! Still, if you can find it within yourselves to actually pay attention in class for once, maybe I can help you survive the experience."

"Go, Mr. D!" Kevin cheered.

"Shut up, Kevin," Mr. DeMartino replied, but it seemed to be out of habit rather than anger. A rare smile even flickered across his face as he continued, "Now, your assignment for tonight is...to go for a hike!"

o O o

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.