“Summer was the queen, so she made all the decisions for who played what role. She told Lucinda she couldn’t be a princess or anyone in the royal family, but she could be a rock if she really wanted to. Lucinda was extremely aggravated by this, and she drew with markers all over Summer and Summer’s cubby. Then, when the teachers came Lucinda pretended Summer did it. That was the beginning of their enmity.”
“Okay everyone, get in the limousine!” Summer Jennings told her friends, quickly ushering everyone into the sleek black car.
Willow Darbee climbed in the limousine and looked in awe at her amazing surroundings. There were four separate snack bars, lounge cushions, massage chairs, fuzzy rugs, throw pillows, reclining chairs, and three TV screens. Summer had invited twelve of her friends to see a movie with her for her thirteenth-and-a-half birthday. Her real birthday was in August, so she was celebrating now in late February. Of course, they would all be travelling to the movie by limousine, Summer’s preferred form of transportation. Willow and Summer were in no way close friends, but they had a lot of mutual friends and didn’t hate each other, so Summer had invited her. As they all sat around, talking and eating, Summer started to describe the movie to her friends, saying that it was called Cream Puffs, and was about things mysteriously disappearing. Willow thought this sounded like a pretty good movie, so when they arrived at the theater she was pretty excited to watch it.
“Lucinda? Why are on earth are you getting popcorn? It’s awful for your teeth. You’re going to end up looking like an old toothless hag if you eat popcorn,” said Summer rudely as they were heading to the theater.
Lucinda rolled her eyes and walked away from Summer to talk her best friend, Molly, offering absolutely massive bags of popcorn to everyone at the party except for Summer. Lucinda and Summer had always hated each other ever since kindergarten, when they were dressing up and role playing. Summer was the queen, so she made all the decisions for who played what role. She told Lucinda she couldn’t be a princess or anyone in the royal family, but she could be a rock if she really wanted to. Lucinda was extremely aggravated by this, and she drew with markers all over Summer and Summer’s cubby. Then, when the teachers came Lucinda pretended Summer did it. That was the beginning of their enmity.
Over the years, Lucinda and Summer’s hatred for each other had grown immensely, but they had always had to invite each other to their birthday parties because their parents were friends, and they had a lot of the same friends. Pretty much everyone knew at this point that the two of them hated each other, and Lucinda and Summer were just fine with that.
Lucinda and Willow were pretty good friends, but Lucinda could be extremely rude sometimes, so they didn’t spend a whole lot of time together. Willow’s best friend was Eliza Kenter, but she attended the school Willow used to go to, Lepper Prep. Willow and all the girls at the party attended Orlan Academy, an all-girls school in Hartford, Connecticut. The girls settled themselves in their seats just as the previews were beginning, Lucinda and Summer still fuming at each other. Willow was seated between Lauren Ender, a sweet girl who was constantly losing all of her belongings, and Lindsay Pinser. Lindsay was fairly nice, but she tended to be very judgmental. One time, when Willow had sneezed, most people had said “Bless you!”, but Lindsay had stared at her and said “Okayyy….” as though she had just done something incredibly weird and unusual.
The first preview in the theater was for a documentary called Everyone Dies, in which everyone died. Willow had distinctly heard Lindsay say, “Okayyy….” when this trailer was playing. The next one was for an action movie called “Let’s Go!” where there was a lot of action. The next few were for comedies, thrillers, or coming-of-age movies. Finally, Cream Puffs began. The first scene took place at a school where all the girls were running around, skipping, laughing and getting along. Very unlike Orlan Academy, Willow thought to herself. But then, in the second scene, things started mysteriously disappearing, and everyone started getting mad at each other. That seemed more like Orlan Academy. There was someone at the school who was stealing everyone’s stuff, and whenever they took something they left a Cream Puff in its place. Willow thought this seemed pretty ridiculous, but it actually worked in the movie. All of the characters were so excited when they saw the cream puff that they ate it, and it took a while for people to realize things were missing. When they finally did, everyone started turning against each other, and falsely accusing girls of stealing their belongings. Then, all the girls were invited to a fancy party where jewels were stolen, and the thief was discovered.
It was at this time that most of the girls in the theater had started spacing out, dozing, or texting. The dialogue was so dull and the plot so strange that it was very hard to pay attention. Willow was playing chopsticks with Lauren, Lucinda and Molly were texting, and Lindsay was taking selfies. (Which was very strange, because you couldn’t even see her face in the dark, slightly creepy movie theater.)
Only Summer was still watching the movie. Poor Summer had thought that maybe this party would be a chance to redeem herself. The rock incident, the comment about Lucinda’s future life as a hag, and many other instances had made many of Summer’s “friends” think she was mean and annoying. And she definitely could be at times, but she thought maybe this would be a chance for her to start over. Now, though, no one was paying attention to Summer on her half birthday, or the movie she had chosen. Willow noticed that Summer seemed a bit upset, so after they had left and were driving back to their various houses she sat with Summer in the limousine.
“Hi Summer!” Willow said cheerfully as she sat down next to her. “Thanks so much for inviting me to your birthday party! It was so fun!”
“Oh, you’re welcome!” said Summer. “It was actually my half birthday, though. And I bet it would have been much more fun if not for that awful Lucinda.” Summer whispered this last part under her breath. “She’s just horrible! And I can’t believe she ate popcorn! I mean, how stupid can a person be? Lucinda never fails to amaze me,” said Summer. Whenever she discussed Lucinda she looked as though she had a very unpleasant smell under her nose. Summer made rude but occasionally accurate comments about Lucinda throughout the rest of the limousine ride, Willow nodding her head every once in awhile.
The next day at school, strange things started happening. The first odd occurrence was Lucinda’s shriek. Lucinda could be quite the drama queen sometimes, but she almost never screamed quite this loudly.
“Lucinda, what’s wrong?”
“Lucinda, can I help you?”
“Lucinda, is everything okay?”
All the girls rushed to her side to see what Lucinda was yelling about. She was standing in front of her locker with a look of horror and confusion on her face. Willow was surprised at Lucinda’s look of confusion, for she usually acted as though she knew everything and made it seem like she always understood what to do. Lucinda almost never looked confused though.
“Well,” said Lucinda, taking a deep breath, trying to calm herself, “I got an olive green and white striped leather jacket last weekend, and I wore it to school today. I got a ton of compliments, by the way. Well, I was going to get it out just now, but it’s gone! All that’s there is a teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry.’ And that jacket was really expensive!”
All the girls gasped, shocked that anyone would steal something. Willow’s head was spinning. This seemed an awful lot like the movie: something goes missing and another thing is left in its place. But why would anyone do something like that, and who? It must have been someone who saw the movie, Willow thought to herself. They must have gotten the idea when they saw it. Who, though? Could it be Lucinda herself, and she was just trying to get attention or somehow blame it on Summer? No, somehow Willow didn’t think it was her; she seemed so truly upset. What about Summer? Summer had hated Lucinda since the day they met, and maybe she was trying to get revenge. It honestly didn’t seem like Summer though. What would she even do with the jacket? If she wore it, everyone would know she was the thief, so it probably wasn’t her. Willow pondered who it could be as she walked into the bathroom. She was distracted from thinking about it as she heard someone sobbing in one of the stalls! Willow was taken aback by this, and wasn’t sure whether to ask, “Are you okay?” or to pretend she couldn’t hear. She decided it was probably best to ask if they were okay. She did, and through their crying Willow managed to hear, “Yeah I’m fine, thanks for asking. Don’t worry, and please don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” said Willow awkwardly. She decided to leave and just let the girl be. That was the end of the second strange occurrence. Willow thought the voice sounded incredibly familiar, but didn’t quite know who it was. They sounded so sad, and almost nervous, that it was hard to tell who they were. In a way they almost sounded as if they were trying to change their voice. Could they be crying because something of theirs that was very precious to them had been stolen? And could they have been trying to change their voice so Willow wouldn’t know it was them? Did they even know Willow, or that she was the one speaking? She assumed they knew her, since their voice sounded so familiar.
As Willow walked back to her classroom to get her books for her next class, she realized how badly she needed to use the bathroom. She walked up to the science classroom, put her books down in a seat, and ran to the bathroom as fast as she could. Her teacher, Mrs. Undergen, was very strict and enjoyed handing out unfair punishments if a student was late to class. Willow ran back to the science classroom after, but unfortunately Mrs. Undergen was already waiting there, shaking her head.
“Willow, I must admit I am extremely disappointed in you. You are usually such a good student, and now? You are fifty-one seconds late to class? Really? Since this is your first time being tardy, you will only have to do two extra pieces of homework.”
“I’m so sorry, thank you so much for your generosity,” said Willow, trying to sound as sincere as possible. She sat down in her seat next to Lauren and throughout the class quietly complained to her about how much she hated Mrs. Undergen, and told her about the missing jacket. Lauren seemed shocked at this and said, “But who would ever want to do that? Obviously they’d be caught, and everyone knows how strict the punishments are. Also, they’d have Lucinda as an enemy for life.”
“That’s true,” Willow whispered back, “I really don’t understand it.” Unfortunately, Willow said this last phrase rather loudly, and the whole class heard.
“You know what else you don’t understand?!” Mrs. Undergen asked, clearly extremely annoyed. “Proper etiquette. You arrive late to class, now you’re talking while I’m talking? I’m quite disappointed in you. Three extra homework assignments for tonight.”
Willow sighed. This was going to be a fun evening.
That afternoon, Willow went to swim practice where she got to see her friend Eliza. Willow had recently joined the swim team, which was great because she had gotten to see Eliza a lot more.
“Eliza, the craziest thing happened today at school! You know that girl Lucinda? I think I’ve told you about her. Well, today, her special leather jacket went missing, and a teddy bear holding a heart that said ‘I’m sorry’ was left in its place!”
Eliza gasped. “That’s so weird! Who do you think stole it?”
“I don’t know, but I’m trying to figure it out,” said Willow. “And the weirdest thing is that when I went to Summer’s birthday party, we saw a movie where things were being stolen, and cream puffs were left in their place!”
“It must have been someone at the party,” Eliza said decisively. “They definitely got the idea from seeing the movie.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. But, someone might have told the thief about the movie, and then they got the idea. That makes the whole thing even more complicated,” Willow said with a sigh.
Willow thought about who the thief could be throughout the whole night: before, during, and after finishing her three difficult science homework assignments, plus all the other homework.
“Yay Mrs. Undergen,” Willow grumbled when she had finished all her homework, fairly late at night.
The next day at school, something else went missing. Molly, who was usually always happy and smiling, looked very upset, so naturally everyone rushed over to her to interrogate her about what had happened. Most people assumed the mysterious teddy bear thief had struck again, and they were correct.
“My phone case was stolen!” exclaimed Molly, after everyone had asked her what had gone missing. “I keep my phone in my backpack, in my desk, and my phone is still there but the phone case is gone, and now there’s a tiny teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry’ that definitely wasn’t there before. And I got the case only a few weeks ago!”
Everyone within ten feet of Molly gasped and asked questions. Now that there had been a second theft, Willow was even more determined to discover the thief, but she didn’t want to be too obvious about her investigations. She decided to simply ask questions and do her best to notice things around her and make observations about the thefts. Willow had always been a very cautious person ever since was five years old, when she was sitting on the roof of her family’s boathouse in the country with Eliza. It seemed very safe because they were sitting just right outside the window, and their parents had approved it saying that they could stay there for a bit as long as they didn’t go any farther. Willow and Eliza were making friendship bracelets, and one of Eliza’s beads rolled down the roof, toward the very edge.
“I’ll get it for you!” Willow had said cheerfully, climbing to the bottom of the roof.
“No! Willow, we’re supposed to stay up here!” little Eliza had said, furrowing her eyebrows worriedly.
“Oh, don’t worry!” said Willow. “I’ll be fine.” But she wasn’t fine. She reached for the bead, and fell off the roof. Eliza screamed and was so scared she crawled to the bottom of the roof to see if Willow was okay. Then Eliza fell off too. Willow was so upset, and felt that she was the one who had hurt her friend. They both had to get ten stitches on their arms, and ever since then Willow has been much more cautious, and has taken an annoyingly long time to make any decision.
Willow’s next class was English, so she gathered her books and left for class, still wondering who had stolen the items. She was a bit inclined to think it was Summer, since she hated Lucinda, and Lucinda’s best friend was Molly, but she thought Summer was too smart to do something like that, since she would have realized that Lucinda and Molly would probably think it was her.
During English class, Willow sat with Lindsay, and it occurred to her that maybe it was Lindsay. She did have an obsession with phones, so it made sense that she would want it to look as nice as possible. Also, whenever anyone else got something new, Lindsay always wore an expression of deep disgust and jealousy on her face, especially since, as she had mentioned many times before, Lindsay’s parents were very strict and didn’t believe in buying her what they called “non essential products.”
“Lindsay,” Willow whispered as quietly as she possibly could. (She didn’t want another Mrs. Undergen incident.) “What’s your favorite color?” Lindsay looked at Willow oddly. “What?”
“I said,” Willow told her exasperatedly, “What’s your favorite color?”
“Um, I don’t know,” said Lindsay. “I guess maybe blue.”
“Me too!” said Willow. “Do you like, for instance, olive green?”
Lindsay wrinkled her nose. “No, it’s nasty. Why are you asking?”
“Oh, just doing a survey,” said Willow. The real reason was because she wanted to discover if Lindsay liked the olive green color on Lucinda’s stolen jacket. If she didn’t, though, why would she have stolen it? Could she have known why Willow was asking all along, and had lied on purpose? And could Lindsay have been the girl crying in the bathroom?
Willow pondered all these things in her next class, art, but she was distracted by a moment by the adorable bear Lauren was painting, and the beautiful puffin a girl named Katherine Linner was painting. Willow looked sadly at the demented looking goat she had just finished added a pink stripe of watercolor paint to. She had never been a great artist.
The next day at school, there was a third crime. Katherine’s beautiful painting of a puffin had gone missing! When everyone asked her about what had happened, Katherine said, “Well, I put it in my desk yesterday all wrapped up in the brown paper, but I forgot to take it home because I slipped on some newspaper and got distracted, and then I had to clean up the newspaper, and then I went to the bathroom where I heard…” Willow had stopped listening to the story, Katherine had a tendency to talk on and on and on about anything she could think of, and Willow just wanted to her to get the point. Fortunately, three minutes later, she did.
“… and now my artwork is gone, with a — ”
“Teddy bear holding a heart that says ‘I’m sorry,’” everyone finished for her. They all knew by now the thief’s habits.
In her next class, Math, which was conveniently also in her homeroom, Willow sat next to Lauren and said to her, “Three things have gone missing in three days! This is really getting out of hand.”
Lauren nodded her head. “I totally agree. A few people told the teachers, but they said the items had probably just been misplaced for some reason. Even though they said it was against the rules to go into someone’s desk, they said that the teddy bear was a sweet gesture, but I don’t know how they explained the ‘I’m sorry’ part.”
Lauren went back to her math worksheet and seemed very intent in adding up the numbers. Lauren’s family wasn’t able to pay their rent, and she had been trying to figure out exactly how much money she had and what houses they could afford, so she was now very concerned with becoming amazing at math.
After what seemed like a never-ending math class, Willow was about to rush to the water fountain (her infuriating teacher Mr. Quininin hadn’t let her get water) when she slipped on some newspaper. That’s funny, Willow thought to herself. Katherine had mentioned she slipped on some newspaper too.
Suddenly, everything made sense. Willow knew exactly who had been stealing.
Ten minutes later, during her break period, after writing and rewriting drafts of what she was going to say, Willow was ready to accuse the thief. She marched straight up to her and said, “Lauren, I know it was you. You were at the movie, so you got the idea from it, but changed it slightly. You were the girl crying in the bathroom two days ago, because you were upset about your family not being able to pay the rent, and you felt awful about stealing the jacket. You did it so you could sell it and your family would have more money. Then in science class, you acted like you didn’t know about the jacket having gone missing, but I remember now that you were there when Lucinda told everyone. Then, yesterday, you were the one who stole Molly’s phone case so you could sell it. And you kept on leaving the teddy bears because you love bears, which I figured out yesterday during art class. I’m assuming you were planning to sell your painting, but you also wanted to sell Katherine’s. Katherine mentioned she slipped on the newspaper. Your desk is right in between mine and Katherine’s and your newspaper from yesterday must have fallen off your desk onto the floor. I slipped on another one of your newspapers little while ago, and noticed it had a bunch of ads for apartments in it. You were looking for a new house for your family.”
Lauren was crying. “I feel awful. I just wanted my family to have more money. When I first heard we were going to move out, I tried to get a job but everyone said I was too young and irresponsible. Next, I went to my grandmother and grandfather’s house, and was going to tell them we were going to have to move out. They don’t speak to my parents since they hate my dad. They don’t think he’s wealthy enough. My dad’s parents are dead, so I thought maybe we could move in with them. It turns out, they had been moved to a nursing home and hadn’t told my mother. I thought stealing was our only hope. I promise I’m going to give everyone back their stuff, and own up to it, right now. I haven’t sold it yet, and I haven’t damaged it, or anything.”
Willow gave her a big hug. “It’ll all be okay Lauren, don’t worry. You were just trying to help your family.”
Lauren sniffled. She walked into the principal’s office and bravely told her everything that had happened. The principal was very nice, and understood that Lauren had good intentions. Her punishment was only to own up to and return everything to Lucinda, Molly, and Katherine, and the principal was going to send an email to her parents. If Lauren did this again, she would be suspended.
Willow went home that night relieved that almost everything was going to work out. She told her mom, dad, and younger sister Penelope everything that had happened.
“What should we do to help Lauren’s family?” Willow asked them.
“I really don’t know,” her mom said. “Maybe we should just let them figure this out on their own. I know Lauren’s parents, and they like to be very independent in what they do.”
Willow’s dad nodded his head in agreement, and so did Penelope even though she had no idea what they were talking about.
“I guess so,” said Willow. She still wished there was a way to help.
The next day at school, Lauren returned everything and apologized again and again. Lucinda, Molly and Katherine were all very understanding, and everything went back to normal. Lauren, who was so pleased she wasn’t in bigger trouble couldn’t help smiling all the time. It turned out, there was another reason she was so happy.
“Willow, guess what?! I sold my painting for $300! And my mom got promoted at her job, so we have enough money to pay our rent!” Lauren told Willow, clearly overjoyed.
“Lauren that’s amazing!!” exclaimed Willow.
“I know, I’m so happy!” squealed Lauren. “I’m just wondering, but how did you figure out it was me?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Willow breezily. “I guess I’m just that cool.”