“Maya, you are seriously looking fierce,” I said, pointing at my reflection.
She smiled at the compliment.
Either that or she was hoping I’d finally pick an outfit after ten costume changes. I’d bought a killer top over the weekend, and it
begged for the perfect shoes and skirt. They were just taking forever to find.
I wasn’t being picky out of shallowness. I actually had good reasons to worry about my appearance:
1. I was the fashion columnist for my school paper and needed to look the part.
2. It was Monday, and Mondays were bad enough without adding sweatpants.
3. My friends and I had just made it onto the local news, which meant all eyes would be on us for the next few days. Loop to reason one.
I decided to stick with my last combo: gray leggings and a plum-colored skirt paired with my lemon-yellow top. I added rain boots in the same yellow to pull it all together. The bright colors were a little daring, and my nails would’ve looked better with purple polish than with pink, but fashion is all about risk. Plus, I’d just spent ten minutes in front of my bedroom mirror and was about to miss the school bus.
I tossed my less-than-perfect clothing options in the closet and caught my reflection in several more mirrors . . . tiny ones I’d sewn into a dress. My school was having a dance on Saturday, and the theme (thought up by yours truly) was “The Future Is . . . ” So I’d bought a bag of craft mirrors and painstakingly glued them onto an old white sundress I had. I got the idea from a mirror-covered dress I’d seen at the mall.
It would’ve been easier to buy the store version, but there was no way my parents would give me the money. Why? Because they still liked to remind me of the last time they paid for something of mine. It had caused a sticky situation, literally and figuratively. And it was also the reason I didn’t wear purple nail polish anymore.
See, I have a big secret I haven’t told even my closest friends. Because if they—or anyone else—knew, they’d never look at me the same.
The fact is that I, Maya Chung, am a former shoplifter.
Well, a one-time,
unsuccessful former shoplifter.
Crazy, right? You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but it’s true.
And it’s all because of Nicole Davis, a girl I became friends with over the summer. She was visiting her aunts who live down the street from my family, and since we were so close in age, one of Nicole’s aunts suggested we hang out together.
Things started out great. Every time I saw Nicole, she had a new pair of earrings or a cool top to show off. She’d even let me borrow her stuff for days at a time. But then I found out how she’d gotten these newfound treasures: She’d stolen them.
And the “borrowing” she’d let me do? It was to keep the items out of her house so her aunts wouldn’t notice them. Pretty tricky, right? Even worse, she got me to try shoplifting!
Emphasis on the word
I may have toppled a nail polish display while sneaking a bottle of Purple Rain into my purse.
My mom and stepdad, Oliver, were furious, and they had to pay for all the nail polishes I’d broken. Needless to say, asking them for money before I turned eighty was out of the question.
“Maya, I hear the bus coming!” Oliver shouted upstairs.
Giving my reflection one last glance, I slung my backpack over one shoulder and hurried down.
“Goodbye, parental units. I love you and beg you not to wave from the porch.” I paused to kiss Mom on the cheek, and she looked me over with a frown.
“Turn around, honey.”
“What?” I spun in a circle. “What’s wrong?”
Mom reached behind me and tugged at the back of my blouse. She held out her hand, showing me the price tag she’d removed. “Is this new?”
I recognized that tone. What she really meant was, “Did you pay for this?”
You try to steal one measly polish, and they never let you hear the end of it.
“I bought it with my birthday money,” I replied in a tone that really said, “Yes,
She smiled and patted my back. “It’s very pretty.”
“I thought so, too,” I said. “When I
paid for it.” I emphasized the last words so she’d get the point.
Mom chuckled and raised her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay.” She glanced at Oliver, who was watching us with a blank expression.
Oliver and my mom have been together for as long as I can remember (my biological dad passed away when I was four), but he still tries to stay out of mother-daughter arguments. A smart choice, in my opinion.
“You know what’s not okay?” He pointed toward the front door and, on cue, an engine rumbled outside, followed by a long, loud honk.
The bus. Never had I been so happy to leave for school.
I ran to the door, but once I opened it, I slowed my pace and strode confidently down the driveway. Nobody respected the word of a frantic fashion columnist.
The bus driver gestured for me to hurry, but I flicked the ends of my hair and didn’t break my stride. Oliver’s the head chef of a fancy restaurant, and he says if you act confident, you’ll feel confident. It’s pretty good advice, coming from a man who wears white sneakers with black socks.
“Glad you could grace us with your presence, Miss Chung,” the bus driver said as I stepped on board.
I smiled at him and took my seat next to Erin, who grinned when she saw me.
“Good. Morning. Maya,” she said in a robotic voice, moving her arms and head in mechanical jerks.
My smile deepened. “Hello. Erin!” I said in my own robot voice. “Do. You. Have. Any. Oil?”
We both giggled. Everyone in earshot gave us strange looks. But then, they hadn’t been talking like robots like we had when preparing for the hackathon for coding club.
Erin and I were both members of coding club, along with our friends Lucy, Sophia, and Leila. They’re the close friends I mentioned to whom I can’t tell my secret. They were also the ones I’d recently been on the news with because of the hackathon we competed in. It’s like a marathon but for computer programming, where everyone uses their coding skills. This one involved robots, and we programmed ours to dance—kind of by mistake, though.
Mrs. Clark, our advisor, was there, too, and even though we didn’t win first place, she couldn’t stop gushing about how proud of us she was. When my team was awarded a tour of a local programming company, she actually jumped up and down. I’ve never seen a teacher do that, except Mr. Robard, my newspaper advisor, when he saw a rat. He jumped up on his desk pretty fast, but the coming-down part took a while.
Erin shifted her bag. “Cute top! Is it new?”
I reminded myself not to use the same annoyed tone I did with my mother. Erin didn’t know about my fifteen-second life of crime.
“It is! I bought it with my birthday money,” I said.
“I wish I could spend the money my dad sends on whatever
I want.” Erin made a face. Her parents got divorced not long ago, so she lives with her mom now.
“Your mom doesn’t let you spend your own money?” I asked.
“No, she chooses something cheap and then puts the rest in savings.” Erin rolled her eyes to the top of her blue-framed glasses. “Clearly my mom’s forgotten how rich I’ll be when Hollywood calls.” She made a ringing sound and held her phone to her ear. “Hello? You guys need me for
another billion-dollar film?” Erin held her hand over the phone and whispered, “Sorry, I have to take this.”
I laughed and shook my head. She jokes about it, but Erin is definitely Hollywood material. She can sing, she’s an awesome actress, and she can do so many impersonations, it’s like talking to twenty people instead of one.
“Sorry your mom isn’t cool about money,” I said.
“Oh, not just money. My life!” Erin rolled her eyes. “She wants to chaperone at the dance.”
“Seriously?” I was in charge of the dance, and so far none of my friends’ parents had signed up to chaperone. My mom couldn’t because she had a work event (she was in charge of marketing for a local advertising company), and I’d convinced Oliver not to by promising to wash his car every week for a month. “Does your mom want to check up on you?” I gasped and grabbed Erin’s arm. “Did someone ask you to the dance?”
Erin shook her head. “Not yet, but who knows? Maybe I’ll ask someone myself. The idea has been
dancing through my head since Sophia asked Sammy.” She elbowed me and grinned.
“Ugh. You’re so cheesy, it’s making me lactose intolerant,” I said, wrinkling my nose.
Erin laughed. “That was a gouda one. Get it? Good-a? Gouda?”
I clapped my hand to my forehead. “I’ve created a muenster!”
We traded cheese-related puns and then cracker-related puns until the bus pulled up to the school.
“Wait, I’ve got one more,” said Erin, giggling as she stepped off the bus. “How—”
“Finally!” Lucy ran toward us as soon as our feet touched the pavement. Her braids bounced with each step. “Where have you guys
“Um . . .” I turned and pointed to the bus behind us.
While I have trouble keeping track of time, Lucy’s the opposite. She’s always ready to go and always wants results
now. She expected to design an app on the first day of coding club, even though apps can take years to perfect. Sometimes her impatience can be a little frustrating, but she does keep our group on track, so I can’t stay mad.
“What’s the big rush?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s Monday morning,” said Erin. “Nothing school-related could’ve happened in the past two days.”
“Mrs. Clark wanted to see us before homeroom, remember?” Lucy prompted. “To take a photo for the paper?”
Erin and I exchanged panicked glances.
“I completely forgot!”
“Well, come on!” Lucy tugged at our hands. “Sophia and Leila are already waiting.”
The three of us hurried into the building (FYI, it is not easy to run in rain boots) and down the hall to the computer lab.
“We’re here!” Erin gasped, doubling over. “We made it.” She dropped to the carpet and sprawled out. “Feel free to pose around me.”
“Oh my,” said Mrs. Clark.
The newspaper photographer snapped a picture of Erin.
Sophia raised an eyebrow. “Where did you guys run from—Alaska?”
“The . . . school . . . bus,” I said, taking a deep breath.
Sophia whistled. “We have
got to work on your cardio.”
Of all my friends, Sophia is the most athletic. She plays softball and even manages the boys’ football team.
“Thank you, girls, for getting here so quickly,” said Mrs. Clark. “Along with the photos, the newspaper would like to run a small article on you. I hope that’s okay.”
For me, it wasn’t a big deal since I work at the school paper, but my friends were gasping and squealing with delight.
“That’s totally okay!” said Lucy.
Melanie Eastwick, a reporter for our hometown newspaper, leaped up from where she’d been sitting. She wore a fedora with a card that said press sticking out of the brim. The woman clearly took her job very seriously.
She approached Leila first, pen poised over her notepad, while the photographer hovered between them. Leila adjusted her head scarf and tried to act casual.
“First of all,” said Melanie, “I think it’s awesome what the five of you are doing for girlkind everywhere.”
Leila frowned. “Girlkind? Is that even a word?”
“It will be once the Oxford English Dictionary gets my petition,” Melanie said with a wink. “Now, are you in this to prove that girls do, in fact, rule while boys drool?”
Mrs. Clark cleared her throat. “Melanie, we don’t compete to prove girls are better than boys or vice versa. We do it to show that
anyone can excel in STEAM, regardless of gender, education, or race.”
It was true. Sophia, Lucy, and I hadn’t known any coding before this year, while Erin and Leila had at least a little background. And when it came to embracing races, Sophia was Latina, Lucy was African American, I was Chinese, Leila was Pakistani, and Erin was white.
“STEAM’s definitely for everyone,” I agreed.
Melanie scribbled on her notepad. “And STEAM is . . . ?”
“It stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics,” Erin supplied. “It’s an acronym.”
“Got it,” said Melanie. “Now, which of you made the robot dance? That was brilliant!” She waved her pen for emphasis.
My friends and I looked at one another.
“We all kind of did,” said Lucy.
“Yeah,” said Sophia. “I mean, we each came up with a different part of it, but it took us all to make it work.”
“Gotcha,” said Melanie. “There’s no me in team, right?”
Leila wrinkled her forehead. “Well . . . the
me are in team. I think you mean
Melanie frowned. “No. There’s no
i in team.”
“That’s what . . .” Leila’s forehead wrinkled even further, and I squeezed her shoulder.
“Just let it go,” I whispered.
On the floor beside me, Erin giggled.
Erin, Lucy, Sophia, and I actually met Leila after her hackathon teammates dropped out, leaving her to compete alone. We invited her to join us—we knew she was really good at robotics—and she turned out to be a really great friend, too.
Melanie asked a few more questions and then nodded to the photographer. “Time for pictures!”
My friends and I posed on either side of Mrs. Clark. After the photographer had sufficiently blinded us with the camera flash, he and Melanie left the computer lab.
“I just want to say again how proud I am of you girls,” said Mrs. Clark, while the rest of us gathered our things. “That was a tough competition, and earning a tour of TechTown was a huge accomplishment.”
My friends and I grinned at one another.
“Maybe we can improve our robot design in coding club today,” Leila said hopefully.
Mrs. Clark put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m always for improvement, but I’ve already got something in mind for this afternoon. And it includes”—she lowered her voice and looked around conspiratorially—“a surprise.”
Sophia and I
oohed. Lucy gasped and clasped her hands together, and Leila and Erin ventured guesses.
“Can we eat the surprise?”
“Do we get to make a video game?”
Mrs. Clark laughed. “No to both. You’ll have to wait and find out!”
The first bell rang, and Mrs. Clark ushered us into the hall. “See you this afternoon!” she called.
“What do you think the surprise is?” Lucy asked the rest of us as we gathered outside the computer lab.
“Whatever it is, it’s big enough for everyone in the club. Otherwise, she would’ve said ‘a surprise for one of you,’” Leila pointed out.
“That’s true. But what would we find surprising?” asked Erin.
“If the cafeteria used real beef,” said Sophia.
The rest of us giggled.
“Well, Mrs. Clark’s a fun teacher, so whatever it is will be fun, too,” I said.
Since we didn’t have long before the warning bell, Lucy, Sophia, and Leila hurried off to their homerooms. Mine was just across the hall, so I hung back with Erin, who was getting a drink of water.
“I hope the surprise is money,” I said, leaning against the wall.
“That’d be nice,” she said. “Then I could buy some clothes
I chose, instead of wearing what my mom picks.” She gestured to my outfit. “You’re lucky your mom has good taste.”
I laughed. “She didn’t pick these pieces. I did.”
Erin’s jaw dropped. “Your mom buys whatever you want?”
“No!” I laughed harder. “I got most of these myself.”
“How can you afford them?” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you steal them? Maya Chung, are you a fashion thief?”
I knew she was kidding, but I couldn’t help stiffening and scowling. “No. I’m not.”
Erin’s eyes widened, and she reached for my shoulder. “That was totally a joke. I didn’t mean it.”
I relaxed. “Good. Because everything I own is bought and paid for.”
Erin nodded so hard her glasses slid down her nose. “Absolutely.”
“Hey, Maya?” A student office aide approached us. “The principal wants to see you.”
I stiffened again, this time in fear. “The principal? Are you sure she meant me?”
He snorted. “Is there another Maya Chung?”
I looked at Erin, who shrugged. “Maybe you’re getting some sort of Best Dressed award.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said doubtfully. “I’ll see you later,” I told her and followed the office aide, my heartbeat almost as fast and loud as the thrum of the tardy bell.
Principal Stephens’s voice was light when I knocked on her door, which I took as a good sign.
“Come in,” she said.
I pushed it open just enough to poke my head through. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes!” Principal Stephens gestured for me to step forward. “We have a new student starting today, and I was hoping you could show her around campus. I hear you’re old friends.”
I opened the door wider and saw who was sitting across from Principal Stephens.
It was Nicole Davis—the shoplifter.