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Authors: Tara Dairman

Stars So Sweet

BOOK: Stars So Sweet
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ALSO BY TARA DAIRMAN

All Four Stars

The Stars of Summer

G
.
P
.
P
UTNAM'S
S
ONS

an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Tara Dairman.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

G. P. Putnam's Sons is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

eBook ISBN 9781101996508

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Jacket Art © 2016 By Kelly Murphy

Cover Design By Irene Vandervoort

Version_1

For my parents, Barbara and Fred, and my aunt Judy

Chapter 1

LOBSTER LOCKDOWN

G
LADYS GATSBY FELT LIKE A LIVE FISH
was flopping around in her stomach.

All around her in the school yard stood strangers, talking and laughing—incoming seventh-graders from the four other elementary schools that fed into Dumpsford Township Middle School. They couldn't possibly all know one another already, but somehow it felt like they did, or like everyone there knew at least
one
other person. Gladys didn't have a lot of friends, but she wished now that she had made plans to meet up with one of them this morning before middle-school orientation started.

“Nice stuffed animal,” said a snarky voice.

Gladys looked up just in time to see a
girl with a super-short haircut and a green messenger bag melt into the crowd. Who had she been making fun of? Gladys didn't see any kids nearby holding a stuffed animal. Seriously, you'd have to be pretty clueless to bring one here—might as well announce to the world that you were a giant baby.

Still, the drive-by comment had rattled her. Was that the kind of thing she had to look forward to in middle school? Taking a deep breath to compose herself, Gladys stroked the fuzzy strap of her lobster backpack—and froze.

She yanked the backpack off to examine it. Its belly was sunken today, since there wasn't anything inside it other than a lock for her new locker and her restaurant-reviewing notebook and pencil, which she kept with her at all times. But the lobster was made of bright red plush fake fur.

That girl had thought her backpack was a stuffed animal.

In sixth grade, Gladys's lobster backpack had been . . . not cool, exactly, but her classmates had accepted it, probably because they all knew she was a foodie. Sometimes they even came to ask her for cooking advice at recess. But the new kids here wouldn't know that; they wouldn't know she was a professional restaurant critic, either, with several reviews published in the country's biggest newspaper, the
New
York Standard.
To them, she was just a juicy piece of fruit, ripe to be picked on. And if her skin wasn't thick enough, her soft insides could come bursting out at any moment.

“Gladys!”

Gladys spun around and saw Parm Singh racing up to her.
Oh, thank goodness.

“Parm!” she cried, and when her friend finally reached her, they embraced. “I didn't know if you'd be back from Arizona in time to come today!”

“We just got back last night,” Parm said breathlessly. “Though I considered skipping it altogether. Jagmeet went through this same orientation three years ago and said it was pretty useless.”

Jagmeet was Parm's brother, and they had spent the entire summer in Arizona together, visiting cousins. Gladys hadn't seen Parm since her own birthday in June, but it seemed that a summer in the desert sunshine still hadn't managed to turn her cynical friend into a bright-eyed optimist.

“So,” Parm said, lowering her voice, “what's going on? How was the rest of your time at camp? And your hot dog assignment—did you get your review done for the
Standard
? Did you end up telling your parents about your secret job?”

There was so much to catch Parm up on—but just as Gladys opened her mouth to respond, a bell rang
and the doors to the middle school burst open. “I'll tell you everything later,” Gladys promised as they got swept up among the kids pushing into the building.

The first stop for orientation was the auditorium, which was just opposite the school's front door. Gladys barely had time to look around the crowded lobby before being herded inside by a man she assumed was a teacher. All of the adults were wearing matching blue T-shirts that had a picture of what looked like a comet on them and the words
Dumpsford Township Middle School: Where everyone's a star!

“I sure hope the science teachers at least know the difference between a comet and a star,” Parm muttered, “or else we're in for a pretty mediocre educational experience.”

They took two seats, and soon a woman dressed in the shooting-comet T-shirt walked onto the stage. “Welcome to DTMS, seventh-graders!” she cried. “My name is Dr. Sloane, and I'm going to be the principal for your next two years here.” Dr. Sloane went on to explain how the students' schedules would work: eight forty-eight-minute class periods in a day, plus homeroom.

Gladys glanced around the vast auditorium. She spotted another friend, Charissa Bentley, sitting up near the stage with Rolanda Royce and Marti Astin. She also saw a few kids she knew from last year and
from camp scattered around. But there were many more new faces, and Gladys wasn't sure how she felt about that. After all, it had taken six years of elementary school just to get used to the old ones.

Once Dr. Sloane finished explaining the absolute necessity of getting a hall pass before going to the bathroom, she cleared her throat. “And finally,” she said, “I have an announcement to make about after-school activities. Because of budget cuts, DTMS doesn't have as much funding this year for extracurriculars as we've had in years past. There will still be a variety of clubs and teams offered, but if groups want to take field trips, or purchase new equipment, they'll have to raise the funds to do so on their own.”

“Oh, no!” Parm murmured.

Gladys turned to her friend. “What?” The budget cuts didn't sound like such a big deal to her, but she wasn't planning to join any clubs anyway—she figured that her job at the
Standard
was after-school activity enough. Parm, though, looked distraught.

“Every spring, the girls' soccer team goes to the big regional tournament in Pennsylvania,” she whispered. “I've been looking forward to it ever since I started Pee Wee Soccer.” She frowned. “Then again, I might not even make the team.”

“Of course you will!” Gladys didn't know the first thing about soccer, but she did know that Parm
practiced harder than anyone else. “And Dr. Sloane didn't say you can't go—she just said you'd have to raise some extra money.”


All
the money,” Parm corrected her. “Do you know how much money it takes to send a team of eighteen girls away for two nights?”

Gladys guessed that it was probably a lot.

Parm and Gladys weren't the only ones discussing this latest announcement; the entire auditorium was buzzing.

Dr. Sloane had to tap the microphone to regain everyone's attention. “There are tryout and sign-up sheets posted on the bulletin board outside the cafeteria for those of you who want to get a jump on your extracurriculars. More importantly, though, you'll be able to pick up your class schedules outside these doors here, as well as your locker assignments. Please use the remaining hour to tour the school and look for your classrooms. You can also test out your lockers and place your new locks on them; teachers will be stationed in every hallway to help you out. Enjoy yourselves, and we'll meet again on the first day of school!”

Out in the lobby, teachers were manning tables with boxes of schedules organized by last name. Gladys went to the
G
station, and Parm to the
S
. When they met up again to compare, Charissa bounded over, her high brown ponytail bobbing behind her.

“Hey, Gladys!” she said brightly. “Oh, hey, Parm.”

Parm raised one of her thick black eyebrows in Gladys's direction. While Parm had been away in Arizona, Gladys had spent the summer at Camp Bentley, the day camp owned by Charissa's parents. In that time, she and Charissa had become pretty good friends. But sarcastic Parm and popular Charissa had never really gotten along.

“Hello, Charissa,” Parm said coolly. “I trust you had a good summer?”

“Oh, the
best,
” Charissa gushed. “I got to swim every day, my team won the color war, and Gladys taught me how to cook West African food
and
let me give her a makeover one night!”

Parm shuddered, though Gladys couldn't tell whether it was over the horrors of makeovers or the horrors of international cooking. Parm was the pickiest eater Gladys knew.

Charissa probably should have then asked Parm how
her
summer had gone, but she didn't. Parm was already too busy comparing her schedule with Gladys's to notice, though.

“I can't believe this!” she grumbled. She held both schedules up to the window, as if illuminating them might change their contents. “How can we not have a single class together? We even both signed up for French!”

This was true, but Gladys had been put into an
eighth-period French class, and Parm had French during third period. They didn't even have the same lunchtime—Parm was in sixth-period lunch, and Gladys had her lunch during fourth.

Wait—
fourth
period? Gladys grabbed her schedule back and looked at the times again. Fourth period started at 10:20 a.m. As far as she was concerned, that was barely brunch time. How was a meal at 10:20 supposed to last her through the next four hours of classes?

Gladys groaned. “This is less than ideal.”

“You can say that again,” Parm said.

Charissa was peeking over Parm's shoulder now. “Hey, Parm,” she said, “our schedules are almost identical.”

Parm's voice faltered. “Are they?”

“Yeah,” Charissa said, holding out her paper. “We've got art, science, math, gym, lunch, and English together. I'm in third-period social studies and eighth-period French with Gladys, but otherwise, our timetables are exactly the same.”

Charissa didn't sound especially thrilled about this, and Parm shot Gladys a look that clearly said
Kill me now.

“Well,” Gladys said quickly, “it's nice that you guys will have at least one familiar face in most of your classes, right?”

She was trying to help her friends see the bright
side—but at the same time, the pit of worry that had entered her stomach in the school yard now felt like it was sprouting into a full-grown tree of anxiety. Two classes with Charissa and none with Parm left a whole lot of classes with zero friends. Her parents would surely advise her to make new ones . . . but Gladys would rather tackle a hundred difficult new recipes than force herself to talk to one new person.

“Come on, let's go find our lockers,” Charissa said. “Marti's and Rolanda's are both in the south wing, but mine's in the north. What about you guys?”

Gladys's and Parm's locker assignments were in the north wing, too, so they all set off together in that direction. They reached Gladys's locker first, and she dug into her lobster backpack. In elementary school, they hadn't been allowed to lock up their things, but for middle school, a lock was on the list of required school supplies.

The U-shaped shackle clacked back and forth as Gladys pulled her combination lock out, and its metal felt cold to her touch. She had spent a good half hour the night before practicing her combination to make sure it was branded firmly into her memory; she could think of nothing worse than drawing attention to herself by needing to ask a custodian to break into her locker on the first day of school.

Most kids in the hallway were just slapping their locks onto their empty lockers, not leaving anything
inside since they didn't have books or supplies yet. But as Gladys's lock jiggled in her hand, the words
stuffed animal
echoed in her head. Making a snap decision, she shrugged off her lobster backpack and tossed it in. There it slumped at the bottom of her locker, claws drooping. She slammed the door, slid the shackle through the latch, and snapped her lock shut tight.

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