Epic Fail

By: Claire Lazebnik

“That’s a great name,” I said to Webster Grant.

“Sure, if you like being named after a dictionary and a president. But it could have been worse—at least I’m not Random House Obama.” I laughed and he nodded approvingly. “She has a sense of humor. So what’s your name?”

“Elise Benton.”

“I have no jokes for that one. Not yet anyway.” He studied me thoughtfully. “You’re not really my cousin, right?”

“Well, if you go back far enough . . .”

“Like Adam and Eve back? Let’s not. I don’t actually like most of my cousins. But you—you have potential.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling oddly pleased by the meaningless compliment.

A voice said, “Psst,” and I twisted to my left. Chelsea was settling into the desk on that side, now wearing a pair of tight jeans and an even tighter tissue-thin cashmere sweater. My mother hadn’t said she needed to change her top, so I assumed Chelsea just wasn’t happy unless she was wearing a complete outfit. Which also explained the unnecessary change from boots to pink spike-heeled shoes.

All right, to be honest, I kind of lusted after the shoes. Mom would never let me wear anything that high or that spiked to school, and they were really cute.

“What?” I asked. Chelsea crooked her finger and beckoned me closer. I leaned toward her with diminishing patience and repeated, “What?”

She folded her hands primly on the desk in front of her. “Even though your mother totally ruined my day, I’m going to be nice and give you some good advice because you shouldn’t punish people for what their parents do.” She jerked her chin in Webster’s direction and lowered her voice. “Don’t get too friendly with him.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“He’s a total loser,” she said. “No one likes him. And if you start hanging out with him, you’ll be buying your own one-way ticket to Loserville City.”

“Is that anywhere near Dorktown Village?” I clasped my hands with mock excitement. “I was hoping to see that just once before I die.”

Her nostrils flared. “I’m just trying to help.”

“And I’m just trying to appreciate it,” I said, and turned my back on her.

Webster was now reclining comfortably in his seat, his long legs crossed in front of him, his arms resting across the desk, the picture of laziness. He winked at me. “Princess Chelsea in a royal snit about something?” he asked with more amusement than annoyance.

I grinned, but before I could respond, the teacher strode into the room, calling for us all to “listen up.”

Cantori was one of those youngish teachers who like to dress conservatively—today he wore a fitted sports coat and a narrow tie—and then prove they’re still cool by spending class time slouching against the furniture and chatting with the kids instead of actually teaching them. These are the same ones who, after months of wasting time, suddenly realize report cards are coming due, at which point they’ll mercilessly cram a semester’s worth of homework and tests into a few days and destroy everyone’s life for that week. I’d had teachers like him before and they weren’t the worst, but they weren’t the best either.

His one concession to actually teaching astronomy that first day was to show us how to map the sky using Google Earth on the classroom’s SMART Board.

When he got tired of that, he turned the lights back on and turned to face us. “Okay, class. So all year long we’ll be talking about the stars. I’ll be teaching you what they’re made of, what we know about them, what we don’t know about them—but before all that knowledge stuff begins, let’s get a little silly and romantic here and talk about stars metaphorically. What’s the first thing you think of when someone says the word star? It’s a very evocative word. So I want to know what it means to each of you, personally.” He looked around the silent classroom. “Chirp, chirp,” he said. “Fine. I’ll start. ‘Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.’” He paused. Silence. “Stars and wishing—always entwined, right?” More silence. “Who’s next?” No one raised a hand. He pointed to a cute, compact, and curvy girl up near the front—one of Derek’s fans. “Sylvie, you.”

“Um,” she said. She flipped her hair over her shoulder flirtatiously. “‘Stars and Stripes Forever’?”

“A patriot! Excellent. Now someone else.”

A girl called out, “The Star of David.”

“No religion in the classroom!” Cantori barked. Then he waved his hand. “Nah, I’m just kidding. Okay, someone else?” He pointed to the raised hand next to me. “You?”

Chelsea purred, “Movie stars, of course.” Her eyes settled on Derek’s back as she spoke, but if the back had any interest in what she was saying, it didn’t reveal it.

“Spoken like a true Angeleno,” Cantori said. “Next!”

“Starbursts,” a boy called out, and a girl said, “Yum!” and Sylvie added, “But not the tropical flavor ones—those are gross,” and everyone laughed.

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