Sample text for Solving Zoe / Barbara Dee.

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At first Zoe didn't notice that the boy at the end of the table was writing down every word she said.

She barely noticed him at all, the way his blond hair flopped into his face as he sat hunched over what looked like a small notebook. Probably he was just some applicant taking notes about the lunchroom: "Burgers at the Lorna Hubbard School extremely gross," or something brilliant like that.

And anyway, why would Zoe pay attention to some kid she didn't even know, when she was finally, after an endless morning, getting to see her best friend, Dara Grosbard? The only class they had together this year was gym, and that didn't even count, because you had to spend the whole time dodging basketballs or jogging breathlessly around the track. So the one place they could talk was the ear-splitting Hubbard lunchroom, where you really had to concentrate to have a meaningful conver-sation.

"God, Zoe, this is absolutely disgusting," Dara was saying as she chomped on a chili dog. "You sure you don't want a bite?"

"Positive," Zoe answered. She opened her bag of Lay's potato chips and dumped them onto her tray. Usually there were twelve chips per bag; if she did it just right, she could fit all twelve into her tuna fish sandwich. For crunch, she used to explain to horrified onlookers. Of course, by now everybody knew all about Zoe's sandwich weirdness and didn't even ask.

"So how was Chinese today?" Zoe said, poking in the last of her chips. "Did he make you talk?"

"He always makes us talk. I should have taken a normal language, like French."

"French? You think French is normal?"

"Okay, maybe not," Dara agreed. "But if I took French, at least we'd be together for one measly class besides gym. Sigh."

Zoe smiled. Dara was always saying things like "sigh" and "gasp," as if she were attaching smiley faces, or frownies, to all her sentences. But at least that way you knew what she was feeling, Zoe thought as she took a crunchy bite of sandwich, then a cooling sip of chocolate milk.

Suddenly she felt a light poke from behind.

"Are these seats taken?"

She turned her head. Surprisingly, it was Allegra Hillenbrand, who insisted on being called Leg, along with her bodyguard, Paloma Farrelly. They were both really good dancers, two of the best in Hubbard Middle Division.

"No, they're free," Dara was saying nicely. "If you can squeeze in."

Zoe gave Dara a look that meant, Do we have to? But either Dara didn't notice or else she didn't think she had a choice. She pushed aside her chili dog and slid over to make room, so that Leg and Paloma wouldn't have to sit too close to the unknown boy with the notebook.

Leg smiled at Dara. "So," she said. "Have you officially signed up yet?"

"Signed up for what?" Zoe asked. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the boy turn a page in his notebook and write something quickly.

"Nothing," Dara said. "It's stupid, Zoe."

"No, it's not. It's brilliant," Leg insisted.

Zoe glanced at Dara. "What is?"

"Nothing," Dara said again. Her gray-blue eyes narrowed in embarrassment. "Leg thinks I should try out for the musical."

"The musical?" Zoe said. "You want to?"

"I'm not sure." Dara nibbled on her thumbnail. "Maybe."

"Oh, you're totally sure, Dara," Leg said. "You said so right before Chinese." She flipped her shiny chestnut hair over one shoulder, her gold hoop earrings catching the light. "Besides, why go to an amazing school like Hubbard if you don't take advantage, blah blah blah. You should encourage her, Zoe."

"Do you want to?" Zoe repeated, trying to ignore Leg. "Because nobody should force you, Dara."

"Nobody is," said Paloma.

"Sigh," Dara said. "The thing is, Zoe, I think I might want to try out, but I'm terrified. You know what Izzy always says."

Zoe nodded. Zoe's sixteen-year-old sister, Isadora, was the star of almost every Hubbard production, but even she always complained about tryouts. She called them cutthroat, and how could they not be, really, with all the gifted and talented kids strutting around this "amazing" school? And the thing was, Dara was shy -- talented but shy. ??And also tiny: not the best combination, especially when you were expected to stand onstage and sing into a blaring microphone.

Poor Dara, Zoe thought. She doesn't know what she's in for.

Paloma laughed. "Well, look at it this way, Dara. You probably won't even get a part, so there's nothing to worry about, right?"

"You shouldn't say that," Zoe said, her dark eyes flashing. "Dara's actually an incredible singer. If she wants a part, she'll get one."

"Well, yeah, Zoe. Obviously."

"So if it's obvious, Paloma, you shouldn't tease her like that."

"It was just a joke," Dara said gently. "Never mind, Zoe."

Zoe realized then that all three girls were looking at her, and Paloma was smiling. She felt like a complete moron, all of a sudden.

"Okay, then," Leg said finally. "I guess our work here is done. See you later, Dara." Then she and Paloma walked away, taking dramatic turned-out steps, as if to remind everyone in the lunchroom that they were both really good dancers.

Zoe took a small bite of her tuna-and-potato-chip sandwich. "You want me to come with you to tryouts?" she asked.

"Oh, definitely not," Dara said. "You hate all that stuff, Zoe. It would make you crazy to sit there. Besides, we'd probably just look at each other and start laughing hysterically." She reached over and took a sip of Zoe's chocolate milk. "I'll just meet you afterward, okay? If you don't mind waiting a tiny bit."

"Of course I don't mind," Zoe said, surprised this was even a question. "Why would I?" Suddenly she remembered something. "I've got Isaac's after school today. I really can't be late."

"Oh, you won't be," Dara promised. "I'll be like ten or fifteen minutes."

Well, ten or fifteen minutes probably won't make much of a difference, Zoe thought. ??And even if Dara refused to come inside, they'd have the walk over together. ??And of course they'd have the walk back to Zoe's.

"Okay, great," she said cheerfully. "I'll meet you in the lobby."

And then a strange thing happened. The blond floppy-haired boy at the end of the table looked right into Zoe's eyes, the very second she finished speaking. Then he stuffed his notebook into his pocket and walked rapidly out of the cafeteria.

And Zoe couldn't say why, but she knew right then that he'd been eavesdropping on the entire conversation. ??And possibly worse than that: possibly writing it all down in that little spiral notebook, although of course at that point she didn't have any proof.

Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Dee

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Interpersonal relations -- Fiction.
Schools -- Fiction.
Cryptography -- Fiction.
Family life -- New York (State) -- New York -- Fiction.
Self-actualization (Psychology) -- Fiction.
Gifted children -- Fiction.
Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.) -- Fiction.