“Josh Watkins stole my lunch money,” Liz said. Liz has been my BFF since the second grade. We even wore matching blue ribbons in our ponytails, but we're too old for that sort of thing now. She'd been crying. Her face gets red when she cries, and her eyes swell up like my mom's do when the ragweed is high.
“Really?” I asked.
Josh is the biggest prankster in the sixth grade. We usually laugh, unless we're the ones he's fooling with. I was surprised. Stealing is a pretty mean prank, even for Josh Watkins.
“Tonya saw him snooping around my backpack on the bus. When we noticed my money was gone, she started yelling about him stealing it.”
“What did he say?”
“He denied it. Mrs. Janzski sent us to Mr. Mullin's office.”
Mr. Mullin is our vice principal.
Luckily, my mom only had a ten this morning, so I offered to pay for Liz's lunch. By the time we were through the line, we had a few minutes to wolf down our grilled cheese sandwiches.
I rounded the corner on my way to art class and ran square into Josh Watkins. Our books crashed to the floor.
“Sorry,” Josh said.
He looked pretty broken up over it.
“It's okay,” I said.
I could feel my cheeks starting to burn.
“Did Liz tell you I stole her lunch money?” Josh asked.
“She mentioned it.”
“I didn't take it, Mandy.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I wouldn't steal. I'm not that kind of person. Mr. Mullin gave me a detention this afternoon.”
“Did you tell him you didn't do it?” I asked.
“He didn't believe me.”
“It's just detention.”
“Not this time. My parents said that if I get into trouble again, they're going to send me to a private school.”
As I was gathering the last of my things from the floor, I spotted a crumpled piece of paper with what looked like Liz's handwriting on it. It read: “Room 103 2:45 PM.”
“This yours?” I asked Josh.
“Nope.” He shrugged.
I stuffed the note in my pocket.
Josh had been pretty quiet in class lately. Could Josh be sent to a private school for something he hadn't done? I hoped Liz and Tonya had some convincing evidence.
I slipped into the art classroom just as the tardy bell rang. I was elbow-deep in papier-mâché when I asked Liz for more details.
Tonya piped up from behind me, “He stole her money.”
“You saw him take it?” I asked.
“I saw him with her backpack, just before it went missing.”
My doubts were mounting.
“Josh said he didn't take it.”
“Now you're taking his side?” Liz fumed.
“No, I just ran into him in the hallway.” I tried to defend myself before the situation grew worse. “He said his parents will send him to another school.”
“Fine with me,” said Liz.
“Mandy has a crush on Josh,” said Tonya.
“What?” I asked, cheeks burning again. “I do not.”
I put the note I'd found in front of Liz. “Is this yours?” I asked.
She looked at the note, then stepped back. The bell rang, and everyone began pouring into the hallway.
“I can't believe you,” Liz said.
She turned and left me bewildered. I wondered if they were right. Maybe I was being too easy on Josh. Then again, why would Liz act so funny about the note? I knew my friend's handwriting. This was definitely hers.
I saw Josh in English class. With only an hour left before school let out for the day, there was no time to spare. I took my seat behind him.
“Maybe we can get you out of detention,” I said.
“Doubtful,” said Josh.
“I spoke with Tonya and Liz. No one saw you take the money. Maybe we can convince Mr. Mullin he has the wrong guy.”
“I don't know.”
“What do you have to lose?”
We talked the English teacher, Mr. Sparks, into giving us a hall pass and headed to Mr. Mullin's office. I'd never been there before. He handles discipline, and that's one thing I avoid at all costs.
We handed our pass to the woman at the desk, who nodded toward a line of chairs near a door with Mr. Mullin's name on it. The wall clock ticked steadily as we waited. What had I gotten into?
The door swung open. Mr. Mullin motioned for us to come in. He was shorter than I thought, and his eyes looked tired. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Mr. Watkins?” he asked.
Josh gave me a nervous glance. “Well, sir,” I began. “This was my idea.”
I explained why it would be unfair to punish Josh for something no one had actually seen him do. Mr. Mullin nodded as he considered this.
“Miss Berry, this matter has been settled. Unless you would like to join Mr. Watkins in detention this afternoon, I suggest you both return to class.”
“That was a dead end,” said Josh.
He looked more miserable than ever.
“There's one more thing,” I said.
I told Josh about the note I'd found.
“It's not like Liz to hide something from me. I wonder if this has something to do with the lunch money.”
“There's only one way to find out.”
I met Josh near the gym at 2:45. We had 15 minutes before detention began, and Mr. Mullin would come looking for him. We made our way to room 103. I peered through the glass. Just as I'd suspected, Liz was inside.
“She's in there,” I said to Josh. “She's talking to a girl. She just picked up a pen and is writing something down.”
“I don't have time to wait, Mandy. I have to know the truth.” Josh opened the door. “Why did you set me up, Liz?”
“I didn't take your money.”
“If you didn't set Josh up, then why did you lie to me about this?” I asked, as I held up the note.
“I didn't want you to know that I need extra help in school, Mandy. This is my tutor, Alicia.”
“Oh,” I said. I felt horrible. “I'm sorry, Liz. I didn't know.”
“It's okay. I probably should have told you about it in the first place. I guess I was embarrassed. If you didn't take my lunch money, Josh, then why were you snooping around my bag?” asked Liz as she placed a hand on her backpack.
“I never went near your backpack, Liz.” said Josh.
My eyes darted from Liz's bag to the blue ribbon tied to the bag that rested on Josh's back.
“Look at this!” I said. “I think I know what happened to your lunch money, Liz.”