Clara pushed a single finger around the bottom of the clay figurine, smoothing the edge into a perfectly round platform. She picked it up and set it on her palm, pressing firmly until the bottom, too, was as smooth as a new sheet of paper. Her other hand went up to the roughly formed head and pulled two long ears out of the formless clay. Eyes were next, and those she did with a quick jab and pull, as well as the softly smiling mouth. Two legs emerged from the clay, each ending in a delicate cloven hoof. The squared-off arms came next, and -- she was done! A dip of her fingers into the water bowl and a gentle rub all over her creation removed the few scratches and unintentional marks the White Grundo had made while sculpting. Now she was finished, and it was perfect. Absolutely perfect.
"Look at what I made! Bet you it wins! Bet you Mr. Winters thinks it's way better than anyone else's!"
"Nuh-uh! Mine's way more beautiful than your pile of dung!"
That was Tracy, Clara knew. No one but the twelve-year-old Camouflage Zafara would call any figurine, however ugly, a pile of dung. And the first speaker would have to be Leila; the two girls had been rivals since the day the workshop had started, and Leila was just the kind of show-off who would be absolutely certain her artwork would win first prize. But the next words spoken caught her off guard, causing her to bite her lip painfully as she jolted in her seat.
"You'll beat Clara, anyway. Everyone will. It's so obvious, I'm surprised she didn't just toss it out and go home when she saw ours!"
Clara fought the urge to turn around and punch the stuck-up Silver Usul in the nose. She'd scream, the teacher would come running in, Leila would give a biased version of the incident, and everyone would back her up. The others weren't mean; they were just scared. Adults believed Leila. There wasn't any particular reason for it, at least none that anyone could see. They just did. No one could do a thing about it. And that meant she could get any one of them into serious trouble on a whim.
"C'mon, Leila. Don't be so Jhudora-like. Broaden your thinking for once!"
Tracy was backing her up. It wasn't any huge event, since Tracy was probably doing it only because Leila thought otherwise. Nevertheless, Clara was grateful. "Thanks," she whispered, knowing Tracy couldn't hear her from where she was sitting, but wanting to say it nonetheless.
"Okay, class! Listen up!" Mr. Winters, a Woodland Elephante, strode into the room. The art class instantly stopped talking and listened up. You didn't disobey Mr. Winters; he was incredibly strict.
"Kids," the teacher began. "As you know, today is the deadline for turning in your sculptures. I've taught you technique and art history. You've practiced working with clay quite a bit. I'm confident each and every one of you have created a masterpiece. However, it's my job to make sure you've done so. Everyone line up, and bring your sculptures to my desk. I'll look them over and see if they qualify for the contest."
The buzz of chatter started up again as every student got to their feet, forming themselves into a line with only minimal pushing and shoving. Tracy somehow managed to be at the front, even though her seat was near the back of the room. Leila was right behind her, and Clara was near the middle of the line. As each young neopet filed past, leaving their creation on the art teacher's desk, she began to get nervous. What if her sculpture didn't pass muster? Had she done wrong by leaving it unpainted? Had she baked it for too long? Finally, she reached the desk and apprehensively set her figurine down next to the rest.
Mr. Winters looked at the sculpture. Then he looked at Clara. Then he looked at the sculpture again. When he finally spoke, his voice was full of irritation. "Clara," he said, "did you even read the rules for entering the contest?"
Clara nodded. Of course she'd read the rules! As far as she knew, she'd followed each regulation to the letter. What could she have done wrong?
"Clara," Mr. Winters said again, "look at my copy of the rules." He flipped the sheet of paper lying on his desk around so Clara could read it from where she was. "Do you see this rule? The one at the very bottom? It says, 'All sculptures must be based off of reality. Any deviations from the looks of actual neopets or objects will result in disqualification." He pointed to her sculpture. "This has a Blumaroo's head, an Ixi's legs, a Kacheek's arms, and an Usul's body. Does that follow this rule?"
Clara shook her head miserably. "But, Mr. Winters," she began to explain, "that rule isn't there on my copy of the rules. It –"
"Do you have your copy with you?" Mr. Winters demanded, clearly not believing her. Clara nodded, trotting over to her desk and retrieving the sheet of paper from her backpack. "Here it is," she stated, handing her set of rules over.
The Elephante teacher scanned the paper. When his eyes reached the bottom, he frowned. "You're right; it isn't here," he agreed. "But, Clara, look. The bottom of this page is uneven. Someone tore part of it off."
Clara went white – whiter than she was already, that is, which was very white indeed. "Silvia_Diamond123," she muttered, "you are in so much trouble when I get home!" Silvia_Diamond123, or Silvia for short, was Clara's younger sister. She was a Baby Quiggle, and her favorite pastime was ripping paper with her chubby fingers.
"What did you say?" Mr. Winters asked in a puzzled tone.
"Nothing," Clara mumbled, plodding back to her seat. It was so unfair! She was going to be disqualified. She was going to lose the contest before the judging even began – and all because of her little sister's antics. She slumped into her chair, completely ignoring Leila's soft giggle behind her, and her murmured, 'I guess it's back to the drawing board for Clara!'. She just wanted to go home.
Clara slammed the door of her family's small neohome. Silvia toddled toward her an instant afterwards. "Cla-a, Cla-a!" she called out. "Mommy, Cla-a home!" Clara's mother, a White Grundo like her eldest daughter, got up from the desk where she had been busily writing; she was an author, journalist, or critic as the opportunity arose. "Hello, Clara, sweetheart!" she greeted her daughter. Noting the girl's troubled face, she tilted her head to one side. "Is something wrong?"
Clara shook her head furiously, stumbling up the stairs to her bedroom. Once there, she threw herself down on her bed, sobbing. It wasn't so much Leila's taunts – she had never minded them much – as her disqualification from the contest. She'd had such hopes for her sculpture! She had even dared to imagine that she might win. Now all her work was for nothing, and all because of a rule she hadn't known about. All because of her little sister. Her awful, awful little sister. She balled her hand into a fist and smacked the bed.
"Clara?" Her mother had entered the cluttered room. Clara stopped attacking her bedsheets and looked up. "What happened? Was it something at art class? Let me guess, that Leila-girl, wasn't it?"
"No," Clara replied, her voice muffled because she had pressed her face back into the mattress. "It wasn't her at all. It was all Silvia's fault, and I wish I didn't have a little sister." She would probably get into trouble for saying such a thing, but at this point, she didn't care.
"Clara..." her mother began in a warning tone. She stopped herself, took a breath of resignation, and sat down on the bed. "Tell me."
Two weeks later, Clara was again on her way to art class. Well, sort of. She was going to the art class building, but the workshop was over; today was the day they would find out who had won the contest, as well as what the prize would be.
Not that she cared too much. She wouldn't win; that was already decided. And she didn't really know anyone else in the class. No, Clara was attending for an entirely different reason. She was going to 'turn a bully around', as her mother put it. In other words, she was going to get Leila to be nicer, she was going to do it effectively, and she was going to make it last as long as possible. Period.
Arriving at the small, cobblestone building at the edge of town, Clara pushed open the door. Everyone else had already arrived, she noted. Mr. Winters nodded briskly and tapped his desk. "Everyone's here!" he announced. "Excellent. Clara, take a seat and I'll begin."
Clara obediently stepped over to the only vacant desk, close to the back of the room, and sat down. Tracy was next to her, watching Mr. Winters as intently as if she suspected he was about to turn into Count Von Roo and fly away. The Elephante teacher cleared his throat and began reading from an official-looking paper.
"First of all," he read, "we would like to congratulate each and every one of the participants in this competition. Every one of you worked extremely hard, and each and every one of you deserves congratulations. Give yourselves a round of applause!" He paused as the students enthusiastically did as suggested.
"And now," Mr. Winters continued, "the winner of this sculpting competition will be announced. A special congratulations to Tracy Libris, who has earned, with her spectacular sculpture of a Kacheek reading a Valentine's Day card, ten thousand neopoints and one Angelpuss Clay Sculpture Set! These prizes will be delivered to her home. Good work, Tracy!"
There was more, but no one heard any of it – Tracy had leaped out of her seat, whooping. "Oh yeah!" she shouted, punching her fist into the air. "Tracy the famous artist's first success!"
"That's enough, Tracy!" Mr. Winters said sharply. "That is unacceptable behavior for the classroom. As it is the last day, I'll let you get away with it. I don't blame you for being excited; you did win, after all. But don't be so impulsive in the future." He stood up, pushing in his chair. "And as the winner has been announced, that concludes this morning visit – we can hardly call it a lesson. Class dismissed!"
Clara stood up, but instead of heading for the door, she only shuffled her feet absently; she was waiting for Leila, and didn't want to take the chance of missing her. It took a while. Leila, for some strange reason, had unpacked the entire contents of her purse while listening to Mr. Winters's announcement. Now she was putting everything back in, while Clara fidgeted and wondered if she'd be done before next year.
Finally, though, Leila straightened up and turned to leave. Clara hurried over to her.
"Leila?" she asked, feeling somewhat nervous.
"What is it?" Leila replied, pausing midstep. Her tone was a little snappy, but not downright mean. The lack of malevolence in the Usul's voice gave Clara courage to go on.
"Leila," she said, firmer this time. "I've noticed something about you." Now that she'd gotten started, her words seemed to tumble out. "Ever since our first lesson, you haven't been very kind, to me or to anyone else. In fact, you've been downright unkind. You've been a bully."
Leila stared at her in shock. "M-me?" she stammered out, a paw going to her mouth reflexively. "A – bully? I'm not a bully!"
Clara stared back, utterly confused. "You mean... all this time... you thought you were being nice?" she asked in disbelief. It was a little hard to fathom something like that.
"Really?" Clara said at last, after they had both been quiet for a little while.
"Really." Clara studied Leila's eyes. They were full of hurt and bewilderment, but not a trace of anything else, at least nothing that she could see.
"I don't even know what I did!" Leila offered.
Clara considered for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. I'll tell you."
Neither of the girls knew how they'd decided to leave the art building and walk home together. Nor did they know how they'd found out they liked each other. All they knew was that all of a sudden, they were standing outside Clara's house, on friendly terms with each other, and Leila was saying, "Bye, Clara! Sorry I said all those stupid things about you. See ya later!"
Clara turned to go, then stopped as Leila called out, "Wait a sec!"
"Yeah?" the White Grundo asked.
"I just thought – if your little sister hadn't ripped off part of your rules sheet, we probably wouldn't be friends right now."
Clara smiled. "I guess going back to the drawing board isn't such a bad thing after all."