It looks like a cheerleader’s soul exploded all over the gym.” I scrunch up my nose and catch a glimpse of my nose ring. It still surprises me to see it there.
Ana laughs at my joke, but Zoe rolls her eyes and starts clapping loudly, probably to cover for our silence. The bleachers shake as everyone around us gets pumped up on school spirit. Everywhere you look, there’s garnet and gold bunting, streamers, and posters — one of which is misspelled. At least I don’t think the cheer- nerds meant to say “Starfish Have School Sprit.” It’s bad enough that our mascot is the Starfish, but if people find out we have “sprit” too, we’ll be the laughingstock of the county.
It’s first period of the first day back in school. I rarely feel all that peppy on a very good day, and I’m certainly not chipper on a day like this. At least we were allowed to sit with anyone we wanted. The only requirement was that we had to sit by class. So here are the Miracle Girls, after an incredible summer together, parked under the big “Sophomores” sign. Woo.
The cheerleaders tumble onto the basketball court as the band cues up to play our fight song. Riley trails behind the tumblers, galloping sideways and “sparkling” her fingers at the crowd. The doctors don’t want her tumbling this year. I give her a nod. She waves back.
“Go, Riley!” Zoe shouts. As a sophomore, Zoe doesn’t get to play her piccolo at the pep rallies. That’s a “privilege” reserved for the seniors.
“You guys,” Zoe groans at us, “cheer for Riley at least.”
Ana obliges, but she’s careful to look cool doing it. She claps her hands gently, as if she’s at a golf game, and lets out the occasional scream. I give Zoe a look. I know we all changed some over the summer, but I’m still Christine Lee. I couldn’t care less about school spirit. That’s never going to change.
The cheerleaders separate out by grade level and begin to lead each section in a chant. Riley stands in front of us and kicks off the cheer for our grade. We all know it from last year, and Ana and Zoe scream along with the rest of our class. The object is to be the loudest class and earn the title of having the most sprit. Which is really an honor, let me assure you. A real treat.
“ S- o- p- h- o!” Riley yells.
“ M- o- r- e- s!” the crowd screams with her.
“Sophomores. Sophomores. Sophomores are the best!” The juniors and seniors are doing the same thing, yelling as loudly as they can, while the freshmen just look confused. Sheer pandemonium reigns. That part isn’t so bad.
“Scream!” Zoe yells at me over the fuss. “We have to be the loudest!” Zoe is wearing a long lavender skirt and some kind of loose tie-dyed top. Her red hair falls in a long curtain down her back.
“Sophomores!” Ana screams at the top of her lungs, getting into it now that the noise level in the gym is reaching decibels that can be heard two counties over. Ana spent a good part of the summer shopping in San Francisco with her mom, and she looks like a J.Crew ad. Since when did she care about clothes? With her new wardrobe, her sun-kissed hair, her deep tan, and the fact that she’s shot up two inches, she looks nothing like the lonely little freshman I met a year ago.
Ms. Lovchuck comes out on the gym floor, and the cheer dies. I’ve never been so happy to see our principal. She stands at the podium and adjusts the mic for a moment. We all sit down. Well, everyone else sits down. I wasn’t exactly standing.
“Students, welcome to another exciting year at Marina Vista High School!” Ms. Lovchuck pauses, as if expecting a roar of applause. She sighs at the silence, then trudges onward. She begins to drone on, making boring announcements about new school initiatives and rules.
I try to zone out, but out of the corner of my eye I see movement and turn to watch a scrawny guy with mousy brown hair climb over people, coming toward us. Oh no. Marcus Farcus. I lean forward to peek at Zoe, and her face is bright red.
“Hey, Marcus.” I wave at him and fl ash a big debutante smile.
“Christine, always a pleasure,” he says in a hushed tone.
Zoe shoots poison darts out of her eyes.
“Zoe, I’m so glad I found you,” he says, pushing past and forcing himself into a nonexistent space next to Zoe. “This school is crazy.”
Marcus moved into the house next door to Zoe this summer. Well, technically, he moved into a section of the woods next to Zoe and then bulldozed it and built a giant McMansion in the old growth forest. Of course, it was Marcus’s parents who actually did all those things, but that hasn’t kept Zoe from holding it against Marcus. Unfortunately, Marcus latched onto Zoe, who’s too nice to tell him to go away, and has been following her around like a puppy dog. “Maybe you should sit with your class,” Zoe says quietly, shrugging his arm off her shoulder. I stifl e a laugh. She’s so annoyed with him that she could scream, but she’s still trying to be kind.
“Nah,” he says, gesturing toward the freshman section dismissively. “I’ll get to know them eventually. I’d rather be with you.”
“Thanks,” Zoe says, her voice flatter than a pancake.
Poor kid. He never had a chance. His parents gave him a rough start in life. If your last name is Farcus and you have a son, the only name in the world you can’t give him is Marcus. That’s very clear. And if you do, you’re violating the laws of the social universe, condemning him to outsider status forever. Parents willing to do that to their child are obviously not right in the head.
“Hey, Marcus,” Ana says, raising her hand in a wave that makes Zoe cringe. Ana fi nds Marcus as annoying as the rest of us do, but she has this weird sympathy for him since he’s new in town. Far too charitable, if you ask me.
“And without further ado, I give you your quarterback, Zach Abramo!” Ms. Lovchuck screams. She steps away from the podium and gestures at a huge painted piece of paper with a fighting Starfish on it. The gym fills with noise, Zach bursts through the paper, and the crowd goes wild, as if it is an actual feat to tear a piece of paper. My stomach suddenly feels pumped full of lead.
“What’s up, Marina Vista?” Zach screams. All the clueless sophomore twits around us clap and whistle for him. At least this creep is a senior. Unless he fails, this is the last year we’ll have to deal with him. I watch Riley. All the other cheerleaders jump and cheer for him, but she remains completely still. After what he did to her, I have to fi ght the urge to stand up and shout, “Coward! Traitor!”
“This year we’re going all the way to State with our mighty fighting Starfish football team!” Zach pumps his fist in the air. The thunderous applause nearly bursts my eardrums. We really should have reported Zach to the police, or at least told everyone exactly what he did, but Riley asked us not to. She’s trying to forgive him.
“Woo! Go, Marina Vista!” Zach yells, ending his little speech. Everyone but the Miracle Girls cheers for him, and he drinks it in. As he struts to the side of the gym, Ashley Anderson, Riley’s ex-best friend, gives him a hug. They’ve been dating all summer, which makes me twice as ill, so I try to focus my eyes on the floor. The band starts to play our fight song again, and the cheerleaders lead us in a chant that spells out Starfish.
A group of girls next to me lean toward each other and form a huddle. I lean back a little to see if I can hear what they’re saying.
“It was Zach’s,” a scratchy girl’s voice says.
Ooh, dirt on the quarterback. This could be good.
“She doesn’t look like she just had a baby,” a girl says. I recognize the voice as Hailey, a decent sketch artist from my art class last year.
“When a girl disappears for five months, it can only mean one thing.” The first knowing voice sounds smug, and it suddenly hits me what — I mean who — they’re talking about. “That’s why she got her hair chopped off.”
I clench my fist. First of all, everyone knows Riley dropped out of school last year because she fell off a cliff, not because she was pregnant with Zach’s baby. Second, what does that have to do with her hair? And who do these girls think they are, anyway, talking about this stuff in front of anyone, but especially in front of us? Don’t they realize they’re sitting behind, like, Riley’s best friends?
“He said he wouldn’t marry her, and she went crazy and started chopping at her hair, like Britney.”
“What do you think she did with the baby?” Hailey asks, giggling. As the band plays the final notes to our fight song, it hits me. No, these girls probably don’t know that Riley is our friend. We spent all summer together, just the Miracle Girls, and it was an amazing time, goofing around at Zoe’s house with the horses, going down to the beach to watch Riley surf, hanging around with Ana and Dave — unending days of fun, far far away from the pressures of school. The Miracle Girls have become everything to me.
But these girls don’t know that. Riley became our friend at the end of last year, just before her accident. No one at school knows the first thing about our incredible summer together, or the secrets in our past that make our bond special.
“Probably gave it up for adoption. A lot of people do that and then pretend it never happened.”
I can’t listen to this anymore. Anger floods my veins, and the whole world drops away. I don’t know where I am or what is going on around me. I only know that I must defend Riley. I stand up and lunge at Hailey, grabbing her shirt and pulling her out of her seat.
“That . . . is . . . not true.” I hiss at her, my nostrils flaring. Hailey and her stupid friend stare at me, eyes wide.
“What?” She tries to lean away from my face, but I have her shirt balled up in my fists.
“Nothing you said is true.” I feel something tugging at my right arm, and then my left. Ana and Zoe are pulling me back. I grab Hailey’s shirt tighter, but they begin to overpower me, forcing me to let go.
And then it’s like I come to. Somehow, the entire jamboree has screeched to a halt and everyone is staring at me. I swallow and slide down into the bleachers, but it’s too late. Ms. Lovchuck points at me viciously with her thin, crooked finger, then points at the gym door.
I know what she means, and I begin to pick my way over people, tripping on bags and shoes and jackets. I fight the impulse to say, “Pardon me, freak show walking.” Everyone is staring at me as I plunk down the stairs. When I get to the door, I glance back one last time at the Miracle Girls and see Zoe’s worried face. I know what that look means. Like me, she’s worried that being back at school means everything is about to change.
Just great, Christine. It took you less than one hour to completely ruin this year too.