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Read the First 4 Chapters of Puddin'!

Calling all fans of DUMPLIN’! And of happy books. And books that will make you literally squeal and gasp and maybe cry with delight. Anyway, we have good news—Julie Murphy’s story is continuing! We have your first look at PUDDIN’, the companion to the irresistible bestseller that’s soon to be a major motion picture!! 😍😍😍

So, PUDDIN’ follows Millie, Callie, and the unexpected friendship that blossoms between them! Millie is a girl who’s gone to fat camp every year since she was a little girl—but not this year. She has new plans to chase her dream of becoming a newscaster—and also to kiss the boy she’s crushing on. Meanwhile, Callie is the pretty girl next in line for dance team captain. But of course… they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Are you ready for a book with Texas-size girl power?! Then let’s start reading!

 

Millie

ONE

I’m a list maker. Write it down. (Using my gel pens and a predetermined color scheme, of course.) Make it happen. Scratch it off. There is no greater satisfaction than a notebook full of beautifully executed lists.

A long time ago, I decided to make a list of all the things I could control, and what it came down to was this: my attitude. Which is probably why I’ve been able to psych myself into thinking that a 4:45 a.m. wakeup call is humane. Listen, I’m a morning person, but 4:45 doesn’t even count as morning if you ask me, and I’m an optimist.

After swiping away the last alarm on my phone, I roll out of bed and pull on my fuzzy baby-pink robe with a scrolled M embroidered onto the collar. For a moment, I stretch my whole body and yawn one last time before sitting down at my desk and pulling out my floral notebook. Across the hardcover front in gold letters, it reads MAKE PLANS, and below that, in cursive, MILLIE MICHALCHUK.

I smack my lips together to rid myself of the taste of sleep. Normally, I’m militant about brushing my teeth, but the other day Amanda said she read online that if you’re experiencing writer’s block, you should try writing first thing, before your brain even has a moment to turn on.  I figure it can’t hurt to try. With my mint-green GIRL BOSS pencil poised in hand, I examine all the false starts I’ve scratched through this week.

I believe in the power of positive thinking.
Most people don’t know what they want, and that’s the real reason they’re stuck. Me? I know exactly what I want.
Webster’s Dictionary defines journalism as the activity or job of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio. I define journalism as

I turn to a fresh page and I sit and I wait. I stare down the blank page, hoping for the lines to morph into words, but instead they stay perfectly static.

I’m a good student. Not as great as Malik or Leslie Fischer, who was destined to be our class’s valedictorian the moment she won the third-grade spelling bee when she was only in first grade, but I’m in all AP classes and I’m doing better than most of my peers. I rarely feel daunted by an exam of essay questions or even a timed trigonometry test. But this personal statement is turning out to be an entirely new kind of beast. In fact, it’s got me feeling more like a girl failure than a girl boss.

After ten minutes and nothing to show for my time except a few crossed-out words and a doodle of two stick figures who I imagine are out on a date and who might even be me and a particular someone . . . I shove my notebook back in the drawer of my desk.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the day when the right words come to me. I open my laptop and scroll through my video library until I settle on When Harry Met Sally. This is one of me and my mom’s favorites—the kind of rom-com we can quote in our sleep—even if my mom does fast-forward through the orgasm scene and we still watch the VHS copy she recorded years ago. (My mother has yet to discover that I can just watch the full-length version online.)

Above my computer hangs a cross-stitch I copied from Pinterest. An intricate floral vine weaves around the quote YOU HAVE AS MANY HOURS IN A DAY AS BEYONCÉ. (I made one for Willowdean that replaced Beyoncé’s name with Dolly Parton, both of whom are goddesses in my humble opinion.)

Beside that is a piece of découpaged wood that reads WHEN I LOOK INTO THE FUTURE, IT’S SO BRIGHT IT BURNS MY EYES. —OPRAH WINFREY.

Above that is another cross-stitch that reads LIFE IS TOO COMPLICATED NOT TO BE ORDERLY. —MARTHA STEWART.

And those are just a few of my masterpieces.

I got my love for inspirational quotes, cross-stitch, and crafts from my mom. Our whole house is lined with handmade embroidered pillows emblazoned with encouraging quotes and watercolor prints of Bible verses that are darn near good enough quality to be sold at The Good Book, our local Christian bookstore.

It’s like me and my mom are a pair of birds, always adding to our nest, and the project is never quite done, but with each addition we feel a little more at home. At least that’s how it’s been until now. But in the last few months, my hopes and dreams are growing in the opposite direction of what my mom wants for me. Slowly, I’ve been redecorating my nest.

The cross-stitches and découpages hanging on my wall today are a departure from the inspirational diet quotes I surrounded myself with last summer and the eight summers prior to that at Daisy Ranch Weight-Loss Camp. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE EXCEPT THE WEIGHT was always a personal favorite.

Fat camp. Yes, I went to fat camp. But that’s all history, because for the first time in nine years, I’m not going back to see my friends or Ms. Georgia, my counselor, at Daisy Ranch. Entering and winning runner-up at the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant changed the game for me. I did things I never believed possible. I played my ukulele for a crowded theater and walked the stage in a beautiful gown—not to mention the swimsuit portion of the competition! I even went to a dance with a boy. I did all that in this body. Which is why I can’t afford to waste another summer weighing in every morning and eating rabbit food in the hopes that someone will notice that I’ve dropped six pounds on the first day of school.

Now if I could only just figure out a way to explain that to my mom. And then, watch out, world! Millicent Michalchuk, trusted news anchor, is coming to a television screen near you.

But first I’ve gotta finish this dang personal statement for the Broadcast Journalism Boot Camp at the University of Texas in Austin.

I know it’s going to take more than summer camp or even a degree. We’re talking internships and years of grunt work. But I’m willing to do all that, because I want to be the face people come home to every night—a voice they can trust. A voice that will inspire. And maybe even change the world. I guess that’s a silly thing to expect from a news anchor, but my grandparents are as religious about the local news as they are about, well, religion!

I hear them talking about things people have said on the news channels they watch, and there are times that I don’t even think we’re living in the same world. It’s got me thinking that sometimes it’s about more than the facts. Sometimes it’s about how and which facts are presented. Like, when same-sex marriage was legalized, all the news outlets I pay attention to online treated it like a celebration, because it was! I went over to my grandparents’ house, and by the sound of their television, you would have thought we’d been invaded by a hostile enemy.

Maybe it’s different for everybody, but people like my grandparents? Their opinion of the world is shaped by the person who delivers their news. That’s real responsibility, and I don’t take that lightly.

I know. They don’t put fat girls on the news. Well, they didn’t let fat girls win runner-up in the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant either. But everything happens for the first time at some point, so why can’t that first time be me?

After I’ve removed all my curlers, I reach for the black leggings and mint sweatshirt I laid out for myself last night. The sweatshirt is the result of a Mother-Daughter Crafturday Saturday—a fading monthly tradition, now that I’m working for Uncle Vernon—and has a fabric-paint-lined iron-on transfer of a puppy with a butterfly on its nose. (It’s as adorable as it sounds.)

I add a touch of light pink lip gloss and close my laptop, leaving Harry and Sally behind. Lastly, I get the coffeepot started for my parents before driving to work.

At 5:45 in the morning, Clover City is just barely buzzing awake. The only evidence of life is the flickering light that spills into the street from Daybreak Donuts and Coffee and the handful of runners I see before pulling into the parking lot of Down for the Count, my uncle Vernon and aunt Inga’s boxing gym.

Dad tried telling them that the name of the gym felt a little defeatist, but they weren’t hearing it. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Inga connected on a Rocky fan-club message board. Inga was a recent transplant from Russia living in Philadelphia, and they met for the first time at the top of the infamous Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Against my entire family’s protest, because no one in my family except me can really wrap their head around falling in love on the internet.)

I’ve never been to Philly, but Inga has promised me that we’ll go after graduation—a true girls’ trip. I just hope it won’t take climbing all seventy-two Rocky steps for me to get the happy ending to my own love story.

I park in the spot right in front of the gym. Inga always nags Vernon and I for us both parking in the front spaces, but I like to think of it as my employee-of-the-month parking. Even if I am their only employee. Hey, the pay is crummy. I’ve got to take my perks where I can find them.

Stretching above the windows in our corner of the shopping center is our light-up sign. It reads DOWN FOR THE COUNT with a set of boxing gloves hanging next to it. Below that I can still see the shadow of letters where it once read LIFE CLUB FITNESS.

Bells jingle above my head as I open the front door and run behind the counter to turn off the alarm.

I go through my opening duties: counting out the register, sharpening pencils, printing off new member applications, checking the locker rooms for towels and toilet paper, and doing a quick walk-through and equipment check. I make a game of weaving in and out of the punching bags and tugging on each of them to make sure they’re just as sturdy as they were yesterday morning. Bouncing on my toes, I give the last bag a quick one-two punch.

The bell above the door rings, letting me know someone’s come in.

“Looking good, Millie!”

Sheepishly, I glance over my shoulder. “Morning, Vernon.” My uncle was once the kind of guy parents begged their daughters to stay away from. Thick muscles and sandy-colored curls. But these days he’s more sleep-deprived dad than small-town bad boy. He’s got a few clusters of white in his reddish-blond beard, and his smile lines are more deep set now, but he’s just as sturdy as I always remember him being.

“Your stance is getting pretty solid,” he says. “I don’t think I’d want to mess with you in a dark alleyway.”

I shake out my hands. “I’m just messing around,” I tell him as I head over to the counter and grab my car keys. Learning how to box for real is on my long-term to-do list, after getting into broadcast camp and making out with a boy. (Hey, Oprah says to name your goals, and she’s never led me astray.)

He shrugs. The circles under his eyes and his day-old T-shirt tell me he was up all night with the twins. Not only that, but the gym is really up against the ropes at the moment. (Pun totally intended.) Up until last month, this place was part of the Life Club Fitness franchise, which has specialty gyms (tennis clubs, CrossFit, indoor soccer) all over the country. This meant we had additional resources for marketing and equipment and even doing things like sponsoring local sports teams.

But LCF filed for bankruptcy without any warning, so now Uncle Vernon and Aunt Inga are on their own with this place, and without a safety net. Between all the investments they’ve already made here and newborn twins, the success of this gym has turned out to be more important than ever. Last time I was at their house, I saw a stack of late notices from the water and electric companies, and I just can’t shake the image. This place is their last hope, and I’m not about to let it fail.

I point to a puke stain on Vernon’s shoulder. “You’ve got some clean shirts in the office.”

He glances at the stain. “I don’t, actually. This was the last one.” He plops his head down on the counter. “Nothing will ever be clean. Luka and Nikolai had the toxic shits last night. We might just have to condemn the whole house. All is lost, Millie. Poopocalypse has claimed every last soul.”

I try not to laugh, but I can’t help smiling. Vernon is the only person in my family who cusses, and something about him doing it in front of me makes me feel somehow older and cooler than I actually am. “I washed the shirts in your office with the towels last night.” He picks up his head, and I get a good whiff of him. Toxic is about right. “Maybe hop in the showers, too? We normally don’t see anyone for another twenty minutes anyway.”

Vernon lifts his arm up and sniffs. “Well, guess I don’t wanna scare off any potential new members.”

I muster my most encouraging smile. “Right! Now, you know where the new membership packets are, and we’re starting that promo with Green’s Vitamins, remember? Those flyers are on your desk. And just . . .”

“Don’t take no for an answer,” he says, finishing Inga’s business mantra. (Well, really, just her mantra in general.)

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Inga’s been slashing our budgets like crazy lately. She could star in her own horror movie. Or maybe she could be a wrestler. Invincible Inga the Budget Assassin.” He turns and shuffles toward the showers, his shoulders sloped. I decide not to tell him about the brown mystery stain on his back.

“Just throw that shirt in the dirty towel hamper,” I call as I let myself out the front door.

I slide into the minivan and glance up to the Down for the Count sign flickering above, with the W in “Down” completely out—something I take a mental note of for our long list of needed repairs.

As I pull out into the street, I hit the call button on the steering wheel. “Call Amanda!” I shout.

“Calling Panda,” the robot car voice responds.

“No. End call. Do not call Panda. Call Amanda.”

“Searching for Panda Express.”

“No!” I moan and turn the whole radio off and on before trying again. “Call Amanda!”

There’s a long pause before the robot voice answers me. “Calling Amanda.”

“Finally,” I mumble.

The line rings for a moment before Amanda groans into my speakers.

“Good morning, beautiful!” I say. “You are smart. You are talented. You are kind.”

“There is nothing good about mornings,” she says, her voice muffled by what sounds like a pillow. “But at least you got the beautiful thing right. Smart? Talented? Kind? I’ll work on those.”

“All mornings are good,” I tell her. “It’s those afternoons that ruin everything.” I chuckle at myself, but Amanda’s silence is evidence that she doesn’t find my humor cute. “Daily affirmations. I read about it last week. You speak the things you want to be. I figured it’d be easier if we affirmed each other. Spice things up!”

“I can play this game,” she says. “I just say good things for you to be.”

“Pretty much.”

“You are a plate of hash brown. You are a waffle. You are a cinnamon roll.”

“Amanda!” I roll my eyes. “Take this seriously.”

“What? I’m hungry and no one is taking that seriously.” She huffs into her receiver. “Are you on your way?” she asks. “Get out of my room, Tommy!” she growls. “Sorry. My brother.”

“Be waiting for me outside. I’ve got morning announcements.” I grin. “Be there in ten. And maybe we can stop for breakfast.”

“I’m awake, Mom!” she shouts again. “Please hurry,” she whispers into the phone.

“You owe me three affirmations!” I remind her as I press down harder on the gas. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

 

Callie

TWO

Melissa and I sit on the floor of the gym, facing each other with our legs spread and our feet touching. Our hands clasp together as we stretch, pulling each other back and forth. She sits up, and her dark burgundy ponytail on the very top of her head swings forward as she pulls me toward her. I’m trying really hard not to breathe in, though, since the gymnasium floor seriously smells like balls.

“Our after-school practices next week were bumped to the band room,” I tell Melissa.

She looks up from her stretch. “Are you shitting me?”

“Nope. Coach Spencer is scrambling because the football team’s indoor facility isn’t done yet, so they’re moving everyone’s practices around so the team can have the gym and the weightlifting equipment.”

“But the band room has no space! What have they even done to deserve an indoor training facility? And it’s not even football season.”

I shrug. “In Clover City, every season is football season.”

She blows her bangs out of her face. “Man, screw the athletics department.”

“Finally, something we can agree on.”

Melissa tugs me so far toward her that my whole upper body is lying flat on the ground. My inner thigh muscles sting, but I make no move to let her know that she’s overstretching me, because Melissa knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s testing me, and I’m not about to show any signs of weakness.

It’s not that I don’t like Melissa. I’ve known the girl half my life, and while neither of us has ever excelled at friendship—especially me—we’ve always done a good job of playing the part for each other. But what Melissa doesn’t get is that in order for me to succeed, she must fail. At least in regard to our school’s dance team, the Clover City High School Shamrocks. We’re textbook frenemies, and I don’t even mean that in a bad way. But next year, only one of us can be captain.

I rotate my neck, my cheek hovering over the floor. Yep, still smells like balls down here. Hanging just above us are various athletic banners, boasting of district championships and even a couple of state wins, too.

The biggest banner watching over us, though, is practically a family heirloom. The title of 1992 National Dance Team Champions belongs to none other than the CCHS Shamrocks. Not only was it the only time we won Nationals in any sport, it was the only time CCHS made it to a nationwide competition at all. And the most extraordinary part? The team was led by my mother. It also happened to be the year a huge judging scandal was uncovered in the dance world, on all levels from district to Nationals. Lots of teams were temporarily banned, but I’ve seen the tapes. The 1992 Shamrocks were on fire.

The Rams, our football team, has one of the worst records in Texas, and still they get a brand-new state-of-the-art indoor training facility, while the Shamrocks, the most winning team on campus, are relegated to practicing in the band room. Like my mama says, if it smells like bullshit, it probably is.

“Sam is late again,” Melissa tells me over the cacophony of female voices echoing through the gymnasium.

“You wanna be the one to call her out?” I ask.

Melissa rolls her eyes and shakes her head. Sam is a senior and our team captain. What Melissa doesn’t get is that Sam is late on purpose. She’s testing us. Melissa and I are both second in command to Sam, as co–assistant captains, which means we are next in line to the throne, but only one will ascend. And I never lose.

Until then the two of us have to do a pretty decent job of working as a team, at least until Sam is ready to name her replacement.

But it’s not all competition. Pieces of what Melissa and I have are the real deal. Like when her parents got divorced in ninth grade and she spent three weeks at my house, because things at home were way too lethal. Or the time Mrs. Gutierrez, Melissa’s mom, began speaking to me in Spanish when she found out I was half Mexican. I was a little embarrassed because I can only pick up on a few words here and there and I’m definitely not confident enough to have a conversation. Melissa, on the other hand, comes from a large, traditional Mexican family. In fact, they lived here before Clover City could even be considered Texas. I swear, she could speak Spanish and read English while doing a Shamrock routine at the same time. But when Melissa saw my cheeks flush, she cut in, casually translating what her mom had just said. She never even brought it up after. Just pretended like nothing had happened.

Melissa pulls me even deeper into the stretch. “We’re supposed to meet with Mrs. Driskil after practice.” I twist my hands free and pop up on my feet.

“Whatever,” she says. “That woman’s just phoning it in. She doesn’t care about being our faculty sponsor. All she cares about is the stipend from the district.”

“It’d be so much worse if she actually gave a shit, though,” I remind her. “Remember when she suddenly decided our bikini car wash was inappropriate and she made us do the whole thing in rain ponchos?”

Melissa laughs. “Okay, that was totally tragic. But it was hilarious when you just cut circle holes around your boobs and ass. She had no idea what to say.” She laughs again, pointing a finger at me as she imitates Mrs. Driskil. “Young lady, your goodies are hanging out.”

I bump hips with her. “At least my goods are worth seeing,” I say. “Voted Best Ass three years running and Hottest of Them All this year. Don’t you forget it.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yes, we know. You would never let any of us forget. All hail Callie Reyes’s ass.”

I grin devilishly and clap my hands together once, silencing the rest of the team’s chitchat. “Y’all! Let’s get this going. Sam’s running a little behind, so we’re gonna start. Melissa,” I call, “cue the music.”

I begin rotating my hips a little to loosen up. “Okay, ladies, State is in three weeks, and we’ve got some serious ground to cover. We slayed at Regionals, but let’s be real: our competition wasn’t stacked the way we know it will be at State. So let’s run through the routine two or three times, and then I’m going to step out and diagnose the problem areas.”

The music starts. It’s the perfect mash-up of pop songs everyone knows by heart and EDM that no one has ever heard of. Sam’s got good taste. The opening verse of “Bad Girls” by M.I.A. kicks us off.

I close my eyes for the first few counts. I can practically feel the San Francisco breeze. I’ve never actually been to San Francisco. In fact the only person in my family who’s been farther west than New Mexico is my older sister, Claudia, who went to San Diego for an opera singing competition when she was still in high school. But since Nationals are in San Francisco this year, that won’t be the case for long. Last year we came in a heartbreaking second place at State, but Copper Hill, the team that took first place, is in total shambles after half their team was caught hazing their incoming freshmen.

My plan is to at least make it to Nationals, so we can build early momentum for next year. Maybe we’ll even place. And then next year, we’ll be in Miami for my senior year, and I’ll lead the team to first place. I’ll be accepted at the college of my choice, and I’ll get the hell out of Clover City before the ink on my diploma even has a chance to dry. That’s the plan.

I enter the stage—well, actually the gymnasium floor—in the second wave of dancers. Our first run-through is a little clunky, but it’s only our first go, and yesterday was a conditioning day. Already I can feel Melissa’s frustration mounting. If she had it her way, she’d have torn into these girls already. But that’s also why she’d be a shitty captain.

“Okay!” I shout the moment the music stops. “That was a decent warm-up, but we gotta pick up the pace. I think some of you are still having trouble with that triple pirouette. Jess, can you get out here and show us how it’s done?”

Jess, a tall black sophomore and my pick for captain when I’m out of this hell hole, steps forward. She spins and spots effortlessly, which is most likely because she moved here from Dallas, where she went to some fancy-ass ballet school. The rest of us grew up at good old Dance Locomotive, which isn’t really known for putting out quality dancers.

Jess slows it down and answers a few questions about momentum, hand placement, and spotting before we do our routine a couple more times. After that, Melissa and I sit out and watch, taking notes.

“I’m still not sure about that jeté combo,” Melissa says. “I just don’t think we can get even height on the jump. I mean, Jess’s jump is way too high. She has to scale that back for the rest of us.”

This choreography is my baby, and Melissa knows it. “Maybe it’s not about changing the choreography,” I say. “Maybe we just all need to be better. Like Jess.” I turn to her. “And do you wanna be the one to challenge Sam?”

Melissa shakes her head. “You’re right.”

After we give our notes, the whole team stands in a huddle before we break for the lockers.

“Look at all those tight asses!” Sam shouts as she jogs in to meet us. Sam is the kind of girl who, unlike me, actually looks like she could be related to my blond mom and even blonder little sister, and a small part of me hates her for that. Tall, white, strawberry-blond hair, and a straight frame built for ballet and the type of dresses that just graze your skin.

Sam squeezes into the circle. “Sorry I’m late, ladies. Had a few captain admin things to attend to.”

I step aside to give her the floor. The key to a successful transition of power? Always know your place.

She smiles at me. “Wrap it up, Cal. You got this.”

Melissa bristles beside me, but I don’t flinch.

I close the team huddle and say, “Don’t forget. Next week, we’re performing at city hall for the mayor’s American Heroes ceremony. Remember grades, y’all. I don’t want to hear that any of you bitches are on academic probation just before we’re going to State. I don’t care if you have to cheat. Shit. Last week, Jill wrote her vocab words on her thigh.”

All the girls laugh, but Jill, a short white sophomore with light brown ringlets, just shrugs. “It smudged a little, but I still passed. Apparently fiduciary means relating to or of the legal nature of trust. Not rust.”

“That’s the spirit!” I say. “Okay, hands in, y’all. On three. One, two, three!”

“SAN FRAN OR BUST!” we scream in unison.

I glance up to the bright red banner casting a shadow over us. Watch out, ’92. We’re coming for you.

As the team heads for the lockers, me, Melissa, and Sam sit on the bleachers.

“Thanks for taking the lead today, y’all,” says Sam.

Melissa and I both nod.

“Hey,” I say, “we might want to look at the jeté. Jess gets such crazy good height. It makes the rest of us look like total newbies, ya know?”

Melissa turns to me with a bitter smile. “I agree,” she says dryly.

Sam squints, like she’s running through the combo in her head. She nods. “You’re so right, Callie. We’ll look at it tomorrow.”

What can I say? Some people are just born to be leaders.

Sam continues, “So listen, Driskil is about to come in here, and I already know why she wants to talk.”

“What’s up?” asks Melissa.

Sam rolls her eyes. “You know that dinky-ass gym that sponsored us this year?”

We both nod.

“They pulled their funding.”

“Oh my God,” I say, “what does this mean?”

Sam’s normally sunny expression is grim. “Well, Driskil’s gonna try to paint a pretty picture.”

The door to the gym opens, and Mrs. Driskil shuffles inside.

“But basically we’re fucked,” whispers Sam before Mrs. Driskil is in earshot.

“Good morning, ladies,” says Mrs. Driskil. “This will take just a moment.”

Mrs. Driskil is a mousy woman who wears long skirts that collect dust along the hem and bulky cat-hair-coated grandpa cardigans with seasonal brooches. With the whiskery wrinkles around her mouth, not only is she a cat lady, she looks like one, too. She’s nice enough, but she keeps her distance, which is exactly what we need in a faculty adviser. Her name might be on all the paperwork, but we’re the ones running this show.

“Hey, Mrs. D,” I say. “Nice sweater.”

“Oh,” she says in a sugary voice. “This was my aunt Dolores’s. We almost buried her in it, but I was able to find her favorite just in time for the viewing.”

Melissa clears her throat. “What a . . . memorable story.”

“So what brings you all the way to the gymnasium?” I ask.

Mrs. Driskil coughs into her fist. “Well. It’s, um, one of your sponsors. They had to back out, and it appears they were your primary sponsor. That sweet little boxing gym. Down for the Count?”

“Wait,” I gasp, feigning surprise. “What did you say?”

“Well, I guess the owner is just having a rough go of it, and he’s cutting costs.” She speaks slowly and loudly, as if I was being literal about not hearing her.

“Okay,” I say. “But can’t we just, like, get another sponsor? My boyfriend’s dad owns a couple car dealerships. I’m sure he could help us out.”

Sam shakes her head.

Driskil rings her hands together. “Well, it’s not that easy. The district bylaws say that a sponsor must be approved before the school year, and that the student is responsible for any additional funding needs. And so I’m afraid that means the cost of travel and accommodations for State and Nationals would fall to you ladies.”

Panic swells in my chest, but I refuse to appear anything less than calm. “Who can even afford that?” I ask.

“Definitely not me,” says Melissa.

Mrs. Driskil continues, “It looks like we have almost half of what we need for State, but if we make it any further than that, we’re going to have to raise funds.”

I sputter for a moment. “But . . . but how much does it even cost to go to Nationals?” The expense of a big trip like that is almost as unfathomable to me as the cost of
college.

“Well, it isn’t cheap. At all,” says Sam. “I mean, a single car wash barely paid for just one of our uniforms. Airfare to California is astronomical. We could maybe charter a bus, but the district would have to give us tons of extra time off.”

Silence settles as I let this news sink in.

Mrs. D clears her throat. “I don’t think you should be too worried, girls. You ladies are all so talented, but . . . but Texas is a big state.”

I’m almost impressed. I didn’t think Mrs. D had it in her to make a dig like that. But I’m mostly pissed, to be honest.

“We’ve made it before,” says Melissa. “And we came really close last year. We shouldn’t have to limit ourselves just because some stupid gym flaked on us.”

I nod. “This is our year. I can feel it. And it’s Sam’s last year.” I shake my head. “Hell no. Not on my watch. Ya know, no one talks about the budget when the football team has an away game. If those boys ever made it to postseason again, the whole town would be throwing money and panties at them.”

We wait for Mrs. Driskil to say something, but all she gives us is a look of pity. I’m so angry my fingers are trembling. Maybe if Mrs. Driskil wasn’t so used to people treating her like crap, she wouldn’t let the dance team get treated the same way.

Sam stands up and starts walking to the locker room without waiting to be dismissed, and Melissa and I follow her.

“Girls,” calls Mrs. Driskil. “Girls! I think it’s best we not tell the team for the time being. It might not even be an issue! And I just think it would cause unneeded distress. We ought to discuss next steps.”

The three of us just keep walking.

* * *

I spend second period as an office aide. Not because I requested the job, but because my mama did. Actually, she’s more of a smother than a mother, but she’s my smother.

As I try to sneak past her into the copying room, the sound of a thick southern twang stops me. “There’s my Callie Honey. Baby, come here. Give your mama some love.”

I double back and stash my backpack under her desk before plopping down onto the little stool she keeps behind her desk for filing. She pulls my face close to her with both hands and gives me a kiss on the cheek, leaving her mark: Revlon Certainly Red 740, the color my mama has worn every day since her mama took her to the drugstore on her thirteenth birthday to buy her first real adult makeup.

“Has your sister emailed you?” she asks. “I tried to get her on the FaceTime chat, but I can’t make sense of the time zones in Germany.”

“Mama, it’s just FaceTime. Not the FaceTime chat. And no, Claudia hasn’t emailed me.” I don’t tell her that I haven’t emailed her either. It’s not that I don’t love my sister, but we’re busy, and if Claudia’s not answering Mom’s phone calls, I’m sure more than time zones are to blame. Claudia is a student at USC but is spending the semester at the opera house in Dresden. I’m happy for her, but I miss having someone in our house who looks like me. When she left for college, I didn’t anticipate what it might feel like to be the only brown person in our otherwise white household.

Mama sighs. “How were the girls looking this morning?” she asks.

I nod. “It wasn’t bad. We’re going to start meeting after school next week to gear up for State.”

She taps a pen to her lips. “Is that going to interfere with your work schedule?”

I prop up my elbows on her desk and rest my chin in my hands. “It’ll be tight, but it’s just for two weeks. And everyone at work is cool about dance stuff.”

She licks the pad of her pointer finger before flipping through attendance sheets. “And what about homework? You won’t be leaving much time for Bryce either.”

“I’ll make it work with homework, and Bryce will see me when he sees me. It’s not like he stresses out about fitting me into his schedule during football season.”

“That’s my girl.” She hands me a stack of late slips to stamp. “I’m gonna get with some of the parents and Principal Armstrong about arranging a fan bus down to State. We got to be sure to decorate y’all’s bus, too, with shoe polish and whatnot.”

My smother would be the ideal candidate for faculty adviser, but seeing as she’s the school secretary and not an actual teacher, her level of involvement is limited to enthused parent. Which is for the best, I guess. Between my stepdad, my sister Kyla, trying to keep tabs on Claudia from halfway across the world, and her job, the woman barely has a moment to shower. I can see her age showing, too, but maybe that’s just ’cause I remember what she looked like when it was just me, my dad, Claudia, and her.

When I think of her then, I remember her black high-waisted jeans and her thick black belt with its shiny silver buckle and her tight, lacy tank tops. She was like the West Texas version of Olivia Newton-John’s Bad Sandy from Grease. She’d swivel her hips across the kitchen—which
always smelled more like her DIY perm than any food we ate—to old Selena songs while my dad made horrible
bachelor-type food for us, like hot dogs wrapped in tortillas.

Now the only self-imposed requirements of my mama’s wardrobe is that it “drapes nicely” and covers up any lumps or rolls she’s found herself with over the last few years. The lipstick, though, still remains.

She presses her fingers to my forehead, massaging my furrowed brow away. “You’re gonna need to start using my antiaging cream if you keep wrinkling up your forehead like that. Now tell me what’s got you so worried.”

I look over my shoulder and beyond her where students wait to be seen by the principal, vice principal, or guidance counselor. “Well,” I say quietly, “shit’s sorta hitting the fan. It looks like the dance team lost one of our major sponsors, and now we’re pretty much screwed. We’re gonna have to do a few emergency fund-raisers before State, but there’s definitely not any money for Nationals.”

She tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “Oh, goodness. Well, that just won’t do. What’d Mrs. Driskil say?”

I roll my eyes.

She shakes her head firmly. “That woman’s more useless than fuzz on a peach,” she whispers, tapping her red-painted pointer fingernail against her chin. “Mama’s gonna get you in to see Vice Principal Benavidez. Y’all girls have worked too hard for some silly little money to stand in your way. And Lord knows most of us can’t just spring for a trip to San Francisco.”

I bite down on my lower lip to stop myself from smiling. I can see her going into full-on Mama Bear mode, referring to herself in the third person. I know there’s not much she can actually do other than make the vice principal have a sit-down with me, but there’s something about seeing an adult actually try that makes me feel better. Even if it’s only momentarily. And if I can solve this problem on my own, Sam will have no choice but to name me captain.

“Thanks, Mama.” Before I get to work on picking up attendance sheets, I dig through her desk drawer for a makeup wipe to scrub away the lip print on my cheek. She may have her nose in every corner of my life, but sometimes having a smother isn’t all that bad.

 

Millie

THREE

At lunch, Amanda and I sit in the courtyard at our usual table while she devours the Amy Poehler autobiography I lent her—or I guess I should more accurately say I rehomed it, since my mother was not too pleased when she cracked it open and got an eyeful of some of Ms. Poehler’s language. Amanda chuckles to herself every few minutes, and it takes everything in me not to ask what part she’s reading.

As my eyes roam the courtyard, I spy Willowdean peeking her head out the door and waving frantically. Following her gaze, I find Bo, her boyfriend. Her very cute boyfriend with—as Amanda puts it—a peach butt. Just the thought of a boy’s behind has me blushing.

Will’s eyes sweep the rest of the courtyard, and she waves at Amanda and me before ducking back into the building. I wave back and make a note to myself to talk to Willowdean about my current . . . situation. I’m hungry for any type of advice that will move me from Crush Corner to Boyfriend Boardwalk. (Surely I’m not the only person who imagines life in terms of board games like Monopoly or Candy Land.)

See? This is why I need to talk to Willowdean. I’m going bananas here.

But our opportunities to chat are sadly limited. I wish Willowdean, Ellen, and Hannah at least shared a lunch period with me and Amanda. That’d be a good excuse to see them.

I don’t know what I expected after the pageant. Actually, that’s a lie. I know exactly what I expected. I thought that we’d all be friends. Me, Amanda, Willowdean, Ellen, and Hannah. We’d be this renegade group of mismatched friends that didn’t always make sense, but somehow works. Our shared experience would have bonded us like in The Breakfast Club or some other great ensemble cast. Except that’s not quite what happened. And, to be honest, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if the Breakfast Club even hung out again after those credits rolled.

I open my thermos and pour the chicken soup into the lid, resigning myself to lunch with a distracted Amanda. “I miss the pageant.”

I’m answered with silence except for the sound of the table rocking back and forth as she bounces her feet.

“Did you see that the school newspaper did a big exposé about how the cafeteria meat loaf doesn’t actually contain any meat?”

Nope. Nothing.

“I was thinking we could sign up for a belly-dancing class together?”

Silence.

I reach across the table and slowly pull the book away.

“But—but I was reading that.”

“Well, I was also trying to engage in conversation with you. And you’ve been headfirst in this book since I picked you up this morning. And!” I add. “This is my book!”

She sighs and dog-ears her place in the book. “You’re the one who made me read this thing in the first place.”

I try not to cringe. Dog-earing a book feels like a violation of some sacred unspoken rule. “What I was saying is I sort of miss the pageant, don’t you?”

She laughs. “Not even a little bit. Those people never appreciated my skills and charm anyway.”

I try not to smile. Amanda’s soccer display for the talent segment of the pageant was inspiring, but the judges didn’t really know what to make of it. I think the comment section of one of her scorecards said something along the lines of “Didn’t quite fit the tone of the pageant. Maybe try juggling next time? Or try going out for the soccer team?”

The soccer team. A sore subject with Amanda. She, her parents, and the administration at school have gone back and forth with the soccer-team coach, Ms. Shelby, who can’t seem to look past Amanda’s physical differences to see the talent she possesses.

Amanda’s been ridiculed for years about her LLD (leg length discrepancy) and about the heel lift she has to wear. But if Amanda can hear or see people making fun of her, you would never know. Her theory is that she sets the tone for how the world treats her. And in her own words: if she wants to be treated like a bada**, then she should act like a bada**. But I know it must get to her sometimes.

“You’re totally right,” I finally say. “But I don’t even mean the pageant. I’m talking about all of us just hanging out, ya know?”

She shrugs, her whole body flopping. “Yeah, I guess. But I kind of like it when it’s just us.”

For a moment her words make my heart burst. Amanda and I haven’t been friends forever like Will and Ellen, but being the butt of everyone’s jokes for much of middle school and high school has bonded us together in a way that is stronger than time. “Me too. You know that. But I just wish we all had a reason to get together every once in a while.”

She squints a little, looking past me at some memory of the last few months. “Yeah, we were like our own kind of club, I guess. Like, a badass lady gang that totally upped the cool factor of that pageant.”

I smile at the thought, but then it hits me. “A club! Oh my God! Amanda, you’re a genius!”

“Well, that’s news to exactly no one, but explain yourself,” she demands in a British accent as she holds her pencil up like a sword.

“Hang on.” I pull my cell phone out of my backpack, which has been emblazoned with all kinds of stitchwork, including flowers, clouds, stars, a few emojis I tried my hand at, and even a little fat mini me on the very bottom of the front pocket. I fire off a quick text to Amanda, El, Will, and Hannah.

Amanda’s phone immediately dings. “You didn’t have to text me, too. I’m sitting right here.” She rolls her eyes before reading the message out loud. “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MEET ME IN THE COURTYARD AFTER SCHOOL AT 3:15!”

The first bell for next period rings. My phone dings in rapid succession as I get two responses.

ELLEN: I’ll be there.

WILLOWDEAN: DITTO! Plus El and Tim are my ride home. 🚗

HANNAH: I’ll be there but only because I don’t have anything else to do. 💩

I drop my phone into my bag and pour my leftover soup back into my thermos.

“Are you even going to tell me what your idea is?” asks Amanda.

“You’ll see at three fifteen.” The second bell rings. “Oh, darn. I gotta go.”

Amanda waves me off, and I dash over to my next class. Anyone with short legs knows the value of speed walking, and with my AP Psychology class clear on the other side of the school in the temporary buildings, I barely make it before Mr. Prater locks the door.

Mr. Prater doesn’t mess around with his attendance policy, and tardiness is not tolerated. He’s a very serious guy who is also guilty of making seriously bad jokes.

“Okay, last one,” Mr. Prater says as he shuts the door behind me. “Why was Pavlov’s hair so soft?”

The only response he gets as I walk to my desk is a few groans.

“Come on, y’all!” he says. “Classical conditioning!”

I chuckle as I sit down at the back of the class next to Malik at the fat-kid table. (Well, it’s not just for fat kids. A few kids in wheelchairs use them too, but I lovingly think of it as the fat-kid table. Amanda prefers cool-kid table. She’s not wrong.) Everyone else has those little desks you slide into, but I don’t quite fit—at least not comfortably. I guess it used to bother me to be singled out, but one size doesn’t actually fit all. (Oh my gosh. That is totally my next cross-stitch.)

Malik isn’t fat, but I am, and he’s my go-to partner on group projects. He is also my crush. In fact, I think he might be THE CRUSH TO END ALL CRUSHES. So, yeah, I like him. But the better news is he might like me. I think. Amanda says yes, definitely. He went with me to Sadie Hawkins last fall. We even held hands. But no kiss. To say he’s sending mixed signals would be the understatement of the year.

My hopes were all but deflated until he volunteered to be my escort for the pageant. I thought maybe then, after seeing me win runner-up, that it just might be the night our lips locked. But instead I got a hug, a pat on the back, and a yellow rose. Nothing says “just friends” like a yellow rose. (And nothing’s wrong with being friends, but what I feel for him is different than friendship.) Not only that, but we have these wonderful hours-long conversations every night via chat or sometimes text. And then I show up to school and I’m lucky if he says more than fifteen words to me.

“Hey,” I say, catching my breath for a moment before adding, “Almost didn’t make it.”

Malik shakes his head. “Explain to me how Clover City can afford to build an indoor training facility for their mediocre football team, but the AP Psych class has to meet in a temporary building that can barely withstand a windstorm, let alone a tornado, and has no windows.”

My cheeks warm. My stomach tingles. That was a lot of words. From his mouth. Using his talky lips that also double as kissy lips. “I swear you should run for city council.”

Malik turns to me, his face a little flushed, like he’s just realized that whole rant was said out loud and not in his head. Or online.

I feel like my insides are glowing, and if I’m not careful, they’ll glow so bright everyone will be able to see.

There may or may not be a small notebook in my room with a furry seafoam cover that is dedicated to all the reasons I find Malik crush-worthy. (I like organizing things, okay? Including my feelings.) There are lots of things I might put on those pages in list form.

1. His thick, commanding eyebrows that perfectly match his shiny black Fonzie-like hair.
2. His square tortoiseshell glasses that perfectly complement his deep brown skin and the fact that he keeps a dustcloth folded in his wallet to clean them off a couple times a day.
3. The way he wears penny loafers and puts real, shiny pennies inside them.
4. How he rolls his jeans at the bottom and always wears subtle but seasonally appropriate socks.
5. The way he irons his T-shirts and always wears them tucked in with a cardigan in the fall and a leather bomber jacket in the winter, like a hot South Asian greaser with a little bit of dad sensibility mixed in.

But perhaps the thing that really makes my knees melt is Malik’s drive. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent a fair share of our AP Psych classes daydreaming about how we’d make the perfect power couple. Me on the six o’clock news and him running for local office. Or maybe even Congress or working as some kind of documentarian/philanthropist.

His leg brushes against mine as he reaches behind his chair to grab his textbook. “I think we’re doing that open-book quiz today.”

“Shoot,” I whisper before I can even dig through my bag. “I knew I was supposed to stop at my locker. You even mentioned it last night.”

He slides his book toward me. “We can share.”

I smile. There goes the fluttering again. “Okay. Thanks.”

I tear out a piece of notebook paper as Mr. Prater turns on his projector and lowers the lights. He plugs in the twinkly lights strung overhead. He hung them himself due to the lack of windows out here in the temporaries, which means no natural light for note-taking while the projector is on.

I realize this wasn’t Mr. Prater’s intention, but it’s all sort of romantic. Sharing a book with Malik underneath the low lights as our thighs touch so frequently it’s more than an accident . . .

I have to force myself to concentrate on the quiz questions displayed on the slides, but it’s hard not to let this breathless feeling overtake me completely.

Is this what liking someone is supposed to feel like? Because if this is a crush, I don’t know if I can handle the intensity of actually loving someone. Or maybe this is love. I don’t know. What I do know is that whatever I feel for Malik goes way beyond just friends.

That afternoon, Will and El are waiting in the courtyard with Tim and Bo. Amanda’s close on my heels as we make our way to their table.

“I don’t want to step on any toes,” I call out to them. “But this meeting is girls only.”

Tim shrugs, and Ellen gives him a quick kiss on the cheek with his face glued to his phone before he walks off toward the parking lot. “I’ll be at the car.”

“His latest obsession is that geocaching app with those little trolls and gnomes,” Ellen explains.

Bo gives me a quick nod. “Hey, Millie.” He turns to Willowdean. “I’ll pick you up for work if you want?”

“I think El and Tim are gonna drop me off actually, but I’ll take a ride home tonight,” she says, her golden curls tangling in the wind.

He nods before giving her a kiss on the lips and then jogs to catch up with Tim.

“Not a bad view,” says Amanda, watching him go.

El sputters with laughter, and Willowdean’s whole face looks like it’s about ready to catch fire. “Can’t say I disagree,” she finally says.

I smile. “Anyone seen Hannah?” I ask.

“I’m here,” someone groans.

I turn to find Hannah wearing a front baby sling with an anatomically correct baby in it. Her once-overgrown bangs have become swoopier than they were, so you can actually see her face. Her charcoal eyeliner is jagged and a little smudged, but the look works for her. Based on her medium brown skin, most people at school just call Hannah black or African American, but she actually prefers Afro-Latina. One of the ladies running the pageant told Hannah that was a mouthful when she included it in her pageant intro, but Hannah told her she should try harder. I tend to agree.

Of everyone from the pageant, I see Hannah the least. Not because I don’t want to, but because she goes out of her way to be unseen. Plus she has lots of slightly older friends who don’t even live in Clover City. Her elusiveness makes me want to try even harder to be friends with her.

“What the hell?” asks Will.

Hannah rolls her head back, stomping to the table where the rest of us sit. “I signed up for that life-skills class thinking it would be dumb stuff like online banking and applying for jobs, but no. It’s basically a home ec class.” She sits down and slams the doll on the table, triggering sobs from the speaker on the back of its head. “Our final,” she says, like we’re gathered around a campfire telling horror stories, “is a casserole.”

Ellen, Amanda, and Will nearly fall out of their seats in hysterics, and I bite my lip, trying not to laugh along with them.

Hannah gives them all a half-baked dirty look, but it’s the best she can do not to smile herself.

“I’ll dig through my mom’s recipe book if it’ll help,” I offer.

She turns to me. “If you really want to help, you’ll make the damn thing for me.”

Willowdean nudges me with her elbow. “So what’s all this about? Did you gather us all here to corrupt another time-honored Clover City tradition?”

They go quickly silent with all eyes on me. Suddenly I feel very, very dumb. Self-doubt washes over me, and I am immediately positive that I like all of them much more than any of them like me. That’s just the worst feeling. It’s like showing up to a costume party where you’re the only one who dressed up.

But then I look at Amanda, and she nods, and I know that at the very least, I can always count on her.

“I miss y’all,” I finally say. “A lot. And that’s what this emergency meeting is about. I know that we’re all busy with different things and the pageant is long gone.”

“Thank God,” says Hannah, stuffing her baby and sling into her messenger bag.

“But I sort of hate that, ya know? Because I just never see y’all anymore, and, well, a lot of good things came out of the pageant. But the best part was all of us becoming friends.”

Willowdean smiles. “Well, not to be self-centered, but I sort of feel like the best part was when I wore a cardboard Cadillac on stage.”

“Okay,” I say. “Yes, that was pretty great. But back then we saw each other all the time,” I say. “Because we had a reason to, so if we need a reason to get together, I’m creating one.”

Ellen squints at me suspiciously.

“I’m not a big organized-activities person, in case you hadn’t already discerned that about me,” says Hannah.

“What’s your idea?” asks Amanda.

I inhale deeply. “Slumber parties. Every Saturday until the end of the school year. We’ll all take turns hosting.”

It’s so quiet I can hear the cheerleaders practicing in the gym.

Ellen speaks first. “Every. Single. Saturday. Night?”

“Well, sure,” I say, my answer coming out more like a question. “But with slumber parties. We can do face masks. And crafts. And play games. And exchange ideas.”

“Exchange ideas?” asks Hannah. “What? Like the Slumber Party United Nations?”

“It has to be every Saturday night?” asks Willowdean. “That’s prime date-night real estate.”

Amanda shrugs. “The only date I’ve got is with my TV and my cat. I’m in.”

A small bit of relief sparks in my chest, but no one is quick to follow her lead. I nod. “Okay. What about every other Saturday?”

Hannah works diligently at peeling off her dark purple nail polish. “We all have to take turns hosting?”

Ellen turns to Will, and in a quieter voice says, “This is like what we were talking about the other night. More time for us. Without the guys, ya know?”

I can see Will turning this over in her head. She’s the kind of person who is economical with her time and her love, and I can appreciate that. Sharing Ellen is hard for her.

She looks to me. “Let’s try it for a few weeks. But no hard feelings if it gets to be too much, okay? Just with work and school and . . .” Will sighs. “Bo, and trying to be a good friend and not go crazy. It’s a lot.”

“I get it,” I say.

Ellen grins. “You know the deal. We’re a buy-one-get-two kind of thing. I’m in.”

And as a surprise to absolutely no one, Hannah is in no hurry to respond. She picks the polish off her entire thumbnail before speaking. “We’re not, like, having pillow fights or anything, okay? And if anyone tries to give me a makeover, I’ll cut off their hair in the middle of the night.”

I swallow. “Understood.” I force out a laugh to lighten the mood a bit. Laughing on command is something that happens to be my number-one talent, and one of the things that will make me a great news anchor one day.

I volunteer to host first and promise to text everyone more details before the weekend. A part of me is nervous, like somehow they’ll all decide they don’t like me anymore or that this will all turn out to be one big embarrassing disaster. But we only have one year left of high school, and the anxiety inside me tells me that if I don’t solidify our friendship now, the five of us will just drift away from one another eventually.

But mostly I’m just bubbling with excitement.

 

Callie

FOUR

After school, I hang back for a little while to try to talk to Vice Principal Benavidez about the dance team’s sponsorship dilemma, but he’s no help. I guess he pretended to be helpful. He promised me stuff I know he won’t deliver on, like that he’d check with the superintendent or ask Principal Armstrong if there’s any room in the budget. When I asked to speak to the principal myself, he fed me some crap about Principal Armstrong being a very busy woman, like she’s the freaking president or something.

My back pocket vibrates, and when I check my phone, I find a text from Bryce.

Bryce: babe im outside where u at?

Just as I’m about to type a response, I collide with a pastel ball of dough. My whole body bounces back as my phone slips out of my hands and slides across the floor.

“Oh my goodness!” squeaks a voice.

I glance up to see Millie Michalchuk, someone I am very much aware of. To be honest, you can’t miss the girl. Freshman year she was crowned the Nottest of Them All according to the Hottest and Nottest List. Luckily for Millie, her name only popped up on the list one year. I believe this year the honor went to Hannah Perez.

I groan. “That phone better not be broken.”

“Oh gosh, I hope not,” she says as she retrieves the phone from the floor. “Shipshape!”

I hold out my hand. “Lucky you.”

She grins. “You’re right about that!” The phone vibrates in her hand as she gives it back to me. “Sorry,” she says. “I was just in here to give your mom the morning announcements to proofread for tomorrow, but I guess I missed her, huh?”

I shrug. “Yeah, I don’t really keep up with her schedule.” Lie. She’s gone to pick up Kyla and take her to dance class. I glance down at my phone to see another message from Bryce. “Right, well, I gotta go.”

Millie steps forward, blocking my path as if she didn’t even hear me. “What a beautiful necklace,” she says, lightly touching my thirteenth-birthday gift from my dad.

The gold circle pendant with an engraved C hangs from a thin gold chain. It’s something I only take off for dance competitions. Besides the tiny diamond studs Bryce gave me for Christmas, it’s the only piece of real jewelry I own. I clear my throat. “Uh, thanks.”

“Tell your mom I stopped by?”

I squeeze past her. “I’ll try to remember.”

Millie just makes me uncomfortable. It hasn’t always been that way. Before the pageant last fall, she was just some random fat girl who always kept to herself and who . . . okay, yes, me and my friends sometimes made fun of. At least not to her face. At the pageant, especially during the swimwear component . . . I don’t know. It was just, like, hard to look at her. It wasn’t like when I’d made dumb jokes about her in the past. This time I just wanted to cover her up and save her the embarrassment. Except Millie didn’t seem embarrassed. Anyway, I guess the judges pitied her, too, because in the end, she got runner-up.

I shoot off a reply to let Bryce know I’m on my way. I sigh with momentary relief.

I love Bryce. Between my mom, my stepdad, my little sister, and sometimes Claudia, my house is constantly in motion. And there’s my dad, too, and all my worries about him ever finding someone and my abuela getting older. Then the never-ending Shamrock drama.

But Bryce. I never have to worry about Bryce. We’ve been together since freshman year. Bryce is The One. We’ve had our hiccups, but what long-term couple hasn’t?

As I push through the doors leading into the parking lot, I find Bryce leaning against his sparkling cobalt-blue Dodge Charger with shiny new dealer plates. Despite what everyone might think, I’m not a materialistic person, but I’ve got to admit: there’s something hot about having a boyfriend with a flashy car. And Bryce has a new car every few months—a perk of his dad being none other than Clay Dooley, owner of not one but four local dealerships. Clover City doesn’t even have a damn Target, but we have almost as many car dealerships as we do gas stations. Anyway, with the last name Dooley, he’s Clover City royalty. If he’s a prince, I’m his princess.

He greets me with a kiss—an open-mouth kiss for everyone to see. His hands grip either side of my waist, and he literally sweeps me off my feet.

We can’t keep our hands off each other. I know it can be obnoxious and over the top. But I spend my entire day 100 percent in control of my life. When I’m with Bryce, the buzzing in my brain eases and I can operate on autopilot.

He twists his hand into my ponytail and tugs playfully. “I missed you today.”

“Well,” I tell him, “you’ve got me for two whole hours before my family gets home.”

“Say no more,” he says, and smacks my ass.

I yelp, trying to force a giggle. I might be down for public displays of affection, but that’s not exactly my flavor. Whatever. It’s not a big enough deal for me to make a thing of it. And I’ll totally get him back tomorrow and embarrass him in front of his friends with some sappy-ass baby talk or something.

“Hey,” he says as we’re getting into the car. “There’s Ellen.”

My gaze scans the parking lot, and there she is. For a brief moment, regret pokes at the pit of my stomach. “Gimme a sec,” I tell him.

Ellen was my sad attempt at branching out for more female friends while Bryce was busy with football season. She was in the pageant and we worked together at Sweet 16. She’s the kind of girl everyone wants to be friends with. I am so not that girl. But I am the girl who gets what she wants, and I wanted El to be my friend.

But the pageant ended. I didn’t win—even though Bryce’s dad, who served as a judge, swore I had his vote. I thought for sure I’d at least get runner-up like Claudia had a few years ago. And then a couple weeks later, Ellen left Sweet 16 for a higher-paying job at Cinful Rolls, the cinnamon-bun stand in the food court. So I decided that I don’t need friends. I don’t even have time for them, honestly. But something about Ellen still makes me feel like a failure, and that really pisses me off.

“El-bell!” I call, but she doesn’t flinch. She probably can’t hear me over the engine. “El! Ellen!”

She doesn’t turn around as she walks arm in arm with her friend Willowdean—who, by the way, hates me for no reason other than that I was a good friend to Ellen when she wasn’t—to the other side of the parking lot, where Tim’s Jeep is parked.

“Ellen!” I yell a little louder but immediately regret the decision. It feels desperate, and on the list of things I hate, that is nearly number one.

She freezes, but Willowdean doesn’t hear me and instead trips on a chunk of gravel as Ellen inadvertently yanks her back. Ellen laughs, and so does Willowdean, their heads knocking together.

For a brief moment something that feels like jealousy crawls up my spine.

Finally Ellen turns around and searches the empty parking lot for a second before she sees me. I offer a short wave, and from all the way on the other side of the lot I can see that she’s surprised it’s me, and not necessarily in a good way.

“Hey!” she shouts back. “How’s Sweet 16?”

“Good,” I say. “Same as it’s always been. I haven’t been working as much since it’s dance-competition season.”

“Cool!”

If it’s even possible to share an awkward silence from across a parking lot, we do. I immediately feel foolish for thinking that she and I could be friends. Or that I need friends to begin with.

“Babe!” says Bryce from inside the car as he gently revs the engine.

Willowdean tugs at Ellen’s hand and whispers something in her ear. A feeling that is only faintly familiar creeps up my neck. It’s the kind of feeling I get when people assume I’m dumb because I’m on the dance team or because I’m pretty. Or when Bryce took me home for the first time, and his dad called me a pretty little señorita. (I’ve spent many sleepless nights fantasizing about the perfect comeback to that, by the way.) It’s that feeling like you’re the butt of the joke.

I don’t say good-bye or wave. I just turn around and slide into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind me.

“Whoa,” says Bryce. “Careful.” He pats the dashboard, soothing the car.

I close my eyes and shake my head. “Sorry. Let’s hurry up before my family gets home.”

The tires squeal as we take off out of the parking lot and blow straight through a stop sign. Bryce rests one hand on my thigh, and we break so many speed limits that this dumb town becomes a blur.

* * *

Bryce lies sprawled out on my floor while I sit cross-legged on my bed with my laptop balancing on my knees. He’s spent the last thirty minutes nuzzling and kissing me, trying to distract me from my task: figuring out how the hell to fund the rest of the dance team’s season. Bryce, tall, white, with broad shoulders, and bright green eyes, makes for a very tempting distraction, but my focus is unwavering.

He groans, rolling back and forth on my mauve-colored shag carpet. “Are you almost done?”

“I don’t know.” I bite back a grin.

He’s being annoying, but there’s something I love about seeing him in my room, in my old house with its fading carpet and popcorn glitter ceilings. You would think he would care about how outdated this place is or that he’d rather be at his fancy new house that looks more like the Parthenon than anything that belongs in Clover City. But he’s here. With me.

He sits up, trying to get a glimpse at my computer screen. “What are you even doing?”

I open my mouth to speak, but I get lost in a blog post about a high school band that sent themselves to Nationals by having a twenty-four-hour marathon drum circle. No, thank you.

“Babe,” says Bryce. “Babe, your phone is ringing.”

“Oh.” I blink quickly.

He tosses me my phone from where it sits on the floor, and I catch it like a hot potato.

“Hello?” Why do I always say it like a question?

“What’s a dad got to do to get his girl to answer her phone? I already pay the damn bill.”

I laugh, but my shoulders slump. I have a great dad; however, I’m not always the best daughter. “Sorry, Dad. I’ve been crazy busy with practice and—”

“I know, I know. You’ve got a life. I get it. But maybe you could make it over here for a weekend visit soon, yeah? Your abuela has been nagging the hell out of me about you coming down for your birthday.”

I can’t even think that far beyond my immediate problems right now, but instead I just say, “Tell her I miss her.”

“You can call her and let her know yourself. I think I hear from Claudia more than I hear from you.”

I sigh into the receiver. “You’re really piling it all on, aren’t you?”

He yawns and groans, like he’s stretching after a long day at work. “Watching your kid’s life unfold on Facebook doesn’t really cut it, if you know what I mean. So how’s Bryan or Reese or whatever his name is?”

I giggle, and Bryce looks up from his phone as if he can sense my dad talking about him. Dad isn’t one of those fathers who thinks his daughter isn’t dating until she’s forty-three or that I’m completely void of hormones. But Bryce, with his flashy cars and show-stealing (and casually racist) dad, isn’t really someone my dad, who values things like a smartly organized toolbox and almost any Nicolas Cage film, especially National Treasure, has patience for.

“Bryce,” I say, overenunciating his name, “is actually right here.”

“So you guys are at the library or something, right? Because I know your mom and Keith aren’t even home from work yet.”

“Actually, we’re in my room doing homework.”

“With the door open, I hope.”

“Dad, no one’s home. If I want to have sex with my boyfriend, do you think it matters if the door is open or closed?”

Bryce’s face turns ghostly white.

Dad huffs. “Why do you have to go and point out logic like that?”

“Love you, Dad.”

“Just . . .” He clears his throat. “Make sure you’re careful and all that.”

“I’ve been on the pill since I was—”

“Yup. Okay. I hear ya. Loud and clear. Message received. Good job.”

“The dance team lost funding,” I blurt out before realizing I hadn’t even told Bryce yet.

“You didn’t tell me that,” says Bryce.

I glance at him apologetically before continuing to fill him and my dad in simultaneously. “We’ve got State in two weeks, which we can barely cover, and Nationals after that, which isn’t even an option at the moment. And we actually have a shot at going all the way this year.”

“Oh, baby,” he says. “Maybe I could talk to my boss and see if they could throw some sponsorship dollars your way, or maybe I could even cut a check to make a tiny dent.”

I smile. “Thanks, Dad. I’m going to brainstorm some options and see what we can do.”

“What happened for you to lose a sponsor? You girls getting into trouble?” he jokes.

“This dumb, dinky little gym offered to sponsor us for the first time this year, and they just bailed on us right in the middle of the competitive season.”

“Can they even do that?” he asks.

“What are we gonna do? Bully them into giving us the money?”

He grunts. “That’s pretty much what you and your sisters do to me and your mother.”

“Not funny,” I tell him.

“A little funny.”

“Maybe a smidge funny.”

“Well, you let me know if I can help, okay?” he says. “And your birthday, too. I need ideas. Unless you want another transistor radio with a wind-up flashlight on the end.”

“I think I’m good.”

“That was a great gift,” he says, defending himself. “A good thing to keep in your trunk for emergencies.”

My dad has a love for all things simple and utilitarian. In fact, I think I’ve gotten him the same mustache comb for three Christmases in a row, but he doesn’t mind since it’s one less thing he needs to replace. “Dad, I don’t have a car.”

He chuckles. “Prepare for the life you want, mija, not the one you have, right?”

I roll my eyes even though he can’t see. “I’ll send a list,” I tell him. “And I’ll call Abuela. Love you.”

“To the moon,” he says before hanging up.

Bryce clears his throat. “What was your dad saying about me? I think that guy hates me.” It’s a fleeting moment of weakness from Bryce, who is very used to receiving male approval.

“He doesn’t hate you,” I say. “He just doesn’t know you.”

“You’re right. Everybody loves The Bryce.” He laughs to himself. “By the way, did you say the dance team is broke?”

“Well, yeah. We’re kind of screwed.” I crawl onto the floor next to him, and he practically pulls me into his lap. I tell him all about my shitty day and how unhelpful Vice Principal Benavidez was and how Down for the Count just pulled the rug right out from underneath us. I find myself tearing up a little, which only makes me angrier. “I really hate to ask this, but do you think your dad’s dealership would think about sponsoring us?”

Bryce’s brow furrows. “My dad’s old-school, ya know? He still thinks cheerleaders and dance teams only exist for the sake of halftime shows. He doesn’t really get the purpose of a competition that doesn’t involve one team scoring points against the other. He’s pretty set on his football sponsorship.”

My shoulders slump as I nod. I hate being compared to the cheerleading team. Our cheerleading team is noncompetitive, which means they live for football and basketball games. I don’t mind doing halftime shows, but when it comes down to it, those things are just extended practice times for us. While some cheerleading teams kick serious ass, ours seems to exist for the sole sake of giggling and chanting for boys fumbling around with balls. The Shamrocks exist to win.

“But I guess I could ask if he wants to sponsor another team,” says Bryce. He doesn’t sound confident, but I appreciate the effort.

“Really?” I ask. “You would do that?” If anyone can afford it, it’s Mr. Dooley. Despite the handful of cars in his garage, he has a chauffeur drive him around from morning until night. When we were in elementary school, before his driver upgraded to a huge luxury SUV, Bryce’s dad would come through the pick-up/drop-off line in a limo.

He shrugs. “I’ll just have to catch him at the right time. He’s been weird lately. Wants me to start spending more time at the dealerships, figuring out how things work. Hey,” says Bryce, cradling my chin in his hand. “I know what’ll make you feel better. Or at least distract you for a little while.”

“Yeah?” The pit of my stomach hiccups as he spreads kisses along my jaw, both of us leaning back onto the floor. Instead of returning to my research, Bryce and I take advantage of my seldom-quiet house.

After Bryce leaves, I fall asleep on the end of my bed with my American Lit reading assignment clutched to my chest. When I finally wake, I feel groggy and heavy. The sound of my sister shouting at Shipley, our pit mix, and the smell of my mother cooking dinner flood my senses.

“Callie!” calls Kyla from the other side of the door. “Mama said you would help me with my reading homework!”

“After dinner!” My door begins to inch open, and I throw a pillow at it. “After dinner!” I shout again.

Kyla pushes the door open anyway and sticks her head in. Her long blond hair is split into two French braids. Over Christmas, she had a growth spurt, and even though she’s only eleven, she’s nearly taller than me. “Is that a hickey on your neck?”

I throw my second and last pillow, but this time I hit her right in the face. “I’m telling Mama!” she growls before slamming my door shut.

I groan and plop back down on my bed, letting my brain slowly come back to life as the sleepy fog evaporates. I reach for my phone and find an alert telling me I have eighty-seven missed text messages.

HO-LY SHIT.

I open my messages and find one long thread with at least half the dance team on it. As I skim through, I find that news of the sponsorship fiasco has spread to the rest of the team. Melissa. She probably spilled the beans.

HAYLEY: We worked so hard for this. I haven’t eaten bread in three months.

ADDISON: Why should we even bother practicing anymore?

JILL: And what’s the point of even trying to compete at State if we can’t go to Nationals? GREG BROKE UP WITH ME BECAUSE HE FELT LIKE I WAS TOO BUSY WITH THE SHAMROCKS.

GRETCHEN: Greg was a punk anyway, BUT THIS IS STILL BULLSHIT.

WHITNEY: I missed my grammy’s funeral for Regionals!

BETHANY: The football team gets a new training facility and we can’t even afford to compete?! 🔥

ZARA: Does this mean I can eat carbs again? 🥐

SAM: Zara, no one said you couldn’t eat carbs.

Reading these messages is like watching the five stages of grief play out, and by the time I get to the end it’s obvious that the team has hit the anger stage and they’re out for blood.

Sorry, I type, just got caught up on all these messages. Maybe we should all take a breather and reconvene in the morning.

JILL: We don’t need a breather. We need revenge.

My phone buzzes over and over again as my text is lost in a sea of new messages.

ADDISON: We can’t let that trashy gym do this to us!

BETHANY: We’ve worked our asses off. This is bullshit.

LARA: I say we let them know exactly how we feel.

MELISSA: Y’all, we gotta be strategic right now. Revenge isn’t getting us anywhere.

I almost jump in to try to defuse the situation with her, but to be honest: I’m pissed as hell, too. And I can’t believe this grody-ass gym is the thing standing in the way between us and a shot at Nationals.

I click the cursor in the message box.

Y’all are right. This is bullshit.

SAM: We’re trying to work on solutions. But this might be the end of the road this season, y’all.

JILL: Tonight. Midnight. Wear all black. Meet in the alleyway behind the gym. Bring toilet paper and eggs. They don’t even have to be fresh.

I start a new thread, and this one is just me, Sam, and Melissa.

ME: Did y’all see Jill’s plan?

MELISSA: This could end badly.

SAM: Everyone’s pissed. I think a harmless prank will get it out of their system.

ME: Should we go? Like, is it better or worse for the team leadership to be there?

MELISSA: I think we should let them act on their own.

ME: I don’t know. Will they feel like we’re abandoning them?

SAM: Listen, y’all, it’s my senior year and this season is already going down in flames. I feel like we might as well make it memorable. But either all three of us go or none of us go. Y’all know where I stand.

ME: I’m in.

MELISSA: Guess I am, too. I don’t like this.

 


We’re so excited to be back in Clover City—but we want to know what you thought of this sneak peek! Let us know in the comments below! And while you’re here…

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