Read an Excerpt
On a warm Friday evening in early autumn, the sky-high lamps cast an eerie glow over the Parkside Middle School football field. The lights gave the hundreds of students, teachers, friends, and families on the bleachers a sickly yellow color. But even bad lighting couldn’t mask the excitement and anticipation on their faces.
On the sideline, cheerleaders were doing their warm-up exercises and the members of the band were tuning their instruments. Amy Candler tried to get into the spirit of the event. She wasn’t a big football fan. She liked soccer a lot, and she rarely missed a basketball game, but football was a mystery to her. She’d never been able to get a handle on a game or follow it closely. Her best friend, Tasha Morgan, had convinced her to come to this game.
“This is the best season the Rangers have ever had,” Tasha was saying as they edged along the fifth row of bleachers looking for seats. “We’ve won three consecutive games. We’re undefeated! If we can beat Pine Hill tonight, it’ll be one more victory toward the regional play-offs. The first time ever. We could even end up at the Southern California Middle School State Championships!”
“Since when did you become such a football fan?” Amy wanted to know.
“Since the football team became news,” Tasha replied, and Amy understood. Less than a month before, Tasha had been appointed editor of the school newspaper, The Parkside News. The Snooze was how most students referred to the dull weekly journal. Tasha was determined to liven it up and turn it into something that didn’t put people to sleep.
“Pine Hill has a good team,” Tasha was saying now. “But we’ve got Mike Daniels, the best quarterback in the county. What an arm! He can throw the ball more yards than most professional players can. On the other hand, Pine Hill’s got a stronger defense.”
Amy was impressed. “What did you do, read The Encyclopedia of Football? How did you learn so much?”
“I asked Eric.”
Tasha didn’t elaborate, and Amy didn’t ask any more questions. She didn’t particularly want to talk about Eric at the moment. Tasha’s brother—and Amy’s boyfriend—had been a sore subject ever since the new school year had started. Tasha and Amy were now in the eighth grade. And Eric was in the tenth—which meant he was no longer at Parkside.
West Central High School was less than three miles from Parkside Middle School, but it could have been at the ends of the earth. As a sophomore, Eric was a million miles away from Amy and Tasha, and he wasn’t planning to come any closer anytime soon. Middle school was way beneath him now.
Resolutely Amy shoved the image of Eric out of her head and pushed forward. She plowed right into a guy wearing a black leather jacket who was coming from the opposite direction.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The boy muttered something that might have been “Pardon” or “Excuse me,” but Amy thought she heard words that were a lot less polite. Ready to snap at him, she looked up from the black leather jacket—into the most amazing blue eyes. Even behind the jet-black hair that partly covered them, they were the clearest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Oh!” she blurted out.
He looked directly into her brown eyes. Then, just as quickly, he looked away. And moved on past her.
“Who was that?” Amy asked Tasha as they sat down.
Tasha craned her neck to get a glimpse of the boy, who was now climbing higher into the bleachers. “Oh yeah, he’s in my homeroom. Chris something. He’s new this year.”
Amy followed him with her eyes until he disappeared into the crowd on the highest tier. “He’s kind of cute,” she said.
Tasha wrinkled her nose. “He never takes that jacket off. And his hair’s too long. I think he looks like a juvenile delinquent.”
Amy looked at her reprovingly. “Tasha, that’s so superficial. For crying out loud, you just wrote a piece about how unfair it is to judge people on appearance.” To prove her point, she pulled a folded copy of the News out of her bag, opened it, and read aloud from Tasha’s editorial.
“ ‘For too long, Parkside Middle School has been divided into cliques. Look around. We’re putting each other in categories. There are the snobs, the fashion victims, jocks, brains, gangsters, pranksters, dopers, and who knows what else. This year, let’s lose those labels and get to know each other as people.’ ” Amy looked at Tasha pointedly. “People, Tasha. Not labels, like juvenile delinquent.”
Tasha gave her an abashed grin. “Yeah, you’re right. I need to take my own advice.”
“Absolutely,” Amy declared. “And you know what? I think we should make a vow. Let’s vow to get to know people we wouldn’t have bothered with in the seventh grade.”
“Okay,” Tasha agreed. “Who should we start with?”
Amy gazed at the masses of people who surrounded them, searching for someone who seemed needy. Looking down, she focused on the front row. “How about . . . Jerry Newman?”
Tasha’s mouth dropped open. She stared at Amy in undisguised horror. “You’re joking, right?”
Amy sighed. “Yeah, I guess he’s pretty hopeless.” Still, she couldn’t help looking with sympathy at the boy who had positioned himself at the far end of the front row, an area mainly occupied by the snobs. Amy knew she shouldn’t use labels, but she couldn’t think of any other word to describe that group. And even though Jerry was sitting next to them, anyone could see he wasn’t a part of that crowd. Jerry Newman was a wannabe, a hanger-on, someone who lurked on the fringes of cliques and let the other kids make fun of him.
Amy felt bad about thinking this, but he was easy to make fun of. Flabby and messy, he was the kind of boy who looked like he didn’t brush his teeth on a regular basis. Plus, all he ever talked about was his collection of comic books. He had a thing for action heroes with super-powers and lethal weapons. Amy couldn’t really imagine making friends with Jerry Newman.
“Okay, forget about Jerry,” she said. She tried to sound casual and offhand. “Let’s see, who else needs a friend? Hmmm . . . What about that guy we just saw? What’s his name, Chris? Where did he go?”
Tasha’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you so interested in him?”
“Just curious,” Amy said airily. She grinned. “Like I said, he’s cute.”
Tasha spoke sternly. “You already have a boyfriend, remember?”
“I’m not so sure about that anymore,” Amy said. “I’ve hardly seen Eric at all since school started. And when I do see him, he acts weird. Like . . . like he doesn’t care about me anymore.”
“He cares about you,” Tasha assured her. “He’s just full of himself because he’s in high school now. He’ll get over it.”
Amy was skeptical. She wasn’t even sure how she felt about Eric herself. Maybe they needed a break from each other.
“What about her?” Tasha whispered.
“That girl with the long braid. She looks lonely.”
Amy looked at the girl Tasha was indicating on the bleacher just below theirs. The girl did have a wistful look about her, and she was sitting alone. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know her name,” Tasha admitted. “But she was at the activities fair last week, and she kept hanging around the News booth. What do you think? Should we try to meet her?”
Amy considered the girl. Impulsively she leaned forward and tapped her on the shoulder. The girl whirled around with a frightened look on her face.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Amy apologized. “I just wanted to say hi. My name is Amy Candler.”
The girl looked a little nervous, but she smiled politely. “I’m Michelle Brooks.” Michelle’s eyes shifted to Tasha, and they widened. “I know who you are! You’re Tasha Morgan, the editor of The Parkside News!”
Tasha tried to act modest, but she couldn’t quite pull it off. She spoke like a movie star greeting a fan. “That’s right. I saw you at the activities fair. Did you sign up to work on the News?”
Michelle looked embarrassed. “No. I’m just in the seventh grade. I figured you wouldn’t want any seventh graders on the staff.”
“Oh, that’s not true,” Tasha assured her kindly. “We were all seventh graders once.”
“Like, just last year,” Amy added. “What elementary school did you go to?”
“I was homeschooled,” Michelle told her. “So I don’t know anyone here, not even the other seventh graders.”
“Then you should definitely get involved in school activities,” Tasha said. “It’s the best way to meet people.”
“And maybe you should try out for the talent show next month,” Amy added.
“I read about that in the News,” Michelle replied. “But that’s not for me. I don’t have any talents. Except for writing. But that’s not something you can enter in a talent show.”
“Yeah, I know,” Tasha said. “Same goes for me.”
“Me too,” Amy chimed in. “I don’t have any special talents.” This wasn’t exactly true, of course. If she wanted to, she could sing, she could dance, she could turn thirty cartwheels in a row. She could play any instrument. She could jump high, run fast—in fact, she could do just about anything, and she could do it better than anyone else. She was perfect. She’d been made that way.
“Amy, stand up!” Tasha hissed.
Well, even a perfect person could daydream. Amy rose to watch the Parkside Rangers run out onto the field while the band struck up the opening chords of the school song.
“ ‘Parkside, Parkside, hail to thee,’ ” Amy sang along with the others. When the song was finished, the crowd let out a roar and the game began.
Amy sat down and tried to follow the action, but after a few minutes she gave up. She knew that if she really wanted to understand football, she could. She had the intelligence to understand anything. It was an intelligence that had been designed, enhanced, and cultivated by scientists in a laboratory. Her mind was perfect, just like her body. But sometimes, like now, she just didn’t feel like using her extraordinary skills. Sometimes she wondered if her eleven “sisters,” the other clones who had been created with her, ever felt like being ordinary.
She realized that the crowd was on its feet again, screaming, and she jumped up. “What’s happening?” she yelled in Tasha’s ear.
“Mike Daniels,” Tasha yelled back. “He just threw the ball about a million yards!”
Despite the fact that she knew nothing about football, Amy doubted that there were a million yards on the football field. Still, this had to be a pretty big deal, the way everyone was carrying on. Clearly, it was an impressive act for someone who had normal genes.
But not everyone was cheering. There were groans from the other side of the bleachers, where the Pine Hill fans were sitting. And on Parkside Middle School’s own side, a small group of students were booing.
Michelle turned around with a puzzled expression. “Why are those guys doing that?”
“Because they’re a bunch of jerks,” Amy said promptly. “Billy Reese and his pals like to make trouble. We call them the pranksters.”
“Not that we’re into labels or anything like that,” Tasha added hastily.
Amy snorted. “Well, if any clique at Parkside deserves a bad name, they do. They hate everything about school and everyone, especially athletes.”
“Then why do they come to football games?” Michelle asked.
“They come to get attention and make trouble,” Amy said.
“And pull off a stupid prank or two,” Tasha added. “Once, before a baseball game last spring, they got into the equipment room and sprayed the balls with glue.” She looked around worriedly. “Just wait, I’ll bet they’ve got something planned for tonight.”
They didn’t have to wait very long. Just before halftime, Parkside scored its first touchdown. The crowd went nuts, yelling and cheering. As a shrill whistle marked the end of the quarter, the people in the front row of bleachers slapped hands with the players as they ran back toward the locker room. Then, suddenly, there was a loud bang, and the Parkside Rangers disappeared behind a cloud of white smoke.
Amy turned to Tasha. “Was that supposed to happen?”
“I don’t think so,” Tasha said. “Can you see what’s going on?”
Amy’s superior vision easily penetrated the thick smoke. She could see the anger on the face of the assistant principal as she confronted the laughing pranksters in the front row. As the smoke cleared, everyone could see Billy Reese and three other kids being escorted off the grounds.
Fortunately, except for creating some confusion, the smoke bomb didn’t appear to have done any real damage. The halftime show went on, with the band playing and the cheerleaders dancing. Twenty minutes later, the two teams returned to the field.
In the next quarter Pine Hill scored a touchdown. The game remained tied well into the fourth quarter. Amy could feel the mounting anxiety in the Parkside bleachers. “Why doesn’t Mike Daniels make one of his great throws and toss the ball over the goalposts?” she asked Tasha.
“Because that’s not how it works,” Tasha told her. “Only the kicker can score by getting the ball through the goalposts Mike Daniels has to get the ball into the hands of a receiver. Haven’t you been watching, Amy?”
Finally Mike Daniels was back on the field. The crowd leaped up, watching in anticipation as he cocked his arm and prepared to let the ball fly. Even Amy began to get into the excitement of the moment as Mike threw.
But the ball didn’t fly out of the quarterback’s hand. It sailed barely a foot in the air before dropping to the ground.
A murmur of disbelief went through the crowd. Everyone was stunned, including the players on the field. But what really struck Amy was the expression on Mike Daniels’s face. He didn’t just look upset or disappointed about his performance—he seemed totally bewildered.
Amy didn’t have to ask Tasha anything this time. She knew this wasn’t supposed to happen.