The Queen of Kentucky

( 31 )

Overview

Fourteen-year-old Kentucky girl Ricki Jo Winstead, who would preferred to be called Ericka, thank you very much, is eager to shed her farmer's daughter roots and become part of the popular crowd at her small town high school. She trades her Bible for Seventeen magazine, buys new "sophisticated" clothes and somehow manages to secure a tenuous spot at the cool kids table. She's on top of the world, even though her best friend and the boy next door Luke says he misses "plain old ...

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The Queen of Kentucky

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Overview

Fourteen-year-old Kentucky girl Ricki Jo Winstead, who would preferred to be called Ericka, thank you very much, is eager to shed her farmer's daughter roots and become part of the popular crowd at her small town high school. She trades her Bible for Seventeen magazine, buys new "sophisticated" clothes and somehow manages to secure a tenuous spot at the cool kids table. She's on top of the world, even though her best friend and the boy next door Luke says he misses "plain old Ricki Jo."

Caught between being a country girl and wannabe country club girl, Ricki Jo begins to forget who she truly is: someone who doesn't care what people think and who wouldn't let a good-looking guy walk all over her. It takes a serious incident out on Luke's farm for Ricki Jo to realize that being a true friend is more important than being popular.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fourteen-year-old Ricky Jo has lived in the same Kentucky farming town her whole life, right next door to her best friend Luke. But she’s still the new girl, of sorts, on the first day of high school, having previously attended a small Catholic school. Renaming herself Ericka and hoping to become popular, she tries to fit in with a group of cool girls from homeroom and develops a crush on cocky fellow freshman Wolf. Ericka’s honest and insecure voice, her penchant for mishaps, and her frustration with her boyish physique will easily resonate with similarly conflicted readers. Debut novelist Whitaker paints a rich picture of life in rural Kentucky, as Ericka struggles to maintain tenuous friendships as well as her moral center. The subplot of Luke’s alcoholic and abusive father rings painfully true, as does Ericka’s ongoing crush on Wolf, who is alternately cruel and flirtatious with her, putting her self-worth through the wringer again and again. This coming-of-age romance holds few surprises, but will capture readers with its honesty and heart. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)
author of Where I Belong Gwendolyn Heasley

"Whitaker's debut sparkles as she takes the reader on a tour of two unforgettable places: small town Kentucky and the heart of our charming and hilarious narrator, Ricki
Jo. Whitaker is a Queen of depicting the smallest moments of adolescence and showing how it's often those moments that define us. If you like a book that can make you both laugh and cry (sometimes even on the same page), make sure you read this one!"

From the Publisher
"Whitaker's debut sparkles as she takes the reader on a tour of two unforgettable places: small town Kentucky and the heart of our charming and hilarious narrator, Ricki
Jo. Whitaker is a Queen of depicting the smallest moments of adolescence and showing how it's often those moments that define us. If you like a book that can make you both laugh and cry (sometimes even on the same page), make sure you read this one!"

Gwendolyn Heasley, author of Where I Belong

"Whitaker paints a vivid, finely detailed picture of life in the sometime-hardscrabble heartland. But what draws the reader in is the chaotic precision of her characters, youngsters who are conflicted and frequently inconsistent, yet feel rounded and real... Solid, just like its setting."—Kirkus

Kirkus Reviews
Set in small-town Kentucky, this coming-of-age story depicts the ups and downs of 14-year-old Ricki Jo Winstead as she tries on a new identity. High school is about to start, and Ricki Jo seizes the opportunity to reinvent herself. The first thing she does is ditch her "plain ol' " name, taking on the new, more sophisticated (to her ears) moniker of Ericka. Swiftly getting the lay of the high-school land, Ricki Jo decides that she wants to move with the popular girls. She tries out for cheerleading rather than band, buys hipper clothing and jettisons the real Bible for that subversive gospel according to Seventeen. Her new friends are a little faster than she's used to, and she begins a rather daring (for her) flirtation with the handsome-and-he-knows-it David Wolfenbaker. All these changes displease her neighbor and best friend, Luke Foster, a grounded guy who is struggling with the more serious issue of his father's alcoholism and abuse. In her debut, Whitaker paints a vivid, finely detailed picture of life in the sometime-hardscrabble heartland. But what draws the reader in is the chaotic precision of her characters, youngsters who are conflicted and frequently inconsistent, yet feel rounded and real. Solid, just like its setting. (Fiction. 12 & up)
Joanna Philbin
"Reading Alecia Whitaker's funny and sweet debut was like spending time with my best friend. Ricki Jo Winstead totally won me over, and she'll win you over, too."
Gwendolyn Heasley
"Whitaker's debut sparkles as she takes the reader on a tour of two unforgettable places: small town Kentucky and the heart of our charming and hilarious narrator, Ricki Jo."
Booklist

"Whitaker's setting is fresh, and readers from rural areas will recognize the class differences, especially between new money and farming families. Along with teen concerns like dating, drinking, and cheating,
other serious issues are raised... Ericka's first-person voice is sassy and quite believable."

SLJ
"Credible teen characters, realistic dialogue, and enough drama to engage reluctant readers."
BCCB
"Ericka is forthright and down-to-earth...young readers looking to break out of an old persona into a new one will find both her complaints and her moments of triumph all too familiar. They'll just wish for their own Luke, who clearly wins all awards for best best-friend-turned-boyfriend in a tween novel."
PW
"This coming of age romance... will capture readers with its honesty and heart."
School Library Journal
Gr 8–10—Starting public high school after years of Catholic schooling, Ricki Jo Winstead, 14, is a tobacco farmer's daughter focused on reinventing her image. She tells her best friend, Luke Foster, that she now wants to be called Ericka. She longs to be popular and find a boyfriend, and in no time she meets four beautiful classmates, the Fabulous Four, and a boy, aptly nicknamed Wolf, who becomes her instant heartthrob. Trying to act cool puts distance between herself and Luke, whose quiet steadiness and loyalty pale in comparison to Wolf's playful teasing and manly cologne. Conflict surfaces when Luke's alcoholic father gets violent toward his family, and Ericka's beloved dog, Bandit, is severely injured by a pack of roving dogs. Still unsure of her status with the Fab Four, Ericka is cheered when they give her a surprise slumber party to celebrate Bandit's homecoming. Soon one of the girls suggests that they streak through the Winsteads' house, and then they sneak out to party in the barn with boys and alcohol. Ericka is thrilled to be Wolf's date for the homecoming dance, which involves more drinking, but he disappoints her by behaving in a typically fickle manner. Only after Luke lands in the hospital for protecting his mother against his father's fists does Ericka finally recognize what he means to her, something readers will have predicted. This first novel combines credible teen characters, realistic dialogue, and enough drama to engage reluctant readers.—Susan W. Hunter, Riverside Middle School, Springfield, VT
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316125062
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 1/2/2012
  • Pages: 375
  • Sales rank: 263,140
  • Age range: 12 - 15 Years
  • Lexile: 860L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Alecia Whitaker grew up on a small farm in Cynthiana, Kentucky. She is an actress and writer and currently lives in Manhattan with her husband. Alecia has performed in the New York City Fringe Festival and is a visiting creative writing teacher and ambassador for The Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts.

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Read an Excerpt

The Queen of Kentucky


By Alecia Whitaker

Poppy

Copyright © 2012 Alecia Whitaker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316125062

CHAPTER ONE

“When we get to high school, I want you to call me Ericka,” I say, taking off my tan leather work glove to wipe the sweat from my brow. I’ve been blabbing to my best friend, Luke, all day because A) talking makes the time go by faster, and B) I’m a jabber-jaw; but I might as well be talking to one of our cows. Luke just sort of moseys along down the row of tobacco next to me, nodding every now and then and chomping on his bubble gum. He has been totally unsympathetic to almost every gripe I’ve had today, from the sad state of my grubby fingernails to how humiliating it is to have to pop a squat in the weeds every time I have to pee. But this is serious. “Did you hear me, Luke? I’m for real. It’s Ericka.”

He nods and swings his tobacco knife at the base of the huge stalk in front of him. I hate talking to his back, his white T-shirt soaked through so that I can actually see the freckles spotting his shoulder blades, but unlike the rest of the day’s conversations, this is one thing I really need him to hear me on.

“Luke Foster!” I shout, stamping my boot in the dirt.

“What, Ricki Jo?” he says, exasperated. When he jerks up to look at me, sweat drips down around his clear blue eyes and his sandy blond hair falls across his forehead and sticks there. I fight the urge to step into his row and push it back, mostly because I’m in making-my-point mode, but also because once he stretches up to his full height of six foot two, there’s no reaching it while maintaining my dignity.

So, calmer, I repeat myself: “When we get to high school, I want you to call me Ericka.”

“Yeah, great, whatever, Ricki Jo,” he says, pulling a bottle of water out from the back pocket of his jeans.

“E-rick-a,” I correct, pointing my dirty tobacco knife at him and arching the prissier of my two eyebrows.

He smirks in response and swallows. “We aren’t in high school yet.”

“It’s to-morrow!” I say.

“Then to-mor-row,” he mocks, “I’ll call you Princess E-rick-a. ’Til then, it’s plain ol’ Ricki Jo.”

I roll my eyes and grab my own water bottle, totally not expecting a guy with a simple name like Luke to understand where I’m coming from. I’m starting HIGH SCHOOL. First impressions are important and double names are, I don’t know, babyish. It’s not that I hate my name, but Ricki Jo doesn’t have that… swagger. It doesn’t have the sophistication that Ericka does.

I pull my glove back on and stretch, pushing my arms up and my chest out, willing my tiny frame closer to the blue sky. Squinting against the sun, I can’t help but feel defeated. So. Much. Tobacco.

Cutting is the pits. I mean, nobody likes spending her free time working with her dad, her little brother, and dirt-covered men of varying ages. But cutting tobacco? A nightmare. First of all, Kentucky in late August boasts temps in the mid-nineties with a hundred percent humidity, so, yeah, it’s hot. Second, the tobacco is at full size, meaning each stalk is weighed down with sticky green leaves every bit as long as my arm and as wide as my hips. Bent over just about the entire day, a girl like me can expect sore shoulders from swiping at the thick base of the tobacco with a short knife, a sore back from hefting the chopped-off seven-pound plant upside down, and entire-body aches from then heaving said plant onto an inch-square splintery stick… a stick she is squeezing between her legs the entire time in some sort of sick balancing act.

“You gotta be kidding me,” I grumble, noticing a splinter in the meaty part of my palm. I wipe my knife on my T-shirt and dig into the flesh with the tip, the splinter both a major annoyance and a welcome distraction. “I hate—hate—cutting tobacco,” I gripe to no one in particular. (If I’ve said it once today, I’ve said it a million times, so I’ve kind of lost my audience.)

“Me, too,” I hear from behind me. Surprised, I turn around to see my little brother, Ben, struggling, his brow knit in a combination of fury and despair as he teeters down my row, dropping sticks for me to eventually load up with tobacco. “I wish I were playing video games.”

I can’t help but smile. Misery truly does love company, even if it comes in the form of elementary-school-aged monsters. Most summers, I’m the one dropping sticks (a way easier job), but this morning my dad decided that Ben is “of age,” so he’s been dragged to the fields for tobacco initiation and I got lumped in with the guys to cut.

“Back to work, kids,” my dad says sternly, appearing out of nowhere. Ben’s shoulders droop as he wobbles away like a miniature tightrope walker, the long gray sticks bouncing over his little eight-year-old forearms. Before bending down to start my next stick, I give my dad my most exaggerated eye-roll/heavy-sigh combination, to which he responds with his age-old don’t-push-it expression before stepping over to his own row.

Fuming, I reach for the stick at my feet; however, this is the precise moment that a small black garter snake slithers out in front of me. I do what any normal fourteen-year-old girl would do: scream my head off, dance in spastic horror, and throw my tobacco knife into the dirt—completely missing the snake. I look to Luke for help, but he’s laughing hysterically, which really gets my already hot blood boiling. Wrists on sweaty forehead, breathing totally out of control, I walk around in a circle until the disgusting little reptile slithers away.

I am—officially—over it.

“Ugh! I hate this job! I hate this job!” I shout.

“Then go drop sticks with your lil’ brother,” Luke calls over from his row, a not-so-cute smirk playing all over his lips. “Cuttin’ is man’s work, anyway.”

I glower at him, pick up my knife, and carry on.

At Luke’s farm I’m the lone female, since his older sister, Claire, got pregnant last fall. She and I used to gossip nonstop to pass the time, but her brothers aren’t so chatty. I really could’ve used her this summer, too. If she were here, she’d tell me which teachers are cool and which are jerks, she’d give me advice about how high school is different, and she’d totally get why I’m basically freaking out. I swipe at the stalks in front of me and try to put myself in her shoes. Would I rather be changing a diaper right now or cutting tobacco? Hmmm

At the moment it’s a tough choice, but in reality, the tobacco eventually all gets cut, and quitting time always comes. But not for Claire. She’s 24/7 now—all baby, all the time. She was actually pretty popular in high school, but most of her friends jumped ship when she started showing. A couple of jocks started mock-interviewing her for Teen Mom, this MTV show about underage girls getting knocked up. Luke says she took it all really well, that she was strong and just laughed ’em off, but if it taught me anything, it’s that high school is scary and that I should get in good from the beginning.

Which is why I’m so nervous. Which is why I want to make new friends, and be popular… or at least not unpopular. Which is why I need to make a really strong first impression tomorrow. And why I’m totally beyond ticked off about this god-awful farmer’s tan!

As I bend, cut, lift, and spear, I’m fit to be tied. It’s five o’clock in the afternoon and the sun has not quit. I’m red from its rays, I’m red from slapping at bugs all over me, and I’m red from my temper. As I lift yet another huge stalk of tobacco up and spear it onto the stick between my legs, I can’t help but be mad. Even this doggone tobacco is taller than me! Even tobacco has hit puberty!

“I don’t see why we’re helping y’all out, anyway!” I holler to Luke while rolling my white T-shirt sleeves up onto my shoulders for the millionth time today. “We don’t farm anymore. My dad took a factory job. This sucks!”

A low voice growls too near. “We didn’t ask for your charity.”

I turn and see Luke’s dad standing over me, a mean scowl on his face. I can smell the alcohol on his breath and see Luke in my peripheral vision, stepping quickly into my row, alert. The father and son couldn’t be more different. Although they’re both tall, Mr. Foster has that man weight on him that, at fourteen, Luke hasn’t grown into yet. Luke is dirty, wearing muddy boots and jeans and a once white T-shirt—I probably look exactly the same—but his dad wears coveralls stained from chew and dip, no shirt underneath, an old flask sticking out of one pocket and a faded handkerchief out of the other. Basically, Luke’s clothes were clean when we met at the barn this morning, and his dad’s weren’t.

“We’re happy to help,” my dad says, coming to the rescue, my row suddenly the life of the party. Mr. Foster grunts, spits, and ambles off. Luke cuts a couple of stalks near me, all former teasing and eye sparkle gone. He mumbles an embarrassed “Sorry” and finishes off my stick. I roll my eyes and shake my head, totally annoyed.

“Yeah, real happy,” I mumble.

My dad’s hand lands firmly on my shoulder and I look up. “Watch that smart mouth, young lady. I can always lower it to five dollars an hour instead of six,” he threatens, staring me down until I finally break eye contact.

I march over to grab my next stick with all the silent rebellion I can muster, my dark blond ponytail sweat-soaked and smacking me on the shoulders.

Why are we even out here?

My dad farmed his whole life, but this winter he got a job at the new Toyota plant in Georgetown, about a half hour away. With the government buyout and outrageous lawsuits against Big Tobacco, farming isn’t a stable way to make a living in Kentucky anymore. My dad’s always talking about all the vacant land around our county nowadays that used to thrive, but “a man’s gotta provide for his family,” so he gave it up. A lot of guys think he sold out, but when he first told us, I was happy as a lark! We’d still have cattle, a garden, and a small orchard, but no more tobacco. It meant he’d have to work nights, but he’d get a steady paycheck, no matter what the market did with the price of our state’s cash crop… and, more important, it meant that I was permanently off the hook from planting, pulling, setting, suckering, topping, cutting, housing, and stripping tobacco. Deliverance!

Or so I was led to believe.

Yet here it is, August, and although I’m getting paid now I’ve been a little tobacco fairy all summer long, flitting around the county on grudging wings. We’ve helped the Taylors, the Fischers, the Motts, and the O’Caseys. My dad is “too old to start sleeping during the day,” so he catnaps here and there and zombies himself from farm to farm, dragging Ben and me along in his shadow. I don’t know if he misses the farming itself or the idea of being a farmer, but I really wish he’d get over his identity crisis. Get a Porsche! A toupee! A tattoo! If you’re gonna do a midlife crisis, do it right!

I swing at the base of stalk after stalk, pushing each of them over like Godzilla storming through Tokyo.

I hate

Swipe!

hate

Hack!

hate

Cut!

hate my life!

CHAPTER TWO

“You have the most adorable freckles,” my momma tells me that night as I sit on the floor between her legs and she rolls my hair. With a day out in the Kentucky sunshine comes a splatter of freckles all over my nose and cheeks. Not something I love, but not something I hate, either. My big ears, I hate. Freckles, I can live with.

“Yeah, too bad they came from a day of work instead of a day at the swimming pool,” I complain.

“You don’t even like swimming! You can’t jump in without holding your nose,” she points out.

True. But if I were at the country club with the other kids my age, I would glide in from the shallow end or just plain jump in and drown. At least I’d die cool. But the country club is only for the “well-off,” and besides, our farm is way out in the boondocks, out by the county line, so it takes about twenty minutes just to get to town. And with gas prices killing my dad’s bank account (and therefore my social life), there has to be a pretty good reason to go—church, school, birthday party, etc.

“Can you still smell the lemon juice?” I ask Momma as she combs my wet hair over my face. It’s naturally wavy, but I want true curls for the first day.

“Uh-uh,” she murmurs, sectioning off another piece. “You excited for school tomorrow, baby?”

Humph. Talk about your understatements. I’ve been counting down the days ’til high school all summer long. I try to nod, but she’s holding strong to the next strand of hair to be wrapped and snapped in pink sponge.

I guess I’ll be a new kid, but I’ve actually lived in this town all my life. And it’s a small town. We’ve got one movie theater that plays one movie all week long; a Fashion Bug and a Walmart (though not Super); and McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, and KFC. Yeah, we’ve got a few stoplights, but I personally think they’re just for show. Stop signs usually do the trick. Breckinridge, Kentucky. The epicenter of Nowheresville, USA.

The reason I’m “new” is because I’ve gone to private Catholic school since first grade. Our town is a big Southern Baptist kind of place to grow up, but there is our one little cathedral and our one little K–8 school. There are a few other kids from my school who’ll be going to the high school, too, but other than that, everybody will already know one another. When you’ve got just one public school for the whole county, most of the student body has been acquainted since finger painting in elementary school and staring at one another at junior high dances. Everybody knows everybody. And starting tomorrow, I’ll be an everybody.

“Your hair used to be straw yellow.” Momma sighs.

I pass her another roller and think about what I’ll wear tomorrow and who I might already know. There are a few kids from 4-H, one of the few social clubs I’m allowed to participate in as a non–public schooler. Over the years, I’ve tried basket weaving and shown cows, but mainly I crochet and sew; and although I’m not talented, I love modeling my scarf/sweater/oven mitt creations at the county fair every July. I’ve also signed up every year for rec-league softball and basketball, since our little school didn’t have much in the way of extracurriculars (or school spirit in general), so a few of those kids know me okay. I’ll probably recognize a lot of faces, just from growing up here my whole life, but I’m still nervous about hardly knowing anybody.

“Now it’s just that dishwater blond,” my mom continues as she snaps the last roller into place.

I get up and kiss her on the cheek. “Thanks, Momma,” I say, looking in the mirror over the mantel to check my pink plastic Afro head. Dishwater? Seriously? Way to build the self-esteem before the most important day of my life, I think; but what I say is, “I’m gonna go get ready for bed.”

“Okay, sweetie,” she says, gathering up her comb and spray water bottle. “And don’t forget to read your Bible!” she calls as I head down the hall to my room.

Right.

It feels like I just went to sleep. The sun is up and the air is electric. It’s the first day of school. I feel like I’m going to throw up.

Having strewn my entire wardrobe all over my room last night, I now wade through the mess and stand in front of my full-length mirror. My skin looks quite tan against the modest white summer dress I chose, my toenails are a pretty pink in simple brown sandals, and, best of all, my face is zit free. I lean in close to the mirror and check my eyes (big and hazel), my nose (long and freckled), and my teeth (straight, finally!) to make sure they are clean and clear. I dip one skinny finger into a jar of Vaseline and smooth it over my full, chapped lips—gloss for the creative girl. I shake my head and then grin as my dark blond curls bounce from side to side, although I’m worried it may look like I’m trying too hard. Hmmm… I cross my arms over my shoulders, then pose like I’m telling Luke a dramatic story, then put my backpack on and take it off again, all while keeping my eyes on myself in the mirror. Lots of bounce. Yep, looks like I’m trying too hard. I quickly snatch a flimsy headband from around the doorknob and slide it on. Better. I take a step back and give myself one last up and down before deciding that I am as close to perfect-first-impression as I’m going to get. The dress isn’t new, but the training bra is. I smile every time I think about it.

Preston County High School, here I come. I’m in high school. Agh!

My younger brother and I stand on the front porch for our obligatory first-day-of-school pictures. Momma makes us do this every year, but whereas Ben is going to our old school, I am starting fresh. She arranges us like always: on the swing, in front of our flagpole, and at the bottom of our driveway where we wait for the bus. I oblige her scrapbook-in-the-making enthusiasm, but we made a deal that once the bus rounds the bend, the camera disappears.

“Ricki Jo!” my dad yells from his four-by-four Dodge. Ben and I scoot back into the grass as he pulls into the gravel driveway, making it home from third shift at the factory just before the bus comes. He parks but leaves the truck idling, diesel engine gurgling, and I know he must be in a hurry because that’s such an out-of-character wasteful gesture (the gas money, not the fumes). With a huge smile on his face and a gleam in his eye, he heads over to where I stand, navy blue denim jacket in hand. “Look what I found.”

I look.

“It’s my old FFA jacket! Look at the embroidery. Clark Winstead—FFA President, 1986.”

I stare.

His face goes from excited to expectant to confused. “I thought you might wanna wear it today. Talk to Mr. Holland about joining FFA. You’ll fit right in.”

I gape.

FFA—Future Farmers of America. I’m fourteen, I’m four eleven, I weigh eighty-nine pounds, I have no boobs and no period, my ears don’t fit my face, and, to tell the truth, I’ve got a plantar wart on the bottom of my left foot. This is the first day of HIGH SCHOOL. And my father thinks I might want to wear his FFA jacket.

“It’s awful hot out, Clark,” Momma says, fanning herself like she’s suddenly stepped into a sauna.

My mother and I fight—a lot—but at this very moment I love her more than chocolate, new shoes, and MTV (which I have only seen twice).

“There’s the bus!” my little brother squeals.

“Oh my god,” I whisper. I get butterflies in my stomach and I feel the throw-up sensation again.

My dad tosses his old jacket back in his truck and shrugs his shoulders, his pride stung. “Same bus you’ve taken since first grade, Ricki Jo. Exact same bus,” he says.

I climb on the first step and wave at my folks. Then, up two more steps and to a seat in the back. “Different destination, Daddy,” I say to myself, looking at him through the window. “Different destination.”

CHAPTER THREE

“Meet you after school,” Luke says as we split at the front door. We’ve ridden the bus together our whole lives, but I always got dropped off before they made the high school rounds. I wonder if I’ll have classes with any of the other kids on our bus, and I really wish I had homeroom with Luke. At least then he could introduce me to some people; but it’s all divided alphabetically, so I’ll be with the W–Z’s and he’ll be with the E–G’s.

The hallways are a jumble of high fives and how was your summers and giggles and hugs and community. I weave in and out of the throng, offering up weak smiles and weaker excuse mes. In Mrs. Wilkes’s room, however, there is quiet. I take a seat at a table for six and wait for the bell.

Hi! I’m Ericka, I practice. Ericka Winstead, yeah, hi! Nice to meet you.

The bell rings and the doorjamb seems to stretch wide as bodies squeeze through and my classmates take seats all around me. Two girls sit at my table and continue a conversation about somebody’s possible hickey from somebody else’s possible boyfriend. They don’t speak to me, but I listen, looking for a space to introduce myself.

One of the girls, Kimi, is grown-up. Seriously. She has an enormous chest and broad hips, yet her waist pinches in just right, so that she’s not exactly pinup material but doesn’t look heavy, either. In contrast to her body, her facial features are sharp. She has a tall forehead and a straight nose and high cheekbones that perch beneath almost black eyes. Her jet-black hair is cut in a short bob, the kind that’s longer in the front by her chin and angles up in the back. She is the most interesting person I have ever seen, not drop-dead gorgeous but intriguing, like you don’t want to look away.

She’s talking to Sarah, who actually lives way down the road from me. I really only know of her. Her folks have a horse farm and go to Keeneland meets every fall and spring and are fixtures at the annual Kentucky Derby. If I had to be a farmer’s daughter, that’s the way I’d rather go. Their Thoroughbreds are gorgeous and they live in a mansion down a long, gated blacktop driveway. She’s not necessarily prettier than I am, but she’s tall and toned, and… well… rich. She’s obviously a gymnast; her build is almost masculine. Her brown hair hangs limp to her shoulders, but she keeps blowing her thin straight bangs out of her eyes and then straightening them across her forehead again, which would drive my momma crazy. I think that as far as friend material goes, she’s in my league… except for the whole millionaire thing.

“Hi. My name is Mackenzie. I’m new.”

I jump. I’ve been staring at Kimi and Sarah so fiercely that I didn’t notice the girl with movie-star looks who sat down next to me.

“Oh! Hi! I’m Ericka,” I say. “I’m new, too… sorta.”

Mackenzie looks exactly the way I want to when I grow up… which I’m hoping will be any day now. She is the perfect all-American girl. Her eyes sparkle blue and her smile is perfectly symmetrical, spread across straight white teeth. Her hair is not too thick or thin, but kind of looks like she may have come straight from a salon. I don’t know if the blond is real, but it’s definitely not dishwater.

“What do you mean, ‘sorta’?” she asks.

“You’re Ricki Jo Winstead, right?” a girl asks on my other side. It’s Laura Wagner, another face I recognize and someone I’ve actually hung out with a few times before, though not since she started wearing so much makeup. She has long auburn hair and a friendly round face; she’s the kind of person who nods her head a lot when you talk. We both have chipmunk cheeks and she’s considered short, too, although she still has a few inches on me. Our parents play Rook together every now and then, but she obviously didn’t get the memo that I’m trying to reinvent my image here.

“Um, yeah. Ericka, actually,” I reply. Laura smiles and makes what I thought would be an awkward moment really easy.

“That’s cool. I’m glad y’all are finally integrating. Your class size just went from—what?—five to two hundred?” We both laugh, although Mackenzie seems confused, and I’m feeling good about my first day. Laura may be popular and a master at smoky eyes, but she also seems really down-to-earth.

“This is Mackenzie,” I say.

“Yeah, her folks are members of the country club. Wasn’t that end-of-season pool party last night totally lame?” Laura asks.

Mackenzie nods and giggles. “ ‘Pool Olympics.’ Ha! Your dad was great in water aerobics, though.”

Laura fake gags and puts her head down. I feel like genuinely gagging and crawling under the table. I’m second string to a true, actual, just-moved-here new girl. Mackenzie’s from Minnesota, says her O’s in a really weird way, and already has more friends than I do.

“So you’re new but you already live here?” she asks.

I tell her about our little Catholic school and how the rest of the kids have kind of been together their whole lives. Laura tells her that even the four boys from my school joining PCHS is a mega way to enlarge their dating pool. We laugh and Mackenzie tells us a little about her old school. She cheered, and so does Laura, and of course this bit of information is enough to pull Kimi and Sarah from their intense who-gave-whom-which-hickey conversation. They all babble on about “state” and “formations” and “tumbling” while I smile and nod. When in doubt, smile and nod.

“Good morning, lovely ladies.”

I turn my head and feel my smile falter, my heart skip a beat, and my breath catch in the back of my throat. I have never seen him before, but I am convinced that the boy grinning at us from an arm’s length away must have materialized directly from my head as the ultimate man of my dreams.

“Girls’ table only, Wolf,” Kimi says, flirting; she clearly wants him to stay.

“That’s why I’m taking the last seat. I am your sheik and you all are my harem.” The other girls giggle and roll their eyes, but I focus on bringing my lower jaw up so that my mouth can actually close.

This guy, “Wolf,” is already my boyfriend… in my head. He’s about a foot taller than I am and moves like liquid, smooth and sure. He’s lean, too—probably has a six-pack. His skin is like that of a bronzed god, and you can tell it’s that way all year long. His short dark hair spikes up here and there as if he doesn’t style it at all, but he probably worked on it for at least fifteen minutes. He makes lookin’ good seem effortless. Like, he lives in that lookin’-good zone. I think I’ll wear a long white gown and a short veil, and he and his groomsmen will wear sharp charcoal tuxedos. We’ll get married on my farm and—

“No, it’s Ericka. She doesn’t want to be called Ricki Jo anymore,” I hear Mackenzie remind Laura.

Oh, god. Wolf is looking right at me, wearing a lopsided, perfect, melt-me-into-a-pool-on-my-seat grin.

“Hello? Erick-y Jo?” he teases, waving a hand in front of my face, breaking me from my trance. The girls laugh and I flush a deep red, feeling it all the way to the tips of my massive ears. I giggle a little and open my notebook absentmindedly.

Then I take a deep breath, will my head up, force my eyes in his direction, and choke out, “Hi. Sorry, my name’s Ericka Winstead. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m David Wolfenbaker. And it’s really my pleasure,” he says—and he winks. He winks at me!

I somehow control the impulse to squeal in delight. Instead, I look at Kimi and Sarah and introduce myself the same way. It’s so weird because we recognize one another, but we don’t know one another.

“So, girls,” Wolf says, leaning back in his seat. “Which one of you will end up being my date to homecoming?” We all giggle, and as I look around, I realize that I’m not the only one under his spell… but I am surely the least likely to win him over.

As Kimi finds some excuse to show him her new belly-button ring, I doodle on my notebook and pray for the bell to sound. I want to die or be trapped on a deserted island with David Wolfenbaker. One or the other, but I’ve got to get out of homeroom.

“It was awful,” I tell Luke at his locker. It’s on the other side of the hall and I really feel like the air is cleaner over here or something. I almost suffocated trying to stuff my book bag into my own locker, squeezed right between Kimi and her voluptuousness and Wolf and his sexual-awakening-me-ness.

“Is everything at this school gonna be alphabetized?” I complain.

Luke smirks at me and shuts his locker. “What’s wrong with a little order?”

“The girls in my homeroom are gorgeous. Way outta my league. They’re all cheerleaders, and every one of them wears makeup and name brands. I gotta talk my mom into taking me to the mall in Lexington.”

“Why? You wanna be like those girls?” Luke asks, looking over to where Mackenzie, Laura, Kimi, and Sarah stand huddled around Wolf’s locker.

“Well, yeah! I mean, they’re popular, they’re beautiful—”

“They’re stuck-up,” Luke finishes.

“Not all of them,” I say defensively. “I mean, Mackenzie’s new—from Minnesota new—and she’s really nice. And that girl Laura is cool, too.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just saying that the Fabulous Four looks to be assembled already.”

“You don’t think there’s room for a fifth?” I ask.

We head down the hall toward first period and I suddenly feel all their eyes on us. Oh, god. Did they hear me? The four girls stare at us as we pass and then start to giggle. I feel my face flush, hoping they aren’t making fun of me.

“Hi, Luke!” Laura calls. The whole gaggle of girls cracks up and the blush Laura’s wearing seems to intensify. I slow down so Luke can talk to her, thinking he will, too.

“What’s up?” Luke asks, but he doesn’t stop. Instead, he continues down the hall. I sort of stand near the girls, watching them watch him as his lean frame ambles through the throng of students. Whereas everyone else is dressed up, wearing their best for the first day, Luke is totally comfortable in a pair of deeply worn-in dark jeans, a white V-neck, and cowboy boots. The only thing mildly fashionable on his whole body is the thin leather bracelet that he never takes off. He turns back, realizing I’m no longer at his side, and gives me a head jerk, a kind of let’s-go signal that makes his sandy blond hair flip over his forehead. I give the girls an awkward wave and hurry to catch up.

Once I’m at his side again, he drapes his long tanned arm on my shoulder, easy and comfortable. I start to feel better.

“Why do you care about girls like that, anyway?” he asks.

“They’re cool,” I say. “I dunno. I’m the new girl and I’m nervous and I wanna fit in.”

“You wanna fit in with some kids in our class or you wanna fit in with those specific girls?” he asks.

I think about it. What do I want?

I want a boyfriend. I want a date to the homecoming dance. I want a first kiss—one with tongue, one that is not decided by the spin of an old Coca-Cola bottle. I want to be cool.

“Those specific girls,” I say. I affirm. I make my goal. Ericka Jo Winstead is on a mission to become popular. So it is written.

“You’re on your own, then. See ya at lunch!” And just like that, Luke heads into a classroom and fist pounds a couple of guys. I watch him fold his tall body into a desk, see how his long face lights up around his old friends, and envy the sparkle in his blue eyes, how easy his first day of school is. Squaring my shoulders, I look for room 124 and hold tight to my smile-and-nod method.

“It’s so cool that you’re going to our school now, Ricki Jo!” My friend Candace, from the 4-H Club, is in my Spanish class, and I’m so happy to see a familiar face that I don’t even mention the Ericka thing. After a long day of standing up, period after period, stating my name per new-girl fashion, I’m just glad to be talking to someone I really know. Candace and I shared bunk beds at 4-H camp and bonded over that week of basket weaving, hiking, and campfires. She’s a little rough around the edges, lives in the trailer park over behind the nursing home, and has the thickest country accent I’ve ever heard, but she’s smart and has a really good heart.

“Yeah, my dating pool just went from four to four hundred!” I exclaim, stealing a bit of Laura’s humor. But it’s true. Today, I’ve gaped and gawked at every turn. From freshmen to seniors, my head has been on constant swivel mode, though no one has compared to Wolf.

“From the looks of your folder, I’d say you’ve got your eye on a particular freshman who just happens to be in this class,” Candace says, pulling her frizzy red hair into a giant puffy ponytail. I look up to see Wolf enter our classroom and strut toward the back, cocky and fascinating. “I’d rethink the heart-shaped D.W., Ricki Jo. Not a tough code to crack if he sees your notebook.”

I touch his initials and grin. “He’s pretty cute, right?”

“Cute.” She shrugs and leans back in her desk. “And knows it.”

“Confident,” I say.

“Arrogant,” she replies.

Señorita Jones brings our class to attention and goes over our syllabus. She tells us that we need to pick our Spanish names and turn them in by the end of class. I want my name to be something really exotic sounding. Candace and I flip through our Spanish books and look at English to Spanish translations. Henrietta—Enriqueta. Mary—María. Alice—Alícia. I see a picture of two gorgeous Argentine sisters, dressed in sexy black lace gowns, demonstrating a passionate tango. I can’t decide between the two and choose both names for myself: Rosa Juana.

“What’s up with you and double names?” Wolf asks from behind me. He turns in his name at the same time—Davíd, real original—and follows me as we head back to our seats. I am very self-conscious as I step over the backpacks strewn in the aisle. Do not fall. Do not fall.

“And from now on, class,” Señorita calls, “we’ll be sitting in alphabetical order by last names.”

I stop, stunned, and look back at her. Seriously?

Wolf smiles down at me. “Guess you’re stuck with me, Rosa Jo.” I barely feel him squeeze past me. David Wolfen-baker will be sitting directly behind me the rest of the school year. I struggle to understand the nausea in my gut, but find my wits quickly enough to sit down and scribble out his initials. We’ll probably talk every day now, maybe sneak notes during class. I look up to God and whisper a little gracías. I’m going to need perfume, lip gloss, and a new notebook ASAP.

CHAPTER FOUR

School is out! I survived the first day. I run from the bus and up my driveway, excited to drop my books and head over to Luke’s. We’re off the hook for the next few days as far as work is concerned, so I’m taking my bike over and drilling him about anything and everything he knows about David Wolfenbaker. I trade out my dress for shorts and a T-shirt, get my bike out of the garage, and take off.

Luke lives right over the hill, but it always feels like miles. Why? Because between my driveway and his driveway is the Gumbels’ driveway… which is often guarded by their pack of wild dogs. There are at least five of them, and the leader of the pack looks like a big black bear. My dad says to avoid eye contact and continue on in a steady manner, so as not to show fear. He says animals smell fear. I sniff and get a little whiff of sweat and deodorant, but no fear. Not yet.

Up, up, up the road, past the small creepy cemetery, and I hear them barking. Please be chained up today. Please be chained up today. At the crest of the hill, I see them running at me, full speed. No fear, Ricki Jo. No fear. I try to pedal steadily, but they circle around me and I’m afraid I’m going to run over one the way they keep darting everywhere. I wish a car would come. I glance down and see the leader, mouth foaming, teeth bared, and lose my balance, swerving my handlebars and crashing into the shoulder of the road.

As I lie there shielded underneath my bike, they circle around me, barking low and loud. I shout, “Get back! Get back!” but they only get more excited. Two of them dart toward me at the same time and then start to fight each other. I try to get up, but the leader jumps on my bike, effectively pinning me beneath him.

I scream. I cry and scream and scream. All I hear is barking and my own screaming, and I can taste my tears. I feel like I’m going to die.

Then I hear another voice, not screaming, but yelling. The voice is angry. The dogs forget me for a second and I hear yelps. I crane my head up and see Luke running down the road toward me, throwing rocks at the dogs and cussing them out. I know they can’t understand, but I appreciate his filthy admonitions. I release the huge breath I didn’t realize I was holding, let my head drop back into the ditch, and weep.

“I hate those dogs,” I mumble, wiping my nose with the sleeve of my shirt.

Luke nods, rolling my bicycle into his yard. “I hate their owners. No leash? Irresponsible morons.”

We go inside Luke’s house and his momma props me up on her kitchen counter with a wet rag for the back of my neck and a cold Coke for my nerves. I’ve been coming over here since I was a little girl, my momma and Luke’s being good friends from when they went to school together. She’s the nicest lady, always treating me like one of her own.

“Took a pretty hard spill,” she notes now, as she picks the gravel from my knees and hands and pours peroxide on my scrapes.

“I showed fear,” I say. “Ow!”

“Now you listen to me, Ricki Jo Winstead: It ain’t your fault. Those crazy beasts came running up on my Ava just the other day. My grandbaby! Not even old enough to run away! Playing in her pen in the front yard one minute, screaming from the middle of their pack the next. Scared the living daylights out of her and me both! In my own front yard!” She stops and looks out the kitchen window, her mouth set in a hard line. “There’s something mighty wrong when you don’t feel safe on your own property.”

“You gonna call the sheriff again, Momma?” Luke asks.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do, son.” She sighs, turning her attention back to me and unwrapping a huge Band-Aid.

“What about Animal Control? They gotta do something,” he insists.

Just then the screen door from the back porch slams shut and his mom tenses up. “Mattie!” we hear his dad growl.

“All done, sugar. Y’all hustle on outside and play. I’ll figure something out about those dogs later.”

“My supper ready, Mattie?” I look up to see Luke’s dad leaning unsteadily against the door frame. His eyes are bloodshot and angry.

“Dad, it’s only four o’clock,” Luke reasons.

“I told y’all to get outside. Shoo!” Mrs. Foster ushers us out in a hurry and gives us a don’t come back look that makes me really uneasy. Luke hesitates, unsure. “Get!”

And we go. We walk slowly; we can hear shouting, but we don’t look at each other and we don’t look back at the house. We hear glass break. We shudder. We walk through his backyard and climb the plank fence, headed for the pond behind his house. We walk on a grass trail, yellow and matted down from our long summer of traipsing this same route. We walk slowly, hear shouting, don’t look at each other and don’t look back at the house.

At the pond, we skip rocks. Watch them sail across the smooth glass top of the water. Long, quiet minutes stretch between us.

Finally the shouting stops and Luke speaks, bitter and angry: “There’s something mighty wrong when you don’t feel safe on your own property.”

I look over at him, but don’t see my friend at all.

CHAPTER FIVE

“So cheerleading tryouts are Monday after school in the gym,” Kimi tells us matter-of-factly. Mackenzie eagerly writes the time down in her notebook and the girls start talking about what to expect. I, of course, smile and nod, and then—

“Ow!” I cry.

It feels like someone just walked up behind me and flicked me on the side of my face. Looking down at the table in front of me, I see a thick triangular paper. I pick it up and look at Wolf, who is grinning devilishly, as usual.

“What was that for?” I demand, lightly touching my temple. Kimi and Sarah giggle.

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “These girls are boring me to death with all their pom-pom chitchat. Wanna play paper football?” Their giggling abruptly stops and I abruptly soften.

“Sure,” I say. He makes a goalpost by putting his thumbs together and lifting both forefingers in the air. I balance the paper triangle on one tip, then flick it hard.

“Ahh!” he yells out, clapping his hand over his right eye, obviously hurt.

“Oh my gosh!” I yell, my hand immediately flying to my mouth. It was a direct hit.

He tilts his head back and pushes off of Laura’s chair, leaning his own chair way back on two legs. Laura looks at me wide-eyed and I freeze, stone still, next to Mackenzie. Kimi leans toward him over the table, her cleavage coming out to save the day, and Sarah just blows air through her bangs, looking totally bored. When Wolf puts his front chair legs back on the floor and lowers his hand from his face, we are all shocked, and relieved, to see that he’s laughing. He’s laughing really hard.

“I am so sorry!” I exclaim. And so embarrassed.

He blinks a few times and rubs his eye, really amused. “That’s the nature of the game, babe.”

I sigh, feel the heat in my cheeks, and look at the clock. Wolf asks me to play a game with him—me! out of all the girls at our table!—and I injure him. Flick him right in the eye. I mean, he’s obviously not mad, but the football made its way to his front pocket pretty quickly, and then he put his head down on his books. I try to focus on the exhilarating fact that David Wolfenbaker just called me “babe” and not on the fact that he probably won’t talk to me ever again. The bell rings and he’s out the door before any of us. As I sling my backpack up over my shoulder, I watch him walk away. Game. Over.

“See you at lunch, Ericka?” Mackenzie asks.

“Yep,” I say, snapping back to attention. “I’m already hungry.” She laughs and bounds off toward first period with Laura.

I make my way through the masses to my locker, where Kimi is spritzing her bangs in her locker mirror and Sarah is flirting with an older-looking guy. I slide in and drop my book bag to the ground.

“Okay, thirty-four, twenty-five, thirty-six,” I mumble to myself, trying to work my new combination from memory. My locker pops open and then—WHAM!—slams shut.

“Whoops.” Wolf appears next to me, leaning against his own locker.

I give him a not funny look and try again, a little more nervous this time as I spin the dial. So he is still talking to me. Thirty-four, twenty-five, thirty-six. Pop and slam.

“Man! These new lockers are touchy, huh?” he says.

“Wolf! I’m gonna be late!” I protest, a little annoyed and a lot liking the attention.

I give it a twirl again, and just then I see a cloud of big red hair rushing toward me out of the corner of my eye. It’s Candace, and although she’s definitely wearing a fashion “don’t” (even I know not to wear pleated jean shorts), her big smile makes up for it. Lost in her own world, she hip checks Wolf out of the way and grabs my arm.

“Hey! Are you still taking piano lessons, Ricki Jo?” she says excitedly.

“Piano?” Wolf asks, eyebrows arched, clearly entertained.

“Um, yeah,” I falter. “I mean, like, every now and then.”

“Well,” she begins, as if she has the best idea of her life, “band tryouts for new kids are Monday after school and I totally think you should go! I mean, we get to go to all the home games, and we’ve won state the last five years in a row. And it won’t matter that you don’t know the marches, ’cause the keyboardists stay put up front. It’s really fun and I can introduce you to lots of people!”

I look from Wolf to Candace, thinking about how I like them both, and how they couldn’t be more different if they tried.

“Um, yeah, sounds like fun!” I say.

Behind her, Wolf’s eyes bug out and he shakes his head no.

“I mean, maybe,” I recover, my smile fading and my confusion growing. “I mean, yeah, I don’t know.” Candace looks stunned, but Wolf gives me a thumbs-up behind her. That makes me feel a little better, but then I wonder why Wolf’s opinion matters so much. Because it does.

Candace is hurt, I can tell, but she covers quickly. She takes a piece of gum out of her purse, unwraps it, and pops it in her mouth before looking back up at me with a blank expression. “Yeah, sure. I don’t care. It was just an idea.”

I nod. “Thanks. Really.”

“Whatever. See ya in Spanish,” she says and walks away, blowing a big defiant bubble even though the hallways are crowded with teachers. I watch her go, feeling helpless. Feeling awful. And I’m not even sure why. I shake my head and turn back to my locker. Fitting in—trying to fit in, I mean—is really hard.

I reach for my locker dial once again, but a tanned hand with thick veins and strong fingers covers my own. Wolf is directly behind me and begins to work my lock, his arm definitely touching my side as he twists. His chin is maybe one inch from the top of my head and I am keenly aware of his body heat. I want to run away. I want time to stand still.

“Thirty-four, twenty-five, thirty-six,” he mumbles, and my locker pops open. I don’t move, blink, or breathe. “Listen, Ericka, I know you’re new here and you seem nice, so I’m gonna give you some advice.” His breath is warm in my ear. “Cool girls aren’t in band, okay?” I look up and over my shoulder at him, my body frozen in place. “Cool girls cheer.”

I could kiss him. I’m that close. I could kiss David Wolfen-baker right now.

“See ya in Spanish!” he says, flicking that paper triangle into my face and strutting off to class.

I shake my head, awake from the trance, and realize—

“Hey! How’d you know my combination?”

He half turns, midstride, and grins. Ah, that grin. I feel red and hot and tingly and in love all over my body. I close my locker and hurry off in the other direction.

It’s not until the late bell rings that I realize I never got the book I need.

CHAPTER SIX

“Ricki Jo, get over here,” my dad shouts. I squint up at him through watery red eyes, cranky all over again. We’re helping Luke’s family house the tobacco we cut a few days ago and I am less than thrilled.

Housing is about as much fun as cutting. After the tobacco sits out in the field for “three dews,” we load it onto the trailer and haul it to the barn. The men shimmy up, climbing higher and higher into the old wooden rafters, and plant themselves for a long day’s work. At the bottom, the smallest of us grab sticks, laden with six heavy tobacco stalks each, and pass them up. Then the men above pass them up and up and up, dirt and small leaves falling with each pass. The guy at the top levels each stick horizontally so that it fits right across the rafters and the leaves hang down straight to cure.

I would like to hit puberty sometime this century, but right now I am thankful that I’m too small to be up high in the barn. The only problem with the bottom position is that it gets really dusty in here when we house and I end up sneezing my head off… which is why my dad brings along a white surgical mask for me to wear.

“Dad, no, I’m okay,” I protest… then sneeze.

“Wear it,” he demands, and then pulls himself up into the barn. I grudgingly pull the stretchy part over my head and pinch the small metal strip to fit over my nose, effectively trading my dignity for sinus relief.

I meet Luke’s gaze and can tell he’s trying not to laugh. “That mask drives me crazy, Ricki Jo,” he teases quietly. “Really sexy.”

I take a swing at him, but he’s up in the rafters in the blink of an eye, laughing down at me.

“What’re we waiting for?” Mr. Foster hollers down gruffly from above.

I grab a stick and pass it up, and even though it’s super heavy, I try my best to stab Luke, who reaches for it like a hot potato.

“No goofing around, kids,” my dad’s voice warns.

And we settle. Grab a stick and pass it up. And pass it up. And pass it up.

I miss the days when Luke’s older sister, Claire, worked with us—back when I wasn’t the only girl and had somebody to talk to, and to look up to. I miss the days before she was pregnant and stuck—stuck in this town, in this life. I grab a stick and pass it up. Pass. Pass the time in a steady rhythm.

When the trailer in the barn is half empty, my dad yells down to me, “Ricki Jo! You and a couple boys go get another load.”

Gladly. I’m out of the barn, mask off and hair down, before he changes his mind and sends someone else. I climb up into the seat of my dad’s John Deere tractor and wait ’til Luke and his older brother Paul hop onto the empty trailer hitched behind me.

I complain a lot about working, but I actually love driving the tractor. It’s a powerful feeling, and even though I have to completely stand, pulling up hard on the steering wheel while putting my entire body weight down on the brake to stop the dang thing, I feel in control. Nothing but waving bluegrass hayfields on one side and cattle-specked rolling green hills on the other. Put-put-putting over the fields, in absolutely no hurry, I soak up the sun and have a lot of quiet time to daydream while the boys lie stretched out on the empty trailer, exhausted.

I follow the gigantic wheel treads leading back to the front field, pull up to the row where we left off, kill the engine, and lock the brake.

“We’re already here?” Luke groans.

I turn around in my seat and look down at the two boys, covered in dirt, sweat, and pieces of tobacco. Luke has one arm behind his head and one thrown over his face, blocking out the sun. Paul hops off the trailer and heads for the tobacco, while I climb down from my perch and up onto the trailer next to Luke.

“Wake up,” I say, singsong.

“Just five more minutes,” he groans.

I touch his forehead and giggle when I pull it away to see a finger-shaped white spot fill in red again. “You got burnt.”

“Sunscreen’s for sissies,” he replies. Then he moves his arm a little and squints up at me, a mischievous look on his face. “You hungry?”

“Starved.”

“Let’s go,” he says and springs to life. I follow him in the dirt, his footprints nearly twice the size of mine. Luke tells his brother that we’ll be right back and I hear Paul mumble something about “kids.” Whatever. He can kill himself in the tobacco field if he wants, but I’m going with Luke.

Where the dirt ends and the grass begins, we head toward a small wooded area. I’m hesitant, worried it’s going to be some kind of gross boy-type surprise like a dead squirrel or something, but Luke motions me on. I step between a couple of walnut trees and see it in the shade—an orange cooler with a white top.

“You’ve got food in there?” I exclaim.

Luke nods smugly. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Mom made some for all the guys up at the barn, but I swiped a few just for us. And a couple of Cokes. We gotta hurry, though.”

Hurry we do. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’re sneaking around or that we’re truly famished, but I start laughing as I watch Luke inhale his PB&J.

“You look like some kind of monster!” I giggle.

He starts shoving the food into his mouth, getting jelly all over his face, and growls and claws the air like a wild animal. I can’t help myself; I fall down laughing, and Coke comes out my nose.

“It burns!” I cry. “Stop! It burns!”

I roll over on the ground, howling. I have a sharp pain in my side and my cheeks hurt. Luke plops down next to me and we sit back to back, propping each other up. As we catch our breath and finish our snacks, I figure this is as good a time as any to get the 411 on David Wolfenbaker, aka my future husband.

“How well do you know that guy Wolf?” I ask as nonchalantly as possible, taking another bite of my sandwich.

“Why do you wanna know?” he asks, suspicious.

I shrug my shoulders against his and swallow. “I don’t know. I mean, he’s kind of friendly.”

Luke spins around to face me and I fall back, the solid weight of him gone from behind.

“You like him,” he states.

I steady myself, take another bite, and nod, although I can’t really look at him. It feels weird talking about boys with Luke.

He looks away, too, and I flick my eyes over his face, trying to read his thoughts in the deep creases across his forehead. He takes a minute, then looks back at me. “Let’s just say I’d play ball with the guy any time, but I’d never let him date my sister.”

“Would you let him date your best friend?” I ask teasingly.

He looks down at his Coke, then drains it, stands, and crunches the can under his foot. When he looks down at me, it’s like he’s explaining why two plus two equals four. “They call him ‘the Wolf,’ Ricki Jo,” he says, “and it’s not just because of his last name.”

I pop the last bite of my sandwich into my mouth and drain my own Coke. He crunches my can for me, then tosses them both back into the cooler. The last thing I want to do is get back out in the field under the blazing sun, but things seem to be getting just as uncomfortable in our wooded hideaway. I follow him back to the field and jump up on the trailer as he joins Paul, throwing a full stick over his shoulder, the two of them looking like those old caricatures of hobos who carry everything they own tied to the end of a stick.

We work wordlessly for the next half hour, the guys passing the full sticks up to me, me arranging them against the back of the trailer, in an easy rhythm. I think a little bit about what Luke said… and a lot about Wolf’s heart-stopping grin.

Obsessing over a boy makes the time fly. I grab the last of the load and hop down, my head in the clouds and my smile unfamiliar out in the tobacco fields. I heave myself up onto the tractor and get her going again. As the tractor roars back to life, I still can’t wipe the grin from my face. Ricki Jo as she is now may not be able to snag a guy like Wolf, but the new and improved Ericka will be. I just need to upgrade: Me 2.0.

As the steering wheel slides back and forth through my fingers, loose like it’s got a mind of its own, I guide us through the fields and up toward the barn, giddy at the thought of no more tobacco ’til it gets colder. No more gum-stained fingernails or farmer’s tan. Not another whiff of this stuff ’til strippin’ season. That’s two full months to metamorphosize.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Okay, so if I make the squad, we’ll have practices after school, and maybe a couple of Saturdays,” I tell my folks.

The breakfast nook is my courtroom, and my parents are the judge and jury. I pace back and forth, having planned my case thoroughly during Mass this morning. Tryouts are tomorrow and the homily was on why God gave us free will, so I’m making my move while the iron is hot.

“As it gets cold, I won’t be able to run around outside or ride my bike, so it’s an excellent way to get exercise. You can’t be on the squad without good grades, so of course I’ll stay on top of that, too. I’ve saved enough money this summer that I won’t have to ask for spending money on away games. And apparently cheerleading is really important to the girls at school, meaning I’ll be making the kind of friends who value work ethic and doing their best.”

As my dad takes a bite of blackberry cobbler I think I see him trying to hide a grin under his mustache, and my heart skips. This is working! So I continue, really hamming it up.

“Now, you might be thinking, ‘Why the sudden interest in cheerleading, Ricki Jo?’ Well, we all know that what I lack in height and size, I make up for in spunk. I really want to fit in at my new school, and I figure that cheerleading is the best way to boldly display my intense school pride to my peers. Four-H just isn’t gonna cut it anymore.”

I pound my fist into my palm, furrowing my brow. My dad chokes on his dessert. I am emboldened.

“I want to wear the maroon and gold—the same maroon and gold you two wore when you fell in love all those years ago. Without that maroon and gold, you never would have fallen in love at prom, and I never would have been born. I am maroon and gold.”

The drama builds.

“I have spirit! Yes I do! I’ve got spirit, how ’bout you?” At this, I wildly wave fierce spirit fingers and heartily attempt the splits.

Key word: attempt.

“Ow!” I cry, my crotch a foot from the floor, pain burning my groin.

At this, neither of my parents can hold it in anymore and, along with their eye rolling and head shaking, there is gut-wrenching laughter. I fall over to one side—sweet relief.

My dad pushes his cap back and wheezes, “What are we gonna do with this girl, Toots?”

My momma wipes at the tears in her eyes. “Don’t ask me. She’s your daughter.”

My dad slaps at his knees and my momma starts snorting. Snorting! I’ve got ’em. I’ve so got ’em. I get up off the floor, sit down at the table, and cut myself a piece of cobbler. My work here is done.

Trying out is one thing; making the squad is another thing altogether. I walk into the gymnasium and freeze. All around me, ponytails and gym shoes are back-flipping, round-off-back-handspringing, and toe-touch jumping. I don’t see a whole lot of “cheering,” per se, but I’m seriously rethinking the marching band idea.

“Ericka! Over here!” Mackenzie waves me over to where she and Laura are stretching. I force one tennis shoe in front of the other and walk toward them, terrified.

“Are you okay?” Laura asks, wrangling her long auburn hair into a tighter ponytail. “Your face is white as a ghost!”

Mackenzie offers me her water bottle, but I shake my head. “I’m just a little nervous,” I croak.

I sit down beside Laura and begin to stretch out, mimicking her every move. Mackenzie is going on about how worried she is as a new girl, whether or not she’ll fit in with the Kentucky style of cheering, but all I hear is blah, blah, blah and the strange buzzing sound in my ears that I usually get right before I vomit. A whistle blows from somewhere in the atmosphere, bringing me back to my senses.

“Ladies!” Coach Thomas yells, her voice authoritative. She reminds me of a beauty pageant queen past her prime. “We’ll see one tumbling pass, a short group number to the fight song, and then your individual chants. Let’s go!”

As Coach passes out sheets of paper printed with our chants, I grab Mackenzie’s elbow and pull her aside. “I think I’m gonna get out of here.”

“What? Why?” she asks, her hands suddenly tight on my biceps.

“I just think maybe it was a bad idea. I can’t do all those crazy flips, and I’ve never learned a dance routine. I don’t even know the fight song!” I assert.

“Neither do I,” she reminds me. Hmmm… I should’ve pulled Laura aside.

“Listen, can you do a cartwheel?” Mackenzie continues. I nod. She perks up. “Awesome! So for your tumbling pass, you’ll do as many cartwheels in a row as you can. And if you want, end it with a round-off—it’s basically just a cartwheel where you bring both feet down at the same time. Okay?” Her vigorous head bobbing is intoxicating.

I nod along, involuntarily.

“Then, for the group routine, stick by me and Laura. When we go through the practice with the senior girls, just keep the count in your head. Count out loud if you need to; just keep the count. One through eight, over and over again. It won’t be super dance-y; it’ll probably be more like motions and angles.” She demonstrates a few arm movements that look pretty easy. I’m feeling… less nauseous.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Queen of Kentucky by Alecia Whitaker Copyright © 2012 by Alecia Whitaker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 31 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2012

    :DDDDDD

    This was THE best book I have EVER READ! I feel like I know Ricki Jo sooo well. She sounded just like me. This is also now my fav book. I reccomend this book to teenagers from the ages 13 - 15.... but let me tell you....you will love this book and not want to put it down.....and you just might be sad when you finish.....

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 23, 2012

    Highly Recommend

    I purchased this book for my 12 year old daughter, but ended up reading it myself after she did...truely a great book

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 13, 2012

    Great book :)

    This book was a good story of the different moods in high school. Cruelty, jelousy, happiness, anger, and sadness. Alecia Whitake used great detail to describe tough moments, or happy and exciting moments in Ericka's world. By the end of this book, or even in the middle of it I felt like I knew Ericka and Luke extremely well, like I had known them my entire life. I felt like when Luke and Ericka felt strong feelings, I could feel it for them! This book is also very funny. If you are looking for a realistic and funny book for teens, this might be the one for you.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2012

    ????

    I have meverheard of this book before and was just browsing. I read the reviews and the overview, is it worth the buy?
    -E

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2012

    Queen of kentucky

    Reall good

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 7, 2012

    I loved this book! Being from the South, I could definitely rela

    I loved this book! Being from the South, I could definitely relate to some of Ricki Jo's (a.k.a Ericka) experiences through high school. At some points I was laughing out loud and in others I felt the tears welling in my eyes. Overall, I loved the well-developed characters and the important messages that this novel portrayed. I highly recommend this book (:

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Loved it!!

    I thought this book was wonderful, and Ricki Jo is surprisingly real and by the end of the book, you feel as if she is one of your BFF's. Ricki Jo starts public high school and after being in a private Catholic school all her life, she feels as if she has to prove herself to just about everyone. So she wants to be called Ericka, she tries out and makes the cheerleading squad(even though she freaks on tumbling) and she starts turning her back on old friends and tries to be friends with the popular kids. While the story isn't groundbreaking, Alecia Whitaker really makes her characters come to life and I think makes this a wonderful coming of age novel. It is long, but I know I wasn't happy I had hit the end. Fitting though for me to read this right before going back to school, it makes you take a look at your own decisions and hopefully you make the right ones like Ricky Jo.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The Queen of Kentucky is a charming coming-of-age contemporary w

    The Queen of Kentucky is a charming coming-of-age contemporary with a spunky main character you'll love to root for.

    I really liked Ricki Jo, her voice is authentic for her age and funny. She's someone who wants to stay true to herself but also make new friends and fit in, which isn't the easiest combination for her. Even though she doesn't always make the right choices, she does tries to learn from them. She's very resilient, which is great for someone her age and means she's quick to bounce back when she's down. I also adore how much Ricki Jo's family means to her, even when she thinks they're uncool.

    The friendship between Ricki Jo and Luke was lovely. I mean what fourteen year old girl wouldn't love a friend like Luke? He's loyal, honest, hard working and always there when you need someone to listen. Plus his quiet demeanor and serious nature help bring out a more mature side to Ricki Jo.

    While none of the supporting characters were all that original in the personality department, they're well written and felt real. They're the kinds of characters you either love, or love to hate. I just wish we could've gotten more character development from Mackenzie (the other new girl) and Wolf (freshman bad boy) since its hinted that they're much deeper then the story allows.

    At 375 pages I felt the novel was a little on the long side, while the pacing isn't slow I felt that a few parts did drag. The small Kentucky town setting fits the story perfectly and adds lots of atmosphere to a storyline that could have felt cliche, but instead feels just right.

    While it doesn't break any new ground, The Queen of Kentucky is an absolute treat and a delightful debut. I look forward to reading more from author Alecia Whitaker and hope she continues to write about her deep southern roots because its a style and voice that suit her well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 4, 2014

    2.5/5 stars I don¿t usually read books about characters under t

    2.5/5 stars

    I don’t usually read books about characters under the age of 16 because they don’t tend to jive with me but I gave this book a shot for two reasons:

    1. I REALLY want to read Alecia Whitaker’s new novel, Wildflower, and I like to read an author’s work chronologically when I have the opportunity. I don’t know if anyone else does this but I enjoy seeing how authors change and stay the same from book to book.

    2. I recently read Jen Calonita’s Summer State of Mind (which is a sequel to Sleepaway Girls) and I LOVED it; I was super skeptical at first because it was about a fifteen year old girl but it ended up being my favorite Jen Calonita book (and I LOVE Jen Calonita).

    This book has been at the top of my TBR list for the past few months because of these two reasons but this book just didn’t work for it; I tried so hard to like it and forgive the problems I had a first but they just kept snowballing until I really just didn’t like the book. It bums me out and I really wish that I felt differently.

    Ricki Jo is convinced that she is a hick because she lives twenty minutes outside of town, while all of the “cool kids” live in town and hang out at the country club. She decides that she wants to make a name for herself at her new high school (she went to a catholic school for K-8) and be “cool”. Oh the elusive “cool” factor that is sought out in high school. This book had a way of connecting with people because whether you were cool, weren’t cool, desperately wanted to be cool, or didn’t care, we all understand the concept and appeal of being cool. 

    One the first day of cool, I mean school (hehe), Ricki Jo (who goes by Ericka in high school, I’ll still refer to her as Ricki Jo or RJ) meets the Fab Four, four beautiful and popular girls she strives to fit in with and Wolf, the stud of the town. RJ changes her clothes, her attitude, and even her interests in order to fit in with these “cool” kids. One thing that annoyed me was that she already had friends, it wasn’t like she was completely new, her best friend Luke attended that school and some other nice people she met previously went there but they apparently weren’t good enough; she viewed her changes as an upgrade and I guess it only made sense for her to upgrade her friends too, besides Luke.

    Luke. Let’s talk about that boy; Luke is the only redeeming part of this entire book. I love Luke; he’s just a good ol’ country boy with a huge heart. His story is actually what kept me reading the book; he has real struggles and real emotions which was so refreshing to the story. RJ spent the entire book freaking out about boys and clothes while her best friend was dealing with an abusive father and raw grief. His story was beautiful to see unfold, his emotions and thoughts were so uniquely complex and it broke my heart.

    Moving on to RJ: the main character who I couldn’t relate with, she is crazy selfish and she never puts anyone else before herself. I understand that being fourteen and starting high school is tough but she never saw past her own self. There were even times when she almost put herself above Luke but then she snapped out of it. I think that Luke was in the story to help RJ learn about others and not focus only on herself. 

    Other characters: Her supposed friends were terrible! I wanted to shake sense into the entire book because she didn’t seem to value herself enough to realize that she is awesome and needs to be appreciated. She kept letting these crappy people use her and it went on for the entire book, almost four hundred pages. I got incredibly frustrated with it. 

    Good things: It was fun to learn more about Kentucky and I genuinely felt connected to the country and the way of life out there. I went to school in the country and I enjoyed really understanding life in the country and how growing up there really is. 

    Alecia did capture the spirit of freshman year in high school, there’s an excitement and innocence to it which RJ really embraced it and I loved. I also somewhat enjoyed how overly dramatic RJ was because it’s true, high school is all about the hyperboles: best friends forever (whom you just met) and the love of your life.

    What I got from the book was the debate of whether it’s worth it or not to lose sight of who you are in order to fit in.

    I might have felt differently about this book if I read it as a freshman in high school but as a twenty-two year old, I just couldn’t get behind this book. I am still planning on reading Wildflower (which is about a seventeen year old) and I’m still excited about it. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2014

    good.

    I liked it a lot. I really Liked the characters, and how well the story flowed, but Wolf was so awful! Ughhh

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Best Book Ever

    This book is by far one of my favorites, I could not put it down. I connected with Ricki Jo so much, I felt like I really knew her & her situation. Of course, I loved the chemistry between Ricki Jo & Luke throughout the book. This book made me laugh & cry. I did not want it to end. I recommend this book to any teenage girl going into high school.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2013

    Fabulous!

    Really good story, and interesting characters! Perfect for teenage girls!!! Once you pick it up you cant put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2013

    <3<3

    They should write a book about Valley Station, Kentucky.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2013

    I was born and raised in a small town in ky

    If some one wants to wirte a book about a small town in ky the need to visit one and spend time there great book though

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 8, 2012

    The shipping is taking forever, I ordered this book on November

    The shipping is taking forever, I ordered this book on November 18, 2012 and its been three weeks, yet i still haven't received my order. Considering i paid for shipping, i would expect it to come faster. SOUTH FLORIDA GOODWILL SUCKS

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2013

    Amazinggg

    Ok iblove this book soooooooo much like it was amazing and probably my favorite book everr

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2012

    This book takes place in my hometown! She came back and visited

    This book takes place in my hometown! She came back and visited us last year :)

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2012

    I bought the sample but....??????

    Is the rest of the book as good as the sample? The sample is awsome.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A Classic Coming of Age Story

    The Queen of Kentucky is a light-hearted story about a 14 year-old farm girl who tries to be someone she's not. In this classic coming of age story Ricki Jo, a.k.a. Alecia, enters public school for the first time. Going from a class of under 20 to one of 200, Ricki Jo feels the need to create new friends, abandon the old, and create a superficial persona for herself. Her happy, quaint family supports her decisions as Ricki Jo lies to her friends and turns into one of the "it" girls. Ricki Jo demonstrates the importance of staying true to who you are and what will happen when you don't. Part of her drive to become a new person is to create a new appearance for herself, but is hindered due to a constant poor image of herself.
    As a Minnesotan, the lack of knowledge about Minnesota was quite infuriating. Mackenzie, one of the "it-girls," just moved from Minnesota. In the story, Mackenzie keeps referring to Minnesota as having no open spaces, fact check!!!! Minnesota has plenty of open spaces, and yes, there is a roller rink in Minneapolis.

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  • Posted January 28, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Best Book Ever

    This is now my new favorite book I highly recommend this book! What a great way to start writing books this is her first and I hope she keeps writing! So I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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