Read an Excerpt
"If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up or Fight Like Hell."
You know how you always think there’s something . . . more?
Like there’s something else you can be doing? A way you can put yourself out there more. An effort that will plant you in the spotlight and make people finally recognize that, "Hey, you’re special."
Sure, your parents tell you that all the time. They’re supposed to. It’s, like, in the parents’ handbook they get when they take you home from the hospital. Still, it’s not the same as acceptance from the general public, and more specifically, your peers. Not that I’m narcissistic and need to be told this every hour of the day like Chloe Bradenton in my class does. But right there, who or what decided that Chloe Bradenton and others like her get to be special while people like me . . . just exist?
Chloe’s a cheerleader; she dated the quarterback off and on; she’s been on the homecoming court all three years of high school and will probably be voted queen our senior year. Total cliché; then again clichés are clichés for a reason. She thinks everyone’s pea-green with envy of her and her lot in life. I’m not jealous of her—seriously, I’m not. I just want the same opportunities, you know? Is that too much to ask?
For my three years in high school, I’ve semi-anonymously played my trumpet in the Polk High School marching band. Not even my own trumpet, but one handed down from my big sister, Gretchen, who’s ten years older than me. She gave it up way back when she was in tenth grade and lost interest and started hanging with kids Mom called "the rogue element." I wanted to play something delicate and beautiful like the flute. However, my parents said I should take a shot at the trumpet since we already owned one. I made the best of it, took lessons, and excelled with my lipping and fingering. I’m pretty damn good, if I must say so myself. Got the "Best Brass" trophy two years in a row. (Please . . . no comments.) And band’s been fun. What can I say? I’ve got an itch, though. I want to expand my horizons and get the full high school experience however I can. Where’s the rule that says I can’t take my own stab at something . . . more?
Okay, I want to be popular. I’ll admit it. What teenager doesn’t?
I’m not a social leper at all . . . but again, I just feel like there’s something else I can be doing.
I want to be seen and not just blend into the other hundred who are dressed in red and blue polyester uniforms. I don’t want to be part of one cohesive, marching unit.
I want to march to my own drum.
So, one Saturday afternoon while watching Bring It On on DVD for like the kajillionth time, I thought of the craziest thing I could do, the one thing that no one in his or her right mind would expect out of me.
I tried out for varsity cheerleader.
And I made it.
Me. Hayley Matthews. A virtual no one to a well-known.
I got my wish.
I got popularity.
And that . . . desired more.
In fact, I got a hell of a lot more than I ever bargained for—something that stopped me in my tracks.
A diagnosis that would change my present and bring into question my future.
A challenge of epic proportions to overcome.
The need to find hope when everything seemed hopeless.
This is a story of how cheerleading saved my life.
"Everyone has inside him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!"
I nailed it!
That was the best damn round-off back handspring I’ve ever done!
Beads of sweat roll down my back as I pump my fists in the air in time with the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. Nothing can stop me. Across the gym, at the long table ahead of me, I can see that the judges are impressed with my efforts, as well. Pencils move furiously over score sheets, and I beam from ear to ear as I quickly move into a perfectly executed herkie. It should be perfect . . . I’ve been practicing for weeks on end. I stretch my fingers out to meet up with my pointed right toe before landing back on the gym’s shiny parquet. My Nikes hit the floor with a firm thwack, and I move into my next jump.
With the agility of a jaguar leaping through the jungle, I wind up and hurdle myself into the air, elongating my legs in front of me in the pike position. My arms parallel in the air with my legs until the tips of my fingers again touch my outstretched sneakered toes.
My tryout partner, Shelly Kingsford, slips behind me and plants her Reebok in the middle of my back as she climbs up onto my shoulders. I grip her calves and adjust into a tall, straight position, balancing her hundred and eighteen pounds just so. Looking up, I watch as she pulls her left foot to her right knee to strike the star pose. I don’t swerve or teeter as all of her weight goes to my right side. I just smile that eye-squinting grin of mine and yell out along with Shelly, "Go, Polk, Go!"
She jumps forward to dismount and lands flawlessly with me catching her around the waist for stability. Again, the judges nod their approval and continue to make notes on the score sheets.
I stand at attention with my hands fisted on my hips while Shelly does her tumbling run. Cartwheel. Cartwheel. Cartwheel. Ugh . . . what is she doing? She was supposed to do a cartwheel into two back handsprings. We’d practiced it for weeks. What is she thinking? You totally have to show the judges more agility than just a cartwheel, which you learn, like, in kindergarten.
Poor Shelly. I hope they won’t deduct points because of her lackluster tumbling. She didn’t even do them that well, hesitating between each one. Can’t think about it, though. I have to finish our routine. I have to make sure I do everything right.
The music begins and blares out a Techno beat. We snap into performing the dance we’ve both spent hours rehearsing. I pop. I snap. I crunk. Moves I’ve honed in front of my bedroom mirror in the late-evening hours, much to Mom’s chagrin—especially when the chandelier in the dining room started shaking. I laugh. I smile. I wink. But most of all, I have fun. The groove of the music pumps through my veins, fueling me on.
After our dance routine, we barely have time to catch our breath before Shelly and I line up together to execute a formal school cheer. This part is about the precision of our moves, our silent clapping with cupped hands, and the ability to project our voices throughout the gym.
I have no problem with the latter. My dad has always called me "the Mouth of the South." He took me to an Alabama vs. Auburn game once (Roll Tide!), and he said I was the loudest out of more than a hundred thousand people. Today, it’s going to play to my favor.
I clap my hands together. "Our team. Ready?"
"Okay," Shelly says with me.
Pop. "Our team . . . is great"—arms tight; fingers straight—"and, we just can’t wait"—legs locked—"to show"—left hand fisted on hip; right arm forward, pointing—you . . . just how"—spin; slap arms to side—"we rate." Knee to chest; arms pumped out front. "We’re"—step forward—"Number"— index finger pointed to the sky—"One!"
Another herkie into a spread eagle. And more cheering as I advance on the judges, urging them to root, root, root for the Patriots with me, my voice carrying much farther and louder than Shelly’s meeker one. Two of the three judges clap along while the third nods his head and smiles. All three of them are from the squad across town at Maxwell State University. They totally know their stuff. They’ve finaled in the college nationals the last three years in a row.
Perspiration moistens my skin in an exhilarating sheen of accomplishment. Shelly and I embrace, stoked that we got through the tryout and relieved that it’s over. We grab hands and run back to the locker room where the other girls are waiting—those who’ve gone before us and the two teams still left to go.
Ashlee Grimes hands me an iced bottle of Aquafina from the cooler at the end of the bench. "How’d it go?" she asks.
Gulping the delicious water, I wipe my mouth and say, "That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life."
Ashlee giggles. We’ve been good friends since fifth grade. And, even though she was a cheerleader last year and I was in the band, we’ve managed to stay tight. She’s been so helpful since I shocked her with my idea to quit band and do something . . . more. She’s even been mentoring me through the whole practice sessions leading up to tryouts. "If you make the squad, tryouts will look like a piece of piss compared to actually being a varsity cheerleader," she says with a nod. "How did you like it?"
"I loved it!" I say without hesitation.
It’s no lie. It’s a high like nothing I’ve ever felt. Belting out the school fight song on my horn never gave me this feeling. This is so much better than cheering up in the stands in my band uniform while the short-skirted girls on the field perform gymnastic stunts, pyramids, and dances that get the whole crowd into the game.
The next team of Melanie Otto and Lora Russell gather their things and head out to face the judges. It seems like a year and a half before they return, exhausted and sweaty. When they collapse on the bench, the last pair to try out vanishes out the door.
A quiet Shelly fingers the label on her water bottle. "I don’t think I’m going to make it."
My head snaps. "Why do you say that?"
Her orangy curls are starting to escape her high ponytail. "I think the band is more my speed. I don’t know why I let you talk me into this. Marching and formations aren’t nearly this exhausting. You know, I quit gymnastics freshman year because of the bruises and muscle ache. I swear, Hayley, I’ve never been so tired . . . ever. My heart is still racing from all that exertion."
I didn’t exactly talk her into this. When I told her I was going to try out, she thought it would be "fun." Now I frown at her. "You know cheerleading’s hard work. It’s one of the toughest sports out there," I say passionately. "It’s gymnastics, dance, cheers, pyramids—you have to be in top shape."
"I know," she says with a nod. "I don’t think I’m up to spending my entire summer working out and practicing all the time instead of hanging by the pool. Band camp lasts only two weeks. Besides"—she pauses dramatically and drains her water bottle—"I totally botched my tumbling run."
"You did not," I lie.
Her blue eyes lack confidence. "We’ll see."
The adrenaline rush from my routine still surges through me, and I can’t sit still. I tap my left foot up and down impatiently, waiting for the last team to return to the locker room. The tension is so thick in here, you could butcher it into a dozen prime steaks and serve it at the football banquet. Everyone is a nervous wreck.
Everyone except Chloe Bradenton.
She’s sitting on the bench by the back wall with her legs stretched out in front of her. She’s got her iPhone and is busy texting as if she hasn’t a care in the world. Then again, she probably doesn’t. Her dad is the president of the bank, and her house on Parrot Peak is the most expensive one in Maxwell, Alabama. I don’t hate her or anything—I barely speak to her—but everything just seems to come easily to her. She didn’t even break a sweat in her tryouts. Her makeup wouldn’t dare run, and her thick black hair wouldn’t think of coming out of that slicked-back ponytail.
Suddenly, she lifts her ice green eyes and steadies them on me. For a second, it’s as if I’m going to burst into flames from the hatred she’s throwing at Shelly and me. I know perfectly well how she thinks us "band types" should "stay in our place." She made that perfectly clear during tryout practice when she was teaching the cheers to everyone. The odds are totally against us in this day and age when newbies rarely make a cheerleading squad. But thanks to graduating seniors, there are spots available. I believe in beating the odds.
Being a good Christian girl, and hearing my mother in my head saying to "love thy enemies," I smile back at Chloe. Not that I’m any threat to her or consider her an enemy. Funny thing is, we used to be friends back in elementary school when we were both in Brownies. And in seventh grade, we spent our spring break together at Dauphin Island at her parents’ place, cooking barbecued shrimp and floating in the Gulf of Mexico on noodles. Our grandmothers were best friends growing up—and still are—but Chloe and I just slid into different cliques when we reached high school.
The closest we’ve been to interacting with each other was last year when I got the chickenpox from her. Her little brother had the chickenpox and then gave them to her. While she was out, I dropped off some homework from our computer class at her house. That had to have been how I got the nasty skin rash. I’d never contracted the childhood disease in, well, childhood, so, at sixteen, I was sick as a dog. The pox were everywhere—in my eyelids, in my nose, in my mouth, in my stomach—everywhere. I couldn’t eat or even keep liquids down. It was nasty as all get-out. I missed two weeks of school because of it.
The door opens and Janine Ingram, one of the school’s librarians and the cheerleader sponsor, pokes her head in. "They’re ready for y’all."
My heart skips like five beats at her announcement. This is it. No matter what, I tried, right? I worked hard and put my best foot forward. But I want this soooo badly. I want to spend my summer practicing cheers and building pyramids and learning how to split to the left (’cause I can only split to the right). I want to wake up early and go for a jog to stay in shape. I want to work out on the school’s weight equipment to bulk up my strength. That way, I can lift my partner, whoever she may turn out to be, like she weighs nothing at all.
I don’t want to report to band camp and march in the three-thousand-degree heat, getting a farmer’s tan, marking time, and standing at attention while the gnats land on my face. I don’t want to memorize formations, commands, and music. I don’t want to be hidden under a band hat—not in my senior year.
I want everyone to know who Hayley Matthews is—and that I’m here to make my mark!
Okay, in my head, I talk a good game, but on the outside, my palms are sweating, my hands are shaking, and I feel like I could totally throw up the half a grilled cheese and six Cheetos I managed to nibble down at lunchtime.
My heart is slamming inside my chest, and nausea bubbles in my tummy and up into my throat.
Mrs. Ingram claps her hands. "Come, come, girls! The judges are waiting!"
We all scurry out into the gym and stand in two lines, no order to the mayhem. I wonder if the girls who were cheerleaders last year are as nervous as I am. Does confidence zip through their system or is there worry? If Chloe Bradenton is any indication, they all know it’s in the bag. It’s very unlikely that a former squad member won’t repeat in making the team. That makes the chances of me snagging a spot even smaller.
I stand next to Shelly, taking the end spot of the first row. The three cheerleaders from Maxwell State University hand over a sheet of paper to Mrs. Ingram. It’s done. The decision is final. These judges have tallied their scores and made their choices.
Mrs. Ingram steps to the microphone, and I tense up to wait and hear how I’ll be spending my senior year.
Will it be back in the marching band?
Or will there be something more for me . . . ?