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About the Author
Darcy Vance's essays on family life have appeared in regional newspapers and her first novel was a finalist in the Get Your Stiletto in the Door Contest. She is the co-author, with Charity Tahmaseb, of The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading, and lives in Indiana. Visit her at thegeekgirlsguide.com/wordpress.
Read an Excerpt
Winter Varsity Cheerleading
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a high school boy in possession of great athletic ability must be in want of...
A bowl of oatmeal.
At least on a cold November morning in Minnesota. And maybe a carton of orange juice on the side, but definitely not a girlfriend. Jack Paulson, mega basketball star and crush extraordinaire, did not date. Just ask any girl in the Prairie Stone High School junior class. The cheerleaders, the preps, the drama queens, the band crew, the art nerds, the skater chicks, the stoners, the loners, the freaks, the cool and the not-so-cool, all of them had tried.
I was hoping to try again that day, if only my best friend, Moni, would show up already. Ever since her parents divorced and her dad moved to Minneapolis, it was like he took Moni's punctuality with him. She'd been totally unreliable. So I wondered, could I pull it off? Could a lone geek girl linger by the cafeteria door in a casual manner? Not likely. You see, every school has a danger zone. At Prairie Stone, ours occupied the space in the lobby that was an equal distance between the cafeteria, the gym, and the girls' bathroom. It was the spot where all the popular kids hung out. A place the rest of us tried to avoid. Moni and I called it the gauntlet.
We discovered that term last year, in word origins class. In case you're wondering, gauntlet (noun) = a form of punishment where the victim must endure suffering from many sources at the same time. It comes from the Swedish word gatlopp. In Sweden, apparently, they used to punish reprobates (n. those who are predestined to damnation) by making them strip to the waist and then run between rows of soldiers who were armed with sticks and knotted ropes.
That sounded about right.
And so I stood at the edge of Prairie Stone's gauntlet, close enough to the gym to sniff the delicate aroma of sweaty socks, near enough to the cafeteria to catch a whiff of oatmeal -- and the promise of Jack Paulson. One more step and I would officially enter gauntlet girl territory.
Chantal Simmons, the queen of cool and gatekeeper of popularity at PSHS, stood at the apex of it all. She turned her head in my direction, her blond hair flowing in a way rarely seen outside of shampoo commercials. Her glance made me consider climbing the stairs to the balcony and crossing over the top instead of pressing my way through -- but only a coward would do that.
Which is to say, I've done it plenty.
Chantal had a radar for weakness. One wrong move and she'd find yours and use it against you. Forget those sticks and knotted ropes. Chantal could annihilate the hopes and dreams of your average high school junior with just a whisper. And once upon a time, back in the dark ages of childhood and middle school, Chantal Simmons was someone I had told all my secrets to. In retrospect, that was kind of like arming a rogue nation with a nuclear bomb.
No risk, no reward, I told myself. If I wanted an early-morning glimpse of Jack Paulson (and I did, I really, really did), then I needed to cross into enemy territory. Alone. But before I could step over that invisible boundary, someone called my name. Someone short, with a mass of yellow corkscrew curls poking out beneath a QT cap.
"Bethany!" My best friend, Moni Fredrickson, bounded up to me, still in her winter jacket, her cheeks pink from cold and her glasses fogged. "Brian just called me on my cell," she said. "They're in the Little Theater. They have Krispy Kremes. Brian said he'd save us one each, but you know how that works."
Of course I did. It is another truth universally acknowledged, that high school nerds in possession of a great number of Krispy Kremes must be in want of...
At least not until they shook out the last bit of sugary glaze from the box. Then it was total Lord of the Flies time while they searched for more. We had to get there before they tore Brian limb from limb. Moni pulled me along toward the Little Theater and away from the gauntlet. I glanced over my shoulder, sure Chantal was still glaring at me.
But she wasn't. No one was. Not a single gauntlet girl or wannabe peered in my direction. Instead they'd all turned toward the cafeteria, eyes fixed on a tall, retreating figure -- one with dark spiky hair and a Prairie Stone High letter jacket. Jack Paulson. He didn't look back at me -- not that I expected him to. But then, he didn't acknowledge Chantal, either.
Jack Paulson = Totally Girlproof.
I stumbled along behind Moni and wondered, What would a girl have to do to get a boy like that to notice her?
If there was such a thing as gauntlet girl territory at Prairie Stone, then the Little Theater was dork domain. Chantal Simmons might rule the lobby, but a few steps down the hall Todd Emerson (president of the chess club, co-captain of the debate team, editor of the school paper, and all-around boy genius) maintained a benevolent dictatorship over the academic superstars and the techies.
In other words, a bossier boy never lived.
Todd was Harvard bound. Or Yale bound. Well, certainly somewhere bound. Somewhere that was far snootier than (what I was sure he already thought of as) his humble beginnings. He was one of those kids who wouldn't return for a school reunion until he managed to make a billion dollars or overthrow a minor country.
A bright purple and gold notice hung on the door to the theater, instructing all who entered to let your school spirit shine! and inviting us to attend a call-out meeting for the winter varsity cheerleading squad. As if. I passed through the doorway, gripped the handrail, and followed Moni down the small flight of steps, my eyes adjusting to the semidarkness.
The Little Theater had killer acoustics, something Todd took advantage of up on the stage.
"Can you believe they denied Carlson's request for new desktop publishing software?" he thundered. "You know what they -- " Todd broke off mid-rant. "Hey, Reynolds, how long does it take you to lay out the newspaper every month?"
I tried not to roll my eyes about the newspaper -- or about Todd calling me by my last name. It was this thing he did, like I was a rookie reporter to his big-city editor in chief.
How long did it take for me to lay out the newspaper? "A while," I said. Forever was a better answer, but Todd was wound up enough. The computers we used were ancient, the software even older. I sometimes thought that cutting and pasting -- with real scissors and glue -- might be faster. Mr. Carlson, the journalism teacher, had been lobbying for upgrades for years.
"Guess what they bought instead?" said Todd. He gestured wildly from the podium. "Come on. Just guess."
I heard the sound of someone's stomach rumbling and the barest click of a Nintendo DS. I looked around at the collection of smarty-pants misfits that made up our "clique." These were the kids who lived to raise their hands in class. That no one offered a guess was a testament to the power Todd wielded over the group.
He pounded the lectern. The crack of his fist against wood echoed through the theater.
"They bought new" -- Todd stepped out from behind the podium for effect -- "pom-poms." A look of disgust rolled across his face as he approached the front of the stage. "For the varsity cheerleading squad."
I glanced at Moni. She crossed her eyes at me and pointed toward the seat that held the Krispy Kreme box. Todd glared, daring someone, anyone, to speak.
A throat cleared behind us. "Well, I highly approved of the new outfits last year." This was Brian McIntyre, Todd's sidekick, mellow where Todd was high-strung, soft-spoken where Todd was loud. Brian was one of those boys whose looks froze in fourth grade. He had a roundish face and full cheeks, with sweet blue eyes and hair that flopped over his forehead. People constantly underestimated him, which was why he cleaned up in debate, at chess, and in the Math League.
"The cheerleaders had new outfits last year?" Todd asked.
"You didn't notice?" Brian sounded genuinely puzzled.
Moni paused before biting the doughnut she was holding and raised an eyebrow at me. I'd known her long enough to catch the meaning of that look: When did Brian start noticing cheerleaders? Not the best development, especially when you considered that somewhere around homecoming, Brian and Moni had gone from "just friends" to something a touch friendlier.
"I guess it doesn't matter how big a boy's brain is," I whispered, "it can still be derailed by an insanely short skirt." But Moni wasn't paying attention.
"Whatever," she said to the group. "There's nothing so special about cheerleading. I mean, even Bethany and I could do that."
"Do...what?" Todd and I said at the same time.
"You know. Ready...okay!" Moni bounced on the balls of her feet, like she might break into a display of spirit fingers at any moment.
"You mean," I said, going along with it (because annoying Todd was my favorite sport), "you and me trying out for the varsity cheerleading squad?"
"Who says we can't?"
Ummm, technically, no one.
Todd knelt at the edge of the stage and frowned down at us, his oversize dork glasses slipping down his nose. "You have got to be kidding."
Yeah. What he said.
But out loud, I agreed with Moni. "Think about it, Todd. We could petition to expand cheerleading to support the debate team. The chess club, even. You know, Gambit to the left, castle to the right, endgame, endgame, now in sight!"
Moni giggled. Brian, still lazing near the back of the room, snorted in appreciation. A few of the other guys took up the cheer.
You know how in Greek mythology, Medusa could turn anyone who looked at her into stone? At that moment she had nothing on Todd Emerson. Lucky for me, the bell rang. Or maybe not so lucky -- Todd and I shared first-period honors history.
We all filed from the Little Theater and straight into the heart of the gauntlet, together. Todd had this theory about strength in numbers. It was one of the reasons he collected the nerds, the debate dorks, the third-tier drama geeks, the lowly and lonely freshmen, and invited them all to his house for Geek Night every Saturday. As a combined force, we could breach the gauntlet. Whereas if any one of us tried it alone? Suicide.
And it worked. Mostly. Chantal Simmons stepped back immediately, but then, she probably didn't want smart cooties on her three-hundred-dollar coral-colored peep-toe pumps.
Some of the boys still chanted the chess cheer as we passed a few members of the varsity basketball team. Seniors Ryan Nelson and Luke Vandenberg stood with Jack Paulson. All three of them looked up, like the chant was their cue to rush the court and play. Only Jack seemed to notice we weren't cheering for them. He frowned.
I wanted to turn, go back and tell him that we weren't making fun of him. But it was too late; the crowd had already taken me along in its tide. Maybe I could explain when I saw him in Independent Reading class.
Oh, who was I kidding? I could barely respond when Jack graced me with a few words across the classroom aisle. I'd never be able to explain, not now, not then. Even so, I turned around for one last look. Instead of Jack, I locked eyes with Todd. He handed me a Krispy Kreme -- a slightly battered Krispy Kreme, but one from the middle of the box. It was still warm.
"Checkmate," he said.
The bank's time and temperature display flashed: 10:46 p.m./29. Only in Minnesota could it be this cold just four days past Halloween. All of us -- me, Moni, Todd, Brian, plus assorted members of the chess club, debate team, and Math League -- shivered outside the Games 'n More video store.
Light spilled from the warm movie theater lobby a few doors down, but I knew the huge sign on its door read no loitering. It was the strip mall and hypothermia for us. And there were still seventy-four frigid minutes before the midnight release of the latest shoot-'em-up video game.
What a way to spend a Saturday night.
We huddled together on a bus-stop bench. Todd lounged on my right -- in his Nietzsche "that which does not kill me, makes me stronger" mode -- pretending that the cold had no effect on him. Brian sat to Moni's left. Every five minutes he scooted a millimeter closer to her. The rest of the guys took turns standing in line. Apparently some geeks were more equal than others.
But that was no surprise. In these boys' world, status was measured in grade point averages and frag counts. Todd and Brian were at the top of both those lists. And Moni and me? We weren't there because we were dying to buy some dumb video game the first second it dropped.
"The category is famous first lines," Todd said. "You go first, Reynolds."
Of all the books I'd read (1,272 since I started keeping count) I couldn't think of a single opening line. I was pretty sure that meant my brain was frozen.
"I've got one if she doesn't," a member of the chess club offered.
"It's Reynolds, numbnuts. She's got one," Todd said in my defense. Some of the animosity I'd felt toward him for moving Geek Night from the toasty confines of his basement to the icy tundra that was Prairie Stone Plaza softened.
"Okay, how about," I began, but my brain was still iced up. I'd have to go with my fallback -- an oldie, a goodie, my favorite. "'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a...'?"
"Too easy," said Moni over the top of her gas-station cappuccino. "C'mon, guys," she said. "You have to know this one."
"Uh...it's...it's...," Todd struggled. "Give me a second...er...Brian?"
"Is that your final answer?" Moni snorted, causing the steam from her cup to fog her glasses and loosen a curl so that it fell onto her forehead.
Brian grinned at her, or did until a burst of giggles echoed down the plaza.
The late movie had just let out, and a group of kids hurried to their cars. Clouds of breath billowed ahead of them, partially hiding their faces, but the giggle sounded like Cassidy Anderson, the "Omigod!" was unmistakably Traci Olson's, and the clipped, condescending "Check it" could belong to none other than Chantal Simmons.
"What was the question again?" Brian asked, his attention focused near the theater's exit.
I repeated, "'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a...'?"
"A...cheerleader?" Brian answered, his face still turned toward the movie crowd.
Now it was Todd's turn to snort. "Yeah, that's it. Final answer."
I thought it was funny, but Moni's face fell. She hopped to her feet and took a step away from the group.
"What'd I say?" asked Brian. His round cheeks, already pink, grew red.
"Cheerleader, good one." Todd leaned across me and smacked Brian on the arm. "Can I quote you on that?" He made a show of pulling out his iPhone to record Brian's words and probably the latitude and longitude at which they were uttered.
"Moni, come back," I said. "Please."
"Yeah," Todd said, a little too loud. "Besides, it's my turn next, and I've got a good one. 'A long time ag -- '"
"Star Wars? Again?" I wasn't the only one who groaned.
"Okay," Todd said, "how about: 'In the week bef -- '"
"Dune," I interrupted.
"No way, Reynolds. There is no way you could've known that."
Todd was way more predictable than he liked to believe. So was Moni. She still stood a few feet away, her arms crossed over her chest, a glare aimed at Brian.
"Really, Moni. I'm sorry," Brian said as he started to stand. His voice rose in volume and pitch, drowning out me, and even Todd. "I don't know what I said that was so -- "
"Trouble in Nerdland?" A pair of teal, pumpkin, and tan ballet flats appeared only inches from my feet. I didn't have to look up to know who it was. No one in Prairie Stone had a finer shoe wardrobe than Chantal Simmons.
Todd sputtered but gave up before saying anything coherent. Brian froze, half-sitting, half-standing, his posture apelike. Moni tapped a toe but didn't say a word. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk. It was better that way.
Chantal and crew stepped off the curb, and a few freshmen math whizzes stared after them. No one said a word until the girls were inside their car and slipping down the frosty street. Then one of the boys let out a low whistle.
"Cheerleaders," his friend said wistfully.
Moni threw her cappuccino into the trash. The cup rattled, and a couple of boys jumped.
"Really, you guys," she said. "What have they got that we haven't got?"
"I assume that's a rhetorical question," said Todd.
When Brian joined the chorus of heh-heh-hehs, Moni scooped up her mittens and her Sudoku book and clomped down the sidewalk. I hurried after her. Brian tried to follow, but Moni shot him a look that, I swear, dropped the temperature another ten degrees.
"I'm serious," she said when I caught up to her. "What do they have that we don't?"
She stopped in front of Waterman's Women's Wear and made a slow turn in the display window's reflection.
I didn't know what to tell her. I was pretty sure we weren't ugly. Moni was bouncy and petite, curvy in the right places. I was taller and a little too thin, but not in a size-zero-starlet sort of way. Moni's bright blond curls were the opposite of my straight, dark bob. I hugged myself against the cold. "Maybe it's the pom-poms," I said.
"Yeah." Moni pushed her arms straight forward, then pulled them quickly back. She thrust them up in the shape of a V, then did a swivel-hipped pivot thing and checked her reflection once again.
Just when I thought she was going to go all Dance Dance Revolution on me, she stopped and stared at our images in the glass.
The following Monday morning, Moni's brain seemed as fogged over as her glasses. I had to remind her twice before she pulled off her Camp SohCahToa hat and stowed it in her locker. At lunch she walked right past our meet-up spot and would have glided into the gauntlet if I hadn't grabbed her shoulder.
It wasn't until last hour that I really started to worry. Most of the geek squad had been excused from eighth-period classes. We were all in the Little Theater, up on the stage, getting ready to start practice for the National Honor Society induction ceremony. Mr. Wilker, the NHS advisor, had just assigned each of us a sophomore inductee to shepherd through the program when the door to the theater opened.
Cassidy Anderson (senior, cheerleader, gauntlet girl) stepped inside, bringing in a thin stream of light with her. The radiance followed her as she bounced down the aisle to the foot of the stage.
She handed Mr. Wilker a note. "Thank you, Miss Anderson," he said, then turned his attention back to our group under the lights.
"Um," Cassidy said, "I sort of need that right away."
Mr. Wilker paused and glanced at the note. "My grade book is back in the classroom. I'll have to check that first."
Moni left her sophomore and nudged me. "I bet she needs proof she's not flunking," she said. "Cheerleading tryouts, you know."
No, I did not know. I didn't really care, either. Except that Cassidy still hadn't left. Every second she delayed practice made it more likely I wouldn't have a chance to finish my Life at Prairie Stone column before the newspaper staff meeting after school. I stole a glance at Todd. If I didn't turn in my column, he'd make my life miserable. That is, if he could pull himself out of the hormone-induced rapture that seemed to coincide with Cassidy's arrival.
And he wasn't the only one. While Mr. Wilker negotiated with Cassidy, I took a look at the boys onstage. Their combined IQ was probably close to thirty gazillion, but no one would believe it if they saw them in this state. All that chest puffing and gut-sucking-in-ing, and Brian -- was he actually slobbering? Really. They might as well have been Neanderthals.
I turned back to Moni, certain that she'd spit out a suitably scathing, sarcastic remark. Instead she blinked, then turned her head from Brian to Cassidy and back again. Beneath us, Mr. Wilker attempted to get the practice under way again.
"Cassidy," he said finally, "I'll meet you in my room after school."
"But -- but -- ," Cassidy whined. She blew a bubble with the gum she was chewing. After it popped, she huffed, "I guess you can just have someone bring it to me."
Fifteen male hands shot into the air as if powered by rockets.
Cassidy turned and headed up the slope toward the exit. When she opened the door, the lobby lights framed her body in silhouette and accented the shine of her hair. She paused as if posing, then whipped around to address us.
"Hey, losers," she said. "Take a picture next time. It might last longer."
With that, the door whooshed closed and plunged us all into darkness.
"That's it," Moni whispered at my side. "We're going to do it."
"Do what?" I whispered back.
"Try out for cheerleading."
"What!" I said, forgetting for a moment how good the acoustics in the Little Theater could be.
"Miss Reynolds?" said Mr. Wilker. "Something you'd like to share with the rest of us?"
I shook my head, but on the inside I was thinking of all sorts of things I'd like to share with Moni, the main one being, Was she out of her freaking mind?
Text copyright © 2009 by Charity Tahmaseb and Darcy Vance