Marylin knows that, as a middle school cheerleader, she has certain obligations. She has to smile as she walks down the hall, be friends with the right people, and keep her manicure in tip-top shape. But Marylin is surprised to learn there are also rules about whom she’s allowed to like—and Benjamin, the student body president, is deemed unacceptable. But maybe there is a way to convince the cheerleaders that her interest in Benjamin is for their own good—maybe she’ll pretend that she’s using him to get new cheerleading uniforms!
Kate, of course, finds this ludicrous. She is going to like who she likes, thank you very much. And she just so happens to be spending more time than ever with Matthew Holler. But even a girl who marches to the beat of her own guitar strings can play the wrong notes—and are she and Matthew even playing the same song? She’s just not sure. So when Matthew tells Kate that the school’s Audio Lab needs funding from the student government, she decides to do what she can to help him get it.
But there isn’t enough money to go around, and it soon becomes clear that only one of the two girls can get her way. Ultimately, though, is it even her way? Or are both girls pushing for something they never really wanted in the first place?
About the Author
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The Sound of Your Voice, Only Really Far Away
the sound of your voice, only really far away
Marylin thought she could get away with it. She thought she could be a middle-school cheerleader and a Student Government representative. She thought she could be friends with Mazie Calloway and Rhetta Mayes. She thought she could date the Student Government president instead of the captain of the football team, and that would be okay.
Marylin thought she could have it all, and everybody would cheer and clap their hands and be fully supportive, the way people were on TV during the last five minutes of a show.
That was the problem with having two weeks for winter break, she decided later. When you had two weeks off of school, you could believe that life was easy. Life was Christmas trees and hot chocolate and your parents actually sort of getting along when they saw each other. Life was watching TV and getting new clothes, and looking through magazines for different hairstyles that didn’t mean cutting your hair. Life was about not caring what people thought, because everybody was doing stuff with their families and didn’t have as much time to think about what you were wearing or who you were hanging out with.
Mazie had been out of town for most of the break, and though she texted a lot, it was all about the cute boys at the ski lodge she was staying at. When they were in the same room together, Mazie was always investigating Marylin’s life. Why had Marylin been walking down the hall with Jody Reed when everyone knew Jody had to go to speech therapy twice a week? When was Marylin going to get a smartphone? Why had Marylin bought those shoes? Who in the world wore green shoes?
Frankly, it was exhausting. So for Marylin, the two weeks of break had been like a spa vacation. Sure, she’d met the other middle-school cheerleaders at the mall, and gone to a sleepover at Ruby Santiago’s house and another one at Ashley Greer’s, but most of the time she’d just hung out at her house or her dad’s apartment. As a rule, Marylin didn’t find her parents’ divorce convenient; in fact, it was the most inconvenient, horrible thing that had ever happened to her. But she had to admit, it gave her a lot of excuses not to do anything that she didn’t feel like doing. “I’ve got to go over to my dad’s this afternoon,” she’d tell whoever called—Ruby or Ashley or Caitlin. “But maybe I can hang out tomorrow!”
When she climbed on the bus on the first day after break, Marylin felt refreshed. She was ready for Mazie and Ruby and the other middle-school cheerleaders. She thought she was even ready to tell them that Benjamin Huddle had hiked over to her house one snowy afternoon last week so they could build a snowman together. He’d been so funny and nice, she’d wished she could have texted about him to someone on her new phone, but her friend Kate didn’t have a phone, and it was a Sunday, and her friend Rhetta wasn’t allowed to use any electronic technologies on Sundays.
Since she was pretty sure Kate and Rhetta were her only friends who would understand the wonders of Benjamin Huddle, all Marylin could do was write in her journal about it later, how snowflakes had gotten tangled up in Benjamin’s eyelashes, and how he’d helped her little brother, Petey, build a snowman Albert Einstein. But now, boarding the bus to school, she thought it was time to share Benjamin with the middle-school cheerleaders. They knew she’d gone to the Student Organizations Holiday Extravaganza with Benjamin, after all. How shocked would they be that Benjamin had come over to her house? That she liked him and thought that he was maybe sort of her boyfriend, even though it wasn’t official?
Kate was sitting in a seat toward the back of the bus. Marylin slid in beside her and said, “You really need to get a phone. All everybody does anymore is text. Nobody talks.”
“I talk,” Kate said, sounding stubborn about it. “I like the sound of people’s voices.”
Marylin sighed. Kate Faber was the most frustrating person on the planet. Marylin and Kate had been friends since preschool, and even if they didn’t hang out as much as they used to, well, there was still this bond. But that didn’t mean that Kate didn’t drive Marylin crazy. Kate was smart and funny, and she’d be cute if she learned how to dress and do her hair, but she seemed to be completely missing the gene that made normal people want to be popular, or to at least fit in. Of course Kate didn’t text. Of course she wore big black clunky boots that made her look like a lumberjack or a fireman. That was Kate’s style. Marylin didn’t get it at all.
“Well, if you don’t care that the whole world is leaving you behind,” Marylin said with a shrug.
“I don’t,” Kate said. “As long as it leaves me my guitar.”
Right. The guitar. How could Marylin forget about Kate’s guitar? That was another thing. Somehow last fall Kate had gotten her hands on a guitar, and now she was Miss Rock and Roll. And she was hanging around with this eighth-grade boy named Matthew Holler, who Marylin had to admit was cute, but he wasn’t the sort of boy you should hang around with if you got good grades and didn’t get in trouble.
As far as Marylin was concerned, there were three kinds of acceptable boys: athletes, student leaders, and select band members, specifically boys who played trumpet or drums. That really gave you a lot of boys to choose from, if you thought about it, even if it excluded boys like Matthew Holler and Sean Kim, who was really cute, but played clarinet and was thereby technically out of the running.
Well, Marylin was not going to get into the topic of Matthew Holler and acceptable boys with Kate. She didn’t want to spend her energy on things she couldn’t do a thing in the world about. Instead she needed to get focused. She was a middle-school cheerleader and a School Government representative. She was wearing amazing leopard-skin flats she’d bought at Target a few days before, and even though her feet were freezing because you couldn’t exactly wear socks with leopard-skin flats, that was okay. Because she had new lip gloss in her back pouch and hummus in a plastic container for lunch, and people liked her and thought she was pretty. All of these things added up to an amazing life. Not a perfect life—she didn’t think she could ever have a perfect life, now that her parents were divorced—but a life most girls would envy.
Marylin glanced at Kate, who was leafing through a magazine called American Songwriter. Okay, so Kate probably didn’t envy Marylin’s life. But Kate was—well, Kate. You couldn’t expect her to feel things normal people felt. But you could expect her to tell you the truth, and although Marylin didn’t always like to hear the truth, she knew that it was good to have a person like Kate in your life.
But one Kate was enough. One would definitely do the trick.
Over the holidays, Marylin had started writing a novel. She’d gotten inspired by a movie she’d watched at her dad’s apartment on New Year’s Day. It was about a girl who was abandoned deep in the woods with her little brother, who was deaf, and their dog, a golden retriever named Trevor. The girl and her brother had been camping with their mom and stepdad, and one morning they woke up to find themselves alone except for Trevor. They had to figure out on their own how to get home, and how to survive along the way.
Marylin had been sitting on the couch with Petey, a blanket spread across their laps, a gigantic bowl of popcorn between them. She didn’t think she’d enjoy the movie; she’d never been camping and was pretty sure she’d hate it—too many bugs—and as a rule, she preferred romantic movies to adventures. Really, if it hadn’t been for Trevor the dog, she would have tried to convince Petey to watch something else. But Trevor was so cute, and Marylin had always wanted a dog, so she decided to give Alone in the Woods a chance.
By the time it was over, she couldn’t wait to start writing. That happened to her a lot with movies; if she really liked the story, it made her want to come up with a story of her own. Her idea was to write a novel about a girl who had been abandoned by her parents, only in a suburban neighborhood, not in the woods. Marylin’s story would start on the morning after the parents left, with the girl, a seventh grader, waking up and calling out, “Mom, do you know what I did with my history binder?” But her mom didn’t answer, because her mom wasn’t there, and neither was her dad. It was just the girl, who Marylin decided would be named Christina, because Marylin had always loved the name Christina, and her little brother, Curtis.
Marylin found a yellow legal pad in her dad’s desk drawer and took it to her room. It was ten thirty, and she was supposed to have her lights out by eleven, but when she finally looked up from her writing, the clock on her bedside table said one fifteen. She’d written fourteen pages. Christina and Curtis had just found the note their parents left them, saying they were getting divorced and needed some time to themselves. They were sure the children would be fine without them, the note said—there was plenty of food in the kitchen, and they’d left a hundred dollars in the junk drawer—and one of them would be home soon to explain more.
Marylin knew she should turn out her light and go to sleep. In fact, she was surprised her dad hadn’t tapped on her door and told her it was way past her bedtime. But there was no way she could fall asleep. She was so mad at the parents in her story she felt like there were ants crawling through her veins. How could they do that to their kids? Just leave them alone with hardly any explanation at all?
In the movie, it had been the evil stepfather who had convinced the children’s mother to abandon them. In Marylin’s story, abandoning their kids, at least temporarily, was something both parents agreed to do. They couldn’t agree about anything else, but they could agree that the kids weren’t as important as their own happiness.
The next day she’d called Rhetta and read to her what she’d written so far. Rhetta had been quiet for a few moments after Marylin had finished, and then said, “It’s really good, but I’m not sure people will believe that Christina’s parents would actually abandon their children. I mean, that’s a pretty radical thing to do.”
Marylin had thought about this for a minute. “Maybe this is the kind of story that only divorced kids will understand,” she said finally.
“Maybe,” Rhetta agreed. “Only, Marylin, your parents didn’t abandon you. They just sort of abandoned each other.”
Marylin found herself nodding fiercely at the phone. “It’s exactly the same thing,” she said, her throat tightening. “That’s what nobody gets. It’s exactly the same.”
Marylin had planned to spend the rest of the day working on her story, but when she sat down to write, she couldn’t figure out what should happen next. She was trying to write a scene with Christina and Curtis in the kitchen before school. Christina wanted to make a special breakfast for Curtis, waffles and bacon, but she realized she didn’t know how to use the waffle iron, and she’d never fried bacon before. That’s okay, Curtis told her. I just want cereal anyway.
For some reason, that was as far as Marylin could get, Christina and Curtis sitting at the breakfast table, eating bowls of Special K. Every time she tried to make one of them say something or do something, they wouldn’t. They just sat there staring at each other, putting one spoonful of cereal into their mouths after another.
This is stupid, she’d finally decided. Rhetta was right. No one would believe that parents would abandon their children like that. Besides, it was depressing. Marylin had no interest in being depressed. She wasn’t a depressed sort of person. She was, she decided after thinking about it for a few minutes, the sort of person who needed new shoes.
She stuck her head out of her door and looked down the hall. “Dad? Can you take me to Target?”
“Sure, hon,” her dad called back from the dining room. “Let me just finish this e-mail.”
When she’d gotten home, she’d started a new story in her notebook, one about a middle-school cheerleader who had to decide between three boys who all had major crushes on her. This is the sort of story I should be writing, she’d told herself, glancing happily at her new leopard-skin flats. Nobody likes depressing stories, anyway.
Walking down Hallway B of Brenner P. Dunn Middle School, Marylin could tell something was wrong the minute she got within twenty-five feet of Ruby Santiago’s locker. All the middle-school cheerleaders were there, Ruby at the center, Mazie by her side, everyone oohing and aahing over all the Christmas booty, the new sweaters and earrings, the makeup kits. Other kids stood around the edges of the circle, wannabe insiders, oohing and aahing along with the cheerleaders, who naturally ignored them. As she got closer, Marylin put on her best middle-school cheerleader smile. She ran her hand through her hair. Here we go, she told herself. The beginning of an amazing new semester.
At that moment, Ashley Greer turned and saw Marylin approaching. Her expression immediately changed. One second Ashley was smiling and acting like Mazie’s new palette of eye shadow was the most interesting thing in the world. The next second she looked like a jackal who had just come upon a wounded rabbit in the forest. Marylin’s stomach lurched. Ashley’s expression, she knew, was not a good sign.
“Look, it’s Mrs. Huddle!” Ashley exclaimed to the other cheerleaders, who all turned in Marylin’s direction at the same time, like they were a single organism, or a collection of puppets all connected to the same string.
So they knew. Okay, well, so what? Marylin kept the smile plastered on her face as she got to Ruby’s locker. Benjamin Huddle was a perfectly respectable boy. More than respectable! He was cute. He was a student leader. So maybe his wardrobe could use a little work. Marylin already had planned to make a few, very subtle suggestions that over time would take care of that problem.
“Oh, stop!” she squealed at Ashley in her best cheerleader squeal voice, a voice that said, I know you’re only teasing me because you love me so much. “I am not Mrs. Huddle. We’re not even—a thing. Not yet, at least.”
“Not now, not ever,” said Mazie, taking a step toward Marylin. “We’re a geek-free squad, didn’t you know that?” She grabbed Marylin by the elbow. “Now come with me. We need to talk.”
Which was how Marylin found herself being dragged down the hallway to the girls’ bathroom by the library. “You’re hurting my arm!” she complained to Mazie, trying to pull free. But Mazie just held on tighter.
“You’re hurting my life,” she said through gritted teeth. “Now come on.”
There were two girls in the bathroom combing their hair, but one look from Mazie sent them scrambling to the door. Mazie led Marylin over to the row of mirrors and turned her around so that Marylin was facing her own reflection.
“Look at yourself,” Mazie commanded. “Do you see who you are? You’re one of us. And we do things a certain way. We wear certain clothes and have certain boyfriends, and we do things the way we’re supposed to do them. What about that do you not get?”
“I—I get it,” Marylin replied limply. “Didn’t you notice my shoes?”
Mazie looked at Marylin’s shoes. “Yeah, okay, so you get the clothes part. Good for you. Glad you can get one thing right. But you’re getting the people part wrong. I know you’re all sort of ‘friendly girl’ and ‘Miss Nicey-Nice,’ and that’s okay up to a point. But it’s like you’ll talk to anyone. And actually be friends with anyone. It’s like you don’t get it. You’re special. We’re special. And I hate to tell you this, but Ruby is really getting freaked out by you.”
Marylin paled. Ruby’s opinion, as Marylin and Mazie both knew, was the one that mattered. If you were in with Ruby, every door you walked past automatically opened. Athletes spanning the spectrum of sports from football to track and field thought you were cute. Teachers you’d never had a class with smiled and waved at you in the hallway. The janitorial staff kept the door to your locker extra shiny.
And if you were out with Ruby, you were in Siberia. You simply ceased to exist.
A tiny voice piped, Who cares? into Marylin’s ear. It was Kate’s voice, and it was so clear that Marylin looked around to see if Kate was there. She checked under the stalls for Kate’s boots. But no Kate, only her annoying little voice inside Marylin’s head. Marylin supposed that was what happened when you’d known someone almost all your life. You got their opinions whether they were in the same room with you or not.
Well, easy for Kate to say. Kate could say, Who cares? because she meant it. Or at least sort of meant it. Marylin couldn’t believe that Kate didn’t really care at all. She was just better at hiding it than most people.
But Marylin cared. She’d always known that about herself. Had always been one hundred percent honest with herself about the fact that she cared. She cared a lot. She cared that people thought she was pretty, and that they thought she was nice. She cared about being popular. She wished that people understood it was hard work being popular! Being popular meant you had to care about everything—how you looked, what you said, who you said it to, and what they thought about it later. You had to pay attention to every little detail.
Marylin stared at her reflection. What had she been thinking? How in the world had she thought she could have it all? Where had she gotten the idea she could be popular and have a boyfriend who didn’t meet Ruby Santiago’s approval? That she could be friends with Rhetta Mayes, who dressed all in black and was always drawing in an oversize sketchbook and would probably pierce her nose the minute she could find someone to do it for her?
But Rhetta’s your friend, Kate’s tiny voice whispered in her ear. You’ve spent the night at her house. She gets you. She makes you laugh.
Marylin shook her head. She would figure out what to do about Rhetta. Maybe they could just be school friends. They had almost every class together, after all; it wasn’t like they never saw each other. And Marylin’s schedule was about to get very busy with basketball season starting up. She probably wouldn’t have time to hang out with Rhetta after school anyway. And Rhetta would understand.
No she won’t, whispered Kate’s tiny voice.
Marylin took a deep breath. Rhetta would understand, she repeated to herself. Maybe she could encourage Rhetta to sign up to do makeup for the spring musical, and then Rhetta would be really busy too.
That was it. No problem. Marylin smiled at herself in the mirror. Her smile looked fake, but it would have to do. Now all she had left was the problem of Benjamin Huddle. One of his incisor teeth was just a tiny bit crooked in a way that Marylin totally loved. Could she really give that up? Or the lopsided way he grinned at her. Was she willing to sacrifice that grin just to stay popular?
Sadly, Marylin knew the answer. It made her want to cry, and it probably meant that deep down inside she wasn’t the nice person she thought she was. She was only nice on top.
It’s because my parents got divorced, Marylin insisted to herself. That’s why I need to be popular. I can’t help it. It’s not my fault.
Yeah, Kate’s voice said, this time a whole lot louder. Right.
Marylin wished Kate would just shut up. Her life was hard enough without someone making comments about it all the time, even someone who wasn’t actually in the same room.
“Tell Ruby not to worry,” she told Mazie, reaching into her back pouch for her lip gloss. “I’m fine. I didn’t really like Benjamin anyway. I just thought if I went to the dance with him, he might help us get funding for new uniforms.”
A knowing look came over Mazie’s face, and she smiled at Marylin, nodding. “I thought you were up to something,” she said, patting Marylin on the shoulder. “That’s why I stuck up for you when Ruby started asking a lot of questions about your so-called friends. ‘Marylin’s up to something, just you wait,’ is exactly what I told her, and I was right. Wow, I bet Benjamin Huddle has no idea he’s getting played.”
None, Marylin thought miserably as she followed Mazie out of the bathroom. Absolutely no idea in the world.
“I’ve got bad news.”
Rhetta had turned around in her seat and was now leaning toward Marylin. She didn’t look so much like a vampire today. Usually Rhetta was a study in black and white, all black clothes and pale white skin, but today she was actually wearing jeans like a normal person, and although her T-shirt was black, it was a sort of silky-looking V-neck T-shirt that was nice. If only Marylin could make Rhetta see how good she’d look in pink!
“What is it?” Marylin asked, wondering if somehow Rhetta’s bad news could be that she’d heard about the conversation Marylin had just had with Mazie five minutes ago in the bathroom.
“I’m grounded,” Rhetta said with a dramatic slump so that her chin was now resting on the back of her chair. “For a month, if you can believe it. Just because I rode with Todd Venable to the Quick-E Mart after youth group Sunday night instead of getting a ride straight home with Samantha Werther like I said I would. Todd brought me home safe and sound, and it’s not like he’s a psycho killer or anything. He plays drums in the praise band!”
Rhetta’s father was a pastor at a local church that was known for being hip and informal. Still, Marylin supposed a drummer in a band was a drummer in a band, even if the band was singing songs about Jesus.
“Did your dad kick Todd out of the band?”
Rhetta shook her head. “No, but he had a long talk with him in his office, which I’m sure was way, way worse. When my dad gives you a lecture, he goes on for, like, ten years.”
“Well, I’m sorry you’re grounded,” Marylin said. “What does that mean exactly?”
As it turned out, it meant exactly what Marylin hoped it meant. For the next month, Rhetta was confined to home except for family outings and church on Sunday, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. “Church is going to be the highlight of my social life for thirty days,” Rhetta complained. “How pathetic is that?”
“It could be worse,” Marylin said. “They could have kept you home from church, too.”
“Right,” Rhetta said, rolling her eyes. “That’s so not going to happen.”
Mrs. Clewes started to take attendance, so Rhetta turned back around, and Marylin slid back in her seat, filled with relief. She wouldn’t have to make any excuses for a whole month about why she couldn’t hang out with Rhetta after school. And who knew what things would be like in a month? In a month, Rhetta’s dad might decide to become a missionary to China. And yes, okay, Marylin would miss Rhetta if she moved, but that would definitely solve one of her problems.
And then a thought came to Marylin that was so brilliant she had to stop herself from blurting it out to the whole class. She didn’t have to give up Benjamin Huddle, either! Mazie thought she was using Benjamin to get the cheerleaders new uniforms. So she could hang around Benjamin all she wanted. If anybody asked her about it, she’d just mention how cute those uniforms would be if they could just get the funding for them (wink, wink). Ruby and Mazie would totally be on her side. They’d tell her to hang out with Benjamin as much as she wanted!
I am a genius, Marylin told herself, taking out her pre-algebra notebook. I’m so smart I scare myself.
And, much to her amazement, Kate’s little voice didn’t have a thing to say about it.
In science, Mrs. Patel announced that they would begin the year by studying evolution, and did anyone have a problem with that? Several kids turned and looked at Rhetta because they knew her dad was a pastor, but she just shrugged and said, “Evolution’s cool with me.”
“Excellent!” Mrs. Patel exclaimed. “I believe seventh grade is a most pertinent time to study Darwin and his ideas about natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Can anyone tell me what that phrase means, ‘survival of the fittest’?”
Christof Jenner’s hand shot into the air. “Only the strong survive!”
Mrs. Patel nodded. “More or less, that is the theory. And one way the strong survive is by abandoning the weak. Does that sound at all familiar to you?”
Everyone nodded, including Marylin. That really summed everything up, as far as she was concerned. To someone like Kate, Marylin might seem shallow or dumb for wanting to be popular, but it was all about survival. Not everyone could be like Kate, surviving outside the herd. And if you lived inside the herd, well, it was better if you stuck with the strong people, right? If you hung out with the weak, unpopular people, you’d get eaten by wolves in no time flat.
Rhetta raised her hand. “So you’re saying that ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to all animals, even human beings?”
“Yes, but I think that it’s complicated,” Mrs. Patel said. “Can you tell me what you find troublesome about the idea?”
Rhetta was quiet for a moment before speaking again. “Well, I guess it would bother me because human beings might be animals, but we’re also—um, human, if you know what I mean. And we have stuff like morality that tells us we’re supposed to protect the weak. Like old people, or disabled people.” Rhetta looked around the room and then back at Mrs. Patel. “Does that make sense?”
“Perfect sense,” Mrs. Patel confirmed. “And I agree with you. Some people have taken the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ to extreme and immoral lengths. But we will discuss the idea in terms of evolutionary science and genetics, and I hope you will find it as fascinating as I do. Now, take out your notebooks, please.”
A few students grumbled as they pulled their pencils and notebooks from their backpacks, and Marylin wondered if they’d hoped Mrs. Patel would spend class talking about popular kids versus unpopular kids. Ever since sixth grade, that seemed to be everybody’s favorite topic in class discussions. If you were talking about the American Revolution in history, someone would raise their hand and say, “It’s like the colonists were the unpopular kids and the British were the popular kids,” and then someone else would argue it was the other way around, and then someone else would say that King George was a bully, and by the time you’d worked out who was popular and who was unpopular, the period would be over.
When the bell rang, Marylin followed the herd into the hallway and into the stream of students, where she was jostled and banged into as the faster, more aggressive kids made their way to class. Suddenly she felt an arm draped around her shoulder and looked up to see Will Norton, an eighth-grade football player.
“Let me be your escort,” he said, looking down at her with a grin. “It’s a jungle out here.”
“It really is,” Marylin agreed, smiling her best middle-school cheerleader smile, but suddenly she felt nervous, like she had a test she’d forgotten to study for. But that was silly—how could there be a test the first day of the semester? Everything’s fine, she told herself. There’s nothing in the world to worry about.
She saw Mazie and Ashley walking in her direction, waving and smiling, almost as if they were happy to see her, and Marylin was almost happy to see them—members of her pack, the ones who were going to keep her safe from the wolves. But when Mazie cupped her hand over her mouth and whispered something into Ashley’s ear, her eyes trained on Marylin the whole time, Marylin didn’t feel safe at all. In fact, she was pretty sure the wolves were a lot closer than she’d thought.