The crowd had been feisty all game, but that was nothing compared with the roar around us now. As the play clock ticked down, Max performed the ritual I’d seen him do before his last field goal. He stood beside Carter, who would be catching the snap. He counted a pace to one side and a pace upfield to find his position. Just as he was signaling Carter to call for the snap, whistles blew everywhere.
“What does that mean?” Delilah asked impatiently.
“Our coach just iced the kicker,” I grumbled.
“He did what?”
“We had a time-out left,” I explained. “Our coach called it at the last second before Max was going to kick, just to rattle him.”
“I want us to win,” Delilah said, “but that doesn’t seem fair.”
“Max would be the first to tell you that life isn’t fair.” And icing the kicker seemed to have worked. While the time-out ticked away, Max paced up and down the fifty yard line with his hands on his helmet. Carter stood stationary, watching Max and yelling at him. Carter probably wished he’d been a little more supportive of Max during summer practice.
The time-out ended. The teams lined up again. The play clock ticked down. Max stood beside Carter, where the ball would be. He counted a pace to the side and a pace upfield to find his position in relation to the ball. Then he should have signaled to Carter that he was ready for the ball. The play clock showed he was running out of time. Three . . . two . . . one . . . and the referees blew their whistles again.
I groaned. “Max!”
I couldn’t tell what Carter was shouting at Max, but judging from the way he jumped up and waved his arms, he was losing his mind.
“What now?” Delilah asked.
“Delay of game. Max never started the play, so the ball has to move back five yards.” As I said this, the refs moved the ball farther down the field. Max walked to his new position with his head down. Now the distance between him and the goalposts was more than half the length of the football field. The crowd booed him.
His own crowd.
The home fans quickly shushed themselves, but I had heard the boo. So had Max. He looked toward the home stands as he walked.
I jumped up. “Go, Max!” I screamed, clapping for him. “You can do it!”
“God, Gemma!” Addison snapped. “Can’t you cheer for your own team?”
I almost sat down sheepishly. After all, I was the only person standing up on my side of the stadium, yelling like an idiot. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was staring at me.
Including Max. I couldn’t see his face behind his face mask, but I felt like he was staring straight at me.
“He is my boyfriend!” I yelled at Addison. Then I turned back to the field and clapped. “You can do it, Max!”
The silence on the other side of the field slowly morphed into a supportive cheer for Max, and the whole stadium roared, louder than before.
“Gemma!” Robert called above me.
I turned around.
“Can he make that goal?”
I nodded. I wasn’t so sure, but I wanted to be sure. I grinned my majorette grin and turned around to watch Max again.
Delilah slipped her hand into mine and squeezed. “I’m not rooting for them, but I’m rooting for you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered as Max stood beside Carter. He counted a pace to one side and a pace upfield. The play clock wound down. He signaled to Carter. The ball snapped. Carter caught it neatly and grounded it. Max took a step, dragging his powerful kicking leg from behind him, and connected with the ball. He followed through with his kick and stopped to watch where it went.
The ball sailed fifty-three yards, the crowd noise rising with it. The ball passed exactly through the middle of the uprights.
The opposite side of the field erupted in a huge, booming cheer. We could hear it perfectly because our side was dead silent, except for me, sighing with relief. Their band burst into their fight song.
Max stood motionless, stunned, while Carter jumped up and down. Their entire team, the coaches, and the cheerleaders dashed onto the field to surround Max. Even the student section of the stands spilled over the fence and swirled onto the field, so that I couldn’t find Max in the crowd anymore.
“You won the game,” Addison said. “Happy now?”
I sat down next to her and tried to think of something soothing to say. I should remind her that she’d ended up with Carter, whom she’d decided she liked better anyway.
Instead, I told her, “I can’t be friends with you anymore.”
Her blond brows went down, and her lips parted. I could tell she was gearing up to give me a tit-for-tat response. I can’t be your friend either, so there.
I put my hand on her sequined sleeve to stop her from speaking. “Seriously. I don’t say that to be mean, or to get back at you, or to hurt your feelings. But you have hurt my feelings over and over again, for six years. I read insults into everything you say, even when you’re trying to be nice.” If she ever really was. “That makes me angry, and I do mean things to you in response. I don’t like the person I become when I’m around you.”
Addison looked down at my hand on her arm. “You’re breaking up with me.” She didn’t sound sarcastic. She sounded sad.
I took my hand off her arm. “I’m not laying blame. I don’t want us to have hard feelings against each other or try to get revenge on each other for this. I just think that sometimes two people are meant to be together. We aren’t.”
I looked nervously at the majorettes around us and the flutes behind us. I didn’t want them to hear what Addison was sure to say next above the opposing team’s fight song. She would scream that I was being mean and immature by telling her I wouldn’t be her friend anymore, all because I stole her boyfriend.
But she didn’t. Instead, she said, “I will always love you.”
Before I could stop it, my jaw dropped open.
“And I hate you a little bit too.” She reached out and hugged me.
Bewildered, I hugged her back.
She squeezed me once and let me go. “Maybe we could just take a break, then see how we feel.”
Normally I would have run away from this proposal, screaming, It’s a trap! But she was acting so bizarrely mature about all this that I said, “That sounds good.”
We would see.
As soon as our band played our school’s fight song, sounding somewhat mournful under the circumstances, we marched back to the buses and piled on to wait for the trombones to load the instrument truck, and then to drive fifteen minutes home. I was so happy for Max, and hopeful about what might happen next between us. Until I saw the huddle of sequins at the back of the bus, I’d completely forgotten that the majorettes were voting for next year’s head.
After all that rigmarole about keeping our noses clean, the vote was casual. Mrs. Baxter handed us each a slip of paper and a pen. We wrote our choice and handed the slip back to her. She counted the votes. In thirty seconds we knew. She walked to the back of the bus and put her hand on my shoulder. “For grace under pressure, we have chosen Gemma.”
“Gemma!” the majorettes squealed. All six of them hugged me. I did not make a sound. I squeezed my eyes shut and felt their hugs and considered what this meant. I would be head majorette my senior year. I wouldn’t have to try out for majorette again next year. Not that I would mind trying out again. I’d had so much fun performing tonight that I was already planning how I would keep performing after high school. I would try out for majorette at Georgia Tech, and maybe feature twirler.
“The band director will be so pleased,” Mrs. Baxter said, bustling away up the aisle and down the front stairs of the bus. The majorettes were telling the whole bus the news too. I saw Delilah several seats ahead, whispering to Robert. Soon he and the trumpets yelled in unison, “Congratulations, Gemma!”
“Congratulations, Gemma,” Addison said, squatting beside me in the aisle. “Though I know we’re not supposed to be friends anymore.”
Her sarcasm didn’t bother me, precisely because we weren’t friends anymore. That’s just how Addison was.
“I’m glad you’re going to be head,” she said.
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, not hiding my surprise very well.
“I didn’t want it,” she said. “Not really. This role model shit is for the birds. And I don’t like standing out there on the field with everybody watching me. I hated trying out, too.”
That’s because you dropped your batons both times and boys made fun of you, I thought.
“I might not even go out for majorette next year,” she said.
Great. Addison complained that she was bored of Monopoly and wanted to stop playing whenever I started to win. If she wasn’t the best at something, she didn’t want to try anymore. I could see her quickly devolving into the Bad Majorette, making a joke out of it, even earning a reputation for it and thinking it attracted boys. Which it might, honestly, because boys were weird.
She was part of the majorette line. If she tanked, we all would tank. I could not let that happen.
“It’s so early in the season,” I said. “We’ve only had one game. And your drops were at the very beginning, right? Nobody remembered them by the end. We’re going to have so much fun this year, and I’ll bet you’ll want to try out again.”
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
“You’re such a great sax player. You might want to concentrate on that next year and not go out for majorette after all. But gosh, you have until April to decide.” I sounded reasonable and authoritative, like a head majorette. Like a teacher. Like a counselor.
All the majorettes jumped and Delilah screamed at a sharp rapping on the emergency exit at the back of the bus. Addison stood up and opened the door.
“Is Gemma home?” came Max’s voice.
“Yes,” Addison said.
“May I come in and see her?”
Addison backed away in the aisle, making room for Max. Behind Addison, I saw Delilah grin and give me a thumbs-up before she leaned over Robert again.
Max climbed onto the school bus. Impossibly tall, head brushing the ceiling, he closed the door and sat down beside me. He wore track pants and a Japanese T-shirt, and his hair was wet from a shower.
He looked me up and down and back up, eyes slowly making their way from my knee-high boots to my skintight sequined leotard to my purple-streaked hair, and lingering on my tiara. He deadpanned, “You look good.”
“You do too,” I said truthfully.
He picked up my hand from my lap, his touch sending sparks up my arm. “Carter told me you did something nice for me today.”
“Well, it was Carter who did something nice for you,” I said. “I only warned him it was coming.”
“And you cheered for me.”
“I did cheer for you!”
“I heard you.” He turned my hand over and put his casted hand on top of it. Looking into my eyes, he said, “I nearly lost it out there, Gemma.”
“But you didn’t lose it, and that’s what counts. Obviously it’s lucky for us to make out the night before games, and then fight.”
He slid his hand up my sequined sleeve to my shoulder. “I don’t know about the fight. But if you’re willing, I definitely think we should make out every Thursday. At least until the end of football season.” He brushed his lips against mine, which sent a little shiver across my chest.
“Or longer,” I whispered.
He put his casted hand on my shoulder and set his forehead against mine. “Gemma.”
“I have something to tell you.”
“I get it. You are making me cross-eyed.”
He grinned and backed away six inches. Very clearly, enunciating every syllable, he said, “I want to go out with you tomorrow. On a date. With you, Gemma Van Cleve. Alone.”
“I understand you,” I said just as clearly. “I am accepting your invitation to go on a date. With you. Because I like you in a romantic way.”
He laughed and squeezed my shoulders, sending a fresh chill down my arms. “So we’re clear on this?”
“If we’re not, we have much worse problems than we thought. Where do you want to go for our date? Aren’t you working tomorrow?”
“I have to coach my sister’s game at eight a.m. Oh God, eight a.m.” He looked at his watch ruefully.
“Can I come?” I asked.
“You want to watch me coach soccer?”
“I want to see you as the Justin Bieber of girls’ soccer.”
He frowned at me. “If you promise not to get jealous. Do you think you can handle it?”
I laughed. “I’ll try.”
“I don’t have to work for the rest of the day, though. There aren’t a lot of other games to ref because of the holiday weekend, so I let Carter have them. There’s something I need to do around lunchtime, and then I was hoping you would meet me at the park. You know, the park in my neighborhood?”
“How could I forget?”
He turned so red that I could see it even in the dusky bus. He was adorable.
Then he cleared his throat. “Our schools will have football games on the same night for the rest of the semester. I’ll never get to see you twirl your baton. When we go to the park, you could show me what you do.”
“My majorette routine?” I hid my mouth with one hand so the other majorettes couldn’t see as I whispered, “It’s kind of dull.” I put my hand down. “I could do it for you, though, and then I could do the routine I tried out with.”