Home > Be the Girl(10)

Be the Girl(10)
K.A. Tucker

She clears her throat. “And how exactly did she learn that?”

I explain the morning car ride, giggling at the memory of watching Emmett fuss with his collar for most of first period.

The kitchen chair creaks as Mom leans back in it. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he’d be … you know …” She waves a casual hand.

“Having sex?” I say boldly. Maybe if I make this uncomfortable for her, she’ll stop pushing for these daily chats.

She presses her lips together but then nods. “He’s a good-looking kid and seventeen years old. Almost eighteen, I think Heather said the other day.” She hesitates. “So, have you met any boys that you like yet?”

Yes, the one from next door with the hickey. The one with the girlfriend. The one I have to stop thinking about.

I pick at the last of the cookie crumbs and shake my head. “I’m going to start my homework now.”

8

Ten students linger by the front doors of school when Emmett and I pull into the parking lot at seven the next morning. My stomach flutters with nerves at the thought of walking up to a group of people who all know each other. Though, having Emmett by my side helps.

“Who is that?” I nod toward the stocky guy off to the side. A thick yellow headband—the kind a tennis player would wear—stretches over his curly brown hair and his socks are pulled up to just below his knees.

Emmett grins. “That is Richard. He’s in my calculus class. Super smart.”

“Is he for real?”

“Yeah.” He chuckles. “I think he’s channeling Jack Black, circa … I don’t even know, but he’s intense.”

“Uh … yeah.” Everyone else is chatting and laughing. Meanwhile, this Richard guy is rushing three steps one way, then spinning to rush three steps back, only to repeat.

“He comes out every year. Slow as hell, but he always finishes.” Emmett half frowns, half smiles at the boy, now jumping up and down in place, shaking out his wrists and cocking his head from side to side. “He’s a strange dude, but he’s nice. Cassie loves him. Thinks he’s the funniest guy in the world.”

And with Cassie, I’m sure she’s laughing with him, not at him.

By the time Emmett and I join the group, Ms. Moretti has emerged from the school. She’s traded in her usual dress and heels for jogging pants and running shoes, and when she stands next to Emmett, who is at least a foot taller, I have to stifle my laugh. “Welcome, everyone! I’m excited to see so many of you back this year.” She gives a gapped-tooth grin at the faces circling her. “And good news! We have an import from out west. This is Aria Jones.” She gestures at me. “She’s an old pro. She’s placed in a provincial race before.”

“She’s gonna kick butt,” Emmett pipes up.

“No, I won’t,” I mumble, feeling my cheeks flush as I cast an awkward wave.

Emmett leans in close, his chest bumping my shoulder as he mock-whispers, “We need to work on your trash-talking skills.”

And my ability to breathe in your proximity.

I struggle to concentrate as Moretti spends a few minutes reviewing the rules—no missing more than two practices, must compete at three of the four mini-meets—before she claps her hands. “Okay, we’re going to spend a few minutes warming up and then we’ll do laps around the school property. Just for today. We’ll venture off to our usual course around Miller’s Park on Thursday—”

“Hey, Ms. M!” a female voice calls out. I turn to see Holly jogging toward us, her long blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, her Eagles T-shirt hugging her ample chest, her shorts showing off toned legs. “I’m sorry I’m late. My car wouldn’t start.”

Holly is in cross-country, too?

Emmett didn’t mention that, did he?

“No problem. We’re warming up.”

“Hey, Aria!” she says, giving my forearm a gentle squeeze as she passes by me to fit in next to Emmett. “I’m so glad you’ve joined our team! Em said you’re really good. You won provincials?”

“I came in second,” I say.

“The second-fastest llama Alberta’s ever seen,” Emmett teases, grinning at me.

“Hey, you.” She lifts to press a kiss against his lips.

I struggle to stifle my groan.

The smell of stale sweat and popcorn permeates the air of Eastmonte’s arena, an old brown brick building on the other side of town.

“Just a hot chocolate.” Heather hands Cassie a five-dollar bill with an encouraging nod, but also a clear warning. “I’ll see you two in there?” Pulling up the zipper on Cassie’s hot-pink vest, Heather then heads for the rink on the right, pausing to greet a small cluster of mothers.

We head for the concession stand and the stern-looking older man running it.

The moment he sees Cassie step up, his hard mask cracks. “Finally! It’s been a long summer of not seeing that smile. How are you, Cassie?”

“Good.” She grins. “How’s Coco?”

“Coco’s good. Coco likes to chase cats.”

Cassie laughs. “Yeah. That’s because she’s a dog.” To me, she says, “I named her. She was a shelter dog and Frank adopted her.”

“That’s right. Cassie kept telling me about this small black poodle that came in. She was convinced that I needed a dog. Turns out she was right.” Frank chuckles, reaching for a paper cup. “The usual?”

“One small hot chocolate, please.” Cassie carefully places the five-dollar bill on the counter, leaving her hand on it as if it might fly away in a breeze.

“You want one, too?” His bushy eyebrows raise as he regards me and then, when he sees me waffling, adds, “It gets cold in there.”

“Sure, okay. Thanks.” I pluck a box of Junior Mints from the display and set it on the counter, then dig my money out of my pocket.

Cassie’s eyes light up. “Do you like mint?”

“I do. I love mint.”

“Me too.” She pauses, smiling at them. I see the internal battle in her eyes before she finally blurts out, “I wish I could have some.”

I can’t help but laugh. That’s the thing with Cassie—her intentions are obvious, but so innocent and simple. “Do you want to share the box with me?”

She nods in emphasis and her grin widens. “But don’t tell my mom.”

We gather our purchases, say goodbye to Frank, and make our way into the rink. The two teams are already warming up on their respective sides of the ice to the blaring music, skating in circles, firing shots on the goalie. I try to pick out Emmett but they all look the same.

A shiver runs through me from the sudden drop in temperature, and I’m thankful for the sweater Heather warned me to bring as well as the piping-hot beverage in my grasp. “Where should we sit?” I spot Heather’s blonde head halfway down the blue bleacher-style seats, surrounded by a group of other moms, laughing and talking. Mark is standing at the top, talking to a man who fiddles with a video camera.

“We can sit with Holly.”

“She’s here?” Of course she’s here. To cheer on her boyfriend.

Cassie’s blue eyes search the heads in the stands before she announces with dismay, “I don’t see her.”

“Do you know if she’s coming?”

“She’s always here. Like me.” Cassie shrugs it off. “That’s okay. Sometimes she comes late. Can you help me with this?” She doesn’t wait for my answer, thrusting her hot chocolate toward me so she can grip the rail with both hands and ease down the steep set of concrete stairs with great care.

“This is good,” she declares, settling into a chair halfway down and over a section from the cluster of parents. She then takes her drink back and peels the lid open. “Mom! We’re going to sit over here!” she hollers, earning several waves and smiles from surrounding parents. “This is AJ! She’s our new neighbor!” She points at me, spilling her hot chocolate on her pants in the process. “Oops.” She laughs and haphazardly wipes it away with a hand before dismissing it completely.

I’m fastening my sweater when a buzzer sounds and the teams race to kneel in front of a man who must be their coach.

“That’s Emmett.” She points at the gaggle of guys in helmets at the Home bench. “Number forty-four. He plays left wing?” she says as if she’s not sure, her face scrunching up. “Emmett!” She waves at their backs.

“I think he’s listening to his coach.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s not watching.” When they finally break, five guys, including Emmett, skate into position. Cassie waves furiously again, calling his name.

He throws a hand in the air and Cassie points at me. “Look! It’s AJ!” Another splash of hot chocolate hits her clothes, this time her pink vest. “Oops.” She wipes once at it before ignoring it to take a sip through her straw. I’ve never met anyone who drinks hot chocolate through a straw.

But I’ve also never met anyone like Cassie before.

A whistle blows and the puck starts flying. “Do you understand the rules?” I ask.

“Yeah.” Cassie nods vigorously, then laughs. “Actually, no. Kind of. Where is Holly?” She looks over her shoulder at the door.

Spilling hot chocolate on herself … again.

“I don’t see her,” I confirm, silently admitting that I’m okay with that. I turn my attention to the game, to watch Emmett get the puck and race for his opponent’s end, weaving deftly around the player trying to block him, and firing off a shot. It sails in, earning a round of cheers and claps from the stands.

“He’s good,” Cassie says, her head bobbing up and down as if to emphasize it.

“He is.” I feel an odd and unexpected stir of pride in my stomach. I can see why a college team would want him.

“Yeah.” Cassie grins. “Emmett’s the best.”

“Holly!” Cassie pauses in her careful climb up the stairs to wave. “We were looking for you. Where were you?”

Holly smiles from the top of the stairs. She’s wearing a stylish quilted black vest and cute boots that I instantly want. “Hey, Cassie! I didn’t think you were here! Where were you sitting?”

“Over there. With AJ.” She points to our row.

“Oh, nuts. You’re usually with your mom. I was sitting way over there.” She points with a fuchsia-painted nail toward the opposite side.

Cassie shakes her head and laughs. “Okay.”

“Next time, we’ll sit together. Promise.” Holly’s blue eyes widen with that word and then she winks at me. “That was a good game but I’ve gotta say hi and bye to Emmett and then race home to do a bunch of homework. See you both tomorrow at school?”

“Okay. Oh!” Cassie’s eyes light up. “Did you get that picture of Roger Dodger?”

Holly’s head cocks to the side. “I did. He’s so cute.” Holly flashes one last brilliant, white-toothed smile and then rushes past us toward the exit doors.

“I sent her a picture of Roger Dodger, from the shelter, being really silly. He’s my favorite.”

“I thought they were all your favorite,” I say absently, looking back to where we were sitting.

Wondering how Holly could possibly have missed Cassie’s bright pink vest.

Dear Julia,

I think I like Emmett. Like, REALLY like him. But maybe you already guessed that. He’s easily the hottest guy in school. Maybe on earth. The real kicker is that he doesn’t act like he knows it. And that smile … Ugh. And then there’s the whole hockey thing. I don’t even like hockey! But seeing him out there tonight, as good as he is … I don’t know. It did things to me. I need to learn about hockey.

This whole crushing-hard-on-your-neighbor-when-he’s-in-love-with-his-beautiful-girlfriend thing sucks, big time. But, at least I get to see him every day. Friendship is better than strangers, right?

I’m such a loser.

Hopelessly pining,

~AJ

9

“I’ll grab us seats,” Jen offers.

“Thanks.” I frown at the tiny ice cream cones on her shirt as she lumbers down the hall, her lunch bag dangling from her fingertips. Why does she wear clothes like that, anyway? Every day it’s something unusual. Yesterday she came to school in a shirt with a giant smiley face across the chest. People stared. They frowned. They whispered. I haven’t seen anyone be outright mean to her yet, but it’s only a matter of time. She’s a prime target for bullies.

What I haven’t been able to figure out yet is whether she cares. She must not. But I also haven’t seen her hanging out with anyone besides me and Josie, the quiet Asian girl who has said maybe five words to me total, though she sits with us at lunch every day.

Am I alienating myself in my new school and my new life, the more I hang out with her?

The girls’ bathroom is empty when I enter. I head for the farthest stall, hanging my things on the hook and fishing out my phone to send a quick text my mother.

The outer door creaks open. “… trying to get him Leafs tickets. My dad’s company has box seats so if I could get two golds for the home opener …” Holly’s honeyed voice reverberates over the tile walls. “Oh my God, Emmett will lose his mind!”

Envy pulls at my insides. She’s so lucky to have him. Does she realize how lucky she is?

“What do you think he’ll get you?” another voice asks. I recognize it from the party as Mandy’s.

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