“Well, if it isn’t the Steckler sisters.” Coach Gary crosses his arms over his broad chest and widens his stance. He’s wearing a blue Edgewater hat over his bald head and his legs are bronze, as if he’s been outside every day for the past three months. When a breeze rustles his shorts, I glimpse his pearly white thighs where his tan line makes a hard stop.
“Miss us, Coach?” Ellie teases. But as soon as she says it, her face turns red, like she forgot she was greeting the dude who earned the nickname Coach Scary after he made a whole bunch of freshmen cry last year. But he gets results. And that’s what everyone cares about. That’s what I care about.
“You two? Nah,” he says, playing along. His dark eyes narrow and he tilts his head toward me. “Breakbridge do you right?”
“It better have,” he says. “You’ve got a lot to prove this year.”
I straighten my spine and don’t look away. “I know.”
He snaps a piece of gum. “Looking forward to seeing what you’ve got.” His eyes move over my shoulder and I turn to follow his gaze toward the bleachers. There, sitting in the front row, is a small white woman with gray hair and sunglasses, holding a clipboard. She’s wearing a polo shirt and hiking shorts. I don’t recognize her from the college recruiter lists.
“What school is she from?” I ask, fear building in my stomach. Scouts aren’t supposed to come to practices. Hell, we’re lucky when they show up to meets.
“Ours,” he says, his voice gruff and frustrated. “School board oversight. They just wanted to keep an eye on things after last year.”
Ellie lets out a groan.
“Shut it, Baby Steckler,” Coach snaps. “I don’t have time for this. You’re my squad. My girls. Just have to show ’em I still have a handle on you lot.”
Ellie clamps her mouth shut and looks to the ground. Before we can say anything else, we’re interrupted by whooping and hollering. I turn to the parking lot to see Tamara Johnson, Raven Tannenbaum, and Julia Heller tumbling out of a rose-gold SUV branded with a bumper sticker for the Ellacoya Mountain Resort. They pose for a selfie in their practice uniforms and break into a fit of laughter about some inside joke we’ll never understand. They start to walk toward us and Tamara smiles, her box braids swinging behind her. Raven’s pale, freckled arms hang by her sides like ropes and she glances at Tamara, hungry for approval. Julia’s straight, dirty-blonde hair is gathered into a tight high ponytail that looks like it’s pulling at her scalp.
This goddamn threesome. Julia and Tamara have been best friends since kindergarten when the Hellers moved to Edgewater to open another location of their fancy sporting goods chain. They became tight with Raven a few years later, which was a good thing, considering that when her sister Shira pulled that ridiculous stunt, no one wanted to go anywhere near the Tannenbaums. Well, no one except Tamara and Julia. They stuck by her side. It was pretty nice, I guess. Doesn’t make up for the fact that Julia still calls me Sterile and continues to just be a straight-up asshole. She and Tamara aren’t that fast. Raven, though. She could be good but she chokes all the time.
Coach ignores them. “Stella, stretching,” he commands. “You are co-captain, after all.” He flashes a menacing smile and raises his eyebrows. The school board almost took the title away from me last year, after I got suspended. But Coach got the administration to let me stay on as long as there was a co-captain for the girls’ squad. It was no surprise the team voted for Tamara.
I jog onto the patch of grass in the middle of the track and stand tall, waiting for the rest of the team to circle up around me. We’re fifteen deep this year, counting the few freshmen who are trying out this week, and the group looks good and lithe. It’s obvious I’ll make it to State, but if these dummies can get it together, we might have a shot at placing as a team, too.
“Hi, Stella,” Tamara says, tossing her braids over one shoulder. “Should we give the girls a pep talk?”
“After stretching, maybe,” I say. “You can do that part.”
She smiles so wide her molars show, then nods to Raven and Julia off to the side. “Circle up, ladies!” she calls.
I hop up and down and drop to the earth as the others follow. “Left leg out,” I call and thrust my leg long. My muscles tense and acquiesce, a familiar feeling of strain and release.
“Switch!” I yell.
But when I lift my head to swap my legs, I see everyone has stopped paying attention. Their gaze has shifted. Their heads are turned to the parking lot, where Coach Gary bounces on the balls of his feet. He taps his clipboard nervously with a pen. A tall girl with high cheekbones stands before him in gray spandex shorts and a black racerback running shirt. An Edgewater-blue bow is tied around her dark, wavy ponytail, which hangs long down her back.
“Who is that?” Tamara asks. She pulls on one of her braids, a nervous tic.
“No clue,” Julia says.
“Oh, shit, I know,” Raven says softly. Of course she does. Her mom, Mrs. Tannenbaum, is the school secretary, so she knows everything.
“Who?” Julia asks.
“That’s Mila Keene. I think she moved here over the summer,” Raven says.
“Who?” Julia asks again.
My heart sinks. I’ve heard of Mila. Everyone who is competitive in the greater northeast has. She won the Connecticut State championship last year as a sophomore and was rumored to have been talking to the scouts at Harvard. Why the hell is she here? And why the hell is she walking toward us?
“I said switch,” I call out, suddenly annoyed and flushed. When I bring my left ankle in to my thigh I realize it’s shaking.
“Her parents split up,” Raven continues, dropping her voice to a whisper. “I think her mom got a job at the hospital, so they moved here from one of those suburbs close to Manhattan. Her dad’s back in Connecticut.” She bends down over her knee. “At least that’s what my mom said.”
“Why didn’t she just stay there?” Julia asks.
“Who knows?” Raven says softly. She twists the ends of her red hair around one finger, exposing a swath of freckles trailing down her neck.
“Shh,” Tamara says. “They’re coming this way.”
I look up to see Coach and Mila jogging toward us. He snaps his gum loudly as he lugs Mila’s practice bag over his shoulder. She follows behind him, her gait elegant and graceful. Shit, she’s wearing shiny lilac Nikes—the lilac Nikes. Even from here, I can see her initials are embroidered on the flat end of each shoelace. My heart drops. I have that pair, too. All the best high school track stars do since Nike gifted them to the top five runners in each state last year. I’m furious I didn’t wear mine today. Just these dumb practice ASICS. They don’t even come with spikes.
Coach Gary clears his throat. “Girls,” he bellows. “This is Mila Keene.”
The others raise their heads and offer sweet smiles, saccharine and fake. If Mila senses the charade, she doesn’t let on. She just stands there grinning, her arms loose and relaxed by her sides. She doesn’t fidget or shift her weight from one foot to the other. She’s just happy to be here. How, though?
“Hey!” Mila says. She even gives a little wave.
“Mila just moved here from Hadbury, Connecticut, but you girls are smart; you probably already knew that. She will be joining the junior class and our squad. If you don’t watch out, she’ll kick your ass.” Coach looks directly at me and smirks. “Make her feel at home, will ya?”
Heads bob up and down. Raven stands up first and offers Mila her hand. “Welcome to the team!” she says. I have to suppress an eye roll. Raven has always been nice, in the same way vanilla ice cream is nice but you’d rather have cookie dough.
Tamara follows suit, and pretty soon, almost all the girls surround Mila, asking her questions and complimenting her Nikes.
But I stay put on the ground. I stick both my legs out in front of me and lower my head to meet my knees, breathing deeply and leaning into the tugging sensation on the back of my calves.
When I finally lift my head, I squint. The sun is bright, and if we don’t get our heart rates up soon, the heat will destroy us.
When the rest of the circle comes into focus, I see only Ellie is left stretching on the ground. She’s looking directly at me and our eyes lock in a state of fury.
We’re ready for war.