Alex Sackett checked her reflection in the screen of her phone.
“Seriously, Alex?” Emily Campbell scrunched her nose. “It’s pizza. And studying for science. You look fine.”
“But that’s it. It’s not just pizza and studying.” Alex twirled a strand of her long hair around her finger, then released the chocolate-brown tendril and watched it bounce into place. Should she apply more lip gloss? Or were her lips too shellacked? Maybe she should wipe some off?
“We don’t know for sure he’ll be here,” Emily said, pulling open the door of Sal’s Pizzeria.
“But you said Greg said they were stopping
by—” Alex sucked in her breath. “Oh! Lindsey’s here.”
Their friend Lindsey Davis sat in a booth next to eighth-grade baseball player Johnny Morton. Her long blond hair fell over one eye. She reached for a mozzarella stick from the plate between them, laughing at something Johnny said. He laughed too.
Alex felt her stomach twist. “Are they—are they on a date?” she whispered.
“Of course! They’re going out, you know that. Hey, Lindz!” Emily waved. Alex raised her hand too.
Lindsey waved but didn’t call them over. It must really be a date, Alex decided.
Alex and Emily slid into an empty booth on the other side of the pizzeria. Alex couldn’t take her eyes off Lindsey and Johnny. He said something. Then she said something. Back and forth. No awkward pauses. And they were both crazy good-looking. It was so unfair! Lindsey made having a boyfriend look so easy!
Alex had met Lindsey and Emily as soon as she’d moved to Ashland, Texas, this past summer. Lindsey was going out with Corey O’Sullivan then. And now she was going out with Johnny.
Last week Emily and Greg Fowler became an official couple. Their other friend, Rosa Navarro, was going out with Ryan O’Hara. Greg and Ryan didn’t seem all that special, but still . . . . was Alex the only seventh-grade girl at Ashland Middle School without a boyfriend? It sure seemed that way. Well, her and her twin sister, Ava.
Great, Alex thought. She didn’t need this to be a Sackett Twin thing too.
But Ava didn’t want a boyfriend. She only wanted to play sports with the guys.
“Oh, wow!” Alex clapped her hand over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. But Lindsey and Johnny had just kissed?! Right in the middle of the pizza place!
“See?” Emily giggled. “I told you Lindsey was over Corey. He’s all yours.”
Alex sighed. Corey O’Sullivan, with his mischievous bright-blue eyes and dark-red hair, was far from all hers. Alex had liked him forever, but he’d been going out with Lindsey. Until now. Until Johnny . . . and that kiss.
Suddenly Alex felt queasy. “Have you and Greg kissed?” she whispered to Emily.
Emily blushed and looked away. “What do you think?”
Alex hadn’t thought about it until now. But yes, she did think they had kissed. In fact, she was sure that all her friends not only had a boyfriend but had been kissed as well. Everyone except her.
She had been so close, too—and with Corey. They had been at his Christmas party, standing right under the mistletoe. He’d leaned toward her, and she’d closed her eyes, and . . . then it had started to snow. Everyone around them screamed with excitement and ran outside and poof! The moment was gone.
Now she wondered if he’d he really been leaning in to kiss her, or if she’d made it up. Maybe he was just going to tell her something. Doubt gnawed at her.
Alex exhaled loudly. When she had a problem, she hated to sit around and mope. Instead she flew into action. And that’s what she would do now. She made a mental plan:
Get a boyfriend.
How hard could that be?
It shouldn’t be that hard, Alex decided. After all, there are hundreds of boys at Ashland
Middle School. But she didn’t want just any boyfriend. She wanted Corey. Corey was popular, played football, and had the best smile in their grade. Alex shook her head. Her parents said she always aimed high. Of course, they meant with grades and activities. I guess I aim high with boyfriends, too.
Emily had promised to help her. They were at Sal’s Pizzeria on a Monday night, pretending to study, because Emily heard Corey would be here. Alex knew Corey liked her. He’d been hanging around her locker, and laughing when she made jokes that she knew weren’t funny. But maybe she’d completely misread things. Or maybe things had changed. It had been a while since his Christmas party, and she’d been so busy organizing and eventually performing in the school Variety Show that she hadn’t spent much time with him.
The bell above the door jangled, and Corey, Greg, and Tim Fowler hurried in, shaking off the late February rain from their jackets. At the sight of him, Alex wished she’d had time to make a more detailed plan. How exactly was she supposed to get Corey to be her boyfriend? She’d
never been a on a date before. Were there some magic words girls like Lindsey knew? A secret look? An emoji to text?
“Showtime!” Emily whispered to Alex. Then she waved the boys over.
Alex smiled brightly at Corey. Was she grinning like a demonic clown? She rearranged her face into a cool, hey there look and tried to lean casually against the back of the booth. Emily expertly maneuvered the boys so Corey had no choice but to slide next to Alex, while Greg and Tim squeezed in next to Emily.
Corey barely glanced at Lindsey and Johnny, Alex noticed. That had to be a good sign, right? Her heart beat so loudly she was sure the others could hear it.
Corey touched the cover of her textbook. “Do you have that science quiz tomorrow too? I can never remember that whole class, order, phylum thing.”
For a moment, Alex thought about pretending that she didn’t know it either. But she did know it. She wasn’t going to play dumb. “I can help,” she offered. “It’s kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.”
“Oh yeah, you’re a big help!” Corey raised
his arms in surrender. “How am I supposed to remember all that?”
“Use a mnemonic,” Alex said. “I love making up mnemonics.”
“Okay, you’ve totally lost me,” Corey joked.
“Alex is always using big words to impress us,” Emily said.
“I’m not trying to impress anyone,” Alex insisted. She collected words the way some kids collected snow globes or postcards from faraway places. She loved the way so many different words could all mean the same thing. She loved certain letter combinations. How cool were the m and n together in mnemonic, especially since the m was silent?
Would Corey think this was cool too? Alex wasn’t so sure. She knew he was smart, but she didn’t know if he was as nerdy deep down as she was. She suddenly felt nervous. And when she was nervous, she talked. A lot.
“A mnemonic is when you take the first letters of each word and make a sentence to help you remember something,” Alex explained to Corey. “Here’s one: Kevin’s Poor Cow Only Feels Good Sometimes. Or you can use King Phillip Cried Out For Good Soup.”
Corey nodded vigorously. “Give me a sec.” He thought a moment. “Keep Purple Cats Off Football Game Socks!”
“Wow, that one’s hilarious! Totally ingenious!” Alex cringed. Why hadn’t she just said “funny” and “smart”? She was messing up royally.
But soon Emily, Tim, and Greg were making up silly mnemonics too. Corey gave her a playful shove as he recited another one, and her heart sped up again. He was so close she could smell the fabric softener on his faded blue shirt—it was the same one her parents used. If they went out, he would sit even closer. He would hold her hand. And maybe kiss her.
“Alex? Hey, Earth to Alex!” Emily waved her hand in front of Alex’s face.
Oh no! She’d been sitting there with her mouth hanging open. She hated how weird and awkward she got around boys, and she thought things had been getting better now that she was getting to know Corey a little more. But here she was, unable to speak and having a silent heart attack.
“What?” Alex asked. She fidgeted, readjusting her stretchy hot-pink headband.
“I was talking about that new movie, Escape
from Dark Woods. Aren’t you dying to see it too?” Emily asked.
Alex wasn’t dying to see it. She hated horror movies. Emily knew that.
“Well—” Alex started.
“Corey wants to see it,” Emily interrupted. She shot Alex a meaningful look.
Alex brightened. “Yes! I do want to see it.”
“You two should see it together.” Emily grinned.
“Hey, are you kids ordering a pizza?” Sal, the bearded owner, appeared at their table and wiped his hands on his white apron.
“Definitely. We’ll have a large pie,” Emily said. “Right, guys?”
Tim and Greg fell into a debate with Emily about pizza toppings, and Corey nudged her arm.
“Do you . . . um . . . want to go see that movie?” Corey asked in a low voice.
Alex wondered if she should play it cool, but she didn’t think she could. “With you?”
“Yeah.” Corey fiddled with a paper napkin.
Alex thought her face would crack if she dared to smile any bigger. Corey had asked her out!
“Definitely,” she said.
“So you’re good with mushrooms, Alex?” Tim asked. “Emily said you’re a vegetarian.”
Who cared what was on the pizza? She was finally going on a date! Her first date!
Ava Sackett let the sounds and smells of the Ashland Middle School gym envelop her as she rolled the basketball between her palms. She’d missed the familiar scent of sweat and excitement and the rhythmic pounding of sneakers. She’d missed the exhilaration of moving the ball up court and the heart-pounding thrill of scoring. She felt as if she’d returned home after a long journey. The world made so much more sense to her when she stood on a football field or basketball court.
“Hey, Sackett!” Xander Browning pumped his fist, as the boys’ basketball team completed their final cooldown lap.
“I’m back!” Ava waved and smiled. Last week, when the doctor finally cleared her to play, she had literally jumped for joy. Nursing her sprained ankle at home while the season progressed
without her had been torturous. In a few minutes, she would take the court with the Ashland Middle School girls’ basketball team for her first practice in weeks. She still had to wear an ankle brace while she played, but she’d gotten pretty used to doing everything normally in it.
Ava watched Xander down his blue sports drink in two huge gulps and Kal Tippett wrap his green towel around his head. The boys’ postpractice rituals were so familiar to her that she momentarily felt as if she belonged out there with them. She had played football with so many of these boys in the fall. She knew them far better than she knew the girls on the basketball team. She’d missed much of the season with her injury, and she’d just moved to Ashland over the summer, so she hadn’t gotten very friendly with many of her teammates.
Ava dribbled the ball with one hand and gave Kal and Xander high fives with the other as they filed off the court.
“Ready to tear it up out there?” Xander asked.
“I was born ready!” Ava called. A group of eighth-grade girls in royal-blue-and-orange Ashland Tiger Cub sweatshirts and basketball shorts entered the gym.
“Watch out for her, Tamara,” Kal said to the tallest of the girls. “We’ve made Ava football-tough.”
“You didn’t make me anything,” Ava retorted with a grin. “I came on the field tougher than all of you.”
“Burn!” called Xander. “She got you, Kal.”
“Got you, too, Browning,” Kal replied, and shoved Xander. Xander shoved him back as the boys jostled their way out of the gym and into the darkening Texas night.
Ava felt the girls eye her warily. She self-consciously tucked a stray piece of her chocolate-brown hair behind her ear. She didn’t want them to get the wrong idea, especially on her first day back. She knew she was a good player, but she wasn’t conceited. The football team had a bragging banter that she just fell into naturally.
“Your ankle’s better now?” asked Tamara Baker.
“Totally. I’m dying to play with all of you,” Ava said. “I can’t believe I got hurt as soon as I hit the court in the first game. I was so bummed.”
While Ava sat out, she had watched as Tamara became the team high scorer—she had even scored more points than their captain, Callie Wagner. She stood almost a full head taller than the other girls. Freckles covered her nose and
cheeks, and her long blond braid reached down her back.
Tamara licked her lips and studied Ava. “We haven’t done so badly without your ‘Sackett magic,’ you know. We’ve won eight games.”
“I do know! That’s great!” Ava gave her a genuine smile. She wasn’t exactly sure what Tamara meant by “Sackett magic.” She supposed Tamara was referring to the fact that Ava’s dad was the new coach of the high school football team—that was why their family had moved from Massachusetts—and the team had won state this year. Coaching a high school football team to state victory in Texas was like successfully landing the first rocket on Mars—maybe even better. The whole town loved him now.
Except the Kelly/Baker family.
Ava hadn’t realized right away that Tamara was a part of that family. And when she had, Tamara’s competitiveness made a lot more sense.
Her older cousin, PJ Kelly, was the star high school quarterback. Her younger brother, Andy Baker, was on the middle school football team with Ava. He seemed to have the most issues with a girl on the team, even after Ava had proved herself to all the other guys. Various other Kelly
and Baker cousins were head cheerleaders, marching band captains, and pep squad leaders. And then there was PJ’s dad—Mr. Kelly hated Coach Sackett. Ava couldn’t figure out why. The team had won and his son was QB1. What more did the man want? But Mr. Kelly’s anti-Sackett feelings had infected the entire family. Including Tamara, it now seemed.
“On the court!” boomed Coach Rader. He clapped his hands, and the entire team began to jog and dribble balls around the perimeter of the gym. Ava fell into line.
The majority of the girls were in eighth grade, but there were a few other seventh graders in addition to Ava. She eagerly followed the warm-up drills, most of which she remembered from her two weeks of practice before hurting her ankle. She knew she’d be sore tomorrow, and she was glad. She felt like her old self again—full of energy.
The girls broke into a two-line layup drill. Tamara, in the spot ahead of her, netted the ball. For a moment, Ava worried if her time away from the court would show. But her first shot swooshed easily into the basket. Her second and third found the net too.
Tamara scored. Ava scored. Soon it felt as if they were the only two on the court.
She’s good, Ava thought.
“Pair up for passing!” called Coach Rader.
“Hey, Tama—” Ava started. But Tamara spun away and paired up with Callie Wagner. Ava paired up with Madison Jackson, one of the other seventh graders.
Run, pass, run, pass. Ava kept her eyes trained on the ball. You can’t catch what you can’t see, her dad always said.
Suddenly the heavy gym door slammed open, and a tall, muscular boy bounded in. Ava swiveled her head in amazement and missed the catch.
“Sorry!” she called to Madison, and scurried after the ball. She watched the boy for a moment as he took his place next to Coach Rader. He had dark-blond hair and prominent cheekbones. His brown eyes drooped downward, giving him a sleepy look.
“What’s he doing here?” Ava whispered to Madison.
“PJ Kelly? He’s going to start volunteering after football workouts,” Madison said. “He’s our new assistant coach.”
“Really?” Ava wasn’t sure what to make of this. Why was the star high school quarterback bothering with the middle school girls’ basketball team?
“Are you going to pass?” Madison asked. They were the only two not in motion.
“Yeah, sure.” Ava threw the ball.
“Scrimmage!” Coach Rader quickly divided the girls into two groups, with Ava on the team with orange practice jerseys, and Tamara on the royal-blue team.
Ava immediately gained possession of the ball. She ran up court. But Tamara loomed large. She blocked Ava’s throw, causing her shot to bounce off the rim.
“Excellent D!” called PJ, clearly pleased with Tamara’s defensive moves.
Ava tore after her on the rebound, using her shoulder to knock the ball from Tamara.
“Hey, Ava! Not so rough!” called Coach Rader.
Ava made a mental note to tone it down. This wasn’t football. People here didn’t wear pads or expect to be tackled.
Ava dribbled around Jane Lopez, and then Tamara was on her again, stealing the ball.
Despite Ava’s blocking, Tamara hit the three-pointer from the corner.
“Way to go, Tam!” PJ bellowed.
Madison passed the ball to Ava. Ava passed it to Callie, who sent it back into Ava’s hands. Her heart pumped as she dribbled sloppily around Jane once again.
“Control! Control the ball!” PJ’s deep voice rose above the pounding on the floorboards.
Does he know I’m Coach Sackett’s daughter? Ava wondered. Probably. The whole town knew she and Alex were Coach Sackett’s twin daughters. Suddenly Ava wanted to show him what she could do. She wanted to prove that she did have the “Sackett magic.”
This called for her killer layup. When she played with her friend Jack Valdeavano in the park, he dubbed it her secret weapon.
No more holding back. Time to shine! Ava thought.
She broke for the basket. Tamara blocked her path. Ava faked right, then dodged left. Tamara stuck with her.
“Here! Over here, Ava!” cried Jane. Jane was wide open.
Ava knew she should pass. Tamara was taller and bigger, and left her no clear path. But she desperately wanted to show PJ her layup.
“Ava!” Jane called again.
Ava hesitated, and in that moment, Tamara swiped the ball from her. Ava watched in disbelief as Tamara executed a perfect layup. Her layup.
“You rock, Tam!” cheered PJ. Even Coach Rader clapped.
Ava felt the air seep out of her. On the football field, she was special because she was the only girl—and because she was better than a lot of the boys. She’d thought that on an all-girls’ team, she’d automatically be the star. Now she saw that she wasn’t.
“I’m out of practice,” she announced suddenly. But no one answered.
The scrimmage started up again, and Ava got back into the game.
Maybe not today, but before the season ends, she vowed, I’ll show them that I’m as good as Tamara—maybe even better.