’Tis the Off-Season CHAPTER ONE
“How about this one?” Alex Sackett asked. She twirled around so that her twin sister, Ava, could admire the way her pleated green skirt flared. “Do you think it’s festive enough for a party?”
Ava was lying on the kitchen floor alongside their dog, Moxy, rubbing Moxy’s furry stomach. She and Moxy both looked up. Ava cocked her head sideways as she regarded her twin. “I guess so,” she said. “But Al, Christmas is three weeks away. I’ve barely recovered from Thanksgiving. What party are you even talking about?”
Alex pursed her lips and gazed at her own reflection in the kitchen window. Now that it was December, darkness fell early. She smoothed her hair. “I haven’t been invited to any parties yet, but there will very likely be quite a few, given this town’s penchant for celebration.”
Ava grinned. Her sister had probably been itching to use the word “penchant” in a sentence. Ava had borrowed a pencil off Alex’s desk that morning—they were always sharp, with good erasers—so she knew that Alex was still going strong with her stack of SAT vocabulary cards. Moxy rolled onto her back, all four paws straight in the air, to give Ava better access to tummy rubbing.
“And I’m bound to be invited, being that I’m seventh-grade class president and all.”
“Oh, yes, I almost forgot about that,” said Ava drily.
Alex didn’t seem to hear the sarcasm in Ava’s tone. “And as president, I really think people look to me for style tips,” she continued.
Alex moved to a cupboard door that Ava had left open, and closed it with exaggerated annoyance. “Still, I’m finding it a challenge to dress for the Christmas holiday season in a place where it never snows. I may not even have a chance to wear those boots I bought at the end-of-season sale last winter back in Massachusetts. That would be totally tragic.” The Sacketts had moved from Massachusetts to Texas just this past July. The twins were still getting used to the fact that it didn’t snow—or get very cold at all—in their new town.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, honey.” Their father, Coach Mike Sackett, loomed in the kitchen doorway. “Ashland does see snow from time to time. Maybe not as much as Massachusetts, but that’s fine with me. I’m not going to miss shoveling the driveway in February.”
Moxy scrambled to her feet and charged over to Coach, wagging her whole back end with delight. He reached down and fluffed the dog’s ears. His hair was damp and combed and Ava noticed a dab of shaving cream just below his chin. She felt a surge of affection for her dad. He was the head coach of the Ashland Tigers football team—that was the reason they’d moved. It was a high-pressure job, but a few weeks ago Coach had shown the town he had what it took to win the state championship in his very first season.
“At least I’ll be able to wear my new boots when we go to Massachusetts for Christmas,” said Alex.
Ava shook her head as she got to her feet. Her sister was a planner. Alex was the sort of person who bought Christmas presents for people in July, when she saw “just the right thing.”
“Hey, Coach,” said Ava. “Who’s going to look after Moxy when we’re in Massachusetts?”
“What?” Coach glanced down at Moxy with a startled look, as though he’d forgotten she existed. Moxy, annoyed that he’d stopped petting her ears, pawed his pant leg. “Oh, uh, we’ll work all that out,” he said. He seemed relieved when Mrs. Sackett bustled into the kitchen, fastening her earring.
She had put on a black dress and was holding a pair of strappy shoes, but Ava could see a streak of blue paint on her wrist. She grinned. Her mom might look put-together at first glance, but the twins could always spot some evidence of her artsy side.
“Girls, are you sure you’re okay making your own dinner tonight?” she asked them, hopping a little as she slipped first one foot and then the other into her shoes. “Tommy’s going out with Cassie, so it’s just you two.”
“Of course we’re sure,” both girls said at the same time. Ava was glad her brother wasn’t here. She and Alex often said the same thing, or finished each other’s sentences, and Tommy called it their creepy twin thing. It was something they’d been doing ever since they had both learned to talk.
“You and Daddy have fun. Ave and I are going to watch a romantic movie,” said Alex.
Ava smiled and nodded at their mom. In fact, the idea of sending their parents on a date tonight had been her idea. Football season was over for all of them—not just for Coach, but for Tommy, too, who was a sophomore and a player on the team, and also for Ava, who was the only girl on the Ashland Middle School team. But the real reason Ava had proposed that her parents go out tonight was because she wanted to distract them from asking how her math test had gone today. (Answer: not too well.)
Tommy barged in, engulfed in a cloud of body spray. He stepped around Moxy and opened the refrigerator door to peer inside.
“Why are you eating now? Aren’t you and Cassie going out for pizza tonight?” asked Alex.
“Yep,” said Tommy, pulling out the fixings to make himself a sandwich. “That’s why I need to pre-eat. I can’t show her my fearsome appetite this early in our relationship or I might scare her off.”
“And, let me guess, you’re planning to pay, too, right?” asked Ava with a sly look. “You can’t eat as much as you would if Mom and Dad were footing the bill.”
“Now, Ave,” said Mrs. Sackett, suppressing a smile.
“You ready, honey?” Coach asked their mom, picking up the car keys.
Mrs. Sackett nodded as Coach opened the kitchen door and stepped aside to let her pass.
“I can’t believe we’re going on an actual date on an actual Friday night,” she said with a laugh. “And that we don’t have to watch a football film tonight.”
“I never said that,” said Coach with a grin. “The night is young.”
“He’s so romantic,” sighed Mrs. Sackett.
Alex followed them to the door and waved as they drove away. A few minutes later, Tommy polished off the last bite of his sandwich and then he, too, left. And then it was just the two of them and Moxy.
“Yes!” said Ava. She pulled the jar of popcorn kernels and a bottle of oil out of a cupboard. “Mom forgot all about my math test.” She put her ten fingertips together, wiggling them evil-villain-style, and pretended to cackle. “My little scheme worked out perfectly!” she said.
Alex crossed her arms and gazed sternly at her sister. “Did you seriously concoct this date idea for Mom and Dad so they wouldn’t ask you about the math test you took today?”
Ava smiled sweetly. “I might have.”
“That is so pernicious of you!” said Alex. Another vocab word.
“I just didn’t feel like thinking about schoolwork on a Friday night,” said Ava. “Plus I have the whole weekend to do homework. I don’t have a game tomorrow, remember? I’ve got nothing but time on my hands until basketball season starts, and that won’t be until after Christmas break.” As the athletic half of the twins, not only had Ava been the lone girl on the football team, but she was planning to try out for the basketball team for the winter season. Luckily, there was a girls’ team, so Ava wouldn’t have to deal with all the publicity she’d had to endure during the football season.
Her sister dropped the stern face and moved to pull a big mixing bowl out of the bottom cupboard. “You make the popcorn. I’ll get started on the chocolate chip cookies.”
“Sounds good,” agreed Ava. “And it’s my turn to pick the movie, so forget romance—let’s watch something scary!”
Half an hour later, the cookies were in the oven and the two sisters were settled in on opposite ends of the comfy couch in Coach’s study, watching the opening credits of a new thriller they’d both wanted to see. Moxy lay between them, snoring gently. Moxy was not permitted on the couch when their mom was home, but she took every opportunity she could get to jump up when Mrs. Sackett was out. Each girl cradled a big bowl of buttered popcorn.
Just five minutes into the movie, Moxy lifted her head, her eyes wide open, her ears cocked expectantly. She leaped down from the couch and began barking her head off.
“Did someone knock?” Alex asked Ava.
Ava paused the movie. “I’m not sure.”
Alex slipped her feet into her fluffy pink bunny slippers and then shuffled out of the room toward the front door. She peered through the peephole. Moxy was still barking.
Ava stood up too and watched at the door of the study as her sister jerked her face away from the peephole and gasped. She turned and stared at Ava, her green eyes round with surprise.
“It’s Corey!” she mouthed silently.
Corey O’Sullivan? What was he doing here on a Friday night?
Alex became a panicked mess. She kicked off her bunny slippers and threw them behind the umbrella stand. She pulled out her hair tie and frantically fluffed her hair into place. “Why is he here?” she whispered to Ava. “How does my hair look? Of all the times to be wearing this shirt!” She stared down at her old, comfy T-shirt with the purple sparkly unicorn on it.
Ava rolled her eyes, moved her sister gently out of the way, and opened the door.
“Hey, Ave,” said Corey. He seemed relieved to see her. Corey was the quarterback of the middle school football team, and he and Ava had gotten pretty close during the season. Then he noticed Alex standing behind Ava, and suddenly his gaze dropped and he stared to the left and to the right and then down at his sneakers.
“Hey, Corey,” said Ava. “What’s up? Do you want to come in? We’re watching Don’t Look, but it just started.”
“What? No. I mean, thanks, no. I just had a, um, a, um, a question,” said Corey, his voice barely audible.
This was so weird. Why is he so nervous? Ava wondered.
“Hi!” squeaked Alex. She stepped out from where she’d been hiding behind Ava.
Corey’s gaze flicked up to Alex and then quickly away. “Oh, hey, Alex. Didn’t expect to find you here.”
“Why not?” demanded Ava. “She lives here.”
“Oh, ha-ha, yeah, that’s right,” said Corey.
“Ha-ha,” agreed Alex.
“Ha-ha,” said Corey.
The conversation lagged. Corey took off his baseball cap, scratched behind his ear, and put it back on.
“So do you want to come in?” asked Ava, starting to feel exasperated.
“No! I mean, um, no, thanks. I just wanted to ask Alex something quickly,” said Corey.
Ava raised her eyebrows. Alex nodded expectantly.
“I just wanted to ask . . . ,” he said.
The twins waited.
“. . . to ask . . .”
Moxy, who had stopped barking when she saw it was Corey, poked her head out and sniffed in Corey’s direction, then wagged her tail encouragingly.
“. . . to ask what the math homework is!” he finally blurted out.
Alex blinked. “Oh! Ah, the math homework? Um, let me think.”
There was an awkward pause, and Corey seemed to be looking around for help.
“Oh, right,” said Alex. “Officially we don’t have any, unless you want to start reviewing for the quiz on unit three, which is going to be on Tuesday,” she said, her voice slightly higher than usual. Ava knew Alex always got nervous talking to boys. “I might do a few practice problems,” added Alex, “ because quadratic equations can be tricky.”
Ava rolled her eyes. Alex was brilliant at quadratic equations. But Ava knew she would do more than “a few” practice problems anyway.
“Got it. Thanks,” said Corey. “Well, see you guys.” He darted down the front steps toward his bike, which was lying on its side on the front lawn.
“Bye!” the girls called after him. They watched him put on the reflective vest that all the kids in the neighborhood wore when they rode their bikes at night. Corey didn’t live very far away, but he must have really wanted to know about the math homework.
Ava pulled Alex away from the door and then shut and locked it again. “Well, that was random,” she said. “Come on. Let’s get back to the movie.”
But Alex had moved to the little window next to the door so she could watch Corey pedal away.
“Why do you think he came here to ask me about homework on a Friday night?” she asked. “Why didn’t he just text me?”
Ava shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe he wanted to get in some cardio. Come on.”
“I mean, he and Lindsey are definitely broken up, so it’s okay that he showed up at our house, right? Do you think he might like me?”
Ava sighed. “Al, I don’t know. I don’t have that kind of relationship with Corey. We’re teammates. I stay out of that stuff.”
“Well, this has the potential to get complicated with Lindsey,” said Alex, slowly following her sister back to the study. “I finally feel like Lindsey and I are becoming good friends. What would she think if Corey and I started liking each other? I mean, how can I not interpret this sudden visit from Corey as an indication that he might like me?”
Ava sniffed. “Uh-oh,” she said. “I think we have bigger problems to worry about right now than whether Corey likes you.”
Alex had smelled it too. “The cookies!” she shrieked, and raced to the kitchen.