Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy's best friend and trusted lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they're seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls until the young new coach arrives.
Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach's golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as "top girl" both with the team and with Addy herself.
Then a suicide focuses a police investigation on Coach and her squad. After the first wave of shock and grief, Addy tries to uncover the truth behind the death and learns that the boundary between loyalty and love can be dangerous terrain.
The raw passions of girlhood are brought to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of friendship, ambition, and power. Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott, writing with what Tom Perrotta has hailed as "total authority and an almost desperate intensity," provides a harrowing glimpse into the dark heart of the all-American girl.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Megan Abbott received her PhD in English and American Literature from New York University in 2000. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Dare MeA Novel
By Megan Abbott
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2012 Megan Abbott
All right reserved.
“Something happened, Addy. I think you better come.”
The air is heavy, misted, fine. It’s coming on two a.m. and I’m high up on the ridge, thumb jammed against the silver button: 27-G.
The intercom zzzzzz-es and the door thunks, and I’m inside.
As I walk through the lobby, it’s still buzzing, the glass walls vibrating.
Like the tornado drill in elementary school, Beth and me wedged tight, jeaned legs pressed against each other. The sounds of our own breathing. Before we all stopped believing a tornado, or anything, could touch us, ever.
“I can’t look. When you get here, please don’t make me look.”
In the elevator, all the way up, my legs swaying beneath me, 1-2-3-4, the numbers glow, incandescent.
The apartment is dark, one floor lamp coning halogen up in the far corner.
“Take off your shoes,” she says, her voice small, her wishbone arms swinging side to side.
We’re standing in the vestibule, which seeps into a dining area, its lacquer table like a puddle of ink.
Just past it, I see the living room, braced by a leather sectional, its black clamps tightening, as if across my chest.
Her hair damp, her face white. Her head seems to go this way and that way, looking away from me, not wanting to give me her eyes.
I don’t think I want her eyes.
“Something happened, Addy. It’s a bad thing.”
“What’s over there?” I finally ask, gaze fixed on the sofa, the sense that it’s living, its black leather lifting like a beetle’s sheath.
“What is it?” I say, my voice lifting. “Is there something behind there?”
She won’t look, which is how I know.
First, my eyes falling to the floor, I see a glint of hair twining in the weave of the rug.
Then, stepping forward, I see more.
“Addy,” she whispers. “Addy…is it like I thought?”
Four Months Ago
After a game, it takes a half hour under the showerhead to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair.
Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.
You’re really just trying to get your heart to slow down.
You think, This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, flip, fly.
After, you stand in front of the steaming mirror, the fuchsia streaks gone, the lashes unsparkled. And it’s just you there, and you look like no one you’ve ever seen before.
You don’t look like anybody at all.
At first, cheer was something to fill my days, all our days.
Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.
All those misty images of cheerleaders frolicking in locker rooms, pom-poms sprawling over bare bud breasts. All those endless fantasies and dirty boy-dreams, they’re all true, in a way.
Mostly it’s noisy and sweaty, it’s the roughness of bruised and dented girl bodies, feet sore from floor pounding, elbows skinned red.
But it is also a beautiful, beautiful thing, all of us in that close, wet space, safer than in all the world.
The more I did it, the more it owned me. It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high.
It was something. Don’t say it wasn’t.
And Coach gave it all to us. We never had it before her. So can you blame me for wanting to keep it? To fight for it, to the end?
She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen flickering from the corner of my eye. Did I ever feel anything at all until she showed me what feeling meant? Pushing at the corners of her cramped world with curled fists, she showed me what it meant to live.
There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.
Look at how my eyes shutter open and closed, like everything is just too much to take in.
I was never one of those mask-faced teenagers, gum lodged in mouth corner, eyes rolling and long sighs. I was never that girl at all. But I knew those girls. And when she came, I watched all their masks peel away.
We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.
So look at me here, in the locker room before the game.
I’m brushing the corner dust, the carpet fluff from my blister-white tennis shoes. Home-bleached with rubber gloves, pinched nose, smelling dizzyingly of Clorox, and I love them. They make me feel powerful. They were the shoes I bought the day I made squad.
Her first day. We all look her over with great care, our heads tilted. Some of us, maybe me, even fold our arms across our chests.
The New Coach.
There are so many things to take in, to consider and set on scales, tilted always toward scorn. Her height, barely five-four, pigeon-toed like a dancer, body drum-tight, a golden collarbone popping, forehead high.
The sharp edges of her sleek bob, if you look close enough, you can see the scissor slashes (did she have it cut this morning, before school? she must’ve been so eager), the way she holds her chin so high, treats it like a pointer, turning this way and that, watching us. And most of all her striking prettiness, clear and singing, like a bell. It hits us hard. But we will not be shaken by it.
All of us, slouching, lolling, pockets and hands chirping and zapping—how old u think? looka the whistle, WTF—the texts flying back and forth from each hiccupping phone. Not giving her anything but eyes glazed, or heads slung down, attending to important phone matters.
How hard it must be for her.
But standing there, back straight like a drill officer, she’s wielding the roughest gaze of all.
Eyes scanning the staggered line, she’s judging us. She’s judging each and every one. I feel her eyes shred me—my bow legs, or the flyaway hairs sticking to my neck, or the bad fit of my bra, me twisting and itching and never as still as I want to be. As she is.
“Fish could’ve swallowed her whole,” Beth mutters. “You could’ve fit two of her in Fish.”
Fish was our nickname for Coach Templeton, the last coach. The one plunked deep in late middle age, with the thick, solid body of a semi-active porpoise, round and smooth, and the same gold post earrings and soft-collared polo shirt and sneakers thick-soled and graceless. Hands always snugged around that worn spiral notebook of drills penciled in fine script, serving her well since the days when cheerleaders just dandled pom-poms and kicked high, high, higher. Sis-boom-something.
Her hapless mouth slack around her whistle, Fish spent most of her hours at her desk, playing spider solitaire. We’d spot, through the shuttered office window, the flutter of cards overturning. I almost felt sorry for her.
Long surrendered, Fish was. To the mounting swagger of every new class of girls, each bolder, more coil-mouth insolent than the last.
We girls, we owned her. Especially Beth. Beth Cassidy, our captain.
I, her forever-lieutenant, since age nine, peewee cheer. Her right hand, her fidus Achates. That’s what she calls me, what I am. Everyone bows to Beth and, in so doing, to me.
And Beth does as she pleases.
There really wasn’t any need for a coach at all.
But now this. This.
Fish was suddenly reeled away to gladed Florida to care for her teenage granddaughter’s unexpected newborn, and here she is.
The new one.
The whistle dangles between her fingers, like a charm, an amulet, and she is going to have to be reckoned with.
There is no looking at her without knowing that.
“Hello,” she says, voice soft but firm. No need to raise it. Instead, everyone leans forward. “I’m Coach French.”
And you ma bitches, the screen on my phone flashes, phone hidden in my palm. Beth.
“And I can see we have a lot to do,” she says, eyes radaring in on me, my phone like a siren, a bull’s-eye.
I can feel it still buzzing in my hand, but I don’t look at it.
There’s a plastic equipment crate in front of her. She lifts one graceful foot under the crate’s upper lip and flips it over, sending floor-hockey pucks humming across the shiny floor.
“In here,” she says, kicking the crate toward us.
We all look at it.
“I don’t think we’ll all fit,” Beth says.
Coach, face blank as the backboard above her, looks at Beth.
The moment is long, and Beth’s fingers squeak on her phone’s pearl flip.
Coach does not blink.
The phones, they drop, all of them. RiRi’s, Emily’s, Brinnie Cox’s, the rest. Beth’s last of all. Candy-colored, one by one into the crate. Click, clack, clatter, a chirping jangle of bells, birdcalls, disco pulses, silencing at last upon itself.
After, there’s a look on Beth’s face. Already I see how it will go for her.
“Colette French,” she smirks. “Sounds like a porn star, a classy one who won’t do anal.”
“I heard about her,” Emily says, still giddy-breathless from the last set of motion drills. All our legs are shaking. “She took the squad at Fall Wood all the way to state Semis.”
“Semis. Semi. Fucking. Epic,” Beth drones. “Be the dream.”
Emily’s shoulders sink.
None of us really cheer for glory, prizes, tourneys. None of us, maybe, know why we do it at all, except it is like a rampart against the routine and groaning afflictions of the school day. You wear that jacket, like so much armor, game days, the flipping skirts. Who could touch you? Nobody could.
My question is this:
The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators?
It isn’t immediate. No head-knocking conversion.
But with each day that week, the New Coach continues to hold our interest—a feat.
We let her drill us, we run tumbles. We show her all our routines and we keep our claps tight and our roundoffs smooth.
Then we show her our most heralded routine, the one we ended last basketball season with, lots of chorus line flips and toe touches and a big finish where we all pop Beth up into a straddle sit, her arms V-split above her head.
Coach seems almost to be watching, her foot perched on top of the crunking boom box.
Then she asks us what else we got.
“But everyone loved that number,” peeps Brinnie Cox. “They had us do it again at graduation.”
We all want Brinnie to shut up.
Coach, she’s just tighter, fleeter than we’d expected, and that first week, we take notice. Planted in front of us, her body held so lightly but so surely.
We can’t fluster her, and we are surprised.
We can fluster everyone, not just Fish but the endless sad parade of straw-man subs, dusty-shouldered geometry teachers and crepey-skinned guidance counselors.
Let’s face it, we’re the only animation in the whole drop-ceiling, glass-bricked tomb of a school. We’re the only thing moving, breathing, popping.
And we know it. You can feel that knowingness on us.
Look at them, that’s what we can hear them—everyone—say when, Game Day, we stride the hallways, pack-like, our ponytails rocking, our skirts like diamonds.
Who do they think they are?
But we know just who we are.
Just like Coach knows who she is. It’s in the click and tap of both her aloofness and nerve. So unconcerned with our nonsense. Bored with it. A boredom we know.
Right off, she won something there, even if—or because—she didn’t ask for it, care about it. Not because she’s bored but because we’re not interesting enough for her.
Not yet, at least.
The second day, she takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers. Pixie-eyed, apple-breasted Emily lifts her arms languorously above her head in an epic yawn. Oh, we know this routine, this routine which so provokes Mrs. Dieterle and makes Mr. Callahan turn red and cross his legs.
Coach’s hand appears out of nowhere and reaches for the spot laid bare by Emily’s tank top lifted high. She plucks the baby fat there and twists it, hard. So hard Emily’s mouth gives a little pop. The gasp, like a squeeze toy.
“Fix it,” Coach says, eyes lifting from the skin between her fingers to Emily’s stricken eyes.
Fix it. Just like that.
Fix it? Fix it? Emily, sobbing in the locker room after, and Beth rolling her eyes, her head, her neck in annoyed circles.
“She can’t say things like that, can she?” Emily wails.
Emily whose balloony breasts and hip-cascades are the joy of all the boys, their ga-ga throats stretched to follow her gait, to stretch around corridor corners just to see that cheer skirt dance.
All those posters and PSAs and health class presentations on body image and the way you can burst blood vessels in your face and rupture your esophagus if you can’t stop ramming those sno balls down your throat every night, knowing they’ll have to come back up again, you sad weak girl.
Because of all this, Coach surely can’t tell a girl, a sensitive, body-conscious teenage girl, to get rid of the tender little tuck around her waist, can she?
Coach can say anything.
And there’s Emily, keening over the toilet bowl after practice, begging me to kick her in the gut so she can expel the rest, all that cookie dough and cool ranch, the smell making me roil. Emily, a girl made entirely of donut sticks, cheese powder, and haribo.
I kick, I do.
She would do the same for me.
Wednesday, Brinnie Cox says she might quit.
“I can’t do it,” she pules to Beth and me. “Did you hear my head hit the mat on the dismount? I think Mindy did it on purpose. It’s easy for a Base. Her body’s like a big chunk of rubber. We’re not trained for stunts.”
“That’s why we’re training for stunts,” I say. I know Brinnie would rather be pom-shaking, grinding, and ass-slapping during halftime, or all the time.
Brinnie’s the one Beth and I have always ridden the hardest, out of irritation. “I don’t like her big teeth or her chicken bone legs,” Beth would say. “Get her out of here.”
Once, practicing double hook jumps, Beth and I made loud comments across the gym about how Brinnie’s slutty sister got caught making out with the assistant custodian until Brinnie ran off to the far showers to cry.
“All I know is,” Brinnie lisps now, through those big teeth, “my head is killing me.”
“If you ruptured a blood vessel,” Beth replies, “you could be slowly bleeding inside your head.”
“You probably already have brain damage,” I add, eyeing her closely. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
“The blood may be squeezing your brain against the side of your skull,” Beth says, “which eventually will kill you.”
Brinnie’s eyes wide and wet and brimming, I know we have achieved our goal.
On the last day of that first week, Coach calls a special meeting.
There are anxious texts and phone calls. Talk of cuts to the squad and who might it be?
But her announcement is simple.
“There isn’t going to be a squad captain anymore,” she says, standing before us.
Everyone looks at Beth.
I’ve known Beth since second grade, since we braided our bodies together in sleeping bags at girl camp, since we first blood-brothered ourselves to each other. I know Beth and can read her every raised eyebrow, every toe pivot. She holds certain things—calculus, hall passes, her mother, stop signs—in a steely contempt that drives her hard.
Once, she dunked her mother’s toothbrush in the toilet, and she calls her father “the Mole,” though none of us can remember why, and there was that time she called our phys ed teacher a cunt, though no one could prove it.
But there are other things about her that not everyone knows.
She rides horses, has a secret library of erotic literature, is barely five feet tall and yet has the strongest legs I’ve ever seen.
I might also tell this: In eighth grade, no, summer after, at a beer party, Beth put her scornful little-girl mouth on Ben Trammel, you know where. I remember the sight. He was grinning, holding her head down, gripping her hair like he’d caught a trout with his bare hand, and everyone found out. I didn’t tell. People still talk about it. I don’t.
I never knew why she did it, or the other things she’s done since. I never asked, that’s not how we are.
We don’t judge.
The main thing about Beth, though, is this: she has always been our captain, my captain, even back in peewee, in junior high, then JV, and now the Big Leagues.
Beth has always been captain, and me her badass lieutenant, since the day she and I, after three weeks of flipping roundoffs together in her backyard, first made squad together.
She was born to it, and we never thought of cheer any other way.
Sometimes I think captain is the only reason Beth even comes to school, bothers with any of us, anything at all.
“I just don’t see any need for a captain. I don’t see what it’s gotten you,” Coach says, glance passing over Beth. “But thank you for your service, Cassidy.”
Hand me your badge, your gun.
Everyone pads their sneakers anxiously, and RiRi peers dramatically at Beth, arching her whole back to see her reaction.
But Beth gives no reaction.
Beth doesn’t seem to care at all.
Doesn’t even care enough to yawn.
“I was sure it’d be bad,” whispers Emily to me, doing jump squats in the locker room later. “Like when she got mad at that math sub and keyed his car.”
But, knowing Beth, I figure it will be some time before we see her true response.
“What’ll cheer be like now?” wonders Emily, lunging breathlessly, paring that body down to size. Fixing it. “What does it mean?”
What it means, we soon see, is no more hours whiled away talking about the lemonade diet and who had an abortion during summer break.
Coach has no interest in that, of course. She tells us we’d best get our act together.
End of that first week, new regime, our legs are loose and soft, our bodies flopping. Our moves less than tight. She says we look sloppy and juvenile, like Disney tweensters on a parade float. She is right.
And so it’s bleacher sprints for us.
Oh, to know such pain. Hammering up and down those bleacher steps to the pulse of her endless whistle. Twenty-one high steps and forty-three smaller steps. Again, again, again.
We can feel it in our shins the next day.
We can feel it everywhere.
Stairwell to hell, we call it, which Beth says is just bad poetry.
By Saturday practice, though, we’re already—some of us—starting to look forward to that pain, which feels like something real.
And we know we will get a lot better fast, and no injuries either because we’re running a tight routine.
The bleacher sprints are punishing, and I feel my whole body shuddering—pound-pound-pound—my teeth rattling, it is almost ecstatic—pound-pound-pound, pound-pound-pound—I feel almost like I might die from the booming pain of it—pound—I feel like my body might blow to pieces, and we go, go, go. I never want it to stop.
So different from before, all those days we spent our time nail painting and temp tattooing, waiting always for Cap’n Beth, who would show ten minutes before game time after smoking a joint with Todd Grinnell or gargling with peppermint schnapps behind her locker door and still dazzle us all by rocketing atop Mindy’s and Cori’s shoulders, stretching herself into an Arabesque.
Back then, we could hardly care, our moves so sloppy and weak. We’d just streak ourselves with glitter and straddle jump and shake our asses to Kanye. Everybody loved us. They knew we were sexy beyotches. It was enough.
Cheerutantes, that’s what they called us, the teachers.
Cheerlebrities, that’s what we called ourselves.
We spent our seasons prowling, a flocked flock, our ponytails the same length, our matching nfinity trainers, everything synchronous, eyelids gold-flecked, and no one could touch us.
But there was a sloth in it, I see now. A wayward itch, and sometimes even I would look at the other kids who filled the classrooms, the debaters and yearbook snappers and thick-legged girl-letes and the band girls swinging their battered violin cases, and wonder what it felt like to care so much.
Everything is different now.
Beth is tugging at her straw, the squeaking grating on me.
I should be home, drawing parabolas, and instead I’m in Beth’s car, Beth needing to get out of the house, to stop hearing her mother’s silky robe shushing down the hallway.
Beth and her mother, a pair of impalas, horns locked since Beth first started speaking, offered up her first cool retort.
“My daughter,” Mrs. Cassidy once slurred to me, slathering her neck with crème de la mer, “has been a delinquent since the day she was born.”
So I get in Beth’s car, thinking a drive might do some kind of soothing magic, like with a colicky baby.
“The test’s tomorrow,” I say, fingering my calc book.
“She lives on Fairhurst,” she says, ignoring me.
“French. The coach.”
“How do you know?”
Beth doesn’t even give me a shrug, has never, ever answered a question she didn’t feel like answering.
“You wanna see it? It’s pretty lame.”
“I don’t want to see it,” I say, but I do. Of course I do.
“This isn’t about the captain thing?” I say, very quiet, like not quite sure I want to say it aloud.
“What captain thing?” Beth says, not even looking at me.
The house on Fairhurst is not small. A ranch house, split level. It’s a house, what can I say? But there is something to it, okay. Knowing Coach is in there, behind the big picture window, the light tawny and soft, it seems like more.
There’s a tricycle in the driveway with streamers, pink and narrow, flittering in the night air.
“A little girl,” Beth says, cool-like. “She has a little girl.”
“Don’t think of a pyramid as a stationary object,” Coach tells us. “Don’t think of it as a structure at all. It’s a living thing.”
With Coach Fish, when we would do pyramids, we used to think of it as stacking ourselves. Building it layer by layer.
Now we are learning that the pyramid isn’t about girls climbing on top of each other and staying still. It’s about breathing something to life. Together. Each of us a singular organ feeding the other organs, creating something larger.
We are learning that our bodies are our own and they are the squad’s and that is all.
We are learning that we are the only people in the world when we are on the floor. We will wear our smiles, tight and meaningless, but inside, all we care for is Stunt. Stunt is all.
At the bottom, our hardcore Base girls, Mindy and Cori, my feet on Mindy’s shoulders, her body vibrating through mine, mine vibrating through Emily above me.
The Middle Bases in place, the Flyer rises not by climbing, not by being lifted, it’s not a staircase, a series of tedious steps. No, we bounce and swing to bring everyone up, and the momentum makes you realize you are part of something. Something real.
“A pyramid is a body, it needs blood and beats and heat. ONE, TWO, THREE. What keeps it up, what keeps it alive is the bounding of your bodies, the rhythm you build together. With each count, you are becoming one, you are creating life. FOUR, FIVE, SIX.”
And I feel Mindy beneath me, the sinew of her, we are moving as one person, we are bringing Beth up and she is part of us too, and her blood shooting through me, her heart pounding with mine. The same heart.
“The only moment the pyramid is still is when you make it still,” Coach says. “All your bodies one body, and you DO NOT MOVE. You are marble. You are stone.
“And you won’t move because you won’t be able to, because you’re not that hot chick bouncing down the hallway, that ponytail-swinging girl, mouth filled with nothings. You’re not pretty, you’re not cute young things, you’re not a girl at all, not even a person. You’re the most vital part of one thing, the perfect thing. Until, SEVEN, EIGHT, and…
“We blow it all apart.”
After, our bodies spent, our limbs slick, we query her.
Sweatless and erect, she looks down at our wasted loins, water bottles rolling over our chests and foreheads.
“Coach, where’d you go to high school?” one of us asks.
“Coach, what’s your husband like?”
“Coach, is that your car in the faculty lot, or your husband’s?”
We try every day, most of us. The information comes slow, wriggling out. She’d gone to school over in Stony Creek, her husband works in a mirrored office tower downtown, and he bought her the car. Barely information at all. As little as she can share and still share something.
So focused, so intent, she’ll only answer questions when we’ve done our sprints, our bridge bends, our hundreds of searing crunches, backs sliding, squeaking on the floor.
That prettiness, that bright-beaming prettiness she wears almost like a shameful thing, a flounce she keeps pulling tight, a tinkling charm she stills under her hand.
It’s when she’s walking away from us, it’s when she’s dismissed us that RiRi calls out, “Hey Coach, hey, Co-o-ach. What’s that on your ankle?”
The tattoo creeps above her running anklet, a violet blur.
She doesn’t even turn her head, you wouldn’t even know she heard.
“Coach, what is it?”
“A mistake,” she says. That hard little voice of hers. A mistake.
Ah, steel-strung coach with a reckless past, a bawdy past.
“Bet we find her in an old episode of Girls Gone Wild: The Prehistoric Years.” That’s Beth, of course. On Emily’s laptop. Beth typing Coach’s name into YouTube, bottom-trawling.
She doesn’t find anything. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t. Someone that steely-strung, there’s nothing you could find.
After practice, dwindling Emily, back flat on the locker room linoleum, curls her stomach upon herself over and over, fighting to get tighter, to whittle herself down to Coach specs. I stay with her, hold her feet down, keep her pudged ankles from swiveling.
And it turns out Coach hasn’t left either. She’s in her office, talking on the phone. We see her through the glass, opening and closing the blinds, hand coiled around the plastic wand. Staring out the window to the parking lot. Open, shut, open, shut.
When she hangs up, she opens the office door. The shush of the door swinging open, and it’s beginning.
She opens the door and sees us, and the nod of her head, permitting entry.
The office smells like smoke, like the sofa in the teachers’ lounge with that hard stain in the sunken center. Everybody has a story about that stain.
There’s a picture on her desk of her little girl. Coach says her name is Caitlin and she’s four years old with a bleary mouth and flushed skin and eyes that glaze so dumbly I wonder how does anyone have kids.
“She’s so cute,” spurts Emily. “Like a doll or something.”
Like a doll, or something.
Coach looks at the photo, like she’s never seen it before. She squints.
“They get mad at me, at day care,” she says, like she’s thinking about it. “I’m always the last one to pick up. The last mom, at least.”
She puts down the photo and looks at us.
“I remember those,” she says, nodding at the flossy bracelets banding up and down our forearms.
She tells us she made them when she was a kid and she can’t believe they’re popular again. Friendship bracelets, she calls them. But we would never call them that.
“They’re just bracelets,” I say.
She looks at me, lighting a cigarette with a twiggy old match, like the man who sells us jugs of wine out of the back of his store on Shelter Road.
“We called this ‘Snake around the Pole,’” she says, lifting the one on Emily’s wrist with a crooking finger, her cigarette flaring.
“That’s a Chinese Staircase,” I say. I don’t know why I keep correcting her.
“What’s that one?” she says, poking at my wrist, the cigarette tip flush on my skin.
I stare at it, and at Coach’s cool tanned finger.
“A Love-Me-Knot.” Emily grins. “That’s the easy one. I know who made you that.”
I don’t say anything.
Coach looks at me. “Guys don’t make these.”
“They sure don’t,” Emily says, and you can almost see her tongue flicking.
“I don’t even know who gave it to me,” I say.
But then I remember it was Casey Jaye, this girl I tumbled with at cheer camp last summer, but Beth didn’t like her and camp ended anyway. Funny how people you know at camp can seem so close and then the summer’s over and you never see them again at all.
Coach has her eyes on me, and there’s a shadow of a dimple in the corner of her mouth.
“Show me,” she says, poking out her cigarette. “Show me how to love-knot.”
I say I don’t have any of the thread, but Emily does, at the bottom of her hobo bag.
We show her how to do it, then watch her twist the strands, to and fro. She picks it up so fast, her fingers flying. I wonder if there’s anything she can’t do.
“I remember,” she says. “Watch this one.”
She shows us how to make one called Cat’s Tongue, which is like a Broken Ladder crossed with a simple braid, and another she calls the Big Bad that I can’t follow at all.
When she finishes Big Bad, she twirls it on her finger and flings it at me. I see Emily’s face flicker jealously.
“Is this all you guys do for fun?” she says.
And no, it’s not.
* * *
“It was like she was really interested in our lives,” Emily tells everyone after, her fingers whisking across my new bracelet.
“Pathetic,” Beth says. “I’m not even interested in our lives.” Her finger slips under the bracelet and tug-tug-tugs until it snaps from my wrist.
The next day, after school, the parking lot, I see Coach walking to her sprightly little silver crawler of a car.
I’m loitering, fingers hooked around my diet soda bottle, waiting on Beth, who is my ride and occasionally sees fit to make me wait while she talks up Mr. Feck, who gives her reams of pink fluttery hall passes from his desk drawer.
I don’t even realize Coach has seen me until she beckons, her head snapping toward her open door.
“Well c’mon then,” she says. “Get in.”
As if she knows I’ve been waiting for the invitation.
Driving, Coach is shaking one of those strange, muddy-looking juices she’s always drinking, raw against your teeth. I don’t think any of us have ever seen her eat.
“You girls have lots of bad habits,” she says, eyeing my soda.
“It’s diet,” I say, but she just keeps shaking her head.
“We’ll get you right. The days of funyuns for lunch and tanning beds—they’re over, girl.”
“Okay,” I say, but I must not look convincing. First of all, I’ve never eaten a funyun in my life.
“You’ll see,” she says. Her neck and back so straight, her eyebrows tweezed to precise arches. The glint-gold tennis bracelet and shine-sleek hair. She is so perfect.
“So, which one of those footballers is your guy?” Coach asks, staring out the window.
“What?” I say. “None of them.”
“No boyfriend?” She sits up a little. “Why not?”
“There’s not a lot to interest me at Sutton Grove High,” I say, like Beth might say. I’m eyeing the cigarette pack on the console between us, imagining myself plucking one and putting it in my mouth. Would she stop me?
“Tell me,” she says. “Who’s the guy with all the curls?” She taps her forehead. “And the crook in his nose?”
“On the team?” I ask.
“No,” she says, leaning forward toward the steering wheel a little. “I see him run track in those high-tops with the skulls.”
“Jordy Brennan?” I say.
There was a group: ten, twelve guys you might loiter with, might lap-shimmy, beer-breathed at parties, might letter-jacket him for a week, a month.
Jordy Brennan wasn’t one of them. He was just there, barely. Scarcely a blip on the screen of my school.
“I never thought of him,” I say.
“He’s cute,” she says. The way she breathes in, turning the wheel, you can feel her thinking all about Jordy Brennan, for just that second.
And then I think of him too.
My shirt scraping up my back, the nervy-hot hands of Jordy skittering there, and before I know it, my cheer skirt twisting ’round my waist, nudging up my belly, his hands there too, and mine coiled into little nerve-balls, and am I going to do it?
This is in my head, these thoughts, as I rustle under my Sutton green coverlet in bed that night. I’ve never had it happen like that before, a sharp ache down there, right there, and a put-put-put pulse, so breathless.
Jordy Brennan, who I never blinked at twice.
After, I’m about to call Beth for our nightly postmortem, but then I decide not to.
I think she’ll be mad at me for not waiting for her after school. Or for something else. She is mad at me a lot, especially since last summer at cheer camp, when things started to change with us. I grew tired of all my lieutenant duties, and her no-prisoners ways, and I started stunting with other girls at camp. It goes deep with Beth and me. Our history is long and lashes us tight.
So I call Emily instead and talk with her for an hour or more about basket tosses and her shin splints and the special rainforest wax Brinnie Cox bought in Bermuda to tear off all her girl hair.
Anything but boys and Coach. My head a hot, clicking thing. I want to quiet it. I want to hush, hush it and I hold my legs together, tense as pincer grips, and clutch my stomach upon itself. I listen endlessly to Emily’s squeaking voice, the way it sputters and pipes and dances lightfoot and never, ever says anything at all.
We’re getting better all the time.
We are all locking stunts, focusing. Emily nailed her standing back handspring, which we never thought she would, with those soft-rise breasts she once had. We are stronger and we are learning how to feel each other’s bodies, to know when we will not fall.
Nights, in bed, I hear the thuds on the gym floor, feel that thud through my bones, through the center of me.
Already I can feel my muscles thrusting under my skin. I even start eating because if I don’t, my head goes soft. The first week, I pass out twice in calc, the second time hitting my head SMACK on the edge of a desk.
Can’t have that, Coach says.
“You can’t slap the treadmill before school and then expect to make it to lunch on your a.m. diet coke,” Coach says, coming at me in the nurse’s office. Charging in with such purpose, making even lumberjack-chested Nurse Vance, twice her size, jump back.
Her hands are riffling through my purse, thwacking the bag of sugar-free jolly ranchers at my chest.
I’m meant to throw them away, which I do, fast.
“Don’t worry,” Coach says. “No one gets fat on my watch.”
So I start with the egg whites and almonds and the spinach, like wilting lily pads between my teeth. It’s so boring, not like eating at all because you don’t feel the sweet grit on your tongue all day and night, singing on the edge of your teeth.
But my body is tight-tight-tightening. Hard and smooth, like hers, my waist pared down to nothing, like hers.
The walk, her walk, feet planted out, like a ballerina. I wonder if Coach was a ballerina once, her hair pulled into a fierce dark bun, collarbones poking.
We all do the walk.
Not Beth, though, and not some of the girls, like Tacy Slaussen, who cotton more to Beth’s dusky glower, the way she hitches her cheer skirt low, the way she slinks over to the freshman squad, perched in the stands to watch us. The way she reaches up and yanks the pom off one of the girl’s socks and sinks it purposefully into the bottom of her plastic coke cup.
This is what Beth does, while some of us make ourselves hard and beautiful.
Jordy Brennan, fleet around the track, a soft tangle of cord skimming from his earbuds.
I watch him four days in a row, under the bleachers, my wrist wrapped around one of the underhangs, fingers clenching and unclenching.
“You got a thing for deviated septums, Addy-Faddy?” Beth asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, scratching my palms.
“What’s the story, anyway?” she says. “He’s dull as a plank of wood.” She pings the bleacher post, which is actually aluminum.
“He looks like he’s thinking things,” I say, jumping a little on my toes, feeling like some dumb cheerleader. “Like maybe he actually thinks about things.”
“Deep thoughts,” Beth says, pulling her ponytail tight, “about puma treads.”
I didn’t tell her what Coach said, somehow didn’t want her to know Coach had even given me a ride home.
Beth floats forward from the bleacher skeleton and lingers on the edge of the track.
He’s pounding toward us, the huff-huff rattling in me, jolting between my hips.
“Jordy Brennan,” Beth shouts, voice deep and clear. “Come here.”
There’s a rollicking in my chest as he slows to stop just past us, then does an about-face and slows to a cool-man stride as he makes his way over.
“Yeah,” he says, up close his eyes green and blank as poker felt.
“Jordy Brennan,” Beth says, throwing her cigarette on the ground. “It’s your lucky day.”
Fifteen minutes later, the three of us drifting along in his pocked Malibu, Beth directs Jordy to the convenience store on Royston Road, the place where the football players all buy their beer from the grim-faced man behind the counter, extra five-dollar charge just for the plastic bag.
We take the 40s, which I never like, all warm and sour by the time you get halfway in, and the three of us drive up to Sutton Ridge, where that girl jumped last spring.
Seventeen and brokenhearted, she jumped.
RiRi saw the whole thing, from Blake Barnett’s car.
Right before, RiRi saw a screech owl burst from behind the water tank.
Her eyes lifted, so did Blake’s, to the top of the rutted ridge. A place haunted by ruined Indians, or so we heard as kids spooking on Halloween. Apache maidens swan-diving over lost love for white men who abandoned them.
Together, RiRi and Blake watched.
Blake recognized the girl from St. Reggie’s, and nearly shouted out to her, but didn’t.
Arms stretched wide, her hands strangely spinning, and walking backwards fast.
RiRi watched it, the whole thing.
She said it was terrible and kinda beautiful.
I bet it was, jumping from so high, so very high, into the dark plush of that grieving ravine.
All us girls might look down into that same gorge on nights steeped in the sorrows of womanhood. I never felt so much, but looking now, I thought I might yet.
Beth walks up extra high on the ridge, swinging her 40 with surprising grace, and Jordy ducks his big boy head against me and kisses me smearily for a half hour or more.
He tells me this is a special spot for him.
At nights sometimes he runs up here, playing his music and forgetting everything.
“Maybe,” he says, “that’s how cheerleading is for you.”
Then, he ripples his hands up and down me, gentle and with those great empty eyes of his shut tight, lashes long like a girl’s. That funny way his nose bends slightly right, like a boxer’s.
“Isn’t she pretty, Jordy?” I hear Beth’s rippling voice from somewhere, “when she looks into your eyes?”
I rest my lips on his cheekbone, near the crook of his nose, and he shudders.
The way his eyelashes tickle, and his hard heavy boy hands, grave and turbulent, I can feel all kinds of wonder and surprises charging through him.
All of this moves me, powerfully, and the day feels rare, the dusk falling purple, and I must be drunk because I think I hear Beth’s voice far away, saying crazy things, asking me if I feel different, and loved.
Jordy Brennan’s name buzzes on my phone that night, a spare text with “u”s and “r”s and cautious wonderings. But the thing that was there, the feeling huddling in me at the gorge, is already gone.
His wanting, so easily won—well, it bores me. I know every flex and twist of it, because there are no flexes and twists to it.
And instead I want to see Coach again, and tell her about it. I wonder what she’ll say.
Beth calls after, and we have a long-winding talk, the 40-ouncers still heavy on us both.
She is asking if I remember how we used to hang on the monkey bars, hooking our legs around each other, and how strong we got and how no one could ever beat us, and we could never beat each other, but we’d agree to each release our hands at the count of three, and that she always cheated, and I always let her, standing beneath, looking up at her and grinning my gap-toothed, pre-orthodontic grin.
Such reminiscence is unlike Beth, but she is drunk and I think she may still be drinking, her mother’s V.S.O.P., and she sounds affected by our time at the gorge, and possibly by other things.
“I hate how everything changes, always,” she says. “But you don’t.”
In the parking lot the next day, Coach tilts her head and gives me a whisper of a smile.
Wanting to present this to her, I feel a funny kind of pride. Like she’d asked me to do a stunt for her, “Give me that pop cradle, Addy. Straight up, straight up—” and there I am, legs arrow-piked, and the feeling when my feet land on that hard floor, the fearsome quake through my ankles, legs, hips.
So I tell her, my hand sweeping across my mouth, like I can barely say it. Just messed around a little. Jordy Brennan. Jordy Brennan. Just like you said.
Excerpted from Dare Me by Megan Abbott Copyright © 2012 by Megan Abbott. Excerpted by permission.
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