Penelope folds her arms, pretending to listen to Principal Weatherbee talk. Bla, bla, bla, school spirit, equal rights, whatever. There was no need for him to prattle on like this: she’d known what this was about from the moment Weatherbee had called her and Fred Andrews down to his office during lunch period. Fred had been petitioning for weeks for a chance to join the girls cheerleading squad, and apparently Weatherbee had finally run out of reasons why he couldn’t.
Fred is sitting forward eagerly in his seat beside her, looking as comfortable in the principal’s office as if it were his own living room. He probably spent enough time there - Fred was always getting called down here for some dumb prank or another. Penelope looks around. Still, what a stroke of luck that all this had happened the week Hermione was in Spain with her parents. That left Penelope in her rightful place as captain of the squad. The cheerleaders would be looking to her for guidance in this trying time, and she would be all too happy to provide it.
He’s no hunk, that’s for sure , she thinks, critically appraising Fred with a flick of her eyes. Sure, Fred had got a little stronger and a little taller over the summer, and he’d always had a great tan, but he was still a total loser. What Hermione saw in him she had no idea. With Hiram, at least, you knew he had money. Fred was a total lost cause.
Maybe - maybe - he had a cute grin. But that was about it. The way girls drooled over him, you’d have thought he was Justin Timberlake’s long-lost cousin. Penelope remembered what he’d looked like last year - skinny and awkward and always chasing after a million girls at a time. Did all those ditzy losers on the cheerleading squad really think a summer working construction would change any of that? Once a zero, always a zero, deep down where it counted. Hermione was on a collision course with that stark realization any day now.
Penelope sinks her fingers into the smooth leather of the chair. It was the same way with Fred’s best friend, FP. He was the big man on campus this year, but Penelope remembered well what he’d been like in freshman year - creepy and lonerish, with stringy hair and bloodshot eyes. Not the kind of guy you’d want to date. Just because he’d snuck himself up the ranks of the school somehow, didn’t mean he was a hotshot.
You’re just jealous because he won’t look at you sideways , Hermione had said once. He probably doesn’t even know who you are. Penelope hadn’t admitted it, but the comment had stung. There was nothing she hated more than people implying she was a nobody. But in a dump like Riverdale High? Who the hell would want to be queen of this pathetic molehill? Penelope was through dating boys. She wanted a man.
Weatherbee is still yammering, so Penelope returns to one of her favourite daydreams: herself on the tennis team at formal Pembroke Academy, up the hill. Pembroke was a nice school, the kind that rich parents sent their beautiful, adorable, intelligent children to. She pictures herself sailing through the air in one of those neat white tennis costumes, gracefully returning a serve. That was where she belonged, not corralling cows at drippy Riverdale High. She pictures herself tying her long, red hair back, hurrying to a equally long, red car after practice to be picked up by one of those gorgeous Pembroke Academy guys. Or their dads . Penelope smiles wickedly and quickly has to swallow it back before Fred thinks she’s smiling at him.
There’s a heavy silence hanging in the room, and too late she realizes Weatherbee is waiting for her to talk. Penelope draws herself up straight in the chair, her hands folded demurely in her lap. “You bet,” she tells Weatherbee with a smile, tilting her head a bit so that her red ponytail swings bouncily out behind her. “No problem at all. Fred can audition as Christina’s replacement next week.”
Fred’s dopey face lights up like Times Square and Penelope feels a stab of annoyance at him, the same one she always has when she sees him come out on top like this. Fred thought he had life at Riverdale tied up with his cutesy little class clown routine. Everyone loved him and wanted to give him every single little thing he wanted. No one loves her. Not like that.
Weatherbee excuses them, looking relieved, and they step out into the hallway just as the end-of-lunch warning bell rings. So much for finishing her lunch! It’s a good thing Penelope could afford to lose a few pounds. You can never be too good-looking during cheerleading season.
“Well, congratulations,” she says to Fred, her tone icy now that Weatherbee’s office door has banged shut behind them. “You’re probably setting a world record or something. First boy ever to weasel his way onto the cheerleading squad.”
“My intentions aren’t creepy, I swear,” Fred insists, turning his big brown eyes on her. “I’ve been telling Weatherbee -”
“Bla, bla, bla, save the spiel.” Penelope reaches up and loosens her perky ponytail. “I don’t care what your intentions are, as long as you don’t make me look bad.”
Fred blinks, looking a little bemused at her response. “You know, boys have been on the cheer squad at RHS before.”
Fred scrambles through his cluttered pockets and comes out with a photocopied page from a school yearbook. Penelope squints at it. The photo shows a good-looking boy with a megaphone in slacks and a white sweater, with a giant blue R adorning the front. Tommy Carllson says the caption, with the photo dated 1956.
In 1956 , she thinks, big deal! They probably had classes for women on how to be a housewife then too! But she doesn’t say it.
Fred tucks the paper back in his bag, looking uncharacteristically shy. “Hey, thanks for giving me a chance, Penelope.”
A bit of Penelope’s cold exterior softens. Fred was annoying and weenieish, but at least he wasn’t a total drip the way some of the other guys around here were. At least he was interesting. When would that crummy guy Barry Hawkins have done anything like this? That was a sobering thought. She must have been possessed to agree to a second date. Barry was on the football team - the co-captain of the cheerleading squad should never date anything less - but he spent most of the time warming the bench. He wasn’t a real athlete. Not like FP, or Hal Cooper.
“No problem,” she says, and then a thought occurs to her. “You do have some kind of gymnastics training, don’t you?”
Fred’s face looks totally blank. At Penelope’s incredulous stare, he bites his lip. “Well, um… about that....”
Penelope sees her dreams for the cheerleading squad tumble and crash on the ground like a bad pyramid.
“Well, I bet you can guess who’s name I just saw on the cheerleader sign-ups,” says Alice, swinging her messenger bag off her shoulder as she sinks into a spot on the warm grass. “Nice job, Fred. You pulled it off.”
Fred beams. It’s a sunny Monday and they’re eating lunch in their private spot out by the hill, a place mostly sheltered from the main schoolyard by some trees. FP reaches up and playfully wrestles Fred over onto the grass.
“This might be it,” he says, pinning a squirming, laughing Fred under him. “With you cheering for me, there’s no chance we’re losing to those jerks from Baxter High.”
“Big man,” says Alice, rolling her eyes. “Speaking of that-”
But she may as well be talking to a brick wall. FP’s on top of Fred now, his muscular forearm planted on the grass beside Fred’s ear to keep him elevated. Their faces are separated by some six inches of air, and Fred’s eyes are glowing with a hidden, genuine warmth. The look on FP’s face is the tenderest she’s ever seen it. As Alice watches, he brushes some hair out of Fred’s eyes and scoops it behind his ear to cup his cheek, leaning down to press his lips against Fred’s in a warm kiss.
“Want to get a room?” comments Alice, unwrapping her tuna salad sandwich from her bag. FP rolls lazily off Fred, grinning up at the sky.
“Sorry, Alice. You were saying something?”
“They sent another copy of the Gold and Green to the Blue and Gold office today,” says Alice, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. FP sits up abruptly, pushing himself up on one arm.
“Yeah.” Alice turns her nose up. “And you wouldn’t believe that dishrag they call a paper. Spelling errors all over the place. I’m not convinced they even have a copy editor. And the format? It’s like trying to read a japanese comic book. It looks like Baxter Elementary School put it together. ”
“Did they say anything about us?” asks Fred.
“The typical slander.” Alice rolls her eyes. “They had a first-page article about how our newspaper staff are lazy, incompetent clouts compared to their own. It’s a bunch of childish crap. They’ve been printing shit like this all year.” She takes a bite of her sandwich. “I’m not going to bother to reply to it.”
“I think you should,” speaks up FP. “They’re not going to stop if you don’t fight back. An eye for an eye, that kind of thing.”
“Nah, I think Alice is right,” argues Fred, picking an idle dandelion and tucking it into the buttonhole of FP’s open letterman. “They’re just trying to get you to stoop to their level.”
“Fight fire with fire,” repeats FP.
Fred tosses a handful of grass at him. “That’s your job. On the field during the playoffs.”
Usually, football season heating up would mean Riverdale was locked in a bitter war with Central High. But Central had recently lost their star fielder, Ricky Goodman, and most of the other players that had made Central such a formidable team had graduated last June. Central was out of the running early this year, and it seemed like the team to beat was Baxter High, who had been tearing up the path toward the championships with as much ease as Riverdale had been.
Everyone expected the two to meet head-to-head in the playoffs, and the students were already gearing up for an on-field rivalry with a slew of pranks off the field. Last week a sophomore beach party had been crashed by a bunch of Baxter High students, and the week before six members of the Riverdale High football team had found their cars filled with shaving foam in the parking lot. The insulting articles in the school paper were just the cherry on top.
“What was it they wrote on the gym wall, again?” asks FP, his voice sharp. The Bulldogs had taken things lying down so far, much to FP’s chagrin. FP was itching for a fight.
“Badgers eat bulldogs for lunch,” recalls Fred, rolling his eyes. “How lame is that? I think we could do better.”
“If you’re smart, you won’t do anything.” Alice speaks up. “FP, if you get thrown off the team, we don’t stand a chance. And Fred, Weatherbee will take away your cheerleading privileges in a heartbeat if he hears you’re up to something.”
“So you’re saying we don’t do anything,” asks FP, voice leaden with sarcasm. His annoyance carries an unspoken barb - that only this new Alice, Hal Cooper’s Alice would roll over and let Baxter High insult her. But Alice just rolls her eyes at him.
“Don’t be stupid, is all I’m saying. And keep an eye on the school mascot if you know what’s good for you.”
“Alice, will you please, please, please, please, please practice with me,” Fred begs suddenly, pulling himself up into a sitting position as he changes the topic. “I only have a week to get a routine ready, and I need practice.”
“Can’t Hermione practice with you?”
“She doesn’t get back until next Wednesday.” Fred unwraps two cookies from his lunch and holds one out Alice. “Please?”
“Fine.” Alice gives in, taking the cookie. “But not for too long. Your house after school, I’m guessing?”
“You know,” interrupts FP teasingly, tugging on Fred’s hair, “if you’re a cheerleader, and I’m on the football team, you and I are going to have to be seeing a lot more of each other. A lot more.”
Fred turns around, dropping his voice huskily as he leans in close to FP. “I’m absolutely counting on it.”
Alice sighs and packs up her lunch. “Can’t get a minute of peace around here,” she grumbles. “If Hermione knows what’s good for her, she’ll come back before tryouts start.”
The sun is beating down, turning the bleachers to brilliant, blinding mirrors. Alice is seated on the bottom bench with her elbows planted on her knees, her shoulder bag leaning up against her feet.
“They’re making me cover Fred’s tryout for the Blue and Gold,” she complains as FP joins her, waving a notebook at him. “I can’t believe this is what journalism has become.”
“Forget about it,” advises FP, watching the cheerleaders who have flocked onto the field, their blue-and-yellow uniforms bright against the grass. He notices Mary Moore among them, her short orange hair distinct from Penelope’s darker ponytail. “Is Fred here yet?”
“Here he comes,” says Alice, nodding toward Fred’s dark shape as he approaches them from the school. Fred breaks into a calm trot when he’s stepped onto the grass, dropping his backpack neatly by the side of the field and joining the group of girls. FP rubs his damp hands on his jeans.
“I think I’m more nervous for this stupid thing than he is. You know he really wants this.”
“He’ll do fine,” predicts Alice peevishly. A sudden breeze ruffles the pages of her notebook and she pushes them back into place with a frown. “He’s only been practicing his routine every spare second. ”
Penelope blows her whistle, and the girls on the field fall in line. She waves her clipboard at them, making an exaggerated show of checking the first page. “First up- Fred Andrews.”
The girls clap politely. Alice slaps her hand against her notebook. “Go, Fred!” offers FP heartily, and Fred glances up at him. His tanned face relaxes into an easy grin at the sight of him, and FP raises a hand in a wave.
“All right,” says Penelope dubiously, taking a seat facing the field. Her tone is as unfriendly and as brittle as ice. “Show us what you’ve got.”
FP slides closer to Alice on the bench as Fred launches into a simple combination, ending with a cartwheel and his arms raised in a high V for Victory. The smile never slips from his face. The lined-up cheerleaders applaud politely.
“Hm.” Penelope looks down the line of girls. She turns back to Fred. “Do you want my honest opinion, or do you want me to sugar-coat it?”
FP expects a witty comeback, but Fred only shifts on his feet, looking vaguely nervous. “Honesty, please.”
“You suck.” Penelope looks him dead in the eye, sunlight glinting off the silver whistle she wears around her neck. Fred seems to deflate, shoulders sinking down and his nervous smile fading. “That being said, we do need a stronger base. And we’re out two more girls than we need, especially with Christina gone.”
Fred crosses his fingers. Alice cracks her notebook at last and starts scribbling. FP closes his hand over hers, halting her pen in its tracks.
Penelope folds her arms. Looks down the line at the girls waiting to audition. FP resists the urge to go down there and smack that irritated look off her face.
“Maybe you should give him a chance, Pen,” speaks up a blonde girl that FP recognizes at Jerry Mason’s girlfriend. “He’s strong.”
Penelope lets out a long, annoyed sigh at the interruption, but regains her composure almost immediately. She turns back around to face Fred.
“You follow the same rules as the rest of us. Practice three times a week, here. Don’t be late. Keep your grades above C-level, and no carbs before game day.”
Fred seems to fill back up again, his eyes bright, his face glowing. “Done, done, and done. I won’t let you down.”
“You’d better not. Just remember, everything you do wrong from this point forward is a reflection on me. So shape up, or watch your back.” Penelope claps her hands abruptly, and all the girls look at her. “All right, let’s go. We’ve got another spot to fill, and game day’s on Thursday.”