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.”
dont @ me about naming a school literally rival high, thats straight from the comic digests
“Gimme an R!”
“Gimme a Y!”
Penelope lifts her megaphone to her lips, her vivid red ponytail glimmering and swaying in the full sun. “What does that spell?”
“VICTORY!” the cheerleaders thunder, leaping off the ground with their arms raised. Penelope tosses her megaphone so hard at Fred that his split-second catch probably saves him a trip to the emergency room. Throwing her arms dramatically out to the sides, she waits for Tanya and Melinda to lift her, performing a high kick that highlights her long, smooth legs. Landing at the front of the pack, she raises one pom-pom victoriously over her head. Behind her, the other cheerleaders fall into formation, Fred hurrying to slide in between Mary and Samantha.
“Hey! Hey! Go, Fight, Win!” Thousand-megawatt smiles plastered on their faces despite the heat of the afternoon, the cheerleaders rustle their pom-poms above their heads, arms slung around each others shoulders. Across the schoolyard, the occasional sharp blast of a whistle punctuates the yelling and muffled hit of bodies from Coach Kleats’ football practice. At this distance the players are only discernible by hair colour, their voices a medley of low shouts as they race across the field. Fred’s pretty sure FP’s the one with the ball, but he’s too far away to put money on it.
Samantha squirms out under Fred’s arm with the rest of the girls in the middle of the pack, and Fred quickly braces Mary’s ankle to lift her up onto his thigh. Mary beams out across at the football field as they lift her, her pretty freckled face upturned to the sky. The football is soaring in a high arc above the other field, and Fred watches out of the corner of his eye as a dark-haired football player seems to scoop it out of the air, taking off at a sprint toward the end zone. Now that was definitely FP. Fred’s smile gets a little bigger.
“No way!” interrupts a sharp, feminine voice. “Stop right now!”
Fred’s high hopes sink a little. Penelope has turned to face the rest of the squad, her eyes blazing. She shakes her head and gives a short blast on her whistle. “Get down. That’s it, we’re breaking. Go get some water. You guys are all so sloppy. ”
A healthy dose of grumbling breaks out among the girls. It’s Wednesday afternoon: just a day before the pep rally that would precede the season’s last game. Then playoffs started. Riverdale had already qualified, but the outcome of this final game would determine their ranking. The team to beat tomorrow was Rival High - challenging, but nothing Riverdale couldn’t handle. It was Baxter that they were raring to destroy in the playoffs.
Fred dusts off the leg of his shorts as Mary scoops up her pom-poms and strides off away from him without a backward glance. The school administration had unearthed some ancient male cheerleading uniforms for him from god-knew-what corner of the equipment room, but for practices he was simply dressed as he would for gym class: a short pair of red shorts and a white t-shirt. Tomorrow he’d get to wear the whole ensemble: one of two pairs of gold athletic pants and a scratchy long-sleeved blue sweater that was now his uniform. The wool would be hot in the sun, but-
“I’m always hot,” says Fred to himself with a smirk. He casts one more hopeful glance over at the football players, now running suicide drills from one end of the field to the other. Tomorrow! He’d get to cheer on FP with the rest of the cheerleaders. They’d even let him have a real locker: the last few practices they’d made him change in the janitors closet beforehand, and he kept arriving smelling faintly of lemon. That Fred wouldn’t change with the girls had been part of the initial agreement with Weatherbee, but the football team had entirely taken over the male locker room, and story had it Coach Kleats wasn’t letting anyone in for fear of students passing on information to Baxter High. The girls had voted they were comfortable with Fred changing on the opposite side of the changeroom, and he even had his own locker now, neatly labelled on a white sticker. FRED.
It kind of made him feel special.
The locker room situation was far from the only clash between the football team and the cheerleaders that year. Almost all of the school athletics budget had gone to brand new football uniforms - something Hermione and Penelope were less than impressed about. With the budget stretching to cover every football expense, there was no money left for the long-overdue new cheerleading uniforms they’d wanted to order. And the cheerleaders were pissed .
“Look at this,” Fred hears Mary complain to Samantha now, pulling a long strand of blue tissue out of her decaying pompom. “I don’t know how they expect us to make do with these.”
Fred walks past them, finding an empty corner of the field to sit down. Water breaks were still his least favourite part of practice. He always felt awkward inserting himself in the little groups the girls formed. Not for the first time, he wishes Hermione were back: then they could sit together and it would be just like the old days.
Come home, Hermione , he thinks, tugging a handful of grass up and taking a swig from his water bottle. Spain can’t be that exciting!
“Hey!” Tanya, Kenny Doiley’s steady girlfriend, drops onto the grass beside him with her water bottle. “Isn’t it hot? I don’t envy you when game time comes around. You must be sweating like crazy in that uniform.”
Fred grins, pulling at the collar of his t-shirt. “It’s not that bad.”
The short, sharp blast of Penelope’s whistle interrupts them, and Tanya rolls her eyes. “What a drill sergeant!” she complains, picking up her pom-poms. “I hope your girlfriend gets back soon-”
“Move it!” Penelope claps her hands abruptly at them. “We’re finishing practice up over there.”
She points a slender finger at the football field, and Fred suddenly feels a new burst of energy. A couple other girls start murmuring excitedly, and Penelope claps again to stop them.
“We’re going to encourage the boys team, not to flirt. Let’s start with number five.” She turns, motioning with her hand for the rest of the squad to follow. “Come on!”
The group of cheerleaders plunges across the field separating them from the football practice, headed for the sidelines where Coach Kleats had set up the water cooler. Hopping, kicking, and shouting, they launch into a vibrant cheer, punctuating every beat with a heroic thrust of their yellow pom-poms.
“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you!
1-2-3-4- we’ve got more than you can score!
5-6-7-8 we’ve got more than you can take!”
Coach Kleats looks wearily over at them and shakes his head, but doesn’t tell Penelope to leave. The boys faces - almost all of them boyfriends of girls on the squad - have lit up at their approach. Fred feels a little buzz at the energy they’ve cranked up. FP is laughing at the interruption, and Fred executes an extra little spin and a thrust of his pom-pom just for his benefit.
“Get back to running!” yells Coach Kleats at the football players, and Penelope becomes all business again as the boys turn away, shooing the cheerleaders into formation.
“All right, lets try those dance moves from the top. Tanya, fill my spot for now, I want to watch. Remember, arms high, smiles on. Two-three-four- and go!”
Fred tosses his hands high in the air, pom poms rustling, concentrating hard as he tries to remember the choreography. Penelope wants different lines doing different movements, so watching the girl beside him is hopeless. Hermione was definitely not going to like all these changes when she got back, that was for sure. Fred frowns in concentration. Step-kick there, step-kick there, step-clap- twirl-clap- thrust right -thrust left- jump!
Fred lands as gracefully as he can manage, planting both hands on his hips as a commotion on the field interrupts his train of thought. FP has just intercepted the football in the middle of a pass and is sprinting back up the field toward the goal.
Fred wants badly to stop and watch him, but he’s having enough trouble keeping Penelope’s choreography straight in his mind. Swishing his pom-poms from side to side, he rolls his hips easily as he turns in a circle with the rest of the team. He turns his head back as far as he can so he can keep FP in sight. FP’s eyes are on the cheerleaders. As Fred watches FP’s foot hits an uneven patch of ground and he sprawls forward onto his hands, the ball spilling out of his grasp. A collective groan rises up from the field, paired with some laughter and ribbing from the guys who had been playing against him. Kleats blows on his whistle, and Jerry, closest to the coach, plugs his ears against the noise.
FP climbs back up to his feet with the help of an outstretched hand from a teammate, hair unruffled, cheeks flushed a guilty pink. Kleats blows hard on his whistle again. “FP!” he yells. “Eyes off the girls and back on the ball!”
Fred tries to catch his eye to shoot him a wink, but FP looks embarrassedly down as soon as their eyes meet. Fred grins to himself as the football players jog back to the centre of the field, the sound of their laughter rising up over the pitch like cool rain.
“Fred! You were late!”
Fred snaps to attention, but Penelope is only walking down the line of them, announcing their sins out loud to the field. “Tanya, Samantha, Claudia, you were early. Mary, smile more. Kim, you jump after the twirl. All right.” Fred risks one more glance at FP’s retreating back. “Let’s do it again. And get it right this time.”
“We got it right the first time,” mutters Claudia, and Penelope stops in front of her, arms folded.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” says Claudia. Penelope stares her down, but moves on.
“One more order of business,” says Penelope seriously, consulting her clipboard. “The final game before the playoffs is tomorrow, so I want you all reporting to the locker room for the pep rally immediately when the bell rings for lunch. We’re getting started right away. As for lockers - everyone does the boy they were assigned to at the beginning of the year. That’s except for Mary, who’s covering Barry Goodman, and Fred can do Rick Banks.”
She closes the clipboard with a snap. “And I’ll do FP’s.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” speaks up Mary. “Fred should do FP’s.”
“Yeah,” agrees Marilyn. “Fred should do it.”
Penelope looks icy, but then her expression smooths abruptly over into nonchalance. “All right,” she says finally, her voice smooth. “Fine. Fred does FP’s, and I’ll do Rick’s.”
“What’s this?” whispers Fred to Marilyn.
She gives him a funny look. “We decorate the football players lockers. It’s tradition.”
Right. Fred’s heart gives an unexpected little jump. Out of the corner of the eye he notices FP jogging off the field to retrieve a wayward football from the treeline. “Hey, I, uh - left something at the other field. I’ll be right back.”
Penelope lets him go, turning her attention back to Kimberley and Mary, who had been the worst offenders during the dance routine. The football players are on a water break now, milling around the sidelines and waiting to approach the cheerleading squad. Fred’s heart is pounding. It’s risky, he knows. Both of their teams know they’re absent.
FP straightens up, surprised, when Fred bursts into the trees. “Fred, what are you-”
He’s damp and sweaty in his practice uniform, his worn shoulder pads making him look twice as big. Fred grips FP’s warm wrists in his hands, backing him up against the large trunk of a nearby tree, big enough to shield them from anyone glancing over from the field. Leaning up to steal a quick kiss, he pins him there. FP goes stiff against him, and then relaxes. His upper lip tastes like sweat and sunlight.
“My cheerleader,” says FP simply when Fred pulls back, eyes dancing amusedly as he cups Fred’s face in between his hands. A twig cracks, and FP drops Fred abruptly. Fred sinks nonchalantly to one knee, fiddling with the shoelace of his white tennis shoe. FP snatches up the football again, just as Hal Cooper emerges from the field.
“What are you two up to back here?” asks Hal, looking deeply suspicious.
“Nothing,” says Fred seriously. “Just had to talk to FP about something.”
A long painful silence stretches in between the three of them. Finally, Hal lowers his voice.
“Look- If you two are planning some weird prank against Baxter High, forget it. The football team doesn’t need you guys to get us in shit.”
FP relaxes a bit. Fred hides a grin. As convenient as it was that someone inevitable assumed he and FP were pulling a prank every time they were alone together, it was going to get them in trouble eventually. Especially with this rivalry going on.
“Fine,” says FP, and shoves the football at him. “You’re right, Coop.”
Hal narrows his eyes at both of them, tucking the football under his arm as he looks from one to the other. “You sure nothing’s going on?”
“Nothing you need to worry about.” FP winks at Fred. “See you after practice, Freddy.”
Practices let out at around the same time, so Fred strolls back toward the parking lot with FP and two of his football teammates, Jerry Mason and Harry Clayton.
“I can give you a ride home,” Harry’s offering them. “My dad gave me the car.”
“You mean if those Baxter High clowns haven’t got to it first.” Jerry looks around the parking lot with trepidation. “Hank Green says they got his car outside the cafeteria on Monday. Shaving cream again, but I guess they couldn’t get in, because it was all over the windshield this time. It was a total mess.”
Harry snorts. “Kid stuff. They’re looking for a fight. Someone ought to give them what they want.”
“Not me.” Jerry shakes his head. “If I get in any more trouble, I’m off the team. I’m just keeping my head down and passing English.”
“Probably the right idea,” grumbles FP. A frown creases his face. “What the hell is that sound?”
All four of them jump back as a dark blue pickup, streaked up and down with grease, barrels into the parking lot. Jerry hides behind FP as it makes a beeline for them, swerving around parked cars and skimming so close to a lamppost that Fred swears he sees it shave an inch off the side mirror. The truck stops in front of them, and a Baxter High student leans out of the window.
“RIVERDALE HIGH! HOME OF THE PUSSIES!” he shouts, pointing a finger at Fred. FP steps protectively in front of him, Harry and Jerry’s shoulders pinning his on either side, and Fred suddenly finds himself crushed from all directions by boys a lot bigger than he is. The padding they’re still wearing adds to the feeling of being swallowed, and he has to rise on his tip-toes to see what’s happening.
“Fuck off!” yells Harry, just as the Baxter High student starts up a mocking chant.
“Gimme an F! Gimme an A- Gimme a-
FP snaps back his wrist and throws his full waterbottle at the window of the pickup at full force, hitting the student square across the bridge of the nose. He yells a curse word and disappears back inside the window. Harry and Jerry abruptly leave Fred’s side and hurl their waterbottles after the truck: Jerry’s slams off the back windshield, and Harry actually cracks a taillight. The truck belches a cloud of black exhaust, revs its engine once, and speeds away.
“Yeah, don’t come back!” yells Harry after it as the truck careens out of the parking lot, but Jerry and FP have gone quiet, glancing sideways at Fred. Fred puts on his bravest grin.
“Holy shit, that throw , FP. Don’t start practicing for baseball season without me.”
The tension in the group seems to deflate some. Jerry grins and claps his shoulder.
“Hey, Fred, just wait until we go up against Baxter High for baseball in the spring. They’ll learn pretty quick you’re not just another pretty face.”
“Yeah, the hard way,” agrees Harry, smacking Fred on the other shoulder. Fred winces at the blow.
“What’s so wrong about boys going out for cheerleading anyway?” asks Jerry as they walk back toward their cars, mercifully shaving-foam free. “It’s not like it’s easy. Don’t listen to ‘em.”
“No shit,” agrees Harry. “You should see the stunts Tina has to do. I’d break my neck.”
“Exactly. Any idiot can play football.”
“Many do, in fact,” deadpans FP. Fred smiles cautiously.
“They suck,” says Jerry sincerely. “Don’t let anyone hassle you, okay? If anyone tries to give you a hard time, just tell us.”
“Okay,” says Fred. Jerry swats him on the back of the head.
“You two want a ride or what?”
“We’ll walk,” says Fred. He notices FP is still staring at the place where the pickup truck had disappeared.
“Suit yourself.” Fred waits until Harry and Jerry have pulled away before reaching up and resting his hand against FP’s warm, grass-stained forearm.
FP tears his eyes away from the entrance to the parking lot. “Hm?”
Fred wets his lips. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
“How could I?” FP smiles wryly at him. “That’s your job.”
Alice Smith squeezes into the packed gymnasium, weaving between groups of students as she tries to find a free seat. The gymnasium is already stuffed to bursting, loud music pounding from all corners of the room as the students in the bleachers shout to be heard over the noise. Pep rallies were always out of control, but this was definitely the biggest and loudest of the season. The game with Baxter was still ahead of them, but it was clear that students couldn’t wait to take their frustrations out on the Greendale school. A group of boys down at the front is waving large signs that read BULLDOGS EAT BADGERS and BAXTER HIGH LOOK OUT!
Alice’s blood boils a bit at the thought of the rival school. Baxter had sent her another copy of their asinine paper that morning, with a poorly-typed article adorning their front page that insulted everyone in the Blue and Gold staff and on the Riverdale High football team. Worse, a paragraph at the end had taken great care to mention the Riverdale cheering squad, calling them pathetic and ridiculous. They hadn’t mentioned Fred by name, but Alice had a bad feeling that was coming. She’d taken great pleasure in ripping the Gold and Green - it was printed on the cheapest paper imaginable, of course, and in this awfully tacky green! - into smithereens.
Last year, Alice would have typed up a scalding reply before the ink had even cooled on the original letter. But she had too much else to do. The faculty advisor for the paper, Miss Smitt, had stopped her on the way to the gym to ask if she’d consider expanding her piece about Fred joining the cheerleading squad into a feature, and she was already working on an article about the new statue being unveiled in Pickens Park. Alice intended to focus on making those articles the best they could be before she shot back any immature replies. What was that that Mary always said? The best revenge was success?
Smart girl, that Mary Moore. Too bad she spent so much time with an airhead like Hermione.
Spotting a free seat in the middle of an aisle, Alice dives into it before a hopeful-looking sophomore has a chance, balancing her trusty notebook across her knees and uncapping her pen. She’d have to find out a way to work in the Baxter rivalry without making it seem as though she was deigning to reply to their stupid insults.
“FRED, FRED, FRED, FRED!” the crowd is beginning to cheer. The loud hum of chatter rises up into an airplane-like roar as Coach Kleats walks out into the centre of the gym, waving his clipboard at them to try to get them to calm down. Alice sees him blow a few times on his whistle, but it’s no use. The crowd wants Fred to come out.
God , thinks Alice, slumping down in her chair. Fred’s ego was going to be insufferable. If I wanted to see Fred get jerked off by the whole student body population -
She quashes the disloyal thought as quickly as she can. Fred had endured a healthy amount of teasing for taking up a spot on the squad: most of it good-natured, but some of it mean. FP had told her about the incident in the parking lot after practice yesterday. Hiram and his cronies were going out of their way to be particularly volatile, though Alice suspected that the rich boy was just bored with Hermione out of the picture for a couple weekends. As always with Fred, he had let it roll off him like water off a duck’s back, but some positive attention wouldn’t kill him. Or Alice, to listen to it.
The crowd is finally quieting enough for Kleats to speak, and he raises a battery-powered megaphone to his mouth. “You all know why we’re here,” he announces, a statement met with an immense roar from the crowd. “So without further ado, I’m going to let our athletes take the stage. Put your hands together for the Riverdale High cheerleaders!”
The bleachers explode into applause. Alice leans forward in her seat as the squad bursts out onto the court in a flurry of cartwheels and pom-poms, led by Penelope Blossom in her shortest skirt. Fred is at the front of the pack alongside her, dressed in gold pants and a retro-looking blue sweater, emblazoned with a huge golden R. The crowd is going insane. Fred is in his element, beaming and waving at the packed stands. Alice, who had only seen him at tryouts, is surprised by the ease with which he pulls off the routines, even executing a neat flip on one of the mats.
“When’d he learn to do that?” asks Sierra, seated next to her. Alice just shrugs. Something she’d learned about Fred was never to assume anything. He would always end up surprising you.
Fred’s not the most polished on the floor, but what he’s missing in skill he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Alice finds herself clapping along with the others. Breathless, Fred runs up to the front of the gymnasium, taking centre stage. He lifts a megaphone to his lips.
“How are you all doing out there?” he bellows.
The crowd roars. Alice rolls her eyes. “He thinks he’s Bruce Springsteen.” she murmurs to Sierra.
“Forget it.” Fred, who had lowered the megaphone to enjoy the wall of noise, raises it back up to his lips.
“I can’t hear you!” he yells. The crowd roars again, louder. Alice shakes her head. What a ham! Fred was going to get a shoe thrown at his head if he didn’t let up. It had happened before at one of these things.
Fred throws his arms wide, his grin dazzling. “All right, let's give them a great big hand!” he shouts into the megaphone. “You all know who they are! Your very own Riverdale High Bulldogs!”
If she had thought the gym was loud before, the response is now pandemonium. Students are springing out of their seats as the football team streams onto the basketball court through the locker room door, resplendent in their brand-new gold and blue uniforms. Hal is right out front, and Alice feels her heart give a foreign little leap of recognition. Despite the chaos, his gold hair is brushed into a neat, glossy sweep, held in place by his favourite hair product. Alice knows the smell and touch of it like the back of her hand. Next to messy-haired FP, as dark and dishevelled as Hal was light and put-together, the cleanliness of him is especially pronounced. Alice feels a strange sort of longing in her as she watches Hal pull away to one side to receive a tight pass from FP, baring a genuine, gleaming smile that was courtesy of his sixth-grade braces.
The football team runs up the court, snapping passes to one another and switching lines. Alice follows Hal with her eyes the whole time. Finally, they fall into formation in a long line, the cheerleaders bounding out in front of them in a whirl of pom-poms and skirts. They drop their pom-poms on the gym floor, and Fred hurries to the middle of the pack where he forms the centre of a pyramid. Penelope is lifted onto the top, her red ponytail glowing in the gymnasium lights, a self-satisfied smirk taking up her face.
Hermione is not going to like that, thinks Alice, taking a few idle notes in her notebook. She glances quickly back up when she thinks she’s lost sight of Hal, but he’s still there: beaming that toothpaste-commercial grin as he looks up at the cheerleaders, who have broken the pyramid and have launched into their dance routine. Stomping, leaping, and clapping, hips swaying, they take up a loud cheer:
“Rah-rah Riverdale! Riverdale High! We’re the best, do you know why?”
“Why!?” bellows the crowd. Fred hops up to the platform Coach Kleats had been using earlier, swinging another megaphone jauntily from his hand.
“Because we’ve got Hal!” he shouts, as Hal jogs past him out to the edge of the court. “Harry! Jerry! Rick! Kenny!”
As the cheerleaders name each and every member of the football team, Alice turns back to scribbling in her notebook. She glances up just in time to see one of the cheerleaders, skinny blonde Marilyn, skip over to muscular Jerry Mason and toss her arms around his neck. He pulls her close to him and dips her into a kiss, and all the cheerleaders wave their pom poms energetically.
That could be me, thinks Alice, and is shocked first by the thought, and then the realization that she wants it. The thought of standing in the middle of a packed gymnasium being kissed by a boy with more school spirit in his right hand than she had in her whole body should have horrified her. But instead she finds herself slipping into a daydream, picturing herself down there in the crowd.
If she’d stuck with the cheerleading squad, could that be her and Hal?
“FP!” screams Fred finally, and the crowd explodes again as FP jogs out onto the court, one of the footballs tucked under his arm. He grins nervously up at the stands, where the students are stamping their feet and yelling. The boys with the Baxter High signs are waving them high in the air. FP’s their star player, and everyone’s assuming he’ll carry them through to the playoffs single-handedly. Alice claps politely, eyes drifting to Penelope, who’s looking at FP with undisguised hunger.
Yeech, thinks Alice. Could that bimbo be any more obvious? Hermione would slap her back into place when she got back, that was for sure.
Fred’s clapping hard, his whole face lit up in a grin. Coach Kleats approaches him on the stand and whispers something in his ear, and Fred lifts the megaphone back to his lips.
“Thanks everyone!” he yells. “Thank you so much!”
Someone to Alice’s right boos, and she turns to see one of Hiram’s friends. Hiram himself clearly had decided pep rallies were below him, and hadn’t deigned to show up. Alice rolls her eyes and turns back to the court. If there was anyone more annoying than Hiram himself, it was Hiram’s wannabes.
“Save some of that energy,” Fred is yelling, “to cheer for the Bulldogs on the field tonight! Seven-pm sharp! Watch us slaughter our way to the playoffs!”
Slaughter? Alice notes the word on her notebook and circles it idly. The Bulldogs were already in the playoffs, this game against Rival was just a formality. But it’s clear that no one in the crowded auditorium is picturing their opponents as Rival High. The shaving cream prank had only been the beginning. Blood was in the water, and the sharks were out.
For better or for worse, the Bulldogs were playing for keeps.
FP smiles as he touches the crepe-paper streamers bunched up in the centre of his locker door. When he’d arrived at school that morning, all the football players lockers had been decorated for game day. Hermione was usually the cheerleader who did FP’s locker, but with her out of the country, the privilege had clearly fallen to someone else. Someone who clearly hadn’t quite mastered wielding scotch tape.
Covered in crepe paper and wrapping paper, the locker had also been tied up with ribbon. A bunch of long-stemmed, scruffy flowers, clearly picked by Fred from neighbours’ gardens on his way to school, forms the centrepiece of the decorations. Fred had scrawled STAR PLAYER in sharpie on one of the bits of wrapping paper. FP smirks at it now, dialing the combination of his lock.
“Gotta hand it to him,” says Harry, whos locker is next to FP’s. He opens his locker and tosses his jacket in. “Fred will never stop figuring out weird ways to meet girls. He’s a genius, honestly. Surrounded by perfect tens all day. Wish I’d thought of that.”
“You’d look pretty ugly in a skirt,” cracks FP thoughtlessly, but his mind is a million miles away. Fred claimed he’d joined the cheer squad to cheer for FP, and there was certainly no passion lacking in the way he’d kissed him after practice last night. But Harry was right - Fred was spending all his time surrounded by eligible females, and Fred was notoriously bad at keeping his head when pretty girls were involved. What if he eventually gave up on FP? What if he decided a regular weekend date with a pretty blonde thing sounded more appealing that sneaking around behind closed doors with his best friend?
FP swallows hard and closes his beautifully decorated locker door. Hermione would be back from Spain in time for the playoffs. Hermione and Fred were in off-again season of their on-again, off-again fling, but assuming she came back and wanted to heat things up? Half the school still thought of them as girlfriend and boyfriend, and Hermione would need someone to run with her as homecoming queen. The second she turned on the charm, FP would be back to hurrying after Fred, trying to scrape second place.
Shaking his head to clear it, FP quickly locks his locker and tosses his gym bag over his shoulder. He couldn’t afford to be thinking like that with the game tonight. Seeing Fred on the sidelines in gold pants was going to be distracting enough. Thoughts about their relationship would have to wait until after he’d put the ball down in the end zone for the last time.
“Hey, speak of the devil,” says Harry, and FP turns to see Fred walking toward them.
“Hey,” FP greets him. Fred’s changed out of his cheerleading uniform now, back into denim shorts and a t-shirt.
“Hey yourself, handsome,” says Fred teasingly. Harry rolls his eyes and walks away, leaving them alone together.
They’re walking a tightrope, FP knows. Any day someone could decide to look at their joke flirting for more than it was, to look a little too close at the places they went in private. And then that would be that. If FP was lucky, his dad would only kill him.
“Maybe don’t call me that,” he suggests in a quiet voice. “In public.”
Fred frowns, but then shrugs. “Okay, ugly.” He reaches up and slaps FP’s shoulder, a toothy grin playing on his lips. “I have to run. Penelope called an emergency practice. Something about how our ankles aren’t pretty enough or something. But I’ll see you at the game. I can drive if everyone goes out after.”
FP smiles. “Okay. You were amazing today, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Fred’s glowing grin gets even bigger. “You were dynamite. After that the game will be a piece of cake, right?”
“Right.” FP touches the crepe paper one more time. “I like this too.”
“Like the flowers?”
“Yeah. They’re not from your mom’s garden, are they?”
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” says Fred cheerfully. “But I’m glad you like ‘em.” He glances at the hall clock. “I really have to go. Good luck tonight!”
“You too!” calls FP as Fred takes off. He smiles down the hallway after him for a long moment, his fears momentarily dissuaded. They’d run this routine for years, why should he be suddenly worried it was all going to fall to pieces? Fred always got a pass for his weird antics. No one had any reason to suspect them.
Yeah, a cheerleader dating a quarterback , he thinks to himself, watching the blur of Fred’s red shirt round the corner. Who would ever think of that?
Penelope sighs audibly as Fred sprints into the girls locker room, politely averting his eyes and ducking immediately to the side of the room where his locker was. She glances up at the clock. 3:15 on the dot. Still, a reminder to be punctual wouldn’t exactly hurt him. Penelope slams her locker shut and follows Fred to the other side of the room.
“You know, it’s partly because of you that we have to have this extra practice, so the least you could do is be on time,” she scolds, watching Fred rattle the handle of his locker door. “These girls all knew the routine weeks ago. You’re the extra addition, you’re the one who should be going the extra mile-”
She breaks off when she notices Fred isn’t listening to her. He’d never put a lock on his locker, but the indented part was somehow stuck behind the frame. His attempts to free it are resulting in a huge banging noise that’s drowning out what she’s saying.
“Having trouble?” she asks sarcastically.
“Sorry, my locker’s stuck,” complains Fred, rattling the door again. “Hang on, I got it.”
He gives a magnificent wrench that pops the locker door free, and the reason for the jam is immediately apparent to them. An avalanche of plastic-wrapped pads and tampons pours out of his locker door and scatters across their feet. Fred’s expression is a perfect mask of total shock. It would almost be funny if Penelope was in a laughing mood.
“What the hell-?” says Fred, looking almost frightened of them, as though he expects one of the tampons to bite him. He blinks, looking down at the mountain of pads in bewilderment. “Wow.” Marilyn joins them, curious, followed by some of the other girls. “How long do you think that took them?”
“Never mind that,” says Marilyn, frowning. “What’s this about?”
“Someone’s stupid idea of a joke, probably,” says Fred, cheerfully brushing some pads off the top shelf so he can get his uniform out. “Calling me a girl, or something.”
Penelope thinks that’s more of an insult to girls everywhere than to Fred, but she doesn’t say so.
“That’s an expensive prank,” points out Marilyn, trying to lighten the mood. “Those things don’t come cheap.”
“Really?” Fred drops his practice uniform on the bench, a blush colouring his cheeks for the first time as he looks down at the scattered products. “Well, anyways, uh - I can’t really use these. His ears are slightly red. So if anyone wants them-”
The girls dive on him like vultures. Even Mary scoops up a handful of tampons before beating it back around the bank of lockers. Penelope shakes her head and rolls her eyes. All right, maybe it wasn’t Fred’s fault, but still . Leave it to him to cause a commotion.
“Just clean them all up,” she warns the squad, turning on her heel. “And be out on the field in ten. I want that pyramid flawless before game time tonight.”
“Fred!” calls Alice, chasing him down as he’s leaving the gym doors. Fred turns with a friendly smile, his cheering shoes dangling from one hand. Alice flips her notebook open. “I didn’t catch you after the pep rally. I haven’t got a quote from you yet.”
Fred looks blank. “A quote about what?”
“About game day,” Alice improvises, uncapping her pen. Get him talking first, then ask the hard questions. “How do you think the football team’s going to do?”
“Awesome, of course,” says Fred. Alice takes a hard look at him. Fred looks as relaxed and carefree as ever, but there are circles under his eyes as if he hasn’t been sleeping.
“Fred, are you okay? Don’t take this the wrong way, you look fine - but you also look tired.”
“Probably because I am tired,” he admits, smiling crookedly at her. “Off the record, but Penelope went a little haywire with the practices because I’m new. I’ve had to learn everything. I don’t think I’ve had any free time all week.”
“Worth it now that you have them down, though?” Alice asks, and Fred nods.
“Definitely worth it.”
“Well go home and rest up.” She notices Fred’s bookbag is conspicuously absent. “You are going home, aren’t you?”
“I was just going to hang around the library until the game starts.”
“But when are you going to eat?”
Fred looks blank for the second time. “Eat?”
“ Fred .” Alice shoves her notebook in her pocket and takes him by the elbow. “You do know Penelope doesn’t mean it about the no-carbs rule, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So why aren’t you eating?”
Fred shrugs. “Just nervous, I guess.”
“Really? Still? After the pep rally, I figured you’d have got it all out of your system.”
Fred shrugs and looks away.
“Hey.” Alice pulls on Fred’s elbow until he looks at her. “Are you worried people are going to make fun of you? ‘Cause apart from Hiram and his cronies, the whole school’s on your side.”
“It’s not that.”
Fred shrugs again. “It’s my first game. I’m nervous. You don’t have to make a federal case of it.”
Alice releases him. “Okay, fine. I’ll get a quote later. But promise you’ll eat something. Or I’ll have to send Hal after you with a ham salad sandwich.”
“Pass,” jokes Fred. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I always do, Freddy,” says Alice with a roll of her eyes, heading back toward the parking lot. “I always do.”
By nine a light drizzle has swept in above the football field, clouds gathering above the football players in the once-flawless sky. The rain does nothing to dampen the players’ spirits, however, especially with the cheerleading squad outperforming themselves on the sidelines. Alice squints at them across the field, their perky shouts drifting out to the bleachers across the field where Rival and Riverdale are doggedly running into one another.
“Rah-Rah, Riverdale! Bulldogs, Let’s Go!” The cheerleaders break into their choreography, fluttering yellow pom-poms vibrant in the light from the floodlights. Fred’s nerves had been unfounded: he’s been executing cheers beautifully all night. The crowd was just as enthusiastic tonight as they’d been at the pep rally, and the cheerleaders had taken the field to demanding cries of “FRED! FRED! FRED!” The boy could do no wrong. Alice wishes, not for the first time, that a bit of that magic would rub off on her.
The wind is warm, even though the rain has cooled the air somewhat. Alice’s windbreaker is enough to keep her comfortable, meaning Fred was probably happy as a clam in that awful sweater. She glances up at the scoreboard. Rival is trailing them by forty points. With five minutes left to go, and FP playing the way he was, their opponents didn’t stand a chance.
The commentator clearly shares her view. “Riverdale High is playing the game of their lives here,” he reports, his amplified voice booming out over the stands. “With just five minutes to go, it looks like they’re going to be a top team going into the playoffs. But it’s Rival’s ball-”
The two teams huddle up. Alice’s gaze wanders to Hal, and she feels an agonizing rush of tenderness for him, his strong, purposeful stride, the way the padding fills out his shoulders until he looks larger than life. She wants to rush onto the field and hold him.
If she was learning anything, tonight, though, it was that love and football were a bad mix - FP had already fumbled an early pass when Fred had executed a particularly daring little jump on the sidelines. Hal Cooper would have to wait until the post-game victory party at Pop’s. Alice is getting thirsty, and she can already taste the root beer float she’s planning on ordering. She turns her gaze back to Fred, now involved in some kind of V-for-victory formation, wondering if he’d ever found anything to eat.
A dramatic burst of motion on the field interrupts her thoughts. “And Rival’s quarterback, Bert Lancaster, fires a perfect pass to wide receiver John Bellmont in the end zone!” shouts the sportscaster. Alice leans forward, anxiously watching the play. Belinda Layton, the Blue and Gold’s sports editor, leans in beside her.
“But wait!” the sportscaster shouts, only Alice already knows, had seen Hal barrelling up behind Bellmont, as steady and true as anything. “That’s Hal Cooper leaping to tip the ball away - oh! and right into the hands of star quarterback FP Jones! He passes it to Rick Banks, who makes another short pass to Kenny Doiley - and they’ve got it on Rival’s twenty-yard line, folks, with seconds left on the clock-”
The cheerleaders are going nuts, waving their pom-poms and cheering loudly. Rival’s coach blows the whistle for time-out, and the players huddle up one more time.
“What do you think they’ll do?” Alice asks Belinda.
“Rival or us? I think we’re going to pass it to FP and let him run with it. If Rival’s lucky, they’ll-”
Alice doesn’t hear the end of their sentence. The cheerleaders, clearly thinking along the same lines, have launched into another cheer, Fred’s voice carrying loudest of all over the field.
“FP! FP! He’s our man! If he can’t make it, no one can!”
The stands are suddenly alive with people clapping and stomping. Alice sees Rival’s coach glance fearfully up at the stands as the cheerleaders lead the crowd through the chant twic more. When the crowd is riled up and the huddles are still intact, the cheerleaders spread out into another V formation, bounding so enthusiastically across the sidelines that they appear weightless.
The other cheerleaders have their hands thrust skyward, waving their pom poms as Fred, at the head of the V, starts doing some kind of improvised dance routine that involves a lot of hips.
“Stronger than steel,” they all chant, “hotter than the sun! FP won’t stop ‘till he gets the job done!”
Alice is about to make a smart remark to Belinda about FP’s star status, but Belinda is scribbling again on her pad and she doesn’t want to interrupt. A whistle blows, and the players trot back out to the field. Alice leans forward in her seat again.
Sure enough, Rick deposits the ball straight in FP’s hands, and FP runs like lightning. At least two Rival players hit him as he zig-zags his way toward the end zone, but FP just shakes them off.
“AND HE CROSSES THE END ZONE!” the sportscaster is yelling. “THE GAME’S OVER! RIVERDALE WINS!”
The roar of noise rising up from the stands approximates that of a jet engine taking off. In a surge of activity, students are climbing out of their seats, pushing one another in their attempts to get close to the action. Riverdale High students are mobbing the field. Rival sprints for their bench to avoid being squashed. The cheerleaders are running in a blue-and-gold pack toward FP, but FP only has eyes for one. Wrapping Fred up in a hug, he shelters him from the rest of the RHS players who pile on, so that the endzone suddenly hosts a tight cocoon of huge, sweaty, exuberant bodies with Fred wrapped up in the middle.
Best of all, Penelope looks pretty put-out about it.
“I am STARVING!” announces Fred, digging messily into the first of his two bacon cheeseburgers. Now that the anxiety of the game has passed, his stomach is starting to protest loudly from being left empty all day. FP laughs and moves a stack of menus out of his way. The whole football team, cheerleading squad, and most of their fellow students have crowded into the chok’lit shop for a post-game celebratory meal, and the energy is as high as it had been on the field.
“You’re telling us!” laughs Jerry, squashed into the booth opposite him. He takes a huge bite from his own burger, sauce running down his chin. “It’s not easy winning that many games in a row.”
“Hey, cheering is hard work too,” argues Marilyn, taking a sip from the milkshake they’re sharing. “Fred deserves his burgers.”
Fred beams. He had entered Pop’s riding on FP’s shoulders and waving his pom-poms, and the evening was still going up. With this many students, they’re squashed in six or seven to a booth, and he’s practically sitting on FP’s lap. Every so often FP’s thumb sneaks down to rub a private circle into the skin of his knee or thigh, and Fred’s heart beats a little bit harder every time he does.
He catches Alice’s eye across the room. She’s squeezed cozily in with Hal and Belinda Layton, looking a lot more relaxed than he’s seen her lately. Fred raises his burger and shoots her a wink so she knows he’s eating. Alice just shakes her head good-naturedly at him and turns away.
“What a game, huh?” exalts Rick Banks, strolling by their table. He slaps FP hard on the back. “Must be nice to be a cheerleader, isn’t it, Fred?”
“You bet,” says Fred cheerfully around a mouthful of bacon, and his table bursts into appreciative laughter.
“Here’s to Riverdale High!” shouts Harry from a table behind them, raising his milkshake glass.
“RIVERDALE!” choruses everyone within earshot.
“Best school in the state!” cheers Marilyn.
“In the world!” agrees Kenny.
“Let’s just see Baxter try to mess with us.”
“Lets see Baxter try to mess with FP!”
Fred cuddles closer against FP’s side as the attention turns away from him, keeping his eyes open despite the tiredness so he can drink in the revelry going on at the other tables. His gaze sweeps over the cheering students, the blue and gold flags many of them still wore knotted around their necks. FP doesn’t pull away from him, and Fred rests his cheek against his friend’s warm arm, relaxing against the feeling of being squashed by bodies on all sides.
Everything turned out okay , Fred reflects, nestling closer to FP in the warmth of the booth. Better than okay, perfect. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
FP glances down at him. “You hanging in there?”
Fred smiles tiredly. “You bet.”
FP’s thumb slips clockwise against that soft place above his knee, and Fred feels a tingle run up his spine. He may have finally outdone himself this time.
Joining the cheerleading squad was definitely the best decision he had ever made.
oh it aint over!! we're not even HALFWAY!
Fred stretches luxuriously when he wakes up, letting out a soft moan when the action aggravates his sore muscles. Nestling deeper under the covers, he tries to return to the dream he remembers having. Himself in his cheerleading uniform - one of the ones with the skirts - and FP lifting him up in the middle of the field, spinning him around as the stands went crazy for them, pressing a hot, heavy kiss to his mouth as his fingers snuck up the back of his shirt…
Fred yawns sleepily, turning over under the sheets. The sunlight is drifting warmly in through the window, and he basks in its warm glow as he remembers the celebration last night. Not all of that had been a dream. He lifts his fingers reverently to his lips as though trying to hold the memory of FP’s kisses there. The team had hung out at Pop’s last night until long past his usual curfew, and then he and FP had gone for a drive. So maybe not all of that soreness was from cheerleading after all.
“Fred! Wake up!” His dad’s voice issues up from beneath his attic bedroom. Fred groans and pulls the covers over his head, wincing at the pain in his arms. He doesn’t want to get up, he wants to lie here and think about how nice and warm FP’s kisses had been in the front seat of the car. He peers at the alarm clock on his bedside table. 7:13. So that means he’d slept….
The creaking of stairs and a slamming on his bedroom door interrupts his thoughts. “Come on, Fred, up and at ‘em,” his father calls. “You’ve got work in an hour.”
Work. In all the excitement of making the cheering squad, Fred had forgotten. His father’s close friend Joel worked in construction, and with a little shuffling, had managed to get Fred a part-time job pouring concrete on weekends. Because they got today off school, Joel had scheduled him in twice. The job was a dream come true for someone who wanted to get a leg up in the construction business: he’d worked for Joel over the summer, as well, and as well as an awesome tan, he’d managed to make some pretty solid business connections.
He hears the sound of his father’s footsteps getting softer as he climbs back down the stairs toward the kitchen. Fred rolls out of bed, feeling a hundred years old instead of seventeen. Cheering for the past week had used muscles in him he didn’t even know he had . He stares sleepily at himself in his bedroom mirror, idly massaging his left shoulder in an effort to get the ache out. He looks healthy enough: his tan is still intact and his eyes are bright, but below them he can see dark lines from staying out so late.
The possibility of faking sick drifts across his mind- he does feel a little queasy from those late-night bacon and cheeseburgers - but he squashes the thought stubbornly down. His dad had worked hard to get him this job. He was almost an adult now. No more fooling around , he tells himself sternly. You signed up for this. Cheerleading is the only fooling you get to do.
With a last longing glance at his unmade bed, he shuffles across the floor toward the stairs. Taking two flights of stairs down hurts, but he knows it’s going to hurt worse going back up. Eight hours of slinging concrete in the hot sun was going to be a real pain.
“Morning,” he offers sleepily as he stumbles into the kitchen. His mother is at the stove, stirring a pot of oatmeal, while his father sits at the table in his work clothes with a paper spread out beside his cereal bowl. He looks up at Fred’s approach.
“What time did you get in last night?” asks his dad.
Fred racks his brain, subtracting a few extra hours for good measure. “Um… about midnight,” he answers confidently, rubbing at his tired eyes as he sinks into a chair. His mom places a steaming bowl of oatmeal in front of him, and he gives her a grateful smile as thank you.
“How was the game?” she asks, but the question goes right over Fred’s head. His ears are buzzing with tiredness, and he hurts all over. He stifles a yawn with the back of his hand. “Fred?”
“Hm?” His head jerks up.
“I asked how the game was.”
“Oh.” Fred’s tired face breaks into a smile. “It was amazing. We won by a huge margin, it was killer. FP got this awesome touchdown right at the end. There were seconds left on the clock, and he must’ve ran through every one of their defenders. It was like he was untouchable. I’m pretty sure he dragged three Rival players over the line with him.”
Fred’s story peters off into another yawn, and he quickly covers his mouth. “Sorry.”
“You’d think you’d played with them, instead of just watching from the bleachers,” his father comments idly, and Fred feels a small nausea take hold of him that has nothing to do with his meal at Pop’s the night before. Fred’s parents knew nothing about his dramatic campaign to make the cheerleading squad - he’d covered up his absences from dinner on practice nights by telling them he was working out with FP. Fred was certain that they wouldn’t understand what it meant to him, and would in fact be a little disappointed to hear what their only son was getting up to. His dad in particular: Artie had always wanted a football star.
And then there was FP’s dad. FP’s dad and Fred’s dad loathed each other, and Forsythe Senior was in the habit of calling Fred names. The kind of names that got a whole mountain of pads and tampons shoved in your locker. Which meant nothing without any evidence, obviously, but if either of them knew that Artie Andrews’ son was on the girls’ cheerleading team…
“It’s all that working out you do with FP,” criticizes his mother, breaking into his consciousness. “I don’t know how he finds the time, with football. You two are wearing yourselves to the bone.”
“It’ll make a difference once basketball season comes around,” says Fred cheerfully, but slowly sets his spoon back in his oatmeal without taking a bite. He’d figured the working out excuse was pretty foolproof: FP was always willing to cover for him, and a jump in his fitness and eating habits could be explained away by extra hours at the gym. Same with the agonizing stiffness that was climbing up his back. But maybe he’d misjudged. Maybe I should have told them I was going to bible study.
“Leave him be,” says his father, and Fred relaxes the smallest amount. The best thing about the weightlifting excuse was that his dad loved it. He smiles at Fred over his paper. “I’m sorry I missed the game,” he complains, folding his paper up and tucking it into his briefcase. “You know I like to follow the season with you guys. But I’m booked solid at work. Nothing but meetings for the next month of game days.”
Fred’s stomach curls up even tighter. He’d carefully factored his father’s tight schedule during playoff season into his decision to try out for the squad. “That’s okay,” he says hurriedly. “We creamed them by so much, there wasn't really a lot to see. I’m sure the rest of the playoffs are going to be the same way. Not very interesting.”
“If you say so.” His father looks surprised, but doesn’t comment. He rises from the table and kisses Fred on the head, ruffling up his hair. “I’m headed out. Don’t be late for Joel.”
“I won’t,” says Fred. His father exchanges a kiss with his mother and heads out the door. She turns back to Fred, who was picking through his oatmeal with all the enthusiasm of a mortuary assistant.
“You’d better eat up,” she encourages him, taking off her apron and hanging it over the back of the door. “You’ll need your strength.”
No kidding , thinks Fred, lifting a scoop of oatmeal to his mouth. Eight hours today, eight hours tomorrow . The only silver lining was that he’d get Sunday off-
that was if he hadn’t promised his father he’d help him shingle the roof two weeks ago.
Fred slumps down in his chair, putting another mechanical spoonful of breakfast to his lips. His warm, cozy dream about FP on the football field suddenly seems as far away as anything in the whole world.
But Fred was no quitter. He’d made his bed, and now he’d lie in it. Or cheer in it. Whatever.
I’m going to be the best cheerleader at Riverdale , he tells himself grimly, scooping another mouthful of oatmeal. Or die trying.
halice are in the next chapter!
“You really think it’s that good?” asks Alice dubiously, swivelling around in Hal Cooper’s wooden desk chair. It’s Sunday morning, just after church, and Hal’s still dressed in his Sunday best: a pale blue dress shirt that clung perfectly to his chest and neatly pressed slacks. Alice is in her favourite pink cardigan and a skirt that Mrs. Cooper had bought her for a gift. The getup makes her feel kind of like a particularly stern school secretary, though this feeling doesn’t bother her as much as she might have expected it to. She fingers one of the small pearl buttons of the cardigan, a gesture that always had a calming effect when she was stressed.
“Good?” Hal looks shocked at the question. “It’s amazing.”
Alice had spent the last two days working furiously on her feature article for The Blue and Gold. She’d used cardstock to mockup the layouts, and the finished product she’d laid carefully out in Hal’s room looks fantastic. Whether it was up to snuff journalistically - well, Hal would tell her. Hal had a habit of being overly enthusiastic about just about anything she showed him, but she could count on him to be objective when it came to writing. Not for nothing was Hal poised to take over The Riverdale Register when his father retired.
Maybe precisely because she’s expecting his honesty, her nerves are on edge. This is the first time she’s ever shown Hal something before she was completely and entirely confident in it. Alice digs her stocking feet into the soft carpet of Hal’s bedroom and turns the desk chair this way and that, avoiding his gaze.
She has to admit that the layouts are impressive. Something about them looks especially good laid out on the neat blue plaid of Hal’s summer bedspread - the kind of carefully concocted school project that the clean, academic space almost begged for. Alice loves Hal’s room: the blue-and-cream cleanliness of it, the perfectly made bed, the dark blue Yale pennant and the well-dusted shelves of knickknacks. The only other male bedroom she’s been in is Fred’s - a crowded, memento-strewn attic space that looks at all times like a hurricane has blown through it. Warm but sloppy. Hal’s - tidy, cool - strikes a chord in her that nothing else ever has.
Her favourite things are the framed photos: candid snapshots of Hal and his family, the football team, his friends. And then the one big silver frame on the bedside table that held the 5x7 school portrait of herself. It was her favourite picture of her: Hal’s favourite as well. Fred kept his photos stuffed haphazardly into the sides of his mirror or pinned directly to the wall. There was something terribly romantic about the heftiness of that metal frame, the permanence.
It looks like a movie set, is the thing - a picture in a catalogue of how a boy’s room should look, age sixteen, in small-town America. Suburban splendor. Sometimes she wanders when Hal is in the bathroom, skimming her fingertips over shelves, sports trophies, old yearbooks, just feeling and looking so greedily that she thinks sometimes she should be punished for it. If Alice ever has a son, she wants his room to look like this. Right down to every detail.
Hal has turned from the layouts on the bed back to face her. “Alice, it’s wonderful. It has heart, it has spunk - this isn’t just writing, Alice.” Hal is positively glowing. “It’s journalism .”
All right, that was laying it on a little thick. Alice feels a blush creeping up on her neck - a feat in itself, as Alice Smith didn’t blush easily. Hal did have a habit of being far too enthusiastic about every little thing Alice shared of herself, but this was a whole new level of ham. Still, was it possible he meant it? She had thought the writing was a little different with this one. Snappier, somehow. She had kind of liked it. And certainly more time had gone into this article than anything she’d written before.
“You don’t have to say that,” she urges, embarrassed, “it’s not even done-” but Hal presses on.
“Alice, I mean it. Look, here-” He gently circles a line break with the soft edge of a pencil. “This is really wonderful stuff. It’s the only place where your writing gets a little less muscly - less compact, you know? But it works because you pace it out so well. The only thing I’d do is move this section down a bit. I think it’s getting in the way of your lead. And here -” Hal moves on to another page. “I just noticed you’re re-iterating what you’ve said before. But that’s it, Alice.” He sits back, tossing the pencil down on the comfortable bedspread. “That’s all I can find. And that’s hardly a big change.”
Hal runs his hand through the back of his hair, mussing it up. “I can help you print it out and re-organize them if you want.”
“That’s really all you’d change?” asks Alice, rising from the chair and looking down at the marks. Now that the sections are outlined, the changes seem evident - it fills her with a soft kind of awe. Clearly Hal had very thoughtfully worked through her article. She moves closer to the bed and fidgets with a corner of the cardstock. “That can’t be all.”
“When are you going to stop being so critical of yourself?” asks Hal softly. She feels his hand gently run along a strand of her hair and pulls away from his fingers.
“Hal, what kind of journalist isn’t critical of their work?”
“Alice, my parents are journalists.” Hal reaches out for her hand and takes it, fiddling with one of her rings. “I’m being honest when I tell you this is just as good as anything they’ve ever written. This is an amazing feature. The Blue and Gold will be great tomorrow.”
Alice relaxes a tiny amount. “All right. Well, if you don’t mind helping me-”
Hal doesn’t seem to be listening, his eyes boring into hers as his thumb rubs soft circles into her skin. “You’re really special, you know that, Alice?”
“What do you mean?” asks Alice. Hal says nothing, and Alice pulls her hand back. “Hal, I should go fix that-”
He flushes. “I’m scaring you off, aren’t I? I knew I would.”
Alice shakes her head, pearl earrings swaying. “No-”
Hal’s ears have gone bright red. He looks down at the carpeting as though asking it to devour him. “I told myself I wouldn’t,” he apologizes shakily, seemingly to himself. “I swore I wouldn’t - I know you’re not ready to have me just throw myself at you. You don’t deserve that. I’m sorry-”
Alice kneels down on the carpet, places a hand on each of his shoulders, and kisses him.
Hal is staring at her in shock when she pulls back. Alice smiles. She stands, tugging Hal up from the bed and leading him to the desk. Alice hops up and sits on the edge, neatly moving a stack of books to the side. Hal, getting the hint, moves in until he’s standing in front of her, reaching down and cupping her cheek, brushing a blonde curl out of the way with his thumb.
“Wait,” says Alice, eyeing the cracked-open door. “Is your mom-”
“They won’t bother us,” says Hal softly and kisses her cheek. “We’re working.”
No sooner had Alice returned home that evening than Fred had called her in a frenzy, needing homework help. Twenty minutes later, she was seated in his comfortable rec-room basement with a bowl of popcorn, trying to walk him through the past week’s calculus homework in a matter of hours.
“You know, starting your homework earlier than Sunday night might help,” she says, when Fred turns the first page and lets out a helpless cry at the sight of the remaining problems.
“I haven’t had time,” Fred groans. “I’ve been cheering. I put it all on the back burner. What do I do, Alice? There’s no way I can finish this.”
“For starters, stop groaning and do it.” Alice turns the page in the textbook, trying to remember her own solutions on the same page. She speaks snappishly, as if unworried, but she has to admit she’s dubious at Fred’s ability to finish this on time. Fred seems to be more than a week behind to her. His best bet was probably to fake a death in the family. His own .
“We never studied this,” says Fred hopelessly. He has a hot water bottle pressed against his back, and he shifts it now to his right arm. “I don’t remember any of it.”
“That’s because you were spacing out, thinking about being the first male cheerleader at Riverdale High.” Alice pushes his exercise book back toward him. “Try again with the right formula.”
“I’m not the first,” speaks up Fred. “In the yearbook-”
“I know, I know.” Fred’s been waving that moldy old yearbook with the photo of Tommy Carllson, Riverdale High Cheerleading Squad Member in their faces since he first stumbled across it in the library, early in his campaign to join the squad. Alice has seen it a hundred million times. Fred probably has it hung inside his locker.
“So how’s Hal?” asks Fred, trying to evade the inevitable return to the exercise book. He shifts his hot water bottle to his other arm. Alice squints at him.
“Who said anything about Hal?”
“Your neck did the talking for you,” Fred cracks, touching a finger to the side of his pulse. A purple bruise is forming in an identical spot on Alice’s skin. “Haven’t you ever heard of a scarf?”
Alice goes bright red, her expression stormy. “Oh, you- you’re one to talk! Hal told me he saw FP parked way out at Miller’s Point after the game!”
“He should have come over and said hello,” Fred jokes, and Alice swats him.
“You’re an idiot! You’d think you two would have the sense not to go park where everyone at school goes to park! Hal wanted to know which member of the cheerleading squad he was with. He thought it was Penelope!”
Fred howls with laughter, and Alice hits him again. “It’s not funny! It’s positively disgusting, the way she drools over him. That bimbo is so transparent! She only wants him because he’s a big-shot at school all of a sudden.”
“Penelope has a thing for FP?” Fred asks.
Alice scoops another handful of popcorn out of the bowl and munches on it. “Hello? Do you not see the way she looks at him?”
“I guess so.” Fred pops a handful of popcorn in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. He slowly balls up a sheet of mistakes, crushing the lined paper in between his fingers. “She should go after Hiram. One less thing for me to worry about.”
“Speaking of which,” continues Alice, well into the swing of gossiping now, “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to Hermione getting back on Monday.” She snaps the textbook closed. “I wish I was there to see the fireworks when she finds out Penelope’s changed up the choreography.”
Usually the mention of Hermione would perk Fred up, but he still looks exhausted, leaning on his hand as he stares down at the pages of unfinished homework. “Yeah,” he agrees. “She’ll-”
He trails off, eyes fixed on a spot on the paper without really seeing it. He shakes his head, pushing the textbook away from him. “I’m sorry, Ally, I can’t do this anymore. It’s not your fault. You tried.” Fred rubs his temples, looking exhausted. “It’s more important that I get some sleep at this point.”
“What are you going to do when she calls on you in class?”
“Probably cry,” jokes Fred, rubbing his eyes.
“Come on, Fred,” Alice encourages him, glancing at the clock on the stereo. “It’s only midnight.”
Fred looks blearily up at the stereo. “Half-past.”
“At least finish this page.” Fred is staring off at the far wall, bloodshot eyes unfocused again. “Hey,” she jokes, “What would Tommy Carllson do?”
“He’s probably dead,” grumbles Fred, pulling out a pencil sharpener and beginning to scatter his lap with pencil shavings. “What a lucky guy.”
FP notices two things on Monday morning: first, that Svenson had torn down his locker decorations over the weekend, and second, that Hermione was back. The latter is made apparent to him almost as soon as his thumb touches the combination lock: the entire hallway seems to undergo a seismic shift at her arrival. The air stirs as if lifted by a breeze. Harry, at the locker beside him, gapes.
Hermione sashays down the hall toward them, looking more darkly tanned and more beautiful than ever, a pink silk dress swirling around her strappy, high-heeled feet. She pauses at their bank of lockers to toss her thick mane of hair triumphantly over her shoulder, looking at them with a pearly-toothed smile.
“Hello, hello!” she announces sprightly, and FP notices her hair is held in place by an immense, detailed hairpin. “Or, as they say in España - !Buenos días ¡”
“I’m going to be sick,” mutters Alice, but Hermione breezes past her to where Harry and FP are standing. “Have you all missed me?” she purrs. “I brought gifts for everyone - oh, except you, Alice, I couldn’t find anything in your size. Spain was wonderful, by the way. So many handsome men.” FP’s heart flutters anxiously. (Did that mean she and Fred-?)
Hermione leans up against the lockers, looking at FP adoringly. “What’s new around here?”
“Well, we’re in the finals,” relates Harry with a grin, “and FP finally has a chance with a member of the cheerleading squad.”
FP shoves him. Hermione’s eyes narrow.
“Cheerleading! Dare I ask what that snipe Penelope has done with my squad in my absence?”
Alice rolls her eyes, but Harry looks thrilled. “For starters, they’re co-ed now.”
Hermione frowns at him. “What does that mean?”
“Fred’s a cheerleader.” Alice shoves her locker door shut. “Have fun.”
“And the rivalry with Baxter is getting pretty insane,” FP adds, as Hermione’s eyebrows shoot up. “I don’t know how much you heard about it before you left.”
“A rivalry?” Hermione looks interested at last, a gleam starting up in her eyes. “Now that’s interesting.”
“It’s dangerous, if you ask me,” speaks up Alice, but Hermione waves her off.
“Oh, as if. We need a little excitement around here. Trust me. This place is as dull as dishwater.” Her eyes are sparkling. “A school rivalry might be just what we need to stir things up around here. I like it.” Her eyes land back on FP, a slight frown creasing her face. “Now where is sweet little Fred Andrews, and what exactly is this about him being on my cheerleading squad?”
FP looks at Alice. Alice looks at Harry. Harry shrugs. “I dunno, Hermione," he tells her. "But he sure looks good in blue.”
Alice smiles to herself as she walks away from the newspaper office and down toward her first class on Monday morning. The encounter with Hermione had been unpleasant, but it had done nothing to take the wind out of her sails. The newest issue of the Blue and Gold was easily their most popular of the year. Copies were flying off the shelves, and they’d already had to print an extra batch to keep up with demand. Everywhere she went, she saw students with a copy tucked under their arms, or shoved haphazardly into a pile of books. It turns out Fred’s face could sell papers. Who knew.
Best of all, there had been no envelope for her from Baxter High. She had no doubt that the idiots on their newspaper staff had finally realized they were never going to get a rise out of her. That, or they’d blown their whole budget on postage. Taking her ordinary seat in calculus, Alice quickly sneaks another glance at the two-page feature. Now that was a sample you could send in with your university applications. No doubt. She might be holding in her hands her ticket out of here, and the thought fills her with a raw kind of excitement.
As class begins, she finds it almost too easy to follow what Mr. Dalton is talking about. Against her better judgement, she’d been up for an extra hour carefully filling out homework sheets in her best impression of Fred’s scraggly hand. By now she could probably recite the textbook in her sleep. She frowns at the back of Fred’s hair, two desks in front of her. If she could only get his attention so she could get the homework to him before Mr. Dalton collected it -
Fred had come sprinting into the room that morning just as the bell had begun to ring, almost ice-skating across the varnished floor and collapsing into the only empty desk. Alice could have sworn she’d heard him mutter something to the boy to his left about having overslept. Fred has a lot of horrible school habits, but oversleeping has never been one of them. Fred’s typically a punctual person.
Alice tries not to fret over him, she really does. But Fred makes it so hard.
“Fred,” hisses Alice now, leaning so far forward in her chair that she’s in danger of sliding right off onto the floor. Fred continues to stare up at the blackboard, oblivious, looking like he’s lost in some kind of incredibly engaging daydream. Alice coughs loudly, hoping to startle him into looking around, but all she does is draw the curious gaze of class president Sierra, two desks over.
Sighing, she reaches out and taps Rick Banks on the shoulder, who’s in the middle of whisper-relating the outcome of Thursday’s game to Tom Keller. He turns around, looking surprisedly over her head, as though he was expecting to come face-to-face with someone much taller.
“Can you pass this to Fred?” she asks. Rick swipes the homework pages she offers him out of her hand, looking eagerly at them as if he expects some great scandal to emerge from their pages. His face falls disappointedly when he sees the rows of calculus problems.
“Cheerleader Ken too much of a big-shot to do his homework?” he whispers back. Tom frowns at them - Tom hates cheating - but Alice just fixes the two boys with her best glare until Rick turns around and obediently passes the sheets to Fred. Fred jumps violently when tapped, his head jerking up and several of his pens clattering off his desk, and Alice realizes he hadn’t been daydreaming but somehow fast asleep with his eyes open.
Fred looks tiredly at the papers, and his face lights up. He twists around in his chair so he’s facing Alice and mouths “thank you”.
“I’ll collect those homework pages now,” speaks up Mr. Dalton, and Fred’s face splits into an exuberant grin, raising his eyebrows and pulling a goofy face as if to say perfect timing . Alice rolls her eyes at him and takes her own homework out. She resists the urge to prop open a copy of The Blue and Gold under her desk. It was one thing to have something nice for your university applications, but re-reading your own writing over and over was a little much. There was such a thing as being too prideful. Something Hal’s mother never stopped reminding her.
“You’re a lifesaver, Alice,” says Fred tiredly as they leave class, Alice headed for biology and Fred for business. “My dad would have tanned my hide if I got another bad mark in calculus. I don’t know what to do. I can never repay you for this.”
“You don’t have to repay me,” says Alice with a sigh. “Trust me, it was a one-time thing. Just do your homework from now on. And pick up a copy of the Blue and Gold on your way to class.”
“Why?” asks Fred, mystified.
“My feature, Fred. I’ve only been telling you about it all week.”
“You finished that?” Fred’s stifles a yawn. “That was fast.”
Fred was so clueless that sometimes it physically hurt her. Alice shoves her own copy into his hands. “Here you go. I’ll get another one from the office.”
Fred cracks it open, looking excited. “Hey, is this about me?”
“Yeah.” Alice sees Hermione approaching and does a quick 180, slapping Fred encouragingly on the back. “All about you.”
The rest of the day passes in a blur for Fred. Hermione talks his ear off on the way to business, alternating between gushing about her trip to Spain and grilling him for information about Penelope and the cheerleading squad. Usually Fred would jump at the chance to hear about the catalogue-worthy lineup of swimsuits Hermione had bought on vacation, but his brain keeps drifting in and out of focus. They somehow end up fifteen minutes late, and there’s only two seats left: one next to Hiram and one at the back of the class. With a sinking heart, Fred heads for the back. He wants to be away from Hiram and his awful aftershave more than he wants to split Hermione and Hiram up.
Mr. Fields wheels in a TV so they can watch a VHS: something about economics that’s so dull it puts him to sleep within the first five minutes. Fred doesn’t wake up until another class is streaming in: Hermione and Hiram are both long gone and a wet patch of drool is staining the collar of his shirt. Mr. Fields has scrawled one word across a pink slip on his desk: DETENTION.
The worst is yet to come, however. Miss Smitt hands back their tests in last-period English, and Fred’s heart sinks to his sneakers when he turns his over. He’d expected a bad grade, having been too preoccupied last week to study, but a zero? Nothing? How could anyone get a zero in English?
He looks up at Miss Smitt for help, but she only keeps walking down the aisle, frowning sternly. Fred shoves his test in his bag, feeling the very beginnings of tears prickle at his eyes. He blinks them stubbornly back. This was just a short pitfall, he reassures himself. Way back in 1956, Tommy Carllson probably had to deal with this too.
He sleeps with his eyes open in detention, having a confusing dream about Hermione in a bikini berating him for letting his marks slip. When Weatherbee finally lets him go around four, he sprints at top speed for the practice field, crashing down on the sunny grass next to Mary with his shoes untied. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to have missed much: Hermione and Penelope are standing face-to-face with their arms folded, bickering like sore enemies.
Penelope tosses her ponytail over her shoulder. “You know, I was thinking, Hermione, since I’ve actually been here and you haven’t, it might be better to keep me as captain until the championships are over.”
“Look, you hideous, walking Strawberry Shortcake doll,” snaps Hermione, “I’m sure you were expecting me to catch some terrible tropical disease in Spain and die tragically so that you could take all the credit for my hard work, but I’m back now. So why don’t you sit down, zip up your pathetically plumped lips, and listen to me before you make an idiot of yourself.”
What a thing to walk in on! Fred looks to Mary for help, wide-eyed, but Mary is discreetly ruffling through a copy of The Blue and Gold , barely even paying attention. Fred pulls at the sweaty collar of his practice shirt, turning back to watch Hermione as Penelope rolls her eyes at her.
“I’ve been to Spain,” she says in a nasty, sugar-sweet voice. “And I doubt you could afford to do anything but stroll the disease-ridden tourist traps. Could you really blame me if I was preparing for the inevitable?”
“Way harsh, Penelope,” comments Marilyn from the sidelines, looking unhappy. “Why don’t we just get started, okay? Fred’s here.”
“All right, let’s get down to business,” interrupts Hermione as if it had been her idea, pacing abruptly in front of them with her eyes flashing. Despite the steaming hot sun, the air seems to cool by ten degrees. “We’ve got a week before the next game, and I guess I’ll have to spend some time un-doing the pathetic, totally moronic changes that my co-captain has put in place. So-”
“What changes?” asks Penelope, smiling a sugar-sweet smile. “I’d call them improvements, don’t you think?”
“Don’t play coy with me, you bimbo,” snaps Hermione. “How about you choreographing yourself on top of the pyramid in my rightful spot? A little arrogant of you, don’t you think?”
“Oh, Hermione,” says Penelope with a cruel, patronizing smile. “Don’t you think you’re a little too heavy to be on top?”
Fred’s mouth drops open. He plants one hand on the grass, meaning to stand up and defend her, but Hermione seems completely nonplussed, barreling ahead with a sharp retort before Fred can even move.
“I know it’s difficult for someone with your limited brain capacity to remember things, Penny,” she snaps, “but I weigh a good five pounds less than you. Probably more. Either that skirt is incredibly unflattering on you, or you’re definitely moved up a dress size since I’ve been away.”
“I’m sure eating all that paella in Spain was incredibly slimming,” bites back Penelope, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “but your dismount is much too shaky to risk putting you on top. Especially since you’ve been relaxing for a week while the rest of us have been working ourselves to the bone getting ready for the finals. Pardon me, but I think someone who actually cares about this team deserves to be on top.”
“Oh, did you work on this routine?” asks Hermione. “I couldn’t tell. I would have thought this was your first day working on it. You don’t mean to tell me this is the best you could do, do you?”
Penelope glares daggers at her. What the hell? t hinks Fred, anxiously uprooting a handful of grass. It was like watching a bad video in health class on the dangers of bullying. He’d never seen Hermione act this petty before. Okay, Hermione could occasionally be a bit of an airhead, and sure her tongue had barbs- but like this?
He looks around again to see if anyone else is equally uncomfortable, but they all look like this is just another day to them. Mary is still reading. Claudia is filing her nails. He sees Melinda roll her eyes and whisper something to the girl next to her.
Hermione has her hands planted on her hips, yelling at Penelope. “You are such a nimrod! What gave you the right to change my routines anyways? We choreographed these weeks ago!”
“How about the fact that it was boring?” Penelope shoots back. “We needed something more glamorous, something you clearly wouldn’t know anything about.”
“I’ve been in Spain,” says Hermione, pronouncing the word as if it’s a dagger. “A place known for its glamour. You’ve been slumming it in crappy little Riverdale where you belong. I know it’s hard with two brain cells to speak of, but could you think before you open that loose little mouth of yours?”
“All right, that’s enough,” speaks up Mary, shoving the paper aside, and Fred relaxes gratefully. “Why don’t we just show Hermione what we have, and then we can move on.”
“That’s a good idea,” praises Penelope in a syrupy voice. She turns to Hermione. “Feel free to watch my technique. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”
Hermione’s eyes are murderous. Penelope claps her hands at the cheerleaders, letting out a short blast on her whistle. “All right, everyone in formation. And don’t mess up.”
Hermione’s eyebrows shoot up. “That’s my whistle!”
“I’m sure we have more than one whistle-” begins Marilyn hopelessly, but it’s no use. Hemione has snatched the silver whistle off of Penelope’s neck, taking a good few strands of red hair with it. She fits it back around her neck, her fake sugar-sweet smile now rivaling Penelope’s.
“All right,” she says sweetly. “Show me what you’ve worked so hard on.”
Fred focuses hard as Penelope leads them through their combination, trying his best to recall the practices he’d snuck in in front of his closet mirror whenever he had a spare moment that weekend. He spins in the wrong direction at one point and collides hard with Mary, but otherwise he remembers everything.
They finish with the pyramid, Penelope doing a terrific dismount and a high kick when she lands back on the grass. Hermione’s eyebrow arches. “That’s all?”
“You know, I don’t think we have time to choreograph anything new,” speaks up Penelope, dusting off her hands. “We’ll just have to go with what I’ve already done. After all, we only have four practices this week. And it’s already four-thirty.”
“Oh, how cute,” chirps Hermione. “You learned to tell time while I was in Spain.” She blows hard on her whistle, addressing the rest of the girls. “All right. We’re going to restructure all of those cheers, including the pyramid. We can keep the moves basically the same - i guess - but they need to be a lot more exciting. What Penelope taught you was totally stiff and juvenile. We want to do something new for this game. It’s an away game, so we’ll need something extra special to counteract the home field advantage.”
“We don’t-have-time .” says Penelope through gritted teeth. “The game against Glenbrook is on Friday , and some of the squad can’t even handle the cheers we’ve already done.”
“Fred-” snaps Hermione, singling him out in front of the crowd. Everyone turns to look at him. “Would you rather stick to the old cheers or learn something exciting?”
Fred’s stomach flip-flops. Truthfully, he doesn’t think he can handle stuffing one new cheer into the packed recesses of his brain. But telling that to Hermione…
“I, uh,” he stalls, glancing nervously around the field. “I want to do whatever’s best for the team.”
Hermione folds her arms, tempestuously raising a well-manicured eyebrow. “Which is learning new cheers, right?”
Fred caves, his stomach sinking down to meet his heart at the soles of his Keds. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “Definitely.”
“You are such a freak,” snaps Penelope testily.
Hermione turns on her, eyes flashing. “Penelope, I know it’s hard keeping up with us when you’re so pathetically out of shape, but I’m the captain, and what I say goes. So you’re just going to have to learn some new cheers along with the rest of us.”
A couple of the girls murmur nervously to one another. Fred feels like he’s having a very surreal fever dream. He touches his forehead to make sure he’s not burning up. What are the chances of him still being in the back row of business class, totally fast asleep?
His contemplation is interrupted by the piercing screech of Hermione’s silver whistle. “All right, get in formation,” she orders, glaring them down with violence in her dark eyes. “We’ve got a long practice ahead of us. And don’t blame me for it.”
“FP! Heads up!”
FP shakes himself out of a trance, barely catching the football that Jerry sends spiralling over to him. Coach Kleats is yelling at him, but his mind is all the way on the other side of the field, where the cheerleading squad is finally packing up to leave. Or, rather, one cheerleader in particular.
The girls’ practice had run later than usual, so his eye had been drawn a little helplessly to Fred ever since he’d first hit the grass. FP watches him now as he sends the football back, Fred breathing hard, sweating, tossing his water bottle casually from hand to hand as he heads down the short slope from the field, chatting with his squadmates.
Friday would be the second-last game of the finals, a game at Glenbrook High. If Baxter also won their next game, Riverdale would go head-to-head with them for the championship a week from that Friday. And then after that, football season would be over and everything would be back to normal. As normal as anything ever was at Riverdale High.
Yeah , FP thinks with a sinking heart as he glances toward the parking lot, where Fred is hopping into Hermione’s brand-new convertible. His hand flexes involuntarily into a fist, squeezes, and lets go. Everything back to normal.
His eyes on the luxury car as it reverses, turns and speeds out of the parking lot, he doesn’t hear another warning shout from his teammates until it’s too late. The football collides with a tough smack! with the side of his head, catching him off balance and sending him slipping sideways to the ground.
He hears Coach Kleats’ whistle blast as he crouches down, half stunned, a sharp pain exploding on the right side of his head. His nearest frame of reference is the feeling of his father slamming his head hard into a wall during a fight, FP’s hair tangled between his fingers. He presses one hand to his head, his eyes watering, but the pain is already ebbing away.
“FP? FP!” Their balding, heavyset coach is all over him, a note of panic taking over his tone. “Look at me, buddy.” He grips FP’s face between his sweaty palms. “Are you okay? How hard were you hit?”
A crowd is gathering around their frantic coach, trying to see FP. Kleats is finally smelling that championship trophy after years of being without one. Losing his star player two games before the end isn’t an option. “Everyone stand back!” the coach yells at the curious onlookers. “Someone get him some water!”
“I’m fine,” FP insists, feeling heat flood into his cheeks as Kenny Doiley takes off for the water cooler. It had been a hard knock, but nothing worse. The only thing really damaged was his pride: there was nothing worse than taking a ball in the head because you weren’t paying attention. And he had neglected to wear his helmet. FP tries to rise, only to have Kleats push him hard back down to the ground.
“Don’t move, FP.”
“I don’t have a concussion,” FP insists, touching his head. “Probably just a bruise.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” There’s still panic in Kleats’ tone, and it’s stirred up unease throughout the whole squad. FP hears a few of them muttering, and he flushes darker red, mortified. “Better yet, we’ll get a professional.” Kleats turns to bark at Rick Banks. “Go call the nurse.”
Rick shrugs helplessly. “She’s gone home.”
“Then call her at home!”
FP leans back on his elbows, the skin on his face burning with embarrassment as he resigns himself helplessly to the chaos. Must be nice and relaxing to be Fred, he thinks, as Kleats starts frantically taking his pulse at the neck. No one’s hopes and dreams were resting on his skinny little shoulders.
Fred rests his head back tiredly against the headrest as Hermione drives them along the sunny streets of Riverdale toward home, gossiping non-stop as she drives. Ordinarily, Fred would be hanging on her every word, but his whole body aches after that practice and he wants nothing more than to find his hot water bottle and crawl into bed for a year.
Hermione, however, is glowing. “-So, I was thinking,” she chatters now, turning them down Elmwood Lane past the convenience store, “how hard could it be to ask Fred to do me this one itty bitty little favour? After all, he’s never let me down. And Weatherbee respects him so much.”
Fred groans. He’d lost total track of what Hermione was going on about, but that last part at least was a complete falsehood. “Weatherbee hates me, Hermione! I was just in detention!”
“Oh, pooh, he doesn’t hate you. And you have such a way with words. Please?” Hermione turns her dazzling eyes on him, her lower lip protruding into a pout. “If I convince Weatherbee to stretch the budget to get us new uniforms, all the girls on the squad will like me better than Penelope. Don’t you see?”
Right. Fred marvels for a moment at the gossamer silkiness of Hermione’s hair. She’d been through the same gruelling practice that he had, yet she still somehow looked and smelled like she’d stepped out of a shampoo commercial. “The budget’s already stretched,” Fred tries to argue. “He’s super strict about it. There’s no way it’ll work.”
“You’ll figure out a way. I know you will.” Hermione reaches out and grips his hand, her fingers cool and soft in his. “Please? I know you can talk him into it. All you have to do is try. Wouldn’t you do that for me? This one little thing?”
A tear gathers ominously at the edge of her eyelashes and wavers there. Hermione could play him like a three-stringed violin. “I couldn’t stand it if I thought all the girls on the squad resented me. You saw what they were like at practice. I’m practically a social outcast.” She sniffles and wipes away a tear, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “This is the last hope I have to get any respect back. And you know how important the squad is to me.”
Fred’s too exhausted to argue. “I promise I’ll try,” he sighs, mentally trying to schedule a meeting with Weatherbee into his already jam-packed Tuesday. Hermione’s car pulls up outside his house and he slides out. “Thanks for the ride.”
“You’re welcome.” Hermione blows him a lingering kiss before driving away. Fred turns, shouldering his gym bag, and limps up the walkway to his front porch.
“Is that you, Fred?” his mother calls when he steps through the front door. “Come in the kitchen.”
Fred really just wants to collapse, but he forces himself to walk the few steps to the next room. He smiles despite himself when he sees the full cookie jar his mother is holding out, packing to bursting with freshly baked cookies. A pot on the stove is bubbling with peeled potatoes for dinner.
“What kind are they?” he asks, helping himself.
“Chocolate chip.” His mother sets the lid back on the jar. “Don’t tell your dad. You know how he feels about eating dessert before dinner.”
“What were you up to so late at school? You could have had them when they were warm.”
“Working out with FP,” Fred lies. The lie somehow comes easier every time he tells it. He takes a huge bite of cookie. “We lost track of time.”
“Hmm.” His mother takes a cookie for herself, tasting the edge of it. “That’s weird, because I ran into Martha Mason at the grocery store today, and she says the football team have some super long, intense practice today.”
The bottom drops out of Fred’s stomach. He can feel his lunch climbing up into the back of his throat. “What?” he stalls, his mind going traitorously blank. “Yeah, uh, right. You’re right. I was-”
“With the cheerleaders, maybe?”
Fred can feel his heart beating so hard it feels like it’s going to break out of his chest. “The cheerleaders?” he stammers, feeling the blood drain out of his face.
“Come on, Fred.” His mother laughs. “You don’t expect me to believe you weren’t watching cheerleading practice, drooling over Hermione, do you? I know she got home from Spain today.”
Oh. Fred lets out a long breath, his aching shoulders slumping in release. “Yeah,” he manages, relieved. “You got me, Mom.”
“Fred? What’s wrong, sweetheart?” His mother turns away from the stove, stepping closer toward him, a frown creasing her forehead. She runs her fingers through his hair and cups his face between her hands.
“What do you mean?” asks Fred warily.
“Well, you look like something’s the matter.” Her voice has gone concerned, and Fred forces a quick, careless grin. “Is anything on your mind?”
“No,” he lies. “Nothing.”
“Are you coming down with something?”
“That must be it,” says Fred quickly. “Can I lie down before dinner?”
“Of course.” His mother pauses. “You’re so pale. Are you sure everything’s okay at school?”
Fred decides to go for a half truth. “Hiram’s trying to make a move on Hermione before she’s shown me her full line of Spanish bikinis. Can you believe him?”
Fred’s mom shakes her head, and gives him an exasperated swat on the rear. “Everything always the same with you, Fred, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” says Fred tiredly, beginning the long climb up the stairs and feeling like Edmund Hillary conquering Everest. “Nothing new going on around here.”
Alice yelps in surprise when she turns on the lights in the Blue and Gold office after hours. Hal, who had been seated at her editors’ desk, sits abruptly up and knocks a whole folder of papers clumsily to the floor.
“Hal!” shouts Alice. “What are you doing here?” Hal was an occasional contributing writer for the Blue and Gold, but with the football team headed to the playoffs, he’d had bigger things to keep him busy all semester. Seeing him slumming around the office was a surprise.
“I was waiting for you,” Hal explains apologetically, flushing pink. Alice notices his hair is damp, as if from the gym showers. “I knew you were coming by, but I didn’t know when. I’m sorry if I scared you.”
Alice sighs. “To tell the truth, I thought you might be one of those creeps from Baxter High. They’ve been sending us copies of their paper.” She runs her hand self-consciously through her hair. Why did Hal never surprise her on a good hair day? “Were you sitting in the dark?”
Hal smiles sheepishly, sitting back down at the desk. “I was taking a bit of a nap, actually. Coach Kleats is working us to death. He’s extra tense ever since FP took a football to the head at practice today.”
“He what ?” Worry floods through Alice’s system. Could no one around here take care of themselves without her? “Is he okay?”
Hal waves his hand encouragingly. “He’s fine. A doctor cleared him. Nothing but a lump on the head. Coach almost had a conniption, though. If anything happens to FP, we’re toast.”
Alice sighs, working at picking up some of the scattered pages that had slid to the floor. “Hal, trust me, I’m glad to see you, but why are you here?”
The Blue and Gold office felt like home away from home for Alice, but she knew a lot of the students didn’t share her opinion. It was a generally nice room, with lots of windows, but it usually got stifling hot in the warm weather. Belinda claimed the whole room stressed her out. You can almost smell the funk of deadlines in the air , she’d said once. I can’t sit around without looking over my shoulder to see if anyone’s criticizing my copy.
If Alice spent an unhealthy amount of time here, it was only because her home situation was so much less appealing. Alice thinks if she had a bedroom as nice as Hal’s to go home to, she’d never leave it. Then again, it came with the price of Hal’s mother. So maybe he was just on the search for a little peace and quiet.
She expects to have hurt his feelings, but rather than fade, Hal’s smile gets even brighter at her question. “It’s about your article,” he says, leaning forward across the desk to fix a tiny, crooked American flag beside the EDITOR IN CHIEF nameplate.
Alice freezes, the papers clutched in an untidy stack in her hands. “What about it?”
“Alice, you look like you’re about to run away. Come sit down.”
Alice sits carefully in a rickety wooden chair opposite the desk, as delicately as she might sit in the principal’s office. “What did you want to talk about my article for?”
“Well..” She notices Hal fiddling with his fingers, turning his class ring around and around. “Don’t be upset, but I showed it to my parents.” He smiles anxiously.
“Why?” asks Alice.
“Because I think it’s really good. And they like to see what the school newspaper’s up to once in awhile. They both used to work here back in the day.” Hal lays a hand on Alice’s wrist, his fingers warm. “They really love it, Alice.”
Alice can’t believe what she’s hearing. She thinks of her own copy of the school paper, carefully tucked into her bookbag. “They love it?”
“Your feature, yeah. They think it’s terrific.” Hal squeezes her fingers. “My mom wants to know if you’d let them print it in the Register.”
Alice’s mouth drops open. “What?”
Hal’s face glows. “They want to print it in next week’s. They think it would make a really good human interest piece. Alice, I told you it was terrific. You’re going to be the youngest person to ever write a feature for us. That is, if you say yes.” He smiles encouragingly, standing up and walking around the desk. He leans against it. “You will say yes, won’t you?”
Alice’s head is starting to spin. Herself, a published writer? With the Register ? Granted, it was just a small town paper, hardly the New York Times , as Hermione would say, but it was professional. And it was her dream. That college application was looking better and better, and she hadn’t even started it yet.
“Please say yes,” Hal urges her.
Alice rises and throws her arms around his neck in response, burying a smile into the warm cashmere of his sweater. “Yes,” she laughs, her heart feeling a thousand times lighter. “Yes! A hundred percent.”
She feels Hal relax in her arms. He tightens his grip around her, smothering her in the smell of his soap, a reassuring cleanliness that makes her heart pound dizzyingly. His arms are heavy and warm and she lets herself melt a little in them, lets herself lean on someone else for the first time in awhile.
She and Hal had had their ups and downs, but she had never been more grateful for someone in her life.
tenses? dont know her. never met her. organizing a fic well? never met her either
The championship game may still have been on the horizon, but the prank war between Baxter High and Riverdale had reached new heights. By the time the game against Glenbrook rolled around, Riverdale High had had their sign defaced (RIVERDALE HIGH SUCKS , it now read), the furniture in the student lounge taped together with duct tape, a pair of men’s boxers in the Baxter school colours run up their flagpole, and the giant outline of a penis burnt into their soccer field. In retaliation, Riverdale had dumped blue and gold paint all over the statue of a gladiator that stood outside Baxter’s cafeteria, and released a hundred blue-and-gold painted mice from the biology lab inside Baxter’s halls.
Weatherbee had ordered administration to crack down on the pranks, but Coach Kleats - born of a time when rival boys teams regularly made off with one another's school mascots - actually seemed to be encouraging them. Fred distinctly saw him send off a truck full of football players, armed with tarp, paint, and bedsheets, with a hearty wave after school let out on Tuesday.
Usually a prank war would tickle Fred’s interest at least enough to tag along on some of the outings. FP, however, had strict orders to stay out of it - a suspension for him at this point would cost them the victory, and no one on the team was willing to risk it. Without FP, the delight of the pranks was diminished somewhat, and Fred kept his head down instead, practicing furiously in order to keep up with Hermione’s new cheers. To his relief, he seemed to be getting the hang of them, and even Mary - who was prone to slapping him during practices whenever he dropped or bumped into her - seemed to think he was doing all right.
Pranks on the home front were more derogatory. Fred had opened his gym locker on Wednesday - he still hadn’t got around to buying a lock - to find someone had emptied the contents of the sanitary hygiene bins that hung inside the girls toilets onto the floor of his locker. Taped to the top shelf was a scrap of notebook paper bearing one word in dark ink: PUSSY!
“That’s disgusting,” Hermione had commented, coming around the lockers to see what was taking him so long. Fred had tried to blow it off - the only thing he kept in his locker was his uniform, undisturbed and neatly folded on the top shelf, but he was concerned to observe that there was a strange, scared pit opening up in the bottom of his stomach that had never been there before. His anxious laugh felt mechanical and fake. He could do whatever he wanted to try and convince himself otherwise, but Fred was pretty sure that Tommy Carllson had never had to deal with a school gym locker full of dirty tampons. If he had, he wouldn’t have stuck around on the cheerleading squad so long.
As usual, Mary was no help, demanding he go tell Weatherbee about the incident. It’s bullying , she had argued. Plain and simple . Fred, however, had been thrown repeatedly out of Weatherbee’s office that week after a few unsuccessful attempts at getting him to reconsider the uniform question, and wasn’t eager to drag himself back in front of the man. Besides, playing tattletale would be tantamount to admitting he couldn’t hack it as a cheerleader, and then Weatherbee would regret letting him sign up for the squad
Trying to explain that to Mary was like pulling teeth, though. “You might not care,” she had snapped, when Fred had brushed it off as “just something stupid,” his eyes on the ground, “but that’s sexism, too. I say we deal with it before people start thinking that’s okay.”
Fred, patience wrought, had snapped back at her. “Well, I don’t want to, okay Mary?”
In the tense silence of the locker room he’d looked carefully away from her stormy eyes. He had a pretty good idea of who thought this was a funny prank - Hiram - and he couldn’t care less about it. Seeing him make a big deal of it was what Hiram wanted. But it was no use trying to explain anything to Mary when she had her mind made up. Fred had torn down the notebook paper and wadded it up. There were more important things to think about, anyway. Like whether it was a high kick or a spin-and-clap after that last lift. Or what flavour of victory milkshake he was ordering on Friday night. Or if he was going to be able to walk tomorrow if FP went home with him after their movie date.
His preoccupation had been for naught, though, because both he and FP had ended up falling asleep halfway through the movie. In the midst of their two hectic, overlapping schedules they’d carved out a two hour block to go to the Bijou together, and Fred had had high hopes. But they were both so worn down from their respective practices and the hassle of hiding their relationship in the first place that they were asleep before the first act was over.
There was nothing wrong with sleeping upright next to FP for two hours, but Fred had left feeling oddly insecure. Usually FP let him hold his hand now and again in the darkness of a movie, but that Wednesday he had seemed drawn, cautious, jerking his hand away from Fred’s even though the only people they were sharing the theatre with were a bunch of old women down in the front row. With Kleats working the team as hard as he was, Fred had known when he dropped FP off at the trailer park that he wouldn’t be seeing him alone again until they were on the field on Friday afternoon. Worse, he probably wouldn’t have the energy to do more than sleep on his shoulder again.
Despite it all, Fred wakes up on Friday with a hot flush of excitement. He attempts to spring out of bed - it’s more like a wobble, but he lands - and silently goes through the motions of their dance routine as he’s brushing his hair. Twirl and jump and shake and throw and-
He catches an imaginary pompom just as his mother’s voice issues up from downstairs.
“Fred, stop banging around up there and come get breakfast!”
Grinning, Fred dashes down the stairs, the crappy date and Hiram’s stupid pranks suddenly the furthest thing from his mind. True, he hasn’t had a lot of time with FP since the less-than-memorable Bijou monster flick, but he now had a free pass to watch him all afternoon. Watch, and cheer him on, and wear a cute outfit that drove FP nuts. The wool sweater wasn’t exactly sexy, but the fact of it being a cheerleading uniform meant FP loved it. And Fred loves cheering. Hermione’s cheers were gruelling but fun, and the whole squad plus the football team would almost definitely be getting milkshakes after.
Chocolate-banana-peanut butter , he thinks to himself, pouring a heaping helping of orange juice on his cornflakes by accident, already planning the evening ahead. Definitely. Extra whipped cream and two straws.
For the first time all week, he gets to school on time. Alice is trying to get his attention in first period, but Fred only frowns apology at her and keeps his eyes on the chalkboard. After realizing how far behind he was last weekend, he couldn’t afford to let his attention slip. Calculus was his worst subject, and report cards would be sent home soon enough. Fred was not looking forward to the fireworks if he brought home another disappointing end-of-term report.
He hadn’t missed the glare Mr. Fields had sent him when he’d strolled in late to business on Monday, either, and Fred had been sprinting to the class from first period ever since. Mr. Fields already adored Hiram, who was probably slandering Fred’s character left right and centre whenever they had their private chats: Fred didn’t want to give Mr. Fields any more reason to think was a total jerk.
Business studies was supposed to be what Fred was going to study at college, and he’d really wanted to like it. But so far the class, as well as being boring, seemed kind of creepy and inhumane. All they ever heard about was profit margins, and how you had to go about turning profits at the expense of people. No wonder Hiram loves it , Fred had thought sarcastically to himself. They’d even had to do some creepy ethics exercise where there was a plane crash and you had to choose to save ten people and kill off the rest so that society could continue.
To help you along there was a whole sheaf of little biographies like Ken, 19, works as a doctor and Barbara, 91, has 20 grandkids. All it had done was get Fred really attached to the people he was killing. How had Ken gone through med school so young? What kind of a grandmother was Barbara?
While everyone else had been rescuing doctors and scientists and bankers, Fred had set about rescuing all the children under 16 and their parents. He refused to kill of either half of a mother-son duo, so they both had to stay, despite having no marketable skills. Mr. Fields had interrogated him in front of the whole class about his choices, saying that while it was valuable to consider members of society with the longest lifespans, none of the kids actually had anything to offer, and thus Fred’s society would probably plummet into chaos.
“Look,” Fred had pointed out helplessly. “One of the dads works construction. He can build shelter.” At that, Hiram had let out a guffaw that had turned Fred off eating for a week. And before he knew it, Mr. Fields was laughing at him too. Fred thought they were the lousiest pair he’d ever met in his life, and probably deserved each other. But Fred really didn’t want to come home with a crappy grade in the class, all the same. His dad has high hopes for his future in business, and Fred had sworn to himself that this would be the year he really made his dad proud.
“Sorry, Al, later,” he calls as he sprints out of their first period class toward Mr. Fields and Hiram’s obnoxious attitude. Alice sighs in exasperation, and Fred doesn’t blame her- it’s probably the third time this week she’s caught him on the way to something else. But he was so busy! He had to admit, Hermione’s cheers were fun, but remembering them was a pain in the ass. Practices had started to run so long he’d begun to tell his parents that he and FP were regularly eating out at Pop’s after their gym sessions. That had required an elaborate story about FP winning unlimited burgers for a week in an eating contest, so that his parents wouldn’t complain about where all his allowance was going.
Fortunately, FP and his cast iron stomach were legend around town, and his mother had swallowed it as a plausible explanation. His parents hadn’t yet thought to ask how going to the gym regularly and then stuffing themselves with burgers every night was in any way productive to their fitness, but his dad had given him a funny look on his way out the door and reminded him he should be eating healthy. Fred had mumbled some garbled nonsense about how he wasn’t eating a lot, he just didn’t want FP to be lonely at mealtimes, and sprinted for the door. He’d have to revamp his excuses soon: this one was as holey as swiss cheese. At least there was only one week left until the championship.
Today was easier: he’d simply told his parents he’d be watching the away game at Glenbrook, and catching a ride home with Hermione after. As last period finally ticks away, he watches the clock eagerly. The football team and the cheerleading squad would be released early in order to catch the buses down to Glenbrook for the final game, and no one’s minds seem to be on school. Rick is jiggling his leg so hard to Fred’s right that it’s making him dizzy to watch. Harry’s eyes haven’t left the door for the past forty minutes. Kenny is writing out plays on the crook of his arm.
And we’re winning it , thinks Fred happily, stifling an exhausted yawn with his own arm as the minute hand ticks ever closer to zero. FP’s winning it. And I’m cheering him on.
Despite all the setbacks, it was more than he could ever have hoped for.
Alice frowns and crosses her arms, tapping her foot impatiently as she waits for Fred to emerge from the changing rooms. She’d left class with the football players to see Hal off, and had figured waiting around at the team bus would be a foolproof way to tell Fred about the article. Fred was so busy lately that she hadn’t been able to get him alone - he was always running off for extra cheer practices. Apparently Hermione had wanted to change every single one of Penelope’s cheers, and add new ones to the lineup. The hold that Hermione had over that group of girls would never cease to amaze her. If anyone else had suggested that at this late hour, they would have had their eyes scratched out.
Yes, Hermione was a tyrant, thinks Alice, keeping an eye on her watch. The watch was a gift from Hal: a beautiful gold face and a powder-blue strap that matched her favourite notebook. Not that you need it , he’d joked when she’d unwrapped the box. You’re always on time. But it reminded me of you.
Once upon a time, Alice would have thought being compared to a watch was an insult. She would have scoffed at the sentiment behind the words. But something about the way Hal said it had sent a strange little thrill through her. This was how Hal thought of her, then: punctual, dependable, and that made her feel good. Hal thought she was someone that could be successful, someone who was going places.
There’s still no sign of the cheerleaders. With an exasperated sigh, Alice throws her notebook back in her bag and shoulders it. She’d just have to catch Fred at the malt shop after the game. If she could pry him out of Hermione’s fake fingernails long enough.
FP leans his head against the glass window of the stationary coach bus, looking out at the parking lot. What was Alice doing standing around? She’d given Hal a chaste kiss on the cheek before he’d climbed onboard, right in front of FP. (Almost as if it were for his benefit, in fact . ) But why was she waiting around? And where the hell was Fred?
FP hadn’t thought to ask him if cheerleading would disturb their typical seating arrangement. Fred’s not part of the football team, but he goes to all the away games and Kleats usually had him sit next to FP on the drive up. FP got motion sick on long drives, and Fred chattering in his ear or invisibly squeezing his hand as they drove was sometimes the only thing that got him through it. Today won’t be too bad: he feels nothing more than the usual pre-game jitters, and he hadn’t eaten a heavy lunch. He’d sure miss the company, though.
“All right, are we all accounted for?” Kleats springs into the bus, clutching his clipboard and looking frantically around as he does a headcount. FP tilts his head to try to see out the door in case Fred’s there, but sees only green grass.
“--Weller, Zabernathy.” Kleats finishes. “We’re all here.” His eyes land on the empty seat next to FP. “Someone needs to sit with Jones so he doesn’t hurl. Cooper!” He points at Hal, who’s chatting with Rick in the centre aisle. “Get up here!”
FP groans. Couldn’t their coach have chosen Jerry, who was right behind him? Sitting next to Hal for almost an hour was going to be a real drag. Fred, where are you?
Hal approaches him with trepidation, easing awkwardly into the seat as Kleats disappears back out the door to check on the equipment. “Hey, Coop.” FP greets him.
“You know, I’m not really good with puking,” says Hal with a nervous laugh. “So just please don’t-“
FP lurches forward as if to vomit, and Hal’s flight instinct kicks in so hard and fast that FP almost takes a knee to the face. FP laughs, feeling marginally better about Fred’s absence as he watches Hal anxiously hovering in the aisle. “Relax. It was a joke, Coop.”
Hal sits down again, his jaw set, fists clenched. “Not funny.”
“It was a little funny,” mumbles FP, resting his head back against the window. It’s not the carsickness he’s worried about: sitting up front with the window cracked is usually enough to keep his lunch where it belongs and his stomach feels pretty steady. But it sucks not having Fred there right before a game.
He’ll be cheering , he reminds himself, and isn’t sure whether to be thrilled or nervous. FP had dropped a lot of passes lately. Fred was such a distraction sometimes that FP had to resist telling him that he doing a bang up job for the other team. But he couldn’t blame his friend. It wasn’t Fred’s fault that he looked so damn cute in the outfit. Or that FP couldn’t stop thinking about tearing his clothes off.
FP turns to stare hopefully at the empty quad as Kleats boards the bus again, blasting his whistle to tell them they’re leaving. At least he wouldn’t have to worry all ride about anyone seeing the two of them holding hands. There was no chance in hell anyone would mistake him and Coop for an item.
As tiring as Hal could be, though, it was true that he was a good player. FP had every intention of winning this game, with the support of his whole team. And then the championship. And then a scholarship.
And then the world.
Meanwhile in the girls’ locker room, the cheerleaders are clustered in a frantic circle, trying to do damage control. Fred had opened his locker anxiously, dreading the possibility of finding another mess like the one on Wednesday. Instead he had come face-to-face with a new problem.
The locker had seemed fine when he’d opened it, but it was clear that his uniform had been tampered with. The slacks had simply been cut: slashed at both knees and across the crotch, but lifting the sweater sent a whole stream of white powder tumbling down on the floor of the locker. Fred had wiped his stinging hands hurriedly on the door before Hermione, turning around, had turned up her nose at the scattering of white.
“Fred, I don’t know if that’s baby powder or your private stash of cocaine or what, but you’re making a mess!”
“Don’t touch it,” Fred had ordered, loud enough to get the attention of the rest of the girls, still changing. “It’s itching powder.”
The girls are now clustered worriedly around him, keeping a safe distance from the mess on the floor. “Is it all over your shirt?” asks Claudia, sounding dismayed.
Penelope is less sympathetic. “You should have bought a lock.”
Fred feels a hard lump rise in his throat. Still, he tries not to show how upset he feels.
“Just goes to show what idiots Hiram and his friends are,” he says offhandedly. “Everyone knows you do itching powder in pants . Ten times better than a shirt.”
Hermione steps up immediately to defend him. “Hiram would not do this,” she argues. “It’s so juvenile.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t?” challenges Fred. “I’d bet my allowance for a month. Two months.”
“Hiram knows how important the squad is to me. He wouldn’t stoop to sabotage.”
“Oh, wouldn’t he?” Fred counters. Penelope’s head swivels to him like she’s watching a tennis match. “I know exactly what Hiram will stoop to, and sabotage isn’t even the top of the list. Who did it then?”
Hermione crosses her arms and tosses her hair. “It could have been someone from Baxter High.”
“And they only targeted me? Get real.”
“Well, they’d know about you through the Blue and Gold,” Mary points out. She has a tight-lipped, I-told-you-so look on her face. “Alice says they’ve had them under surveillance.”
“Exactly,” gloats Hermione. “Case closed.”
“Case open-” snaps Fred. “Hiram-”
“Look-” Penelope breaks in. “This is adorable, but I don’t care who did this. The important thing is, Fred has nothing to wear. And we aren’t exactly dripping with male uniforms, in case you’ve noticed. So I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
There’s a silence as her words sink in. A few of the girls look at each other. Fred feels his gut sink like a stone. “He could wear his practice uniform,” Mary finally offers.
“He’s not wearing red shorts!” cries Penelope. “He’ll clash with everyone and everything!”
For once, Hermione agrees with her. “Red is definitely out.” She folds her arms at Fred. “Don’t you at least have blue gym shorts?”
“They only make them in one colour,” Fred protests. Penelope shakes her head, ponytail swinging.
“He’ll have to sit this one out then.”
“No-” says Fred weakly, but Claudia has already cut in in his defense.
“You can’t bench him. He’s the base of the pyramid.”
“And everyone’s there to see him,” Tanya adds.
Hermione stands firm. “I’m sorry, Tanya, he’s not ruining the look!”
Penelope nods. “Fred, you are not wearing red gym shorts. It’s out of the question.”
“You must have more uniforms,” Fred says, looking up a little desperately at the cardboard boxes strewn above the lockers. “What are those?”
“We have extras, but they’re all girls unifor-” Hermione stops mid-sentence. She pauses. Turns to Penelope with a question in her eyes.
Penelope sets her lips so tight they disappear. “At least it’d be uniform.”
“Oh, no.” says Mary. “No way.”
“Get him a large,” Claudia orders cheerfully, pointing their tallest cheerleader toward the boxes.
Hermione purses her lips. “Hips like that? I’d say a medium.”
“Hurry,” snaps Penelope. “The bus has probably left already.”
“Medium skirt, large shorts,” breaks in Mary. Fred finds it both flattering and kind of scary that she’s so confident about his measurements. “And find a large shirt."
The girls descend upon him in a flurry of activity, hauling boxes down, tossing garments. It seems like every cheerleading uniform since the 1950s has been saved somehow in the equipment room, and it’s a scramble to find matching pieces. Fred takes a liking to some cropped-midriff gold turtlenecks, but a cheerleader whisks it abruptly out of his hands. Hermione takes it upon herself to dress him, pinching and prodding his skin as she forces him into an outfit identical to her own. She pins a bow to his head, then frowns and yanks it off, taking a good amount of hair with it.
“All right,” she says confidently, once Fred’s dressed in the full outfit: gold shorts under a blue-and-white pleated miniskirt and a blue-and-yellow top. The other girls gather in a breathless group to see her work. “It doesn’t flatter your legs, and you really need to work on the chest area, but I think you look good. Girls?"
The rest of the squad twitters their approval. Even Penelope nods confidently. With a bouncy smile, Hermione turns him around so he’s facing the mirror. “What do you think?”
Fred’s mouth drops open. He’d expected to look totally stupid and laughable, but honestly? It wasn’t bad. It was pretty funny, actually. The guys on the team didn’t know what they were in for.
And Hermione could say what she wanted, but he thought his legs look pretty good.
“Well? We’re late.” Hermione prods him, and Fred manages to scrape together the first words that float into his brain.
“Cool,” he says. “Rock and roll.”
i know absolutely less than nothing about football this is all a big fake
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hal stops short as he’s getting off the bus, causing FP, behind him, to collide hard with the back of his friend’s jersey. He feels someone else smash into his back, and the entire football team ends up crushed together in a ten-car pileup.
“What the fuck’s the problem, Coop?” FP snaps, and then his voice trails off. The cheerleading squad must have driven down, because they’re here already, strolling in a blue-and-gold group across the Glenbrook quad toward the changerooms. And in the middle, flanked on either side by Hermione and Penelope -
FP feels his face and crotch flood with heat at the same time, his stomach turning over and climbing up somewhere into the region of his adam’s apple. As if sensing him, Fred turns at that moment to glance casually over his shoulder, his eyes and lips turning up into a smile as he sees FP standing there. With the sun in his hair and his bare, tanned shoulders exposed, he looks for all the world like one of FP’s more ludicrous fantasies - sweeter and more luminous and more terrifying than life.
After two weeks of cheerleading the muscles in Fred’s legs are more defined, and for a moment in the hot sun on that Friday afternoon he could have been some kind of greek Adonis, utterly sculpted and perfect.
And then he blinks and Fred is just Fred again, laughing toothily and shooting him a grin before turning back around, Hermione’s hand snaking around his waist, no more ethereal and yet no less affecting than he’d been in that drawn out moment where FP’s eyes had floated past his waist and the world had abruptly stopped.
FP’s legs go shaky. His heart is beating double time. Kenny Doiley, behind him, has to push him with both hands to get him to move.
The team manages to keep quiet about it until they’re through the doors of the visitor’s changeroom. Then they erupt into a burst of noise, howling and cheering and laughing. FP feels his face burn.
“Hot in here, or what, FP?” Rick laughs at FP’s obvious embarrassment, bumping his shoulder roughly. A bunch of the guys laugh, and FP feels like his face is going to melt from the heat.
“It’s just embarrassing,” mumbles FP. “He looks like an idiot.”
“Oh, come on, it’s funny,” protests Harry. “Stupid, but funny. I bet Coach has a conniption.”
“Yeah, Fred’s a riot,” says Jerry cheerfully, pulling his shirt off over his head. “I bet he has class clown all sewn up in the yearbook at the end of the year.”
The commentary at the opposite bank of lockers is less generous. “Fred does know he has a penis, right?” comments Barry Goodman, swinging his duffel bag up onto the bench to dump the contents out.
Rick laughs meanly, shrugging into his shoulder padding. “I don’t know, does he? Those skirts don’t leave a lot to the imagination.”
“Ask FP, I bet he’s seen him naked,” offers Bill Malloy.
Rick turns to call over to the other players. “FP, how big is Fred’s dick?”
“And can you see it without a microscope,” adds in Kenny Doiley.
FP’s mouth has gone completely dry, but he still forces himself to defend his friend. “There’s no reason for you guys to make fun of him. He’s just being funny.”
“Yeah, Jesus, guys,” pipes up Harry immediately, silencing them. “How would you like it if someone said that about your best friend? Get the fuck out of here. And Kenny, I’ve seen your dick. You have nothing to be proud of.”
The players immediately shut up, heading away from the lockers with their heads down. “Sorry, FP.” one of them mutters.
“It’s fine,” says FP faintly, trying to focus on anything but the dry heat in his throat and stomach or the persistent and damning image of Fred pinned under him in nothing but that cheerleading outfit. Harry bumps his shoulder as he turns back to his locker, more friendly than Rick’s had been, but the jostle still makes his legs turn to mush.
How the hell was he supposed to concentrate when somewhere out there, right at this very minute, Fred Andrews was wearing a skirt?
“I’m going to kill him,” he mutters under his breath, shoving his extra water bottle into the top of the locker, too low for Harry to hear. “I’m going to kill him. After I thank him.”
“Bet you’re glad to be out of that sweater,” Claudia enthuses as the girls drop their bags in a corner of the female locker room at Glenbrook High. “It’s hot today."
She taps Fred on the shoulder when he doesn’t reply. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Hm?” Fred glances around, tearing his gaze from the long mirror that takes up all of one wall.
“Are you okay?” Claudia stands awkwardly beside him, looking at the two of them in the mirror. “You know, once we find out who’s been doing these stupid pranks to you, they’re never getting another date at Riverdale High. I swear on this.”
“Yeah, not a chance.” pipes up Samantha, behind them. “No boy who makes fun of you gets a date from any of us.”
A couple of the girls nod assent, murmuring agreeably. Tanya crosses her heart in a vow.
“We’ll make them sorry. Promise.” She hugs him impulsively, and Claudia wraps her arms around the two of them from the other side so that Fred’s sandwiched in the middle. Everyone looks at Hermione, who looks hesitant. “Come on,” Tanya insists. “Cheerleaders stick together.”
Hermione hesitates, but then sighs. “Agreed.” She tosses her hair back and piles on the group hug, pressing her hair up against Fred’s cheek. “Fuck whoever’s hurting you, Freddie.”
Samantha hugs him too, now, and then Kimberley, until the whole cheerleading squad is wrapped around Fred in an embrace. Even Penelope joins in, pushing herself self-importantly into the middle of the group so she can touch Fred’s skin. He feels a little bit of the weight he’s been carrying fizzle out and disappear.
“You okay to go out there?” Hermione whispers in his ear, and Fred nods. When the group begins to release him, she tugs him slightly away from the others and presses her lips back up close to him so she can whisper.
“When FP saw you his eyes almost fell out of his head,” she murmurs. Fred grins.
“Bring it, then,” he says confidently.
Hermione waves her hand at the other girls. “Get the man some pom-poms,” she demands authoritatively. “And then let’s stretch . Game time in ten.”
At five minutes to kickoff, the cheering from the stadium has swelled up into a dull roar. FP peers up into the stands, Jerry hovering close to his side.
Unfortunately, almost none of the noise is for them. A good seven-eighths of the spectators are Glenbrook students and family, and the proud-but-tiny section of the stands that makes up the Riverdale fans is being drowned out by the noise of their rivals. In a sea of purple and silver, the mismatched blue-and-gold group of Riverdale students and faculty has grouped together above their end zone. Faintly, FP can hear a few dogged chants of his name ring out above the general noise.
“FP! FP! FP!”
Usually, the sound would invigorate him, but today it just turns his stomach worse than the bus ride ever had. Glenbrook were a tough team, and everyone was counting on him to win this for them. But would he? Could he? This feels terrifyingly like the end of one of Fred’s cornier sports movies. He can practically hear a movie-announcer voice scrolling through the back of his mind. FP Jones was the star of his school’s football team. But when it comes time for him to prove himself, can he keeps his mind off their male cheerleader’s ass long enough to score a single touchdown? That kind of thing.
Jerry’s voice cuts into his thoughts, hushed and almost awed as the Glenbrook players stream out onto the field, to thunderous applause.
“Giants are right,” he mutters. “I know I shouldn’t be wigged out because of their size, but look at them. That guy could eat Hal for breakfast.”
“Oh, come on,” says FP, with more confidence than he feels. “We’ve played up against bigger guys than that. They’re nothing compared to us.”
Just then, the cheerleaders bound energetically out onto the field, waving their pom-poms and turning explosive cartwheels. The Riverdale squad heads straight for the small cluster of blue-and-gold on the stands, and the students wave their flags and pennants eagerly. FP relaxes the tiniest amount.
Clapping their hands and stomping their feet, the cheerleaders take up a chant, their pom-poms fluttering. “Bulldogs fans up in the stands,” they chorus, “yell go Bulldogs! Bulldog fans up in the stands, yell beat those Giants!”
They fan out in formation, shouting loud enough to be heard across the din, clapping in rhythm with their speech. “One more time, show your spirit, come on fans, woah, let's hear it-”
“GO BULLDOGS!” the Riverdale fans chorus, now fully on their feet, waving signs and holding out banners. “BEAT THOSE GIANTS!”
The Riverdale cheerleaders burst into cheering, waving their pom-poms madly and cartwheeling, hand-springing and somersaulting across the field. The Glenbrook cheerleaders are doing some pretty impressive stunts, but no one can match their school’s raw energy. The noise from all sides is almost deafening.
The cheerleaders are leaping up and down and yelling out a new cheer, their long bare legs flashing in the sun.
“1--2--3--4-- we’ve got more than you can score!”
FP tears his eyes away from them as Coach Kleats’ interminable whistle blasts from the sidelines, followed by a heated cry of “Huddle up!” It occurs to him that he might be hearing that whistle for one of the last times all year, and an odd burst of nostalgia comes over him before he remembers basketball tryouts will be coming up as soon as football season ends. He really is turning this into a corny movie.
Focus, Jones , he orders himself. Just win this one. Win this one and Riverdale goes up against Baxter and you have Fred all to yourself in that little cheerleading skirt.
Okay, maybe that made it even harder to focus.
A wave of tiredness hits him as he heads toward their bench. FP’s sleep habits haven’t been exemplary lately. Practices are gruelling, and his dad’s been in an even fouler mood than usual. He knows Kleats hates it when he turns up with stupid stories to cover up his injuries, and when he sees him eating chips out of the vending machine for lunch instead of some approximation of the protein-rich diet Rick is always bragging about. But what the hell is FP supposed to do?
He shakes his head, trying to shake the thoughts off. If he tunes back in to the cheerleaders’ enthusiastic yells, he feels somewhat better. Harry thumps him on the back when he joins the huddle, and FP lets out a deep breath. All they could do now was play. Play and win.
They had to. It was the only option.
The start of the game is rough, with Glenbrook racking up points quickly and Riverdale scrambling to defend themselves. The crowd is getting restless, and Fred’s bitten two of his nails down to the quick. FP’s definitely played better, and no one’s helping him out. Glenbrook is a strong team, and by the end of the first quarter Riverdale is trailing them by nine points.
As the cheerleaders watch, horrified, one of the Glenbrook players streaks across the end zone before Harry Clayton can tackle him. They fall to the ground together, but the ball is definitely over the line. The Glenbrook squad cheers, fluttering their brand-new silver pom-poms, and the Riverdale squad sags in defeat. The moans from the Riverdale section of the crowd are drowned out by the roar of delight that lifts up from every other seat in the stands.
“What do we do?” Fred whispers, his voice almost gone, gooseflesh emerging on the skin of his bare shoulders despite the warm day. The other cheerleaders cluster around him, the same question in their eyes. There’s a special kind of terror in coming this close and then playing this badly, and he feels the same utter helplessness as he does on the bench in basketball - a frustrating and sobering inability to do anything but watch the world end around you. From across the field, FP’s pain is as palpable to him as if they were twins. This was how you broke FP’s heart: dangled the championship in front of him like a carrot on a string. If the team keeps playing this way, their hopes are over. FP’s hopes are over.
Thank God, then, for Hermione: her cool, flashing eyes and fiery mood. “What do we do?” she snaps. Under the expensive red lipstick she’s wearing, her mouth parts in a sneer. “We do better. Fred, this is exactly why we put you in a skirt. Everyone, get out there-” She points an aggressive finger at the sidelines - “and let’s win this game . Or else .”
Spurred on as much by their terror of Hermione as their terror of losing, the cheering squad bolts for their formation. Fred’s heart is pumping, a new realization breaking across his mind. This was what cheerleaders were for . Not to get your picture in the yearbook, and definitely not so you could stand around watching your own team lose.
Fred Andrews , he scolds himself, you joined this thing to cheer for FP. Do it!
On the field, tension is mounting. The Rival game had been small potatoes compared to this one, and it doesn’t help that Riverdale is fumbling at every turn, failing to pull off the plays that they’d had perfected only a week earlier. The anxiety in the group is palpable. FP can feel the inevitable turn approaching where they stop playing to win and start playing clean-up. It’s infuriating and utterly terrifying that their season can end so abruptly, and he notices with a sting of loss that the confidence he had felt on the bus is all but gone.
Kleats has already called a time-out, and FP can feel himself shaking as the Glenbrook coach halts play, calling his players over to him with a wave of his hand.
They didn’t think we’d be so easy. The realization dizzies him. Glenbrook had clearly prepared for a harder team than they’d been given.
There are three quarters left, true. But the terror is in them now, and it makes FP’s stomach turn. They already know they could lose, and the acknowledgment of that feels like an omen.
Don’t panic. But he had. It’s loss of control that terrifies FP, and he’s right at the edge of losing it. Dimly aware of Kleats screaming at the lot of them, FP turns his head at a flurry of noise. The Riverdale cheerleaders have climbed into their pyramid, Hermione balanced on the top and Fred’s skinny thighs holding up the center of the base. As the other players turn around to watch, Hermione flips down to be caught by the four cheerleaders in the centre, and Penelope and Claudia leap down on either side, landing out front with their pom-poms raised.
“F-I-G-H-T!” they’re yelling. “Riverdale, we’re alright, don’t go down without a fight!”
As they watch, Penelope and Hermione both turn an impressive series of flips and handsprings, Hermione’s culminating in a frightening no-handed cartwheel. Faces flushed, pom-poms raised, they land side-by-side, no longer bothering to glare at each other.
“Come on, Riverdale,” cheer the girls, “give me an F-”
“F-” yells the crowd half-heartedly. Three girls have lifted Fred up, and he lifts the megaphone now to his mouth. “I can’t hear you-” he booms, his scolding voice echoing out across the field. “GIMME AN F!”
“F!” the crowd surges, louder. The whistle blasts to tell them they’re back in play, and Kleats frantically shoves some players off the bench and toward the field. FP is kept on, and he heads back to the forty-yard-line, stomach tight with nerves, until the next thing out of Fred’s mouth makes him stop short.
“Gimme a P!”
“P!” answers the crowd, thunderously now.
“What does that spell?”
“FP!” yells the small section of Riverdale fans.
FP spins around to face the cheerleaders, heart pounding, as the Riverdale crowd picks up another chant of “FP! FP! FP!”, their voices mostly lost in the noise of the stadium. The cheerleaders are scattering into a new formation, swinging their pom-poms from side to side and shaking their hips, chanting again with Fred’s voice loudest of all above the din.
“You might be good at basketball, you might be good at track! But when it comes to football, you’d better watch your back!”
Grinning despite himself, FP runs to join the rest of his team, his tiredness and dread momentarily forgotten. Turning their backs on the stands, the cheerleaders face the football field, smiles stretched so wide they fill their faces. The raw belief in them - in Fred, at the front of the pack - is so palpable that FP feels like he’s breathing it.
Riverdale scores six points before they’ve finished their cheer.
The game goes on like that for the rest of the day. Every time Riverdale starts to slip, the cheerleaders are there, shouting one of Hermione’s best cheers and getting the crowd up on their feet. At halftime, Riverdale is still losing, but they’ve begun to close the fearsome gap in between them and their rivals. They finish the second quarter with a surprisingly strong goal stand, managing to hold off even the hugest of the Glenbrook players in a massive pile-up that costs them Barry Goodman’s left elbow. Harry pulls off a truly amazing field goal that almost sends Kleats into hysterical tears. Throughout it all, the cheerleaders are on the sidelines, urging collaboration:
“Unity and teamwork!” they cheer loudly, “Pull together and fight!”
Remembering their chant, FP snaps an unexpected pass to Hal going into the top of the third quarter. Hal catches it and puts it down over the end zone, howling in success as two particularly massive Glenbrook players stream across the line too late. The Riverdale fans are swooning. Hal pumps a fist in the air like a gladiator, sun gleaming in his hair as he tears his helmet off, and for the first time in perhaps his entire life, FP doesn’t resent him.
They had the halftime show to thank for much of the boost in morale as well. While the Glenbrook cheerleaders had launched into a dazzling array of stunts, they had nothing on the comedy duo that was Penelope and Hermione once Penelope had dropped Hermione’s leg during the pyramid. Snatching each other's hair and clawing at each other's uniforms, the two had broken into a catfight that had everyone in the stands in riotous laughter. FP couldn’t tell if they thought it was staged or not.
Fred fields the boos and jeers like a pro, shouting out jokes through his megaphone while the other girls struggle to break them up. Glenbrook doesn’t have any boys on the squad, and for better or for worse, Fred and his skirt have the attention of everyone in the stadium. The Glenbrook cheerleaders are looking definitely put out. No one is giving their splendid purple and silver uniforms a second look.
Riverdale’s squad launches into a short dance routine once Mary finally manages to restrain Penelope from tearing Hermione’s earlobes out, but Hermione gets her revenge by clouting her on the back of the head with a pom-pom when Penelope crosses in front of her. Beaming at the crowd, Hermione starts waving like Jackie Kennedy as Penelope grins and bears it, her red hair ruffled and fire in her eyes. Fred has himself planted in between the two of them, pom-poms raised in casual victory, but an extra tension in his arms that meant he was ready to break up the fight of the century if he had to.
He doesn’t have to. The match resumes, and Riverdale’s score has jumped from 1 to 16. They’re closing the gap, but Glenbrook remains as strong as ever, and some disappointing plays cost them more and more dearly as the third quarter winds down. As much as Fred’s presence soothes FP’s anxiety, the shortness of his cheerleading skirt is still a dangerous distraction. Fred and the squad are running up and down the sidelines so much that FP’s almost guaranteed to catch a glimpse of him no matter where he is on the field, and with all the extra attention the cheerleaders are getting, worry for Fred keeps flooding into his carefully controlled thoughts. There are a lot of homophobic assholes in this town - for god’s sake he goes to school with at least fifty of them. But if the crowd is talking about it, he hears nothing.
They’d caught Glenbrook by surprise by catching up, but the Giants are running different plays now, playing to their strengths as well as Riverdale’s weaknesses. Both coaches are calling time-outs more frequently, switching up plays in an effort to one-up the other. FP’s been on the field for a long time. As he jogs to the bench and waves his teammates into a huddle, his lungs feel close to bursting. It’s a tough game, maybe their toughest. Some of the guys are mumbling about trying to get the score as close as they can, but FP shakes his head.
“No,” he says, breathing heavily. “We win this.”
“FP’s right. Look at the cheerleaders.” Harry jerks his head at them, still doggedly jumping and throwing their pom-poms. “That’s our girls. Well, and Fred.” FP braces himself for the worst, but everyone’s too tired to even chuckle. “They’ve been telling us all game they believe in us. We’re not going to let ‘em down.”
“Agreed,” says Jerry. “I promised Marilyn a victory kiss, and that’s what I’m giving her. FP’s right. We end this.”
With new resolve, they manage to push the score to 20-27. Kleats, realizing FP needs a break, benches him so that he can put him back on for the last quarter. There’s an audible groan from the crowd: it was FP’s field goal that had brought them closer to a tie. FP wants to complain, but holds his tongue. He’s getting dizzy and wants to be on at the end, for better or for worse.
When Kleats finally waves FP in, frustrated tears running down his ruddy cheeks, they’re at 23-27 with Glenbrook still winning. The players are starting to tire, and their only hope is a touchdown. But it’s the Giants’ ball, and the taller, stronger players in purple and grey don’t seem to be anywhere as drained as Riverdale.
“Come on, FP!” someone yells, at FP takes off toward his teammates with fire in his heart. The small section of the Riverdale crowd is cheering again, most of them on their feet. Some of the cheerleading squad is leading them in a new cheer, their voices stolen by the heartbeat pounding in FP’s ears. His mouth tastes like dirt and acid.
Glenbrook’s receiver takes off for the end zone on the whistle, and their larger quarterback glances quickly his way. This happened last time , FP thinks, his mind running somehow impossibly slow and impossibly fast. And Hal tipped it -
He’s running before he even knows what he’s doing, lunging and tipping the ball in mid-air into Rick’s open hands. Rick sprints for everything he’s worth, sending a perfect pass to Hal at the last second before a mammoth Giants player flattens him to the ground. Hal passes it to Jerry, FP sprinting after them, and they manage to get it on the forty-yard line.
“Anyone not too wiped to run?” gasps Hal as they huddle up.
“I can do it,” says Rick.
“No one’s running all that way,” Kenny interrupts. “I say we run it like we did in practice.”
“Shut up, Kenny,” says Rick.
Hal shakes his head. “Everything depends on this, you guys. We can’t fuck up.”
Everyone looks at FP. He swallows, the words ringing in his ears. He’d forgotten how immense this was. If they brought this game back - if they made a touchdown - if they won -
In the silence of the huddle, he hears only the crashing of his pulse in his ears, and somewhere beyond him, the resounding tide of the crowd. At least one person in there was yelling his name.
He breaks out of the huddle, leaving his teammates to stare at him in surprise, and turns toward the cheerleading squad. Fred turns to look at him almost at the same moment and their eyes meet. FP feels the whole world shift under his feet. This next play matters more to him than anything he’s even done in his life.
“What are they doing?” asks Claudia, shielding her eyes so she can see over to the huddle of football players.
“I don’t know,” says Marilyn hopelessly. “There’s less than a minute.”
“Oh, come on,” says Hermione, waving her hand. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
Penelope, one nail bandaged from her fight with Hermione, points at the huddle. “We need one last cheer, and I say we use one of mine.”
“Get real,” scoffs Hermione. “Fred, tell her we’re using my cheer.”
“I don’t care who’s cheer we use.” Fred is already striding purposefully across the field, a pleasant breeze tickling his bare thighs under his skirt. “But we’re going over there right now, and we’re going to get them to win this game, and then I’m getting the biggest milkshake in the whole world.”
“ Calories ,” snaps Penelope, but the rest of the squad is already hurrying after Fred, tucking their disheveled hair back into place. They fall into formation as the huddle breaks, throwing up their arms in the V-for-victory sign. Jerry tosses a grin over his shoulder at them, but FP only nods. Fred feels a chill run through him, down his back and all the way to his toes.
“GIMME AN R!” he bellows, his voice booming even without the use of his megaphone, the cheerleaders answering “R!” at the same pitch.
“GIMME AN I!”
“GIMMER A V!” His voice is hoarse from shouting, but if anything that only makes the cheer more potent. A warm breeze stirs the trees behind the stadium, and everyone on the team looks angry. Dangerous. For the first time, Fred feels the tide shift: realizes that not only might they close the score, but actually win it.
The last forty seconds of play is brutal. Fred spells RIVERDALE and screams about never giving up despite tasting blood at the back of his throat. Samantha, Claudia, and Kelly throw Mary in the air and catch her. On the field, Glenbrook seems to have changed their strategy to simply injuring everyone they can in the hopes of securing a win by default. Only the fact that the very largest two players are sitting out saves them from certain hospitalization. In the midst of the slamming bodies, FP quickly passes Jerry the ball, who fakes a pass back to Rick. Jerry sprints with the ball for all he’s worth, the largest but also the lightest of them, shouldering through the vicious attempts to stop him and dodging blocks.
The crowd is on its feet. This was more than they had hoped for. FP, moving as if in a dream, feels the football hit his hands, the cowhide finding its place there like it was made to fit. He can see the end zone in front of him, the white line glowing on the field. That was how close they were to winning. Closer, closer, and he can hear them now - the screaming of everyone’s voices, some angry, some sad, some in rapture, and somewhere in it all, Fred -
The thought of Fred’s name slams him out of the trance somehow, and he can taste the blood and sweat in his mouth, the burn roaring up his lungs into his throat and through his arms as he dodges another solid mass of purple, the ball tucked under his arm. Everything has narrowed in him into this one focus, and if he can just push through the pain he’s going to make it-
Something slams into his knees and FP sprawls forward, the ground striking him viciously all at once. Bodies hit the pitch around him, his bones almost shifting as at least one person lands hard on top of him, and he realizes there’s a pile-up on the goal line, with himself on the bottom. Stunned, he tries to flex his fingers in a search for the ball, but someone’s lying across his arm and he can’t move it.
The referees are helping players up - FP feels himself pulled forcefully to his feet, the world spinning around him as he gazes down at the goal line. He’s on the other side of it. And the ball-
“WE SCORED!” It’s Jerry, getting up in the face of the nearest ref. “WE SCORED! WE WON!”
The ref calls it. The stands are pandemonium. People are yelling and throwing things down onto the field. FP’s pretty sure there’s a fistfight going on beside him. But all he sees is the cheerleading squad, streaming across the field in a tiny burst of blue and gold.
Fred runs for him full-force and FP scoops him up when he does, the warm flesh of Fred’s exposed hips pressing against his hands. He spins him a hysterical circle, his lungs burning and his eyes watering and his head throbbing. Fred yells and hugs him, and FP feels everything leave him but a meaningless blur of colour and sound and ecstasy.
“It was you,” he gasps, hugging Fred as tight as he can. “If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have won.”
“I don’t think it was just him,” sighs Hermione, who had followed them and was looking rather put out. Hiram either had never shown up, or had left after the halftime show. “ I , for example-”
Setting Fred back on the ground, FP turns to wrap her in a hug as well, promptly lost in a mass of sweaty bodies as all the football players start embracing and thumping one another on the backs. “I’LL SEE YOU TONIGHT!” FP screams over the noise. Fred takes a step back, dazed. It hadn’t quite been his fantasy, but it was close. Hermione speeds off into the crowd, and Fred finds himself piled on for a group hug for the second time that day as the rest of the cheerleading squad gets there, wrapping him up in warmth.
Wandering back to the sidelines with them, vaguely registering Kleats and the Glenbrook coach engaged in an immense shouting match across their bench, Fred runs smack into Weatherbee, who’s on his way to pull the two coaches apart.
“Oh, Fred.” He looks happy but harried, his glasses crooked on his nose. “I just told this to your captain, but you may as well know. Your little demonstration-” he gestures to Fred’s lower half- “was enough to convince me. I’ve ordered new uniforms for your squad. I do hope you’ll use them.”
Without a second glance, Weatherbee hurries off to stop Kleats from breaking his clipboard over the rival coach’s head. Fred turns to Mary, by his side, open-mouthed.
“I guess we can thank Hiram Lodge for our new uniforms. Please tell him that.”
Mary rolls her eyes as Hermione comes sprinting up toward them. “Fred, Weatherbee just told me- I could kiss you!”
She lunges on him and grabs him in a hug, and Fred almost collapses then and there. FP and Hermione in one day?
The next thing he knows, Hermione’s released him, grabbed Mary and hugged her in a flushed, sweaty embrace. Mary’s face turns as pink as her hair, but she hugs back. Hermione laughs when she releases her, draping one arm around both of them as they walk back toward the school.
“Milkshakes on me tonight. Or Hiram. He let me start a tab at Pop’s on his credit card.” Hermione throws back her head and laughs, her long silky hair tickling Fred’s bare arm. “What flavour is everyone having? I’m getting-”
“Peanut butter,” says Fred, at the same time as Mary says “strawberry,” and Hermione says “chocolate.” They look shyly at one another, laughing, and Hermione reaches down to pinch Fred on the ass.
“Now do you admit I’m a better cheer captain than Penelope?”
“I knew it all along,” admits Fred, kissing her quickly on the cheek. “I knew it all along.”
amazing,, we might be about halfway through now
cw for homophobia, implication of homophobic violence
Fred stands outside the girls changeroom, shifting tiredly from foot to foot as he waits for the last of the Glenbrook cheerleaders to file out. Part of the agreement with the school had been that Fred wouldn’t use the same changeroom as the girls, and though Penelope’s impatience had allowed him to skirt the rule at Riverdale, other school’s changerooms were off-limits until they were totally empty. Fred doesn’t have a problem with it, but it sure takes a long time when you have to wait for everyone else to change. At least at the beginning of the season at Riverdale he’d had a supply closet.
If he wanted to he could try ducking out the back and try the visitors' changeroom for the guys, where the RHS football team would be changing, only the thought of being around a half-naked FP was a little too enticing. He’d save that for the after-party.
The excited chatter from the hallway is dying down, and the school will be almost deserted soon. He wonders if the Glenbrook team has a similar celebration planned, or if they were skulking home to lick their wounds. The game had been close, it was no doubt about that. The playoff games were turning out to be some of the most exciting ones of the year.
Hermione is the last Riverdale cheerleader to waltz out, dressed in a stylishly printed sweater and blue jeans, smelling like some kind of exotic perfume. “There’s only one more girl in there,” she says, patting Fred on the back. “Then you’re all clear.” Kissing him quickly on the cheek, she drags her nails down his side before whirling off toward the exit, the ghost of her perfume floating after her. Fred smiles as he watches her go.
When the last cheerleader has left, Fred hurries into the changeroom and unzips his duffel bag. He shoves his water bottle into the middle compartment of the bag and roots around for his jeans and t-shirt. How the hell had he let his gym bag get so messy? There were his extra car keys, that novel for English (test on Monday, the cloister bell of doom tolls in his head), the shirt of FP’s he still hadn’t returned…
The bang of the change room door interrupts him. Fred turns around, expecting Hermione or another cheerleader. Instead, he finds himself face-to-face with three Glenbrook boys: all three tall, muscular and dark-haired. Judging by the smell of them they might be football players, though Fred hadn’t taken a close enough look at any of Riverdale’s opponents to be sure. His stomach turns a little.
“Well, look what we got here, huh guys?” says the largest of the three, folding his arms and glancing at his companion. Fred’s heart does a very bad drop down into the region of his liver. There’s something dark in that tone that he doesn’t like at all. Not when they outnumber him three-to-one. And especially not when he’s alone in here.
“Nice skirt,” says one of the smaller two, his voice as dry as old leaves. The edge of his thin lips crooks up into a smile, and Fred feels oddly woozy. They’re a lot bigger than him. A lot bigger.
“Know what we do to faggots around here?” asks the other one, cracking his knuckles. The first boy grins, and Fred takes a step back toward the lockers, his hands fastening instinctively on either side of his skirt. “I’m-” he manages hoarsely, the not lost on his tongue, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a lie. And these three don’t look like they particularly care.
Fred’s back hits the bank of lockers, a fresh wave of panic suddenly taking root in him, from the spreading pit in his chest all the way down to his feet. There’s nowhere to run that they won’t catch him. If he tries, it might just make things worse.
This is bad, he thinks unhelpfully, his knees on the verge of buckling. This is very bad.
“Anyone sitting here?”
FP looks up from his seat on the bus. Jerry is hovering in the noisy aisle by his seat, gesturing to the empty space next to FP, currently occupied by his football cleats. FP sighs and moves his shoes out of the way so Jerry can sit down.
“I thought Fred might ride back with us,” he admits, pushing his bag under the seat in front of him with his toe. “But I guess he’s not coming.”
“Yeah, what’s with that crazy friend of yours?” Harry leans over from the seat behind them, arms folded across the top. The bus is positively riotous with celebration: some of the seniors at the back have even started up singing the school song. “He missed the bus down here too.”
“I guess he’s getting a ride with the cheerleaders,” offers FP. Or one in particular. When had Hermione ever passed up an opportunity to sink her claws into his best friend? It was just his luck that she got bored with Hiram as soon as she came back from Spain.
Coach Kleats bounds onto the bus, his face flushed with exaltation. “All right, settle down, is everyone here?” Harry drops back into his seat, and Jerry sits up straighter next to him. “Abrams?” Kleats consults his clipboard, now held together with athletic tape. “Adamaky?”
FP leans his head back against the window as Kleats finishes up roll call and the bus finally pulls away from the school parking lot. I should be celebrating , he realizes with a distinct touch of unpleasantness. We just won one of the biggest games of the season. We’re placing at least second in the district, whatever happens next Friday. We’re champions.
So why couldn’t he get one particular cheerleader out of his mind long enough to enjoy it?
“We’ve heard about you,” the tallest boy says. One of the other ones slaps his hand menacingly into his palm. “Heard you like it rough.”
Fred’s legs feel like Jell-O. This is supposed to be a fight-or-flight situation, only his body isn’t doing much of either, just pinning him down to the spot as they advance slowly on him, barring his exit. Fred looks frantically at the back door, the one that leads to the football field, but one of the smaller boys steps in his way, smirking.
“Don’t worry. Your boy toy’s not around.”
“Just the four of us.”
“Don’t mess with me,” Fred hears himself say. “I mean it. You don’t want any trouble.”
They all laugh as if they’re one being, a cruel, pleased laugh that makes his stomach twist harder. The boy who had called him a faggot reaches for his uniform shirt, and Fred pulls back out of the way so that the material slips through the stranger’s fingers. He smirks at Fred. “Pretty,” he says simply, the word cold and perverted in his voice.
“I mean it,” Fred repeats again. “I have an anus condition. It’s called - uh - Rexus aneusus. Look it up. The walls of my rectum have crystallized and developed these rough, um - membrane.” He swallows, encouraged by his captive audience. “When you pull out, it’s like teeth.”
They look at one another, and suddenly Fred’s flight instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Scooping his bag up off the bench by one strap, he sprints for the door. Fingers fasten weakly around his upper bicep as the smallest boy reaches for him, but Fred tears his arm away as fast as he can and keeps running. Heart pounding in his throat, he sprints down the hallway in what he thinks is the general direction of the front lobby, his one untied shoelace smacking the skin of his ankle as he runs. It doesn’t sound like they’re following him, but he’s too frightened to stop and check. Skidding a bit as he rounds a corner, Fred makes a beeline for the nearest exit sign, feeling faintly sick. What if there were more of them? What if it was like a bad horror movie, and he got outside and they were waiting?
Cursing the unfamiliar school, he hits the metal bar of the exit door with both hands and dashes back out into the air. The parking lot is almost completely vacant: the space where the coach bus had been now deserted. Fred’s heart sinks down to his shoes. They’d left without him. Chances were all the girls had left too, and-
That leaves me with Larry, Curly, and Moe , he thinks to himself, a frightened laugh starting in the back of his throat. Spotting a row of payphones by the edge of the field he runs to them, squeezing himself flat behind the heavily graffitied divider and cradling the receiver to his ear.
“ Dad, ” he gasps under his breath, frantically digging through his bag for change as he tries to recall his father’s work number. He pauses as soon as his shaking finger hits the keys. No, he couldn’t ask his father to pick him up when he was dressed in a cheerleading outfit. His dad was in meetings, anyways. He had to be sensible. Think, Fred, he orders himself, starting to dial Alice’s number. Alice would come get him. She’d be pissed for having to drive all this way, but she’d do it. Assuming she could get away from her parents-
A hand lands on his shoulder and he bites back a scream. Fred whirls around to find Hermione there, frowning sourly at him, dressed in the same perfect outfit from earlier.
“Why aren’t you changed?”
For once Fred’s mouth fails him. He only stands there, the phone clutched in his hand, his heart hammering frantically in his chest. Hermione’s gaze softens.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” says Fred, a little too quickly. “Totally fine.”
Hermione rolls her eyes. “Well, okay.” She grabs his hand in hers, and for maybe the first time ever the sensation of her soft skin against his doesn’t wipe every other thought from his head. “Come on, then. I’ll give you a ride home.”
Tell her , a little voice in his head speaks up as she leads him to her car and hops in, immediately quelled by a louder, more authoritative voice telling him to never mention it. Not Hermione , he tries to placate himself, his hands shaking so badly he can barely open the car door. If he had run into Coach Kleats or someone who could help, then maybe. But there was no reason to make Hermione upset when there was nothing they could do about it.
Fred sinks into the buttery leather of the passenger seat, already knowing he wouldn’t have told the coach, or anyone. The shame and the fear is already rising up in him, his cheeks burning and his thoughts tumbling through his mind like clothes in a dryer. Now that he’s sitting down, the unstoppable trembling in his hands is more apparent to him, and he tucks them under his thighs in an effort to quell it.
There’s so much adrenaline in him that it’s no use keeping his mind on any one thing. Hermione chatters all the way home, but Fred doesn’t hear a word of it. Usually, he loves nothing more than riding in a convertible, but the top down is terrifying him. Any car they pass could be those three boys. Or worse, a co-worker of his dad’s. He’s still in a skirt, and even though no one on the road should be able to see his bottom half, he slumps lower and lower in his seat with every car they pass. He has to resist the urge to spin around every time he sees a grey car in his rearview mirror. He’d seen three of them in the parking lot - at least one of them must have belonged to those boys. Fred has a nasty feeling he might be looking over his shoulder for grey cars for the rest of his life.
Fred manages to convince Hermione to park outside Pop’s while he quickly pulls on his jeans and shirt in the backseat. He’s pretty sure she’s pissed at him when she finally lets him out at the edge of his lawn and speeds away, but he’s too preoccupied for it to register. Shifting his athletic bag to one shoulder, Fred walks up and down his street until his hands stop shaking, feeling marginally safer now that he’s back in his own neighborhood.
After a dinner he barely touches and a dry re-telling of the pile-up on the goal line, Fred excuses himself to his room, lying boldly about having some phone calls to make for a group project. He lets out a helpless groan when his eye lands on the stack of books on his desk - he’d sworn to himself that what had happened last week wouldn’t happen again, and here he was. And he’d be expected to wake up early for work tomorrow.
Averting his eyes from the massive stack of homework, Fred reaches for the phone and dials Alice’s number. Luckily, she has an extension in her room, and picks up on the first ring.
“Alice. Can you come over tomorrow after dinner and help me with my homework again? It’s urgent.” Fred balls his hand into a fist and relaxes it, wiping some of the sweat off on his jeans. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t.”
“Okay. But I have something I have to tell you-”
“Tell me tomorrow,” he orders, and hangs up. His voice shakes even on those last three words, and the threat of tears is building behind his eyes. He doesn’t want to cry on the phone.
Man up , he orders himself. It’s over. You’re safe.
But he doesn’t feel safe. As he sinks into a sitting position at the end of his bed, running his hands helplessly through his hair, he feels very small and very frightened.
Fuck those guys , he tells himself, pressing his hands to his face in an attempt to escape his own thoughts. They’re idiots, all of them. I don’t think they would have done anything anyway.
You asked for it , speaks up an ugly little voice in his head that he doesn’t necessarily like. You asked for this. You wanted to be on the squad. What’s this, you take it back?
“I’m not quitting,” he whispers into his palms. No, he’s not giving up. But he has to admit, being a cheerleader seems a lot less appealing now than it had this morning. In fact, if he could fall into bed tonight and wake up ages before he had ever even thought of the cheerleading squad or heard of Tommy Carllson, he wouldn’t mind that one bit.
Fred curls up on the bed, tugging his knees up to his chest. The little dinner he’d managed to force down is fighting to come back up his throat, and he swallows stubbornly, pressing the back of his hand to his lips. He feels like shit. He probably looks like shit. This is the first Friday night he’s spent alone in a long time, but the thought of seeing anyone else makes him want to cry. He’s too tired to fake it.
One more game, he reminds himself. Then it’s over.
I don’t know about that , says the bad voice. Yeah, the season ends, but does that mean things go back to normal? I don’t think they can. I think you’ve dug yourself a hole, darling. And I think it’s deeper than you realize.
“Shut up,” whispers Fred, and mercifully, it does.
His father looks up from the papers he has spread out on the coffee table when Fred descends the stairs, showered and dressed in pyjamas despite the early hour. Fred hovers in the doorway for a moment before crossing the room to sit down next to his father on the couch, resting his head against Artie’s upper shoulder and leaning into him.
“Fred,” His father greets him, obviously surprised. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Fred draws his legs up on the couch and rests his head closer to his father’s arm. “Just wanted to sit with you.”
“Don’t you have homework you should be doing?”
Fred flushes. Fred’s dad hates idleness. But his hand snakes around Fred’s shoulders nevertheless, keeping him close, which is a nice surprise. Fred’s dad, while never cold, was usually no more physically affectionate than he was verbally affectionate - that was to say, not very - but he rubs Fred’s side and back now through his shirt with an even, steady hand.
“You okay?” he asks. “You’re dressed for bed awful early. It’s only eight.”
“Yeah.” Fred racks his brain for a suitable explanation. “Just figure I have to get up early tomorrow.”
Fred’s father clears his throat awkwardly but says nothing. They sit in slightly tense silence for a moment, Artie turning his attention back to the papers in front of him. Fred squints at their contents, but can’t decipher the various lines of type. He is tired- it had been a grueling day in more ways than one, and his body and mind are exhausted.
“Hey,” says his father, his hand going still on Fred’s upper arm. He can feel the awkwardness palpable in their conversation - they don’t talk much, not one-on-one like this. “You could never disappoint me, okay? That’s all I want you to know. So don’t kill yourself working out with FP.” His father looks back down at his papers. “That’s all,” he repeats gruffly.
Tears swell in Fred’s eyes before he can help himself, and he buries his face in his father’s arm to keep them from being noticed. “Okay,” he says, the word muffled by his position. His throat aches from holding back the tears.
Evidently embarrassed, Artie tugs him in and kisses him on the head before releasing him. “Love you, kiddo.” He gives Fred a little push toward the stairs. “Go do some reading before you turn in.”
Fred’s legs ache when he climbs the stairs, but he barely notices the soreness anymore. Once in his room, he climbs into bed, pulls the covers over him and cries helplessly for a couple minutes. He emerges only to set his alarm for seven the next morning, his head starting to throb behind his temples.
Burying his face in his pillow, he holds onto the thought of his father's words until he falls asleep.
kim i wrote this for you with love, but it's also going to make you atrociously sad and im sorry
He has the dream again: himself spun and lifted in a victory kiss, the blue-and-gold skirt fluttering around his thighs, FP’s stubble rasping over his lips, the crowd deafening around them. They’re not cheering, this time, though, he realizes as FP’s huge, warm hand sneaks its way up the back of his tight-fitted shirt. The crowd is alive with boos and jeers, raining insults down on them as they kiss: taunting, abusive words that land on him like blows.
FP drops him, and Fred hits the field painfully, landing hard with his bent leg twisted under him. The crowd has started throwing things at them: in some backward imitation of re-creating the shower scene from Carrie , they’re pelting Fred and FP with pads and tampons. Throwing his arms above his head to protect himself, Fred catches a glimpse of his father through the crowd: Hermione and Hiram seated on either side of him. Hiram and Hermione are yelling and throwing things, but his father’s eyes are stormy. He says nothing. Fred’s stomach twists.
Fred twists around on the ground at the sound of his name, shielding his eyes. The hurling insults from the crowd get louder. It’s Alice, hanging out of the stands over the end zone and waving frantically at him. “FRED,” she yells, as a pair of particularly ambitious sophomores in the front row start peppering his side with a barrage of tampons. “I HAVE TO TELL YOU SOMETHI-”
Fred sits bolt upright in bed, bursting himself out of the dream. He glances quickly at his alarm clock, which reads 3:44 am. Great. At least he hadn’t overslept.
Laying back down and tugging the blanket up to his chin, Fred glances around his shadowy bedroom. Under the sloped roof of their attic, the walls are cluttered with various pennants and posters, mostly of baseball teams and rock groups he likes. Above his desk, every soccer, basketball, baseball and academic award (placing third in a second-grade spelling bee wasn’t much, but hey, it was something) he’s ever won hangs in medal form below a cluttered shelf of trophies, snowglobes, and stuffed animals. The largest is a penguin in a purple bowtie, won for him by FP at the carnival that took over the Southside fairgrounds every year. Next to it is a baseball he’d caught at a major league baseball game with his dad, preserved forever in a plastic cube.
For a small, peaceful moment he feels safe. He nestles back into the covers and watches the darkness flood over his walls, all the dregs of his childhood and early adolescence. It was Saturday. Maybe he could be twelve again and stay in bed all morning and have his mom make him lunch. Play some basketball in the driveway and do his homework at the kitchen table and watch a video after dinner if he got bored. Feel better.
Only he has to work: they’ll be expecting him on the construction site at eight. The realization breaks into the warmth of his blanket nest and shakes him back into reality. Eight to four, and by then he’ll be too worn out to do anything but shove some dinner into his mouth and collapse. I hope Alice is in a generous mood , he thinks, the weight pressing down on his chest getting bigger the more he remembers. There’s no way I can finish everything alone.
How had he let it get to this? Why had he woken up at all? The longer he lays there, the more guilt and shame start flooding into his chest, until his stomach is squirming and he has to bite down on the crook of one finger to keep from thinking about the bad stuff. If he just focuses on one thing, he doesn’t have to remember everything else. If he just focuses on one thing-
Fred tosses and turns for over an hour, trying to get back to sleep. Finally, he gives up and shoves the covers off of himself to the floor. Stepping carefully down the stairs in a way he and his friends have perfected from various sneakings in-and-out of the Andrews house, he heads down to the living room and collapses into the sofa by the window. His sore muscles cry in protest, but he forces himself not to wince. It’s only going to get worse.
The house is very still. The dim rays of dawn are slowly creeping up above the cookie-cutter houses. Fred draws his bare feet up under himself and leans against the back of the couch, watching the sky lighten. If only he could go back in time. Back before he’d ever even thought about joining the cheerleading squad, and somehow tell himself to never even try it.
He must have dozed off, because the next thing he’s aware of is a few sneaking rays of sun and the hard thump of the Saturday paper hitting the front door. Fred used to have a paper route a few streets away on Saturdays, and approximates that it’s about quarter to six. He gets up slowly off the couch, wincing at the added stiffness in his neck from sleeping sitting up. Neither of his parents are up yet, but by 6:30 his father will probably be padding downstairs in his slippers to put the coffee pot on. For now, though, Fred has the house to himself.
He opens the front door and brings the paper in. Woe to the member of the Andrews household who opened the paper before Artie got a crack at it, but Fred figures he deserves to read the comics. He unties the string and lays the paper carefully out on the floor so that he’ll be able to put it back together again. His knees are bruised from cheering, and he winces as he kneels in front of it. The front page story isn’t very interesting, something about bus strikes that he flips past without a second thought. Comics will be at the back, after the Sports section.
He rifles through Sports, just out of interest, though Fred has a bad habit of never following the seasons. He’s about to toss it aside and dig into Saturday’s Peanuts when the name of his school catches his eye.
Heart thumping, he turns the paper over. Riverdale High Bulldogs Headed for the Championships , is the headline. The actual article runs no longer than a few sentences, describing that they’d won over the Glenbrook Giants after a pile-up on the goal line, and a brief mention of the score. FP gets his name dropped.
That was it. Hermione was always pleased as punch when the newspaper blurb threw in a line about the cheerleaders - The Bulldogs were cheered to victory by Riverdale’s formidable cheering squad , something like that - but it looks like they hadn’t had room in this issue. Still, he feels cold all over. Call it a bad omen. He has a sudden and aggressive urge to rip the page out of the paper and crumple it before anyone could read it.
Losing all interest in the comics page, he puts the newspaper neatly back together and sets it carefully at his father’s plate. He glances at the microwave clock. 6:17. If he got dressed and left now, he could clock in before seven. His dad would love that. And maybe if they let him go an hour earlier, he’d be able to finish more of his homework. At the rate his brain was working lately, Saturday and Sunday wouldn’t even be enough to guarantee him a pass on the English test.
Fetching his car keys from the bowl on the counter, Fred grabs a scrap of paper and writes out a note.
Headed in to work early. See you tonight.
Your favourite son. (6:20)
After a moment’s thought he scrawls a love you across the bottom and leaves it visible on the counter. He glances at the loaf of bread in the breadbox and pushes a slice down into the toaster even though he’s never felt less like eating in his life. Trudging up to his bedroom, he pulls on his heavy socks, jeans, flannel, and hooks a keyring to his belt. Returning to the kitchen, he pulls on his work boots, grabs the lunch his mom had packed for him last night, and shoves the piece of toast dry into his mouth.
Everything the same. No one had to know anything was wrong. As he steps out in the fresh air, the warm fall morning assailing his nostrils with sweetness, Fred feels his body relax the smallest amount. It was a nice Saturday. His dad would be proud of him for getting up early. Work, as gruelling as it was, always made him feel better in some perverse, sweaty way. He pulls the door shut behind him and locks it, tossing the crust of his toast into his front yard for an apprehensive looking brown squirrel.
Life went on.
Alice pulls the corners of her bedspread hospital-tight, smoothing down the quilt that Hal’s grandmother had made her as a gift. She shoves some books into her bag, swings it over her shoulder, and glances at the door once before pushing open the window and climbing out.
Sometimes it was easier to climb down a drainpipe than be asked where you were going.
When she’s about three feet off the ground she lets go and jumps, landing with a crunch on a dry lawn scattered with autumn leaves. Their fall had been unseasonably warm, but the leaves were definitely changing, the trees even more orange and yellow than usual in the rosy, after-dinner sun. At certain times of day and in certain lights, the Southside was almost pretty.
Alice ducks through some scrawny birch trees and comes out on the street opposite the trailer park, heading toward the bus stop. Too late she remembers she’d left her water bottle on her desk, but that was okay. Fred’s mom was always good with refreshments.
Pausing to tie her shoe, she winces as a tiny, glittering diamond of broken glass sinks into the flesh of her knee. It’s small, no bigger than than a pinhead, but it smarts. Drawing her knee up, she digs the offending chunk out, watching a tiny dribble of blood run down the skin of her calf. Had she really just thought this place had any kind of beauty about it? No. It was a pain in the ass, that was what it was. Flicking the bloody shard of glass away, she hurries to her feet and dashes for the bus, trundling around the corner and up toward her stop.
Sitting at the very back, Alice pulls a paperback out of her bag and flips to the last chapter. She’d spent the whole morning with it, and she’s almost done. Saturday had been a welcome chance to catch up on some of the homework she had been putting off: her week had been a stressful series of emails, re-writes, and family dinners that were supposed to make her article Register-worthy. They had it all ready for print on Monday: 500 words lighter, compressed in parts, flattened in others - but professional. Beautiful. It made Alice want to hug herself and sing.
Fred’s parents are out, but his mom had left them a pitcher of juice and a stack of cups. Alice finds Fred in his basement, as she had last week, a bowl of popcorn in front of him and a huge stack of books piled beside it. At least he’d pulled this together a day earlier, this time. It was only Saturday. Maybe there was hope for the boy after all.
“Where do you want to start?” she asks, cracking open her biology textbook when she notices he has the same one out. Her eyes settling on Fred’s face, she feels a small jolt of concern overtake her. Fred looks wrecked. His eyes are hollow and bloodshot, with dark shadows under them. His face is gaunt and pale. It looks like he hasn’t slept since she’d seen him on Friday, and even that had been only a glimpse.
“Fred, what’s wrong?” she asks, letting her textbook fall shut on her hand.
“What do you mean?” he asks guardedly. His tone is light enough to be mistaken for nonchalance, but years of friendship have allowed Alice to pick out the caution in it. She purses her lips, but says nothing. If Fred wasn’t going to tell her, Fred wasn’t going to tell her. There was no use pushing him. Besides, she was pretty sure she knew what was wrong: she and Fred had the same bad habit of heaping too much on their plate.
“Hey,” says Fred hurriedly, trying to smooth over the awkward moment, “What have you been trying to tell me all week? I’m sorry I haven't been around, I’ve just been really busy. Work, and cheerleading, and school.”
“And Hermione,” Alice finishes for him, selecting a kernel of popcorn and popping it in her mouth, though she doubts Fred’s seen more than tyrannical cheerleading captain Hermione for weeks. Fred had had cheerleading all week and then construction work today, he probably felt like absolute garbage. “Well, the Register wants to print my article.”
Fred’s lined face relaxes into a happy, suntanned smile, and Alice heart feels a little lighter. “That’s great, Ally. You’re kidding.”
She smiles back, despite herself. “No. I’m not.”
“Which article? My feature, Fred. About cheerleading.” She sees the smile slowly start to slide off Fred’s face. “About yo-”
Fred’s glass of juice falls and shatters in a burst, overturning and splashing blood-red juice the length of the beige carpeting. Alice scrambles out of the way, trying to move their papers and blot at what looks like an appalling stain at the same time. “Fred! Jesus-”
Fred stares open-mouthed at her, not even sparing a glance to the mess he’s made. “What?” he demands harshly, his eyes somehow frightened. “Are you kidding?”
Alice is busy unwinding the paper towel they’ve been using as napkins, blotting at the dark patch on the off-white carpeting. “Fred, look at this-”
“Alice. Leave it.” Fred’s voice is sharp and hard, furious in a way that reminds her too much of her dad. “This isn’t real, right?”
“What?” Bewildered hurt spreads in Alice’s chest, her face falling as she meets Fred’s eyes. “Fred, what is your problem? Yes, it’s being published, no, I’m not kidding you. You love having your name in the paper, I know I should have told you but I couldn’t find you, and- Fred!”
Fred has just stood up all at once, smashing the table with his knee and causing Alice’s glass to slop liquid wildly all over her book report. Alice stands with him, throwing her arm out to keep him from stepping forward into the glass on the carpet.
“Are you going to calm down and tell me wha-”
“My parents don’t know!” He bellows it, his face pink, his hands screwed into fists. “My parents don’t know I’m a cheerleader, okay, Al? So do you maybe want to run it by me before you broadcast it to the whole fucking town!”
“What?” Alice blinks rapidly, gaping at Fred as if he’s sprouted another head. “Fred-- how can they not know, it’s been weeks .”
“I never told them I was trying out, that’s how.”
It seems impossible to Alice. If someone’s goldfish died in this town, everyone knew by sunset. “They haven’t heard anything?”
Fred’s jaw locks, his demeanour fighting for bravado. “No, and it’s going to stay that way.”
“So, they think - but Fred, why?” She keeps her voice deliberately gentle in response to the fear in his expression, as though talking to a child. “You know you’re going to have to tell them eventually.”
Fred shakes his head, his lips set so tight they disappear. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are - what are they going to do when the yearbook comes out?”
“Not see it, that’s what. My parents don’t read my yearbook.”
“Fred-” Alice presses her head in between her hands. “You have to tell them. Otherwise, they’ll just find out from someone else. Trust me, you don’t want that.” Her shoulders sag at his betrayed expression. “Fred, hey, the paper doesn’t come out until Monday. You can tell them tonight or tomorrow. Pretend like it was a surprise-”
“No, no-” Fred is breathing hard, his lip quivering. “ You can pull that article.”
“Pull it?” Alice repeats dimly. Her heart sinks a little lower in her chest. All that work, gone? Her college application? The way Hal’s mother had smiled at her for the first time ever?
“You can pull it,” Fred repeats anxiously, his hands curling into fists and then releasing. “If it’s not out until Monday, you still have time to pull it. You can take it out of the issue. They don’t have to print it.” He nods, as if trying to convince himself. “You still have time to get rid of it.”
Get rid of it. The only thing she’d worked on for two weeks. Heart and soul.
“Fred, I-” Alice reaches out and tries to take one of his hands. “I understand you don’t want your parents to see it, but this is important for me. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Hal’s parents wanted to print my article. This is going to radically change my college application, and-”
“Oh, come on,” snaps Fred. “You’re dating Hal, that’s why they want to print it. Don’t kid yourself. And can’t they print another one of your articles? You have lots! Just give them another one.”
Alice breathes in deeply through her nose, fighting down her anger. “Fred, look. Listen. What if I re-wrote it? I’ll take out your name. Any trace of the school name. You’ll be a high school student at one district high school. No one has to know who it’s about.” She swallows, already trying to calculate what she could possibly say to Mrs. Cooper about the edits. “I’ll remove you totally from the copy. You don’t have to-”
Fred is already shaking his head no. Alice squeezes his hand reassuringly.
“Fred, think about it. I can make it an article about male cheerleaders at large. No one would ever know it was you.”
To her horror she sees tears starting in Fred’s eyes. He glares at her through the film of them, his face red. “Alice, you pull that article or we’re not friends anymore.”
“What? Fred, just think about what I’m saying-”
But Fred seems to be done thinking. He rips his hand out of Alice’s grasp, curling his opposite hand into a fist as he stalks a few paces away from her and then turns back around. “Hal put you up to this, didn’t he?” he snaps. “Well, Hal’s an idiot! You probably have a picture of me in a skirt to go with it! That’s great for you and Hal!”
“Fred, Hal has nothing to do with this. I want to publish it.”
“Well, too bad, because it’s about me!” Fred throws the popcorn bowl off the table. Alice jumps, back, astounded. “So I get the final say.”
“That’s not how it - Fred, stop throwing things! ”
Fred had just picked up his novel and pitched it into the wall. Alice folds her arms tightly, the way she learned from Mrs. Cooper. “Fred, come on. Stop acting like a kid and think about this. What do you honestly think your parents are going to do? Your parents love you. If I’m lucky, my dad only breaks one of my fingers.”
“Come on, Alice,” Fred gives a sardonic little laugh, his voice trembling. “Don’t pull that card on me. The my-parents-hit-me card.”
“It’s not a card!” Alice can feel tears in her eyes, and she tilts her chin up to try valiantly to keep them from falling. “You asshole! You would never say that to FP! Would you?” Alice steps forward over the broken glass and hits him hard in the arm when Fred doesn’t answer. “Would you!”
Fred swallows, his throat working furiously, his face still very red. Finally, he opens his mouth and bellows, sounding dangerously close to his dad-
“YOU ARE NOT PRINTING THAT ARTICLE!”
“FINE!” Alice picks up the bowl of popcorn from the floor and throws it at him. “FINE! But you and I are done, Fred Andrews. I’ll call Hal and tell him not to print it, but you can figure out that English test on Monday by yourself.” She scoops up her damp books and shoves them back in her bag. “And until you apologize, I’m never talking to you again.”
“Fine by me!” snaps Fred.
“Fine!” Alice swings her bag over her shoulder and gives him the finger. “Fuck you.”
Fred doesn’t even answer, just turns away from her. Alice turns herself, bangs her way up the basement stairs, and storms out the front door. The sun has sunk even lower in the sky in the time they’ve been fighting, bathing the elm trees in bloody light. Alice flips the house off again as she heads toward the corner, just for good measure, even though she’s pretty sure Fred can’t see her.
She keeps her hands balled into fists the whole way home on the bus. It’s not until they finally reach her stop that she unwinds them and notices the half-moon crescents she’s sunk deep into the flesh.
FP calls him on Sunday afternoon, his mom calling him up from the basement to take it. Fred leans against the fridge and cradles the phone to his ear, still in his church clothes. He’d thought about trying to convince his mother that he had too much homework to attend that week, but also thought he needed God on his side a little more right now than he needed the extra hour with his textbooks.
“Hello?” Fred asks.
“Hey.” Usually FP’s gravelly voice across a phone line makes his stomach flutter, but right now Fred’s head feels like it’s in a fog. He hadn’t slept at all after his fight with Alice, and in between the late hours at the computer for his homework assignments, the extra-long shift on Saturday, the nightmares he’s been having and his general state of funk, he feels like he’s running on less than forty minutes of sleep. His body is barely keeping itself alive. “What are you up to tonight?”
Fred thinks of his English test tomorrow, and his stomach plummets. “Studying, I guess.”
“I guess,” teases FP. “How about a movie?”
God, he wants to say yes. He wants this to be any other weekend, him and FP curled up in the front seat of his car watching James Dean or Marlon Brando or Al Pacino or anyone . But they’d paid ten bucks each to sleep in front of a movie screen earlier in the season, and this would be more of the same. Fred was exhausted. Besides, kids from other schools went to the drive-in. Kids from Glenbrook easily might. Sure, it was Sunday, but who knew? Suppose that silver car pulled up? They’d seen FP hug him.
Your boy toy’s not around , they’d said.
“I don’t want to go to the drive-in.” says Fred hurriedly.
FP quirks an eyebrow. Fred knows he does, because he can hear it through his voice. “O- kay. How about the bijou?”
“I-” Fred fights frantically for an excuse, eyeing the novel he’d left on the coffee table, the one who’s spine he hadn’t even cracked. He did want to see FP. But this was his last chance to study. And he still didn’t feel fully normal: FP knew him well enough to see right through the cracks. “--I should really get to bed early.”
There’s a long silence on the other side of the line. Fred’s heart gives out. FP’s voice sounds a little smaller when he starts talking again.
“I just figured we have practices every day this week. I’m probably not going to see you again until the game.”
“I’m sorry-” whispers Fred into the phone. Even now, he feels so close to breaking. One knock would shatter him. “But I’ll cheer for you-”
FP sounds down. “Yeah.”
“You did good on Friday,” Fred adds hopefully, trying to cheer him up. “You were really amazing. I was going to tell you at the party, but-”
His heart sinks. What excuse had he given for missing that again?
Fortunately, FP doesn’t seem to need one. “Yeah,” he acknowledges unemotionally. “I missed you on the bus ride home, too. How’d you get home?”
Fred’s palms are sweating. “I got a ride with Hermione.”
FP goes so quiet that Fred thinks for a moment that he’s hung up. “Oh.” he says finally. Then: “Yeah. I figured.”
FP didn’t think he was making time with Hermione, did he? “She just happened to be around,” Fred adds hurriedly. “You were okay on the bus, right? You didn’t get too sick?”
“I threw up,” says FP in the same odd, toneless voice.
Fred’s heart breaks. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Not your fault the star player can’t keep his lunch down on a moving vehicle.”
“I know, but I-” Fred’s voice is almost a whisper.
“I’ll see you later, Fred,” says FP roughly. Fred’s heart skips a beat. He wills himself to speak, quickly, but the dial tone fills his ear before he gets the chance.
FP had hung up.
Fred replaces the receiver in the cradle with nerveless fingers. He stands staring at it for a moment, tears threatening to spill down his cheeks. When the phone abruptly rings again, his heart leaps. He snatches it up as quickly as he can, clutching it tight to his ear. “FP!?”
“Fred,” It’s Alice’s voice that speaks in his ear. “I’m so sorry. It’s page five and six of the sports section tomorrow. If you get up early you can take it out of the paper before your parents read it.”
Fred stands very still with the phone clutched to his ear, staring at nothing. Everything crashes to a halt in his head. For a long moment, he isn’t even sure if he’s breathing.
“Fred?” asks Alice. “Fred, if you’re there, I’m sorry-”
The line goes dead. Dimly, Fred realizes that he’d pressed down on the hook, ending the call. He stares at the receiver in his hand, watches it slip out of his grasp and plummet down to the end of its cord without trying to catch it. It hits the floor with a dull thump.
Slowly, like a man in a dream, he bends down and picks the phone back up. Puts it back in the cradle.
This was okay. This was just a minor setback. He was in deep, but not so deep that he couldn’t help himself. This was all going to be okay.
It had to be.
The second he hears the first blare of his alarm clock on Monday morning, Fred reaches out and smacks the snooze button, silencing it. Sitting abruptly up in his dark room, he reaches for the clock and turns the alarm off, his heart beginning to pound hard against his ribs. If you started drowning, you had to paddle, that’s all. This is him paddling.
He sneaks down the stairs, using all the parts that don’t squeak and leaping the last three steps. Landing silently on the rug, he hurries to the front door and flattens himself against it like he’s in a spy movie. Maybe the theatrics weren’t totally necessary, but it made him feel a bit more in control. This was all according to plan. Fred was a man on a mission, and everything so far was going right.
Thump. The paper hits the door on the other side of his thighs, and Fred swings the door abruptly open with a triumphant cry of “a-ha!”, startling the eleven-year old who had delivered the paper into falling over.
“Sorry, Timmy,” Fred apologizes, scooping the paper up. Timmy gives him a betrayed, calculating look, getting up and dusting off his jeans. “See you at little league.”
Fred swings the door closed, catching it inches from slamming and slowly easing the hinge into place as not to make any noise. The living room window gives just enough light to see by, and he quickly snaps the string holding the paper and spreads it out on the living room carpet. Swiftly and silently, he turns over every section until he gets to the Sports.
Page five and six end up being the middle insert, so he can slide the story out without any trouble. Folding it inward and setting it cautiously aside, he replaces the rest of the pages in the Sports section and puts the paper carefully back together. There was no tying the string back on without arousing suspicion, but he simply folds it and sets it at his father’s spot on the table. Fred steps back in the dim room and surveys his handiwork with a foreign tickle of satisfaction. There was no way of telling it had been tampered with. The Register made page number mistakes all the time.
Fred grabs pages 5 and 6, hesitantly opening the insert so he can make sure he had the right one. Yes, there it was: by Alice Smith, in cold black and white. For a moment he almost feels guilty. That had been Alice’s dream. And she had tried to protect him, after all: the only photos are generic ones of football fields and posed pom-poms. Neither Fred Andrews or Riverdale High appears anywhere in the highly edited copy.
Sorry Alice , he thinks, just as abruptly, tearing the paper into long strips and crumpling them in his hands. Hearts are cheap. And it’s better safe than sorry.
Crushing the ball of newsprint in between his hands, Fred heads back to the door and jogs down his steps into the first few rays of dawn. He glances to the left and right, a sick feeling rising up in his throat. All along the block, bundles of newspaper are adorning his neighbours’ doorsteps. All containing that story. No names, true. But that seed of an idea, that glimmer of a possibility. The potential of a boy wearing a skirt. That was enough.
Shoving the wrinkled paper hard into his pyjama pocket, Fred hurries to his neighbour’s doorstep and yanks on the twine holding the paper together until it snaps. The morning is cool, but the blood is pumping hard enough in his veins to warm him. Business, Arts, Lifestyle- Sports.
Fred yanks out the middle leaflet, crams it with the other one in his pocket, and clumsily folds the paper back up. That done, he sprints to the next house and snaps the twine on their bundle as well.
You’re crazy , he chastises himself as he digs through Mr. Brown’s copy of The Register , crouching on the doorstep like a criminal. You can’t go up and down this whole street. People will be out. People will see you. Go back, do the neighbours on the other side, and call it a day.
But he can’t listen to himself. Shoving the paper back together with agonizing care, he leaves it folded on the doorstep and sprints to the next house on the block. There’s a good fourteen homes between their house and the park, and it’s not until he reaches the very end of the street that he forces himself to stop. Having run out of room in his pockets, he has every copy of Alice’s story bundled precariously high in his arms.
Heading toward the garbage can in the park, he pauses mid-stride and changes direction. There were firepits over by the trees, usually used for hot dog roasts in summer. Dropping to his knees in the dirt, Fred crumples the fourteen copies of Alice’s story together in the ashy bottom of the pit. He digs out the lighter that he always carries around for FP’s sake and holds it to the edge of one until it catches.
“Sayonara,” he whispers as the newsprint crackles. Pretty ironic that it was Fahrenheit 451 he was supposed to have that test on in a couple hours. In retrospect, maybe he should have done more than read the title.
Still, as he heads back down toward his house, he feels almost cheerful.
His mom is up when he jogs back in the front door, which he hadn’t expected. Fred stops abruptly when he sees her filling the kettle at the sink, his heart seeming to crash into his ribs with the motion.
“Fred?” Mrs. Andrews sets the kettle aside. “What are you doing up so early? Where were you?”
“Um.” Fred’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. He can feel the cold, clammy material of his pyjama pants sticking to him at the knees. “A jog,” he blurts out. “I went for a jog.”
His mother moves in close to him, and Fred resists the urge to pull away. She frowns as she cups his cheek in her hand. “You smell like a forest fire.”
“What?” Fred tries to duck around her. “I don’t think so.”
His mother looks down at his mud-stained knees, his fingers bleeding and bruised from snapping twine. “Where have you been?”
Fred stuffs his sore hands in his pyjama pockets. “Just around the park a few times.”
“I don’t like it.” His mother purses her lips, returning mercifully to the sink. “There’s no reason for you to run yourself this hard. You’re looking awfully pale lately. And thin.”
“I’m just getting in shape for basketball season,” Fred offers weakly. The story sounds less and less compelling the more he tells it. The words come out automatically now, but his voice has lost any confidence it once had. Basketball seems as foreign to him now as German.
“It’s not worth hurting yourself.” Mrs. Andrews looks back up at him, her face falling when Fred doesn’t return her smile. “Fred, I’m getting worried about you. You’d tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”
Fred swallows a hard lump of guilt in his throat. “Yeah.”
Fred forces a smile, even though he feels like crying. “Yeah,” he manages softly. “Promise.”
Stepping into school that morning is like stepping into a nightmare. Alice isn’t talking to him. FP isn’t talking to him. Even Hermione gives him the cold shoulder. Fred spends the whole day feeling as empty and alone as he ever has in his life, moving like a ghost from place to place, shuffling his feet on the dirty linoleum floors. He feels numb.
Confusingly, Alice doesn’t seem to be talking to Hal either. And though he sees Hiram skulking around Hermione’s locker, looking grouchy, he doesn’t see them interact. Not that he’s really looking. Fred keeps his head down in the halls, and no one notices him. After all this time, Fred being a cheerleader is old news. Even the uniform on Friday and the article in the Register hadn’t been enough to keep attention on him. Fred’s forced to conclude that no one under twenty-five in this town even reads the morning paper. What everyone wants to talk about is Baxter high. Specifically, the giant green lettering on the side of the gym that morning spelling out BAXTER HIGH RULES .
And then there’s that morning’s copy of The Blue and Gold. Alice, possibly taken over by aliens, had finally snapped and printed an absolutely scathing rebuke of the rival school on the very front page. It was vulgar and it was dirty and it was mean, but it was good, too. Fred privately thinks that heroic slander is Alice’s journalistic calling. The full page rant-turned-article is Alice in her element, the vocabulary paper-cut vicious and almost too blisteringly profane to read without blushing. Fred has no idea what finally set her off, but he hopes it was worth it - Miss Smitt, the faculty advisor for the paper, had looked pretty pissed when she’d called Alice to the office in the middle of class. All the students are absolutely hooting over it, and the hallways are a jungle of people waving copies and laughing. Fred shrinks himself smaller and holds his books to his chest as he walks, flinching away from the noise.
The english test goes paralyzingly badly. Fred had craned his neck as far as it would go to try and see Alice’s paper, but she’d shot him a death glare and yanked her page away. Fred had stared at the questions until the tears in his eyes blurred them into senseless squiggles. With four minutes to go on the clock, he’d jotted down something nonsensical and turned it in for another zero. Miss Smitt, still steaming about Alice’s recent foray into revenge publishing, had whisked the paper out of his hand without any trace of her usual kind smile.
In second period it was Penelope, who had slammed her hand down on his desk as everyone filed in, snapping at him that there was practice after school and that he’d better not be late. Once upon a time Fred would have let her moods roll off of him, but today it’s just another name on the list of people who hate his guts. He has to bury his nose in a book so he won’t bolt.
He can feel FP’s eyes on him at lunch, but every time he looks over at the table where the football players are sitting, FP looks away. Alice and Hermione are nowhere to be found, and Fred sits alone at a table for ten minutes before it becomes more than he can bear. Tipping his lunch tray into the nearest garbage can, he lets his untouched meal slide into the mess of burger wrappers and greasy milk cartons. He spends the rest of the lunch period sitting alone in the boys’ bathroom, staring up at the stained ceiling tiles and wondering if this was as good a time as any to take up smoking.
“Hey, Andrews!” Hiram shouts at him from across the hallway as soon as he emerges. “Catch!”
A few students stop on their way to class to see what’s going on. Hiram throws a curled up paper at him, and though Fred raises a hand to catch it, the newspaper bounces out of his lethargic fingers and skitters across the floor. Hiram and his friend jeer.
Fred picks it up. It’s an issue of the Baxter High school paper, The Gold and Green . Alice was right- the paper they printed it on was pretty atrocious. It left a tacky feeling on his fingers. The date across the top is today’s.
Fred swallows hard as he uncurls the paper, his lungs feeling like they’ve been weighed down with rocks. There’s a picture of him from Friday’s game. Splashed across the column in a punchy font is the headline:
CROSSDRESSING CHEERLEADER SCHOOL EMBARRASSMENT
Fred folds the paper up and meets Hiram’s eyes without speaking. “Nice, huh?” asks Hiram, clearly annoyed by Fred’s silence. He comes closer, until he’s hovering in Fred’s personal space, his lips curled into a vicious smile. “I wish our dishrag would get on this level. Do you think Baxter would let me write for them? I already have a good idea for an article. Hey, I’ll send you a copy-“
Fred’s first connects with Hiram’s face so hard and fast that the pain in his knuckles is his first awareness of having swung. The small crowd that had formed around them skitters back, shouting in one voice, and then re-forms. Fred shakes out his bruised hand as Hiram hits the ground, faintly aware of people yelling and running toward them. He definitely hears Weatherbee’s characteristic roar from somewhere to his left.
“What’s going on here?” the principal bellows, students parting like a curtain to let him through. Hiram is fully on the ground, blood streaming from his nose and pattering on the tile.
“Don’t bother,” says Fred cooly to Hiram as Professor Flutesnoot seizes one of his arms and pulls him back, more teachers hurrying in between them to break up the fight.
“He hit me,” Hiram moans, cradling his face now that the faculty have shown up. “Oh, he hit me.”
“Mr. Lodge, get up,” says Weatherbee tiredly, hauling Hiram to his feet by one arm. “That’s enough theatrics. Take yourself to the nurse and then get on to class. Go.”
“I’m going to sue his family for everything they have,” howls Hiram, cupping his bruised nose with both hands. “He can’t touch me like that. He can’t afford it.”
Fred turns to melt back into the crowd, but is stopped by Weatherbee’s hand on the scruff of his neck. “Not so fast,” the principal orders, and Fred’s stomach lands somewhere around the region of his calves. “You’re coming with me.”
briana said she couldn't take the sad ass chapters so i decided to spoil you guys with one more.
“Let me guess,” says Fred hopefully as Weatherbee faces him down, arms folded as he leans back against his huge, polished desk. Fred squirms in the smaller chair, but keeps talking. “My cheerleading privileges are suspended for the rest of the season. Is that it?”
Weatherbee sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “No, Fred.”
Damn. Well, there went the easy way out. To think he could have solved all his problems with a well-placed right hook. Weatherbee slaps the Baxter High paper face-up in the centre of the desk.
“I was very concerned to hear about this. With your permission, I’d like to call your father to discuss-“
“No!” Fred almost shouts. “No,” he continues in a quieter voice when Weatherbee looks sharply at him. “Please don’t tell my father about this.”
“Fred, I’m concerned-”
“Please!” Fred insists. “He’s busy. He doesn’t need to know. Just give me detention or something. I didn’t even punch Hiram about the article, I swear. I just don’t like the way his face looks sometimes.”
“Please don’t call my dad,” Fred repeats. “ Please , Mr. Weatherbee. When have I ever asked you for anything?”
“New uniforms for the girls, last week.” Weatherbee ticks each point off on his fingers. “Permission to join the cheerleading squad, last month. Lenience from detention in order to attend the homecoming dance, last year. A chance to re-write your English exam, last Spring. A ban on students last names Lodge -”
“It was a joke,” Fred mutters, but Weatherbee goes on.
“Permission to wear a ball cap inside, denied. A change to the cast of the school musical, denied. Permission to pitch pennies in my halls, also denied. Permission to bring ice cream to class-”
“Provided there was enough to share,” Fred points out. He takes in a deep breath. The key with Weatherbee was to act like you had it all together. Responsibility. Maturity. “Mr. Weatherbee, this is just a stupid prank” he insists, with all the sincerity he can muster. “It doesn’t bother me. Not enough to get my dad involved. He’s very busy at his office.”
“Be that as it may, I want to nip this in the bud, Fred.” Weatherbee picks up the article and glances at the headline. Fred’s stomach curls. “This has the potential to get out of hand.”
Fred forces his most adult smile. “Mr. Weatherbee, I’m an adult in a couple of months. With respect, I have bigger things on my mind than some juvenile article.” He swallows firmly, sitting up straighter in his chair. “I’m working on weekends for the construction company that’s building that recreational complex downtown. I want to get a job there when I graduate. I want to get married and have a family and buy a house one day. That’s what I’m thinking about. Not this.”
Fred leans back slightly in his chair, lying comfortably. “I sincerely think it’ll all blow over. And besides, If I hadn’t been prepared for backlash, I wouldn’t have joined the cheerleading squad. Please don’t bring my dad down here for something he doesn’t need to worry about. He’ll be upset with both of us.”
Fred can see Weatherbee bending. The trick was, Weatherbee never actually wanted to punish you. It was a lot of work on his part. Why would he bother to talk to Fred’s dad when he could just scribble out a detention slip and be done?
“I really did hit Hiram about something else,” Fred insists. “He just drives me crazy sometimes. You know?”
“No,” says Weatherbee cooly, but Fred prattles on, putting on a performance of his best bubbleheaded chatter.
“He’s just really getting in the way of my growth as a person. My plan was just to take him down a notch before wrestling season started. His ego always gets insufferable around then. I really-”
“Detention. One week. Scraping chewing gum off the undersides of the bleachers.” Weatherbee scribbles a detention slip, and Fred relaxes slightly. “Coach Worthey will oversee you. And when you’re done with the bleachers, you can do the desks. I understand I’ll have some very angry young women in my office if I schedule these during practice time, so I expect you in the gym immediately after cheerleading practice every day this week.”
Fred’s heart sinks. Still, it was better than Weatherbee calling his dad. “Is that all?”
“No.” Weatherbee is scribbling on a green slip. “I’m making you an appointment with a guidance counselor. You’re going to keep it. It’s non-negotiable.”
“What!” Fred stands up from his seat. “I don’t need that.”
Weatherbee’s eyes flash dangerously as he shoves the slips across the table at Fred. “Do you want two weeks of detention?”
“No,” admits Fred grudgingly. He already had no idea how he was going to explain away cheerleading practice and detention. His parents probably wouldn’t see him at all for the next seven days. Weatherbee lifts up the Baxter High paper by two fingers.
“Do you want this back?”
“No, thanks.” Fred shifts through the papers Weatherbee had handed him as the principal tosses the paper in the garbage. He frowns as he moves the blue and green slips aside to reveal a yellow pamphlet. Red lettering across the top spells out PROJECT YOUTH, with a picture of a phone.
“What is this?” Fred asks sharply.
“It’s a help line. Sometimes it’s helpful for students to talk to someone their own age-”
“I don’t have to talk to anyone!” Fred snaps, throwing the pamphlet down. “Why’d you give me this?”
“Fred, I care about you-"
“You have a goofy way of showing it!” Fred scoops his books back up, shoving his chair in. “You’re making me look like an idiot. I don’t need to talk to anybody. There’s nothing wrong with me! Don’t try to tell me I need to talk to someone when Hiram is obviously the one who needs his head examined!”
Fred storms out of the office and heads furiously to his locker, his eyes smarting from trying to hold back tears. Cripes , he was doing enough crying lately for the whole state of New Jersey. He can’t think of a single day he hasn’t ended up in tears at some point. To think he’d felt totally numb when he’d walked through those doors this morning. His whole body is vibrating after yelling at Weatherbee and clouting Hiram, and he could probably run a marathon on adrenaline alone.
To his surprise, FP is waiting for him when Fred gets to his locker. He freezes, unsure of what to do. For a moment he thinks about turning around and heading in the opposite direction, but FP looks so normal, so FP, that he almost wants to cry. His best friend’s letterman is unbuttoned over a plain, scruffy T-shirt and torn denim jeans. One of his shoes is untied and his hair is tumbling across his forehead in an untidy swoop.
“I heard you socked Hiram,” FP says in a soft voice as Fred approaches, and Fred understands at once that it’s his way of an apology. FP grins, almost nervous, as though he expects Fred to hit him too. “That’s pretty cool.”
Fred smiles despite himself, a warmth rushing into his chest and extremities that hasn’t been there in awhile. He steps closer, and FP shoves himself up off the lockers, closing the space between them.
“What’d you get?” FP swipes the thin paper out of Fred’s hands and lets out a whistle. “Wow, Andrews. A week’s detention and a guidance counselor appointment? That’s usually my territory.”
Fred punches him in the arm. “Guess you’re rubbing off on me.”
FP looks down at him, a thin, hopeful smile playing on his face, and Fred understands that they’ve forgiven each other, completely. “Guess so.”
He reaches out and hugs Fred, then, and the motion is so unexpected and so wonderful that Fred’s breath catches. FP tightens the hug and Fred clutches his friend’s back, burying his face in that warm chest and allowing himself to feel small. He holds on to the only good, solid and right thing in his life, fighting back the urge to burst into tears and tell FP everything. Later. Not five days before the championship. FP needed to practice, not get mad on Fred’s behalf. FP didn’t play well when he was mad.
“Oh, Freddy,” sighs FP, rubbing the back of his neck in a soothing circle. “What are you gonna do to me?”
“Whatever you want,” says Fred into FP’s sternum, his voice muffled from the embrace. He feels FP’s throat lift as he smiles.
“Come on.” FP shoves him toward his locker. “I’ll walk you to practice.”
“Okay.” Fred stuffs the detention slip into his backpack and pulls out his gym bag. He feels lighter already. Fp waits as he slams his locker door and shoulders it.
“You scared for Friday?” Fred asks as they head down the hall toward the gym. FP tosses an arm over his shoulder, rooting in his pockets of his jacket for a cigarette.
“Shitless,” he admits, tugging a roll out of the cigarette package with his teeth and shoving the rest of them back in his letterman. Another football player lifts his hand at them from across the hall, and FP tosses up the hand not flung over Fred’s shoulders in greeting.
“Hey FP,” greets a girl going in the opposite direction, and FP nods at her. Fred smiles before his eyes land on two junior girls at the lockers that he doesn’t know. As he watches, the blonde girl turns away from them and lifts a hand to whisper something into her friend’s ear. The brunette’s eyes land firmly on him and linger there for a moment. Fred’s head swivels to follow them, but they both turn and walk away without a second glance.
“Did you see that?” he asks FP nervously as they push open the back doors and step out into the sun. FP glances at him, letting his arm slip from around Fred as he digs for a lighter.
“Those girls,” says Fred, feeling deeply unsettled. He glances back over his shoulder as they continue walking out toward the field, but the two juniors have disappeared. “They were staring at me.”
FP snorts. “Get real, Fred. If girls were staring, they were staring at me .”
“FP, I’m serious.” Fred’s not sure why he feels so uncomfortable, but he does. “I didn’t like it.”
“Fred, you just punched Hiram Lodge in the middle of the hall. People are probably impressed.” FP lights his cigarette and blows some smoke toward Fred. “That’s all.”
“I guess so,” agrees Fred warily.
FP clouts him hard enough in the arm to leave a mark, and Fred winces. “I gotta run. I just remembered Kleats wants to see me and Clayton before practice starts.”
“Ouch.” Fred rubs his arm. “Okay, fine. I’ll see you -” He pauses awkwardly. FP was right that they’d both be busy all week. “-well, when I see you, I guess.”
FP points to the practice field with the hand holding the cigarette. “I’ll be right over there. You’ll see me.”
“Looking forward to it.”
FP smiles, tossing his cigarette on the ground and jogging back in the direction of the school.
“You’re the man!” Fred calls, and FP turns and gives him a thumbs-up.
Fred looks back down at the barely-touched cigarette, still smouldering on the grass. He presses cautiously against it with his toe and grinds it out. Glancing up, he notices the green paint has been mostly cleaned off the side of the gym, but the ghost of the words remain.
BAXTER HIGH RULES
It feels like an omen all over again. Fred stares at the hosed-down graffiti and feels cold and eerie deep along his spine. Almost as if it’s a warning. The last time he’d had that feeling, he and Alice had had the biggest fight of their lives. She’d printed that article.
But it can’t get worse , he tries to convince himself. It can’t possibly get worse. I’m at the end of my rope here.
How much worse can things get?
Everything is somehow better when FP isn’t mad at him. Monday’s practice is brutal and exhausting, Penelope and Hermione are at their antagonistic best, and yet Fred’s heart still soars whenever FP glances over and gives him a carefree wave from the opposite field. It feels like there’s suddenly at least some stability in the cluttered mess of his life. Alice might never speak to him again, and Hermione would rather get in a good dig at Penelope’s herkie than even lock eyes with him at practice, but he had FP. Maybe that was all he needed.
Reporting for detention immediately after is less fun. He finds Coach Worthey in the gym, yelling at the junior girls basketball team as they’re doing sit-ups under the basket. A red whistle on a long chain dangles around her neck, and she has her short, strawberry-blonde hair pulled back behind a matching visor.
“You call that a sit-up, Gladys?” she’s yelling. “My eighty-year old grandma could do better!”
Fred hovers in the doorway, wiping sweat from his practice off of his brow. Geez, and they thought Coach Clayton was tough. Coach Worthey’s eyes land on him and she immediately claps her hands together, gesturing to the spot she’s standing on the foul line.
“Get over here, Andrews.”
Fred hurries over and stands in front of her, tilting his chin back a bit so he can look her in the eye. Worthey looks him up and down like she’s inspecting meat at the supermarket. She sighs and pulls a ring of keys out of the pocket of her shorts.
“Here, this opens my office. I’ve got gum scrapers and gloves in the top drawer of the desk. Don’t dilly-dally, grab one, get under those bleachers, and we’ll see what you’ve got. I’ll join you once I’m finished with them.” She jerks a thumb at the group of girls behind her.
Fred resists the urge to tell her that he’s not here to try out for the Olympic gum-scraping team. “Yes, Coach,” he mumbles and takes the keys.
He would get detention the day Hermione and Penelope had made them do that arms circuit. Fred winces as he wiggles down under the bleachers and has to lift his aching arms above his head. Some of the gum dried under there is so fermented and hard that it had probably been there since the school opened. Fred tries not to let his eyes water as he chips away at it, his muscles already burning. From far away, as if in another world, he hears the basketball players packing up to leave, chattering indistinctly and pulling on their shoes.
Fred quickly lays his arms down on the dusty floor, giving them a rest. One hour. This was just an hour. He could do this for an hour. He winces again as he goes back to scraping. Penelope and Hermione insisted on toning arms, legs, and abs in addition to their ordinary workout. Penelope had let them know in no uncertain terms that jiggly arms would not be tolerated on her squad. Fred’s pretty sure he’s safe. He has a bad habit of not eating when he’s stressed, and can’t remember putting anything in his mouth today since those few mouthfuls of breakfast. Jiggly he wasn't.
He hears the clatter of a bucket overturning and sees Coach Worthey take a leisurely seat on it through the side slats of the metal bleachers.
“So, what are you in for this time?” she asks. “Weatherbee didn’t tell me.”
Fred sighs, trying to concentrate on anything but his shaking arms. “I socked Hiram Lodge in the face.”
Coach Worthey snorts, unimpressed. “Why don’t you try out for boxing if you want to fight?”
“Well, keep scraping.” He hears a page turn, as if she’s reading a book. Probably one of those harlequins he’d seen shoved in her desk. “Svenson will appreciate it.”
When Fred finally emerges from the bleachers he’s covered in sweat and dust. Coach Worthey slaps him on the back. “Go hit the showers. See you here tomorrow.”
Fred half-walks, half-stumbles his way to the boys' side of the gym and then pauses with his hand on the door. He has a creeping fear of empty locker rooms ever since the away game at Glenbrook. He really doesn’t want to shower in there alone.
His first instinct is to find a friend’s house to shower at. But FP’s dad was home all the time ever since he’d lost his job, and that was a definite no-go. Alice, the same. Hermione would hate it. He can’t think of anyone else. He’d told his parents he’d be at a friend’s to work on a group project until seven, and there was no way he could show up at his house looking and smelling like he’d just crawled through sewage. There’s no other place to take a shower in town, unless he goes to the town pool. But they wouldn’t let him in this dirty.
You’re being an idiot, he scolds himself, letting himself into the boys locker room. It’s even creepier than he’d feared when it’s empty: long and hollow and silent. Fred pushes a garbage can up against the door for good measure and charges through a shower. The water is freezing cold. He dresses at light speed, his clothes sticking uncomfortably to his damp back.
He barely has the strength to pull the garbage can away from the door again and let himself out. Fred can’t wait to be home. Home, food, and then sleep, in that order. He didn’t have anything due until Wednesday, and his calculus homework was something he could worry about tomorrow. He glances left and right at his locker, the eerie stillness of the empty hall raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
Everything was going to be fine. Practice had been crappy today, but there was always tomorrow. The new uniforms are supposed to come in before Friday, so he won’t have to worry about a sweater or a skirt. FP is friends with him again. He’d survived one detention, he could survive four more. (Three more, right? There was no way Weatherbee expected him to serve detention after the football game on Friday - did he?)
He’s about to push through the doors to the parking lot when he sees something through the reinforced glass window that makes his heart stop. Fred pulls back and hides instinctively around the corner of the door.
There were only two cars in the parking lot: his, and a small grey one.
They’re parked far apart: the strange grey car is all the way across the lot from his, sitting all alone by the outdoor basketball hoop. You’re being an idiot , Fred cautions himself, embarrassed that his first instinct had been to squeeze himself behind the door like a little kid playing hide-and-seek. He had no idea what car those boys from Glenbrook drove. He had no proof that the car out there was the same as any of the cars he’d spotted in the Glenbrook parking lot, instead of just another one of the million and one grey-coloured cars in the town of Riverdale.
Still, deep down, he’d been waiting for something like this to happen. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t looking left and right for grey cars the whole drive to school. They knew what school he went to. The thought had haunted him ever since the Friday game. And sure, Glenbrook was a long drive, but if they were really mad?
Fred peeks out the window again. The grey car just sits there, waiting. The fact that it’s all alone was so creepy. It was like that Stephen King movie. If he tried to cross the parking lot the car would come to life and chase him down and run him over.
Fred chews on his lip, trying to figure out what to do. His car keys suddenly weigh a hundred pounds in his sweaty palm. His car is closest to the door: he can run there, gun the engine, and speed off. But suppose it was like a horror movie and the door stuck?
The grey car is definitely empty. That’s another thing. If the three boys weren’t in the car, that meant they could be anywhere. They could be hiding on either side of these doors, waiting to grab him when he stepped out. They could be in the bushes. Fred takes a step back from the double doors, starting to shiver. If only FP was still around.
His eye lands on the payphone near the office. He could call his mom. And say what, though? He had the car, it wasn’t like she could come and get him. He could call the police, but if it was a false alarm he’d be in big trouble with his dad.
Fighting back tears, Fred rests his forehead against the glass and looks out the window again. It wasn’t fair that he was stuck in this stupid school. He’d been here since eight in the morning, for crying out loud.
Movement in the parking lot catches his eye, and Fred has to resist the urge to duck back down below the window again. He watches as Coach Worthey leaves the gym doors, crosses the parking lot, unlocks the grey car and gets in. The car reverses, turns out of the spot, and picks up speed as it heads out of the lot and toward the main road.
Fred deflates. He feels every muscle in his body slump and relax. Stupid! he chastises himself, pushing his hair out of his eyes with one hand. It was like that close call with his mom that morning. He was really losing his head over this.
“You big idiot,” he mumbles to himself as he finally opens the door and heads toward his car. “You don’t know anything.”
Fred walks into the wrong class third period on Tuesday, and stands dazedly in the centre row for awhile, trying to figure out where he’s supposed to sit. Professor Flutesnoot, at his desk, looks up with a frown.
“I think I’m in the wrong class,” says Fred unsteadily, feeling like he’s trying to talk through a mouthful of glue. Had the lights in the room always been this bright?
Rick Banks, in the front row, turns around with a grin. “Yeah, Fred, shouldn’t you be in home ec?”
Myles McCoy, beside him, laughs. “Go learn to sew yourself a longer skirt. No one wants to see your ass.”
“Boys,” scolds Flutesnoot, but Fred just turns and walks back out the door. He can feel his throat start to close up, and he has no idea why. He’d endured worse teasing than that with a grin at the beginning of all this. If he cries in the hallway he’ll never forgive himself. Fred hates crying at school, and he’s done enough of it this week.
He slumps into a seat in English, his real third-period class, and tries his hardest to focus on the board. He’s tired and his head aches and all he can think about is the stupid practice he has after school, and then the stupid detention. It felt like no sooner had his eyes closed on the pillow last night that he’d woken up to his alarm blaring. His body is screaming at him to get some rest. If only he’d done that stupid calculus homework yesterday instead of leaving it for today.
Calculus is definitely the last thing he has time to think about. FP had been sporting a brace on his left wrist when they’d met at their lockers that morning, and even though FP wouldn’t tell him, Fred had a seriously bad feeling that FP’s dad had something to do with it. FP insisted he’d be able to play on Friday, but all the guys on the football team were in hysterics. Fred’s eyes land on the back of Alice’s head. If only Alice was speaking to him. She would know what to say.
Miss Smitt approaches him as the rest of the class is working silently in their notebooks, and Fred’s almost positive he’s going to get yelled at for something. But she only leans in, wafting the perfumey shampoo-smell of her hair close to his face, and speaks low enough that the rest of the class won’t hear.
“Fred,” she whispers in his ear, “you’re excused now for your guidance counselor appointment.”
Fuck! He’d forgotten all about that. Flashing his teacher a nervous smile, Fred stands up and starts shoveling his books into his arms. Alice turns and narrows her eyes at him, but then turns back to face the front just as quickly. Apparently, Fred wasn’t even worth making eye contact with. Their fight has been hanging like an anvil around his neck all week, but Fred tries to pretend it doesn’t hurt. If Alice wanted to be mad, Alice could be mad. Fred doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with it.
He knocks tiredly at Mrs. Jenkins’ door when he reaches the main office. Their two guidance counselors, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, were spouses, and Fred always wondered if they went home and discussed all their students’ problems over a bottle of chardonnay in the evenings. He’s secretly grateful that it was Mrs. Jenkins he had the appointment with. Mr. Jenkins had played football in high school, and if Fred had to see one more football player in his whole life, he would scream.
“Fred,” she greets him warmly when he steps into her office: a small, cramped room plastered in brilliantly coloured motivational posters. The only furniture is a desk with a swivel chair and two comfortable armchairs by the window. A bunch of houseplants and a magazine rack stuffed with brochures take up the rest of the space. Fred sinks into one of the comfy chairs on wobbly legs. He hasn’t been to the guidance counselor since last year, and he feels as nervous here as he does in the principal’s office. Like he’s on trial for something.
“Let me open the window,” says Mrs. Jenkins, and cracks it for him. Fred sucks in a lungful of fresh air and feels a little lightheaded. “It’s awfully warm in here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Fred keeps his eyes on his shoes. “It’s a warm fall.”
“So, how are things?” asks Mrs. Jenkins, sitting down in the chair opposite him. She’s wearing a brightly patterned pink-and-teal outfit that glows against her dark skin. Mrs. Jenkins always had a real flair for style. “Are you liking all your classes? Getting along with your classmates?”
“Yeah,” lies Fred instinctively.
“How about business?” Mrs. Jenkins smiles at him. “I remember we transferred you in last year. You were saying that’s maybe what you want to study in college.”
“Right. Well, maybe not anymore.” Fred keeps his eyes down on the carpet. He’d never really looked at it before: it had this awful pattern running through it. “I still want to go into business, but I’m not enjoying the class as much as I thought. It’s kind of - uh- soul-sucking. Like we always talk about profit and it feels like exploiting people, and that’s not what I want to do.”
“Hm.” Mrs. Jenkins puts her glasses on from a chain around her neck and snatches some pamphlets off the side rack. “Well, unfortunately, our curriculum is pretty condensed at this level, so you’re probably being rushed through the highlights. Once you get to the post-secondary level, especially in a business-school environment, I think you’d like the wide array of classes and approaches you can take. Why don’t you take these and look them over?”
Why was the guidance counselor’s reaction to anything to shove pamphlets at you? Fred takes the substantial number of brochures from her obediently. One is about business studies at Riverdale High, and the other four are all for colleges. Fred’s seen all this crap before, but he balances them politely on his knee anyway.
“Thanks,” he mumbles.
“Fred, are you alright?”
So there it was. “What do you mean?” he asks dryly, sure that he’s about to get reamed out for throwing punches in the hall. But Mrs. Jenkins doesn’t seem to be talking about that. Her eyes are fixed on him with a more immediate concern.
“You don’t look well. Do you want the window open more?”
Fred touches his face and feels sweat standing out on his skin. Shit. He didn’t realize he was sweating this bad.
“No, I’m fine,” he says quickly, but Mrs. Jenkins opens the window further anyway. “I think I’m working out too much and not eating enough.”
“On the cheerleading team, right?”
Fred was willing to bet Mrs. Jenkins read the Register. “Yeah.”
“Is it fun? Do you like it?”
“Mm-hmm.” Fred rubs his hands over his face, dragging them across his damp skin. “Why don’t you just tell me whatever you’re supposed to tell me? ”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me what that is.” Mrs. Jenkins shifts through some papers on her desk. “All I know is that Principal Weatherbee booked you this appointment. Why was that?”
“I hit Hiram. But I don’t have anger management issues or anything, I was just mad at him. I won’t do it again.”
“Fred, is there anything you want to talk about?”
“No. I’m totally fine. Mentally.”
“I’m not a therapist, Fred.” She smiles, meeting Fred’s insincere grin with a more genuine one of her own. “I’m not here to pry your innermost thoughts and fears out. Guidance counselors are here to support you. I can listen, and I can direct you to resources that can help. Anything you need, I can help with. But you have to ask.”
“I’m fine, though.”
“Then we can just chat. I won’t tell Weatherbee.”
Fred fidgets with the hem of his shirt. Mrs. Jenkins doesn’t say anything, just watches him do it. At last Fred drops his shirt and looks back up at her. “Well, I’m fine, but… can I ask you something for a friend?”
Fred opens his mouth, about to tell her about FP’s wrist, but then closes it again. That was FP’s business, not his. FP would be pissed off if he found out Fred was spreading that around: FP distrusted guidance counselors on sight. And even if Fred disagreed with FP’s insistence on keeping it quiet, it wasn’t his place to betray him like that. Especially since he had no proof Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins really didn’t talk about their students together after-hours.
“Um-” he says anxiously instead, “Forget it.”
Mrs. Jenkins just looks at him through her glasses. Fred can feel himself cracking like a clay pot under high heat. Finally he blurts out:
“What do you do if nothing happens, but you thought something was going to happen?”
He’s just garbled out a mouthful of nonsense, but Mrs. Jenkins acts like it’s the most rational thing in the world. “Can you run that by me again?” she asks patiently.
Fred squeezes his eyes shut. “I have a friend on the football team. Not FP-” he adds hurriedly. Everyone at school knew they were inseparable, and the last thing he needed was Mrs. Jenkins assuming this was about his friend.
“That’s okay, Fred. I don’t need to know who it is.”
“Well-” Fred keeps his eyes on the floor, cracking his knuckles just for something to do. “He goes to this away game, and these three guys on the other team were threatening him. But they didn’t do anything. Nothing actually happened. But he’s still freaked out.” He looks up for a second and then looks back down, curling one hand into a shaking fist. “Is that normal?”
“How do you mean, threatening him.”
“Like-” Fred’s throat is very dry and he swallows quickly. “Saying they were going to hit him. And stuff.” Sweat is prickling on the back of his neck. “They cornered him in the locker room when it was empty. But he ran and they didn’t do anything. So nothing actually happened.”
“I’d say that’s normal. Threatening someone is very serious. Often times it can be more psychologically damaging than just a blow.”
Fred lets out a long breath. “He’s worried they’re gonna show up here.”
“I think that’s unlikely. People bully because they’re insecure. The cowards are always the bullies, not the victims. I’d say those three boys probably feel as uncertain about this as your friend does. They might be worried about getting in trouble.”
“They’re not gonna get in trouble,” mumbles Fred. “It’s too late.”
“They might.” Mrs. Jenkins is rummaging for a pen. “I personally think it’s important to tell someone who can put a stop to it. If you have your friend come see me, I can place a call to the administration of the other school. Or he can talk to his coach. Or Mr. Jenkins. Or his parents-”
“I don’t think- stop.” Mrs. Jenkins looks up at him. Fred swallows hard. “You don’t have to write it down.”
Mrs. Jenkins pulls a few more pamphlets out of the rack and hands them to him. Fred takes them with nerveless fingers.
“In these cases, I think what helps most of all is talking about it. It probably feels pretty shameful to him, and he wants to keep it quiet. But what’s so scary about this, even if nothing happened, like you say, is that kind of power struggle. When you talk about things, you take action against them. Even indirectly. It’s a way of putting yourself in the driver's seat of a situation. I think it would make him feel better.” She nods at the brochures. “That’s a bunch of counseling and bullying services. The one I like the most is Project Youth. Have you heard of it?”
Has he heard of it? Fred sighs and turns over the yellow pamphlet. Why were adults so obsessed with helplines? And pamphlets?
“That’s a helpline run by the local youth shelter. You can call and speak to a volunteer your age. They’re trained to talk to students about issues like this.”
“Right.” Fred looks back up at her. “Cool. I’ll, uh- tell him.”
Mrs. Jenkins smiles. “Is that okay, Fred?”
“Yeah,” says Fred tiredly, getting to his feet and picking up his English books. He does feel better, in an odd way. A little. “That’s cool.”
“Well, if you want to talk again, make another appointment. Even if it’s just about business school.”
“Deal,” says Fred, pushing open the frosted glass door of the office. “You bet.”
Stepping out of the counselor’s office, he runs smack into Hiram Lodge.
“Andrews,” Hiram snarls, as Fred’s sweaty fistful of brochures scatters around their feet. “Watch where you’re going.” His eye lands on the door labeled GUIDANCE COUNSELOR , and a delighted grin lights up his face. “Talking about your feelings, were you? They switch you to the girls' gym class yet?”
“Don’t make me hit you again,” begins Fred, but Hiram is already pouncing on the yellow brochure on the ground. Fred’s stomach drops. Couldn’t he have picked up one of the business school ones?
Hiram glances at it and reads the title. “Project Youth?!” He lets out a loud guffaw. “What the fuck is this?”
“Give me that-” Fred tries to snatch it from him, but Hiram holds on tight, still laughing nastily.
“Let me see that one.” Hiram yanks one of the business school pamphlets from Fred’s hands. “Everett? No way you could get in here.”
Fred’s temper snaps. Forgetting all semblance of shame, he snatches the brochure back from Hiram and stuffs it into his pocket. “Hiram, why are you such an ugly person?” he yells. “I mean it! You’re mean and ugly, and you think you’re hot shit for it, but you’re not.”
Hiram looks flabbergasted. A few students across the hall are looking curiously at them. Fred snatches the Project Youth pamphlet out of his hand and shoves it in his jeans next to the Everett one. “Hiram, you are a soulless, greasy creep and I don’t give a shit what you think about any of my life choices! So get that through your thick head!”
“Well-” Hiram is still speechless, his mouth working silently as he tries to find something to say. “I’m taking Hermione to the party on Friday!”
“I don’t care!” Fred explodes. “I don’t care if you’re taking your mom to the party on Friday! I don’t care if you’re taking your dog! I just want you to stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours!”
“You fucking fa-” Hiram takes a step toward Fred as if to hit him, but freezes when the door to the office cracks open. Mr. Jenkins is there, looking sternly down at the two of them. Hiram backs down as fast as Fred’s ever seen him do anything.
“See you around,” he mutters and makes a break for it. Fred meets the guidance counselor’s eyes anxiously, waiting for him to toss another week of detention onto his sentence. But Mr. Jenkins only shakes his head and points down the hall.
“Back to class, Fred.”
“Cool,” says Fred, turning back down the hall. Somehow it feels like he can breathe easier now. He might be running on his last cylinder, but until it gives out, he might just make it after all. Before it kills him.
For the first time at practice, everything goes right. Their pyramid is cleaner than ever, Fred doesn’t forget a single step, and Hermione and Penelope have impossibly agreed on what cheers they’ll be performing. Their nerves for the upcoming game are all good nerves, and everyone is excited about getting new uniforms. Mary even smiles at him when he gets the dismount right, and Hermione seems to have given up being mad about whatever she was mad about. Tuesday is an ab workout, which Fred finds a lot more doable than the arms. When he shows up at the lower gym to scrape gum off the bleachers he feels tired and lightheaded, but almost good tired. The way he used to after a really long pickup basketball game.
He shimmies under the bleachers and gets to work as Coach Worthey takes a seat on her overturned bucket. She’s cracked the door so she can smoke, and he can hear the sounds of the football team practicing from far away. FP. The thought makes his heart relax a tiny bit.
After they’ve been listening to the far-away blast of Coach Kleats’ whistle for a long while, Worthey finally talks to him.
“You know,” she says, “I was the only female quarterback on the football team.”
“Shut up,” says Fred immediately, surprised. “Really?” He squirms out from under the bleachers and she frowns at him. Fred cleans some dried gum off his scraper and crawls back under. “That’s amazing,” he says.
“Mm-hmm.” He pictures her blowing smoke out the crack of the door, though he can’t see her. “I had to be better than every single boy just so they’d take me seriously.”
“Did people make fun of you?”
“Were you upset?”
“Hell, no. I knew I was doing something none of them ever could.”
“How’d you keep from getting upset?”
“I didn’t give a shit. Pardon my french. That’s the secret. You can’t care what people think or say about you.”
“But what if you do care what people think?”
“Then you’re fucked.”
“Fuck,” says Fred quietly.
Worthey claps her hands. “Fred, come out.”
Fred crawls back out from under the bleachers and looks expectantly at her, waiting for a pep talk. Or at least to be chastised for swearing. Worthey just holds her hand out for the scraper. “Your time’s up.”
“Oh.” Detention had somehow felt less long today. Fred climbs to his feet and dusts off his knees, the gym spinning a little bit around him as all the blood rushes to his head. “See you tomorrow.”
Worthey tosses her cigarette butt out the open door and shuts it with a bang. “See you tomorrow.”
“Hey, FP!” calls Harry as FP’s leaving the locker room. He jogs to catch up with him, chasing him down the hall away from the gym. “Hang on a minute, will you?”
FP pauses with his hand on the door. “What’s up?”
Harry shakes his head, glancing nervously at another football player. “Not here. Wait ‘till we’re at our lockers, okay?”
“Okay.” FP follows Harry through the school to their lockers, bemused. He opens his and starts pulling textbooks down from the shelf and slotting them into his bag. Harry glances this way and that until he’s satisfied, leaning in close to FP so their chests are touching, their faces hidden by his open locker door.
“I gotta tell you something, okay? And don’t take this the wrong way, I know it’s not true, but it’s just something people have been saying.”
“What are you talking about?” asks FP. He frowns at his math textbook. Did he really need to bring that home? It was pretty heavy. He weighs his biology one against it. Math or science? Did it matter?
“I’ve just heard whispers - You know how people spread shit around, especially during playoffs and stuff,” Harry hurries. “Everyone will forget about it in a week, honestly. But if it was me I’d like to know. So I’m just going to tell you-”
‘Harry.” FP bangs his locker door shut. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s probably nothing,” says Harry, averting his eyes. “But there’s something people have been saying about you-”
“Harry, you know I don’t care what people say about-”
“-and Fred,” finishes Harry. FP goes very still. “You and Fred Andrews.”
wild and depressing times ahead
Fred strolls down the hallway after detention, keeping an eye out for any stragglers from the football team. Practice had let out a little before his sentence in the gym had ended, and FP might still be around. His hopes are dashed when he turns down the hall toward their lockers and finds it empty. If FP had decided to wait for him, he’d be here.
Fred walks quicker, the emptiness of the halls raising the same eerie feeling along his spine. Not only are there no football players around, the whole school seems to have emptied since classes had let out. His footsteps echo. Fred glances at his watch and realizes it’s well past dinnertime. Shit , what excuse had he given his parents this morning? It wasn’t a group project, he’d used that yesterday-
He’s about two feet from his locker when the door of a nearby boiler room flies open. Before Fred can process what’s happening, a pair of strong hands have grabbed the crook of his arm in a death grip. A panicked scream rips its way out of his lips even before the second boy grabs his other side. They drag him backward, and Fred screams at the top of his lungs, twisting his body this way and that as he tries to escape their grip.
“Jesus,” says one of the boys, and gives an especially hard yank on Fred’s arm.
“Grab him,” snaps the other.
Fuelled by raw panic, Fred manages to jerk his way out of their grasp, catapulting forward to trip over his own feet and land chin-first on the linoleum. Teeth smarting from the collision, he tries to scramble forward on his hands and knees, dragging himself down the hallway by his fingertips only to feel one of the boys grab his legs and drag him bodily backward. Fred screams bloody murder. If there was anyone left in the school they should have come running from the noise he’s making. But no one appears.
“Fuck, shut up-” he hears one of his assailants say.
“Fred-” snaps the other one, and Fred’s blood runs cold. They know his name. They know his fucking name.
His arms are grabbed from behind again and he’s hauled bodily to his feet. Fred throws back behind him with his elbows, half sobbing, blind with panic. To his horror, he feels himself held from the middle and lifted off the ground, carried screaming backward through the door of the boiler room. Once inside he’s dropped painfully into a chair and the two boys are all over him, holding his arms behind his back and pushing a long strip of duct tape into his chest, wrapping it around the chair back several times and securing him firmly to the seat.
The door of the boiler room falls closed with a click as he struggles, and Fred’s insides run cold, a wave of revulsion and fear hitting him all at once. He lets out a scream that turns into a sob. He should have fought harder. If he was still out in the hall there was a chance, but it was too late-
“Fred, calm down dude,” says a male voice. Two hands plant themselves on his upper arm and he pulls frantically away. “We just want to talk.”
“Yeah,” agrees another voice, this one less pleasant. “We just need to talk to you.”
“What?” Fred sobs desperately, struggling to break out of his restraints. His chin is still throbbing from hitting the ground.Confusion wins over sheer terror, and he forces himself to focus on the faces in the room with him.
Kenny Doiley and another senior, Barry Goodman, are standing in front of him. Ed Lopez, Riverdale’s running back, is hovering awkwardly to his right. A few feet away, Rick Banks is reclining leisurely against a filing cabinet, arms folded. Fred feels the slightest bit of weight uncurl from his chest. It wasn’t them. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t them.
“Jesus,” complains Rick, looking over at them for the first time. “You guys made him cry?”
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” insists Kenny. Fred blinks desperately, trying helplessly to make sense of the scene. “He’s just going fucking ballistic.”
“FP’s gonna kill you.”
“What’s going on?” Fred demands tearfully, pulling against the tape again so that the legs of his chair thump against the floor. “Untie me,” he begs. “Please.”
“Like we said,” says Kenny menacingly. “We just wanna talk.”
“Make some things clear,” adds in Ed.
“What things?” Fred can feel tears dripping down his chin, and he tries awkwardly to wipe them with his shoulder without breaking eye contact. His chest is fluttering with panic.“Why are you-”
“We know you’ve been messing around with our girlfriends,” snaps Barry. “Don’t deny it.”
Fred lets out a hysterical laugh. “What the fuck?” This wasn't real, right? This was some kind of absurd hallucination?
Rick cracks his knuckles. “We’re talking about Tanya, Gloria, Claudia. Samantha.” He punctuates every name with a sneer. “We heard you’ve been making time with all of them.”
“That you joined the cheerleading squad to put a move on our girls,” adds Ed.
“So consider this a warning,” snaps Kenny. “Hands off. Or we cut them off.”
“What are you talking about?” Fred looks frantically from one face to another. “I haven’t even been on a date in three weeks! Who told you I was with anyone?”
There must be something truthful in his voice because Kenny and Ed suddenly look uncomfortable. Rick looks from one to the other, a frown deepening on his lips.
“Well, we heard-” begins Barry half-heartedly.
“You IDIOTS!” screams Fred, jerking his body forward so that the chair legs thump again against the floor. “Ask your fucking girlfriends! I haven’t done anything with any of them! I don’t know who you heard that from but they were lying! Get it?”
“You sure about that?” asks Kenny menacingly.
“Y-yes!” Fred sobs, sagging forward against the tape and dissolving into terrified tears. “Just let me go!”
“Jesus, you guys,” says Rick in disgust. Fred stays hunched into himself as the taller senior approaches him, crouching down to eye level when Fred doesn’t look up. “Hey, Fred.” Rick pushes his water bottle into Fred’s hand. “Here, drink this. I’m sorry. It’s okay.”
Fred glares daggers at him through his bloodshot eyes, squeezing the water bottle without lifting it to his lips. Rick stands up and hooks his hands defensively around his elbows, facing him down. “Fred, it’s not our fault we heard something.”
“You can’t blame us for checking it out,” says Kenny sulkily. “You’re not exactly, like, uh- modest.”
Barry sighs impatiently. “Come on, it was just a kidnapping. We do this shit for initiations all the time.”
“I didn’t ask to be initiated.” Fred’s voice catches painfully. He feels as small and frightened as a six-year-old. Rick moves closer to him, crouching down again.
“Hey, Fred, it’s okay. Here.” He reaches an upturned hand out to Kenny, who reluctantly offers up a pocket knife. Rick slides the knife gently upward through the tape on the chair, untangling it from Fred’s skin. “Don’t freak. You know, I told these guys it wasn’t true. I told them you were just a fag, but-”
“Oh, thanks, Rick, you’re a real peach!” Anger is boiling up in Fred’s chest, and he tears the tape off his arm, taking a good amount of hair off his skin with it. His rage is somewhat diffused by the tears running down his face, but he does his best. “You’re all a bunch of fucking creeps! Fuck you all!”
“Hey.” Rick steps in front of him as Fred rises, reaching out and pressing him back into the wall. “You say anything about this and you’re toast. You tell anyone I was nice to you and you’re double toast. Get it?”
Fred gives him a scathing look and Rick releases him. Without even bothering to look over his shoulder, Fred shoves his way through the door of the boiler room on shaking legs and bolts out to the parking lot without even stopping at his locker. He’d lost all incentive to get his calculus homework done for tomorrow.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d turned up with nothing.
His mom is waiting for him when Fred finally props his bike up against the garage and tiredly climbs the stairs of the porch. The adrenaline had worn off halfway home, and for the last few blocks, he hadn’t been sure that he was going to make it all the way without stopping. His legs felt as sore and beat-up as Coach Clayton’s tackling dummies.
“Mom,” he says tiredly, suddenly wanting nothing more than to sag against her and be held like a little kid. At what point did you get too old to seek comfort in your parents when other kids were mean to you at school? “I’m sorry I’m late. I meant to be home earlier.”
“Let me take that,” his mother says, ignoring Fred’s apology and tugging his backpack off his shoulders. Fred’s heart sinks at the brisk, business-like tone of her voice. “You’d better get inside. Your father wants to talk to you.”
Fred’s blood runs cold. “What about?” he whispers, but his mom just shakes her head.
“Don’t keep him waiting, okay?”
Trepidation rising like bile in the back of his throat, Fred slowly enters his house and walks through the foyer. His father is standing in the kitchen when he gets there, his back to the door. Fred feels a coldness spread through him, one single, awful thought pushing every other sensation out of his head. He knows. He knows.
Artie turns around, a severe frown lining his features. An intense feeling of vertigo comes over Fred as his father draws closer to him, his ears ringing and a dizziness pressing behind his eyes. He can feel his heartbeat in his temples.
“Fred, your mother was dusting your room, and she found this.”
Fred’s father slaps a paper down in the middle of the table. Fred stares at it for awhile, heart racing, until his eyes finally focus and he recognizes it as his English test. The one he’d taken two weeks ago, that he’d lost somewhere in the clutter of his desk.
Fred can’t help it. A relieved grin slips over his face, his head spinning. So it wasn’t the newspaper article. He was in the clear.
“You think this is a laughing matter, do you?” asks his father coldly. “What the hell is this, Fred?”
“An English test,” says Fred dizzily. His head has gone floaty and weird.
“Care to explain why there’s a zero on it?”
A hysterical giggle slips out of Fred’s lips before he can stop it. His father steps abruptly closer to him, the colour draining from his face.
“I have half a mind to slap you,” he yells. “Do you think this is a joke? Where have you been all this time? You’ve been worrying your mother sick.”
“I was -” Fred’s mind is totally blank, heart beating harder still at his father’s reaction. “At Pop’s,” he finishes lamely.
“You were getting ice cream? When your marks look like this?” Artie tosses the test toward him and Fred has to suppress another hysterical laugh. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Fred’s can’t stop himself from letting out a helpless giggle, and Artie’s face gets stormy. “That’s it. From now on, you’re grounded. You’re coming straight home after school, and you’re in this house from three pm to seven-thirty the next morning. No phone. No television. No friends. Maybe that’ll entice you to crack a textbook.”
“But-” Fred feels like he’s going to pass out, the smile falling abruptly from his face. “I can’t. I’m-”
“Working out with FP,” finishes his father coldly. “FP’s had football practice every day this week. I don’t know where you’ve been going after school, but he hasn’t been with you. And let me tell you, Fred, I’m very disappointed in you. Very disappointed.”
The whole room seems to be spinning. Fred grips a kitchen chair to keep himself upright.
“A word of advice Fred?” The unhappiness in his father’s voice is harder to stomach than the anger. “Do whatever the hell you want. But be confident enough in it that you don’t have to lie. That’s not what men do.”
Fred wets his lips. “The football game-”
Artie sets his mouth into a thin line. “We’ll talk about it,” he says harshly. “Until then, I suggest you hit the books. Hard.”
“I- I have to be at school. I’m- I have to be-” Fred swallows, feeling like he’s trying to bring up a mouthful of glass. “I have -”
Artie points at the stairs. “Room. Don’t make me ask you again.”
“I have detention,” Fred blurts out.
Artie’s face drains of all colour. His lips go so thin that they disappear.
Another absurd, petrified laugh is building at the back of Fred’s throat and he forces himself not to let it out. “I have detention,” he repeats weakly.
His father’s eyes are as cold as flint. His voice is frighteningly quiet and controlled. “Dare I ask for what?”
“I was fighting,” admits Fred in a very small voice. Artie’s is loud enough to rattle the dishes in the china cabinet-
“And were you planning on telling me this?”
“You thought it wasn’t worth mentioning to your mother and me?”
“Do you have absolutely no respect for us? What the hell did I just tell you about lying?”
“No, don’t ‘dad’ me! You are not going to that football game!” Artie points a shaking finger at Fred’s face. “You’re not going anywhere with FP, and you’re not leaving this house! I’ve never been so ashamed of you in my life!”
The dam breaks in him all at once. Fred turns around and flees the kitchen, throwing himself down into an armchair in the family room. He buries his face in the crook of his arm, his shoulders shaking with helpless sobs. His father follows him out, his footsteps thunderously heavy on the carpet.
“If I wanted another daughter, I’d have had one,” he snaps. “Get up and act like a man.”
Fred’s only response is a tormented scream. Artie seizes him by the top of his ear and Fred has to stumble to his feet to avoid having his ear yanked. His father grabs the collar of his shirt.
Fred doesn’t let him finish the sentence. Tearing himself out of his father’s grasp he flies to the staircase, sprints up the stairs to his room and slams the door so hard it rattles in the frame. He’d intended to throw himself onto his bed crying, but as Fred collapses onto the mattress he finds a hopeless welling of silence in place of the tears. Instead, he feels a growing, choking pressure that’s almost identifiable as relief.
It’s over , he thinks, cocooning himself in his quilt, his eyes too raw and swollen to keep open. His throat aches from screaming and crying, pressure building up at the back of his neck until it throbs. He’s painfully hungry and every limb hurts, but the pain is almost good. He feels sick and injured and darkly triumphant. Everyone who could possibly have broken him had tried. The universe had dashed a bottle against the railing of life and slit him from throat to groin and he was still alive. His cheerleading days were over. Everything was over. And he was so fucking glad.
He throws every pillow off his bed in an angry heap, burying his face in the musty-smelling linen. If he could just die here, then it’d be fine. If he could just smother himself in this mattress and never wake up again and never go back to school, ever, that would be the greatest thing to ever happen to him since the day he was born.
Fred sucks in a deep breath, meaning to hold it until he just passes out. It feels like the quickest and most immediate way to escape his current situation. Unfortunately, his body wants to keep him alive and he keeps managing to breathe through his nostrils. He bites down on his tongue until it hurts, relishing the pain.
His pulse finally slowing somewhat, Fred presses the heels of his hands to his aching eyes and surrounds them momentarily with cool darkness. Letting his breath out in a long sigh, he rolls back over onto his side and tugs the quilt up to his chin.
Please don’t wake up tomorrow , he thinks fiercely to himself, the plea as clear to him as if it had been written out. He repeats it half-heartedly to himself as if for luck, already knowing a swift and sudden disintegration is too much to hope for. Please don’t wake up tomorrow, please don’t wake up tomorrow, please don’t wake up-
Fred must have dozed off, because he opens his eyes hours later to the feel of someone sitting on the bed with him, one hand resting on his calf. Fred squints into the dark. Someone had turned his bedroom light off, and all his furniture is unfamiliar and unfriendly in the shadows.
Fred recognizes her by touch more than sound. His mother is sitting at the end of his bed, one hand resting lightly on his leg through the blanket. She rubs her hand in a slow, soothing circle.
“It’s all right, you know,” she says softly. “Your father just needs some time to cool off, that’s all. He won’t want you to miss the game on Friday.”
“I don’t care,” mutters Fred into the pillow. “I don’t care if I miss it.”
His mother sighs, caressing his knee through the quilt with her thumb. They sit in silence for a moment before she speaks again.
“You know, I thought you were done acting up when you cut all that hair off.”
Fred doesn’t reply. His mother moves her hand up to his back, gently rubbing. “Freddy, we love you so much. You know that, right? We only want what’s best for you.”
“Lemme sleep,” snaps Fred, and his mother draws her hand back with a sigh.
“You sleep. You know what Grandma always says. Everything looks better in the morning.”
“It gets worse before it gets better,” Fred corrects her, his voice cracking.
“Well, not this time.” His mother’s hand lands back on his knee and she gives his leg a little squeeze. “I love you.”
Fred doesn’t say anything. He waits until he feels her rise from the mattress and hears her walk across the carpet to his door. When it finally clicks shut, he lets out a long breath and buries his face in his forearms.
He tosses and turns for another hour before he finally falls into a restless sleep.
She said I'm sorry baby I'm leaving you tonight
I found someone new he's waitin' in the car outside
Penelope turns over in her canopied bed, brushing a few loose strands of red hair out of her eyes before hitting the snooze on her clock radio. Even through her thick curtains, the morning sun is leaking into her room, filling the small space with warm yellow light. She can hear birds twittering in the tree branches outside her window.
Penelope lays on her back and lets out a sigh. She feels decidedly un-sunny. Reaching up to loosen her hair from the ribbon she’d tied it up with to sleep, she mulls over her current predicament. The facts of the matter were the same as when she’d closed her eyes last night. The big football game was in three days, meaning the big football party was in three days, and Penelope - the most gorgeous, sophisticated, alluring girl in school - was dateless.
How completely and utterly humiliating could you get?
Penelope swings her legs out of bed and examines them, making sure there are no bruises from cheering practice. Her skin is as pale and creamy-smooth as ever. So what was the problem? Every single other girl on the cheerleading squad had a date. Even the ugly ones! Hermione, as was typical, had her pick of two. It wasn’t fair!
Worst of all, Christina, the girl Fred was replacing on the squad, had called Penelope last night to tell her she’d be back at school tomorrow. There went her hopes of seducing David Brown, Christina’s steady boyfriend. Penelope had been keeping him on the back burner just in case. And now Christina expected to come back to school and just snatch him up? How selfish could you be?
All right, things weren’t completely hopeless. She did have that rumour she’d started last week about Fred only joining the cheerleading squad to mess around with Claudia Morrow. If that didn’t drive a wedge between Claudia and Rick Banks, nothing would, right? She’d even told him she’d seen them at Miller’s Point together and the twilight drive in. Her plan had been simple. Get Rick and Claudia fighting, and then move in on Claudia’s territory. So why was it taking so long?
Penelope had given up on FP. He was so last week. Besides, there was that rumour going around about him and Fred - which, honestly, just made the story she’d concocted about Fred and Claudia all that more infuriating. As tempting as it was to complete the coupling of star football player and beautiful cheerleader, the risk outweighed the reward. And, face it, if FP hadn’t fallen for her yet , the gay rumours were probably true. It was almost a relief to have an explanation.
Rick had seemed like the obvious substitute for FP. He was tall, dark, handsome, popular- sure, he was Asian, but at a distance, you couldn’t even tell them apart. And he was rich. That was a definite plus. But he hadn’t so much as glanced in her direction since Monday, even though Penelope had been wearing her skimpiest outfits, the ones she had to hide under a cardigan whenever she slipped out the door. Why wasn’t she seeing any results? Penelope’s schemes had never let her down before. Was Rick just stupid, or what?
Her options were rapidly dwindling. Even crummy Barry Goodman had started going out with Samantha Greene when Penelope hadn’t returned any of his calls last week. That animal! Didn’t he see that she was playing hard to get? Was the entire male population of Riverdale High just totally helpless?
At this rate, she was going to be reduced to inventing another boyfriend from the country club. Or from another school. It was going to be like grade six all over again. Penelope wants to cry. She kicks her covers back violently and storms out of her bed. Penelope had complained so much last night that her mother had offered to call up one of her cousins to take her to the party, and she was still smarting from the insult. If anyone found out, that was total social suicide! Her mother could be so dense sometimes!
This called for drastic measures. Penelope brushes her hair viciously, glaring at her pretty face in the mirror. Who was left? Ed Lopez. She had mentioned to him that Fred and Gloria were getting mighty cozy at cheerleading practices. But so far Ed and Gloria were as rock-solid as ever. Angel Angelino. No, there was the rumour he’d given a blowjob to a Rival quarterback in the woods behind the high school last year. Penelope could smell when rumours were true, and that one definitely was. Victor Mantle? Geez louise, another closet case. Penelope deserved better than listening to him talk about his waxing routine.
“Are there no men left in Riverdale?” she snaps at her reflection, slamming the hairbrush down. Something had to be done. Quickly.
Penelope pulls down last year’s school yearbook and lays down on her stomach on her unmade bed with it, rifling carelessly through the pages. Penelope got a lot of use out of her yearbooks. They were essential for scheming. She’d circled the photos of several of her classmates and crossed out others, connecting some names with lines and arrows, only to scribble them out in red pen when the relationships ended. The autographs page at the back had been entirely filled by her neat, cramped, hand, taking down details of her classmates’ lives that would be important to remember later. The fact that no one had even offered to sign her yearbook at the end of last year was beside the point.
She glares at a particularly cheerful photo of the yearbook staff, Mary Moore beaming in the middle of the frame. What a drippy drip! Whatever Hermione said, Penelope had been right to tell Mary she was too fat for the squad at tryouts. Penelope nibbles on her strawberry-scented nail polish, running her other hand over the blue lettering that proudly proclaimed photos and layout by mary moore and frank chisholm.
She’d think of something. She always did.
When Fred wakes up he stays still on his back for a long time, staring at the ceiling. He’d woken up with a headache, which was never good. His body feels heavy all over, and bruised. Like he was a plum someone had manhandled at the supermarket. Without moving his arms from his sides or his back from the mattress, Fred turns his head so he can see the clock on his nightstand. 6:48. He’d beat his alarm by twelve minutes.
The stupid shame of it bubbles up in him then, and he bites anxiously on his lip, trying not to think of the scene he’d made last night. Why couldn’t Fred handle himself? Why had he cried like that? When had he lost this total control over his life? He didn’t like the person he’d been last night very much. But god, suppose that was who he really was?
It seems so stupid in the light of day. So he’d been grounded. He was tired. He’d been taped to a chair. He had detention. None of that individually was anything new, even the chair - he’d been on the basketball team for three years, and dumb pranks were their forte. But somehow all together it had turned into-
“A mess,” he says aloud, closing his eyes so that the room disappears around him. His voice is hoarse, and his throat hurts when he talks. “My life is a mess.”
He’s too hungry to stay in bed any longer, so he swings his legs over the side and stands up. He’s sore, but sore is a state of being for Fred recently and he hardly notices it now. Fred shuffles slowly to the head of the stairs, holding tight to the banister as he listens to the rattle of cutlery and the clinking of plates downstairs. By the sound of it, both his parents were awake. He’d have to face them both.
Stepping slowly down the stairs, Fred braces himself for an uncomfortable talk. But no one even looks directly at him when he slinks into the room.
“Good morning,” his mother greets him. “Come get some pancakes.” She’s at the oven with her back to him, cooking up what smells like an amazing batch of blueberry pancakes.
“Thanks.” Fred’s eyes don’t leave his father’s face. Artie is seated in his usual spot at the table, the newspaper open across his lap. He doesn’t look up.
“Dad?” Fred tries. Artie raises his head, his expression neutral.
Fred feels for an awful minute like he’s going to cry all over again, but it passes. He lets out a deep breath. “I’m really sorry.” Fred swallows painfully. “About detention. And lying.”
His father says nothing, but smiles just a little. “Have some pancakes, Fred.”
Fred sits down obediently, feeling very young. His mother puts a stack of pancakes in front of him, and Fred’s stomach gives a sharp, shallow pang at the sight. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was.
“Sometimes I forget how hard it is to be your age,” says Artie, still looking at him over the newspaper. “It’s not easy, is it?”
“No,” says Fred honestly. “It’s not.”
He glances anxiously at his father as he reaches for the pitcher of syrup, wondering if he’s going to hear a comment on his eating habits. But Artie only folds the newspaper neatly, rises from the table and claps Fred gently on the shoulder as he picks up his briefcase.
“I’ll see you when you get home from detention, okay?”
“Okay,” says Fred, carefully smothering his stack of pancakes in syrup. He feels the weight of his father’s hand slip from his shoulder, and abruptly misses it. He sets the pitcher carefully down as he hears the door close.
“Freddie.” His mother sinks into the seat at the table next to him, leaning close to Fred and propping her chin on her hand. Her soft blue eyes rove over his face, concern flickering in their depths. “You eat all of that, okay? You look so hungry recently.”
Fred tries for a smile, even though his eyes are still stinging and he knows they must still be red-rimmed and bloody. It comes somewhat easier. His mother reaches out and skims her hand through his bedhead, patting his cheek with a fond smile.
“Eat up. You’re going to be late.”
Mouth watering, Fred cuts himself a small bite of pancake. It melts on his tongue and he sighs gratefully at the taste. He quickly pushes his fork down through the layers of pancake and shoves another mouthful past his lips. It’s all he can do to keep from stuffing the whole plate down in a matter of seconds. He allows his mother to serve him two more after he’s cleared his plate, pushing them around with the fork to sop up the extra syrup. Being full is such a foreign feeling. Holy toledo, how long had he been starving himself? No wonder he’d been so miserable all week. Fred’s worst habit had always been ignoring food when he was stressed.
No, scratch that, Fred’s worst habit was always getting himself into these boneheaded messes. Join the cheerleading squad! He sure wished he’d never thought of that one.
Fred feels more cheerful as he bikes to school on a full stomach, though his heart sinks when he reaches the bike rack and he catches a glimpse of Alice’s blonde hair headed through the front doors. He’d have to apologize to her eventually. But then he’d have a lot of explaining to do, and -
The tightness that had sprung up in his chest at the thought of Alice’s anger evaporates. Fred turns to face FP, who has one hand planted casually on the bike rack, leaning easily against it in torn black jeans and his letterman jacket.
“I just had the best pancakes,” Fred announces, deciding not to tell FP he was grounded quite yet. FP has a look on his face that’s almost sad, like he’d maybe had a rough night at home. Fred didn’t want to make him more upset before he had to.
“I have to talk to you about something,” says FP quietly. He reaches for Fred, slips his fingers against the material of his light jacket, and then pulls his hand back. “Do you have a minute?”
“How long will it take?” asks Fred nervously. The first bell had already rung. “I gotta get to calculus quick, so I can explain why I don’t have the homework done.”
FP smiles, though it seems a bit off. “It can wait.”
“Well, if it’s important- are you okay?” Fred reaches down and gently wraps his fingers around FP’s wrist, swathed in an athletic brace. “How’s this?”
“A lot better.” FP pulls off the velcro and re-winds it as proof. “I’ll be able to play, no problem.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Yeah.” FP just stares at him, his gaze intense and calculating. Being on the receiving end of that look drives Fred all kinds of crazy: FP has a gaze that could pin you in place. He feels his groin stir a little. “I’ll find you at lunch.”
Not come find me, or let’s meet up. I’ll find you. It was another thing that drove him wild about FP - the domineering way he talked. The sureness of him. Fred bites his lip in anticipation. And yet he was sure he’d seen something else in his eyes at first - something soft and worried and almost hollow. Something sad. Like he was scared of something.
He almost grabs FP’s good wrist and asks him what’s up. But then he remembers his father’s words in the kitchen last night. Fred had to start being more responsible. That meant dealing with his unfinished homework first. If Fred got one more detention or failing mark he was a goner.
“Okay, lunch,” agrees Fred, feeling almost cheerful for the first time in a long time. He clicks his bike lock shut and looks quickly back at FP, meaning to reach up and give him a friendly slap on the shoulder. But FP’s already walking away, the broad blue of his letterman disappearing into the chattering crowd. Heads are turning as he walks by, and as overwhelmed as last night had left him, Fred feels a familiar stirring of pride. That’s not just his best friend, but his almost-boyfriend, and right now, he’s the coolest guy in school.
I have to go to that game on Friday , he realizes. I have to.
Fred goes straight to math class without stopping at his locker, and almost faints with relief when he finds a substitute teacher at the board, telling them they’ll be able to hand their homework in tomorrow. He sits on the opposite side of the room instead of his regular seat in front of Rick, and does his best to pay attention. Alice keeps glancing over at him, her eyes cool and her mouth turned down in a frown.
She thinks I’m avoiding her , Fred realizes, and he feels sad. Alice had been his friend since they were little kids. He didn’t like fighting with her any more than she did. But if she hadn’t been so stupidly stubborn-
Whatever. It was done now. Maybe next week they could be friends again. Once Rick stopped looking at him like he was hungry and Fred was supper.
After forty minutes of second-period business, Fred raises his hand and asks to go to the bathroom. He takes the long way to the men's in order to avoid as much of the stifling class as possible, deciding to detour to his locker and grab a granola bar. Despite his filling breakfast, he was starting to get eleven AM hunger pains. Something about eating after living on breadcrumbs for so long had awakened his once-voracious appetite.
He almost does a U-turn when he walks into the hallway where his locker is and sees Svenson, his yellow janitor’s cart beside him, scrubbing at the wall. Svenson was notorious for busting kids playing hooky from class. He and FP had had some close calls, and at the end of last year he’d caught Fred on his way to suntan by the football field twice.
Then again, he did have a hall pass. The boys’ bathroom was at the end of this hallway: who was to say that wasn’t his destination? Fred starts down the hall toward it. Svenson is occupied with whatever he’s scrubbing, anyway - probably more Baxter High graffiti, if the hysteria in the school is to be believed. He’d definitely overheard Polly Newcombe saying that her brother was going to try to steal the brass badger statue out of their cafeteria.
It’s pretty close to his locker, he realizes as he’s halfway down the hall, because Svenson’s scrubbing away right where he was planning to deke in and grab his chocolate-chip granola bar. No, it is his locker - as his sneakered feet carry him past the janitor’s cart he turns his head to see the graffiti more clearly. It’s not a whole phrase, like usual, it’s one word on one locker - his.
And it definitely doesn’t say anything about their football team.
Svenson’s done a pretty good job at wearing the marks away, but legibility doesn’t matter. Fred only has to see the first letter to know what it says.
(give me an F!)
Fred opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. The cruelty of it stupefies him. Did it never end? Hadn’t he suffered enough?
He hates that everyone in his senior class has already seen it. Something about the starkness of that word in black permanent marker makes him feel dizzily like he’s back in that Glenbrook changeroom again. If this had happened on Monday, he probably would have fainted right to the floor. Today he just looks away and keeps walking, a numbness soaking into his joints and replacing the odd wobbliness in his knees. Svenson is trying to get his attention, but he doesn’t hear it. There’s an oddly quotidian quality to this. As if he was so used to it that he’d ceased to be surprised.
Myles McCoy is coming out of the bathroom as Fred tries to push his way in, so that they collide uncomfortably at the end of the hall. Myles catches the door as it swings open, holding it.
“Hey, Fred, wrong door,” he says with a grin. “The ladies’ is down the hall.”
Fred turns without a word and walks away. Two weeks ago he would have been telling Myles to eat his gym shorts, but right now even managing a “shut up” seems like too much work. Easier to just go. He walks toward the faculty bathroom and then turns around and keeps going. He passes the science lab, the trophy case, and then the giant RIVERDALE HIGH decorations that had been hung especially for that week’s football game, his feet carrying him automatically to the front of the school where he’d come in.
It’s too easy to just walk right out of the doors and out of school. It shouldn’t be this easy, right? There should be someone stopping him. Weatherbee should be after him. A truant officer should be pulling up. But Fred just walks down the steps into the autumn sunshine in pure silence.
Second period. He does the math quickly in his head. FP would be in biology, which was in the West Wing, out by the picnic tables. Fred walks around the building, kicking up leaves with his shoes, trying to keep his thoughts focused on anything but the stupid word left on his locker. This whole stupid mess that somehow never ended.
The biology class is on the first floor, and FP has a window seat. Fred stands in the grass for awhile, shivering in his light T-shirt, just looking from a distance through the window.
Something about standing here watching him washes all his cares away. FP in class is the cutest thing he’s ever seen. His face is scrunched up in concentration, a frown furrowing the skin in between his eyebrows. Sometimes he drums his pencil against the desk like a drumstick, or slums defeatedly back in his chair and runs his hands over his face. Right now he’s examining his nails with as much intensity as Hermione before a trip to the salon. Fred roots around in the grass with his toe, thinking about tossing a pebble at the glass. That would probably get the entire class’ attention, though, and that wasn’t what he was after.
He watches as FP picks at a hangnail, looking preoccupied. He must have picked too hard, because he suddenly winces and sticks his finger in his mouth. The furrowed look doesn’t leave his face, and Fred feels the tiniest knot of concern. FP looks unhappy, and upset. The same kind of unhappy that he’d noticed outside the school this morning. As if something immense and awful was on his mind.
FP’s gaze has drifted to the window, but he’s looking up at the sky. Fred risks a wave, and FP’s eyes re-focus on his face. He smiles, but not before Fred catches a glimpse of another, more immediate expression - the same stormy unhappiness that he’d first spied in his mannerisms by the bike rack that morning.
As he watches through the window, FP raises his hand and says something to the teacher. Then he gets up, pushes his chair in, and heads for the classroom door. Fred loiters close to the bottom of the west stairwell. He only has to wait a few minutes before FP joins him in the cool sunshine.
“Hey.” Fred takes in the messy hair, the dark rings under his eyes, wondering how to broach his concern. “Do you want to get a milkshake or something?”
FP looks surprisedly around himself and back at the school. “I thought you had business this period.”
“I needed a break.” Fred runs his hand through his hair, feeling self-conscious for a reason he can’t place. FP’s eyes keep darting everywhere but him. “Tell me what you were going to say this morning.”
FP looks annoyed, speaking to a spot somewhere over Fred’s right ear. “It can wait.”
“You said it was important.” Fred tugs on FP’s sleeve, concerned, and FP whisks his hand out of Fred’s grasp. He leans in close to Fred, grabbing him by the elbow, his voice low.
“Not here. Come on.”
Fred lets FP lead him around to the back of the school, his sneakers slipping in the leaf-strewn grass. Fall is finally coming on - the sky ripe and blue, with clouds as puffy as cotton balls above the colourful leaves. In a small brick alcove near the picnic tables, the soccer field behind them, FP stops and shoves his hands in his pockets.
Fred smiles at the familiar gesture. “So, what-”
“We can’t see each other anymore.”
Fred’s heart stops beating. His arms feel as loose and as unattached to his body as noodles. “What?” he asks, his mouth falling open. He must have heard wrong. FP hadn’t -
“We can’t be-” FP is still looking just to the right of Fred’s face, his shoulders hunched. “ Together during football season. You distract me too much during games. I’m fumbling passes and stuff, and- I just don’t think we should be together if you’re cheerleading. That’s all.” He finishes his clumsy speech in a hurry, as if he’d rehearsed it, and looks down at the ground.
“I--” Fred’s speechless, his tongue drying up in his mouth as the worst wave of hurt he’s ever felt in his life passes over him. “I--I distract you?”
FP looks away, shrugs his shoulders. “Clayton says there are scouts in the crowd, and I just can’t risk it, okay?”
Talent scouts are not here for FP. Talent scouts are here for people whose can pay the rest of a college tuition, not kids living in a trailer at seventeen. Fred feels cold, frightened anger bubble up in his chest. “Well, if I’m distracting you that bad just by cheering you probably weren’t very good at it in the first place.”
His best friend flushes a dirty red, eyes narrowed into slits. Fred regrets it immediately. Football was the only thing FP had to be good at. You didn’t take that away from him.
FP stows his hands in his pockets, looking ashamed of himself. “Look, either you quit cheerleading, or we quit seeing each other. We’re not doing both.”
“You don’t mean that,” says Fred, thinking of the lift he’d just perfected, how Mary had given him an honest smile last practice for the first time in ever. “You can’t mean that, FP.”
“Fred, don’t make this into more than it is, okay? Just take a break until the season’s over.”
“You know what I think?” asks Fred, tears rising in his eyes. “I think you’re a fucking coward. You can’t even call me a faggot to my face. Just say it, FP. Everyone else has.”
FP flinches visibly at the word. “Fred, please stop it.”
“I guess I can’t totally fault you since you had the guts to write it on my locker, didn’t you? I guess you were too chickenshit to just tell me what you thought. Nice penmanship. It’s really improved since the last time.”
“Fred, quit it.” FP steps back, eyes wide. “I didn’t know someone wrote that on your-”
The rage pours into him, as quick and as sudden as a dam breaking. “Yeah, you don’t know shit! You’re nothing but a dumb jock and I can count on one hand the brain cells you have in your fucking head!”
FP swallows, spine stiffening. He steps toward Fred, but Fred backs up, keeping space between them. FP’s gaze hardens, his voice low and intense. “Listen, do you know what my dad would do? He read that article , Fred, okay? Do you know what he said to me about what he’d do if he caught whatever that was about?” FP’s eyes are shining with an honest, raw light. “Things that-- that I can’t even repeat because if I did, you’d never sleep again for the rest of your life.”
“Oh, fuck you! Your dad won’t do shit to me! What’s he ever done besides sit on the couch popping pills and watching wheel of fucking fortune.”
“Don’t you talk about my dad-”
“FUCK YOU AND YOUR DAD!”
FP makes a quick movement as if to seize Fred by the front, and Fred grabs his forearm to keep his hand away. It’s the arm with the brace, and Fred finds his eyes falling helplessly to FP’s bandaged wrist. The faded pink blossom of an old bruise is just visible near his pulse.
Fred swallows. “Did he - was that-”
“No.” FP barks out a cold, cool laugh. “And trust me, he’d do worse than this if he thought -”
Their eyes meet suddenly, and Fred realizes how very close they’ve become. Their faces are only inches apart, so that he’s breathing FP’s air. He can see deep into the dark chocolate of FP’s eyes, and for a moment it seems they understand each other, that the fight is over.
“F-” whispers Fred tenderly, meaning to wrap his arms around his friend and squeeze away the sorrow he sees in FP’s gaze. But FP shoves him roughly off, hard enough that Fred stumbles a little on the grass.
“Get away from me.”
FP grabs him abruptly by the shoulders and gives him a shake. “Get this through your thick head, Fred. It never meant what you thought it did.”
“It never meant what you thought .” FP spits each word from between gritted teeth. “I like you. As a friend. As a piece of ass. But I don’t love you, I never did. And right now your face makes me sick. It’s me or the cheerleading squad, so you better choose.”
Fred swallows fiercely, grabbing FP’s fingers and ripping them off his shoulder. He presses his lips tightly together, saying nothing.
FP’s shoulders give a little, true sadness flickering into his eyes. “All right, you’ve chosen. I’ll see you after game day sometime.” FP shoves his hands in the pockets of his letterman. “Until then, it’s over.”
It’s over. The words seal themselves like iron bars over his heart. Fred feels everything in his body stop and shut down. It hurts as badly as if FP had kicked him in the chest. His ribs feel broken. His lungs are two heavy boulders in his chest.
FP , Fred wants to whisper. Don’t-
But FP turns and walks away, back through the doors.
He’d meant to tell Hermione or Penelope when he’d arrived at school that he was throwing in the towel, but running into FP at the bike rack had stiffened his resolve. Now, as he walks slowly toward the girls’ changeroom at the end of the day, Fred tries to rehearse what he’s going to tell them this time. It doesn’t work. There’s no room for anything in his head but FP’s parting words, the flint-and-steel look in his eye, the disappointment in his gaze. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over. The love of his life. Over.
It very well could be, forever. This wasn’t like one of his endless break-ups with Hermione, or even that fight with Alice. This was over now, and FP had no reason to ever take him back. Even if they managed to be friends again one day, this would have ended. This was over for good.
He’d eaten lunch despite his better judgment, sitting alone at a table near the back, ignoring Claudia’s offer that he sit with her and the cheerleaders. He’d spent all of fourth period staring blankly at the chalkboard, ignoring the curious looks from students who had caught a glimpse of his locker door before Svenson had scrubbed it clean. He’s late getting to the changeroom, and most of the team are already in the main gym. He can hear the angry blast of Hermione’s whistle over the squeaking of their shoes and the pounding of feet hitting the mats.
Mary’s alone in the changeroom, moodily lacing her sneakers. “You’re late,” she complains when Fred walks in.
Mary stops, her hands posed comically still over her perfectly white shoes. “You’re what ?”
Fred’s too tired to rise to the barb in her voice. “I’m quitting. I’m done.”
Mary steps off the bench, hands planted on her hips. Fred feels like he’s being yelled at by his mom. “You’re the base of the pyramid. You can’t quit.”
“Christina doesn’t know the cheers,” Mary retorts. Fred draws a bit into himself, away from the anger in her voice. “She can’t get in championship shape in two days. Why are you quitting?”
Fred’s voice doesn’t even sound like him. He sounds like he’s been chain-smoking cigarettes all day. “Because cheerleading is a stupid sport, okay?” he snaps. “I tried it, and I’m sick of it, and it sucks. So there.”
Mary snorts, fire smoldering in her eyes. “Being a cheerleader’s harder than you thought, huh? You thought it was going to be all rah-rah-rah and rainbows and you’d get to use us as the backdrop to get more attention on yourself. Decided it wasn’t worth your while?”
“No,” says Fred dully, glancing at his locker and feeling oddly relieved. He’d never have to worry about being showered with bloody tampons again. “I’m just done. I’ll tell Hermione.”
Mary blocks his entrance as he heads for the door. “You know, we don’t get to do this. Walk out when the going gets tough.”
Fred can feel his throat closing up. “Mary, leave me alone.”
“Well, now you know what we go through in a semester. Now you know how hard we train, instead of just swinging pom-poms around, like I’m sure you thought you were in for. I’m sure you thought this would be summer camp, right?” She folds her arms. “Well, now you know what it's like to be considered the second sex, and never have our uniform needs taken seriously, or our practice time, or our safety. And at any point, you can turn around and waltz right out. The rest of us don’t get that option. So don’t cry to me about how shockingly hard being a cheerleader is. We’ve been dealing with it for years.”
Fred’s eyes are filling with tears, but he tries hard to blink them away. Mary turns on her heel, her short ponytail bobbing behind her, and heads out the door. The noise of the whistle and the girls cheering gets momentarily louder, and then abates. Fred sinks onto the bench and puts his head down in his hands.
He’s so close to just giving in. One millisecond of release and he’d start sobbing into his hands and not stop for an hour. He could cry his eyes out in this changeroom and then walk home - he’d leave his bike at the rack and walk back tomorrow - and skip detention. But what does he tell his parents? There are too many secrets. Too much to even begin. Fred doesn’t even remember how all this had started.
A memory comes to him without warning - FP rolling over with him in the grass in their favourite spot behind the hill, kissing him with Alice watching, his stubble scraping Fred’s lip and his mouth tasting like pepperoni from lunch, and a clean, violent pain hits him so sharply that he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t been stabbed.
He realizes he’s moaning into his cupped hands and raises his head, slowly running his fingers down his face. His breathing is coming as tight and as shallow as if he’d just run a sprint. Fred clutches the left side of his chest, wondering if this was a heart attack coming on. It feels like it could be. But he waits, and waits, and he doesn’t keel over and die.
If it kills me , he thinks. If it kills me.
Fred never thought he’d long for being duct-taped to a chair in the boiler room. But he’d take that a hundred thousand times over this feeling. Yesterday seems impossibly wonderful compared to this. He hadn’t known how good he’d had it.
He can’t think about FP. If he thinks about him, he’ll die. The thing to do was to keep moving. Stay busy, stay numb. Pretend it hadn’t happened.
Fred stares down between his feet at his gym bag. Then he wipes his face messily on his shirt, tugs it toward him, and starts putting his shoes on.
He might as well have gone home. Mary doesn’t say a word to him when he joins the rest of the group in the empty gymnasium, dressed in his red shorts and white t-shirt. She keeps her mouth a terse, straight line and doesn’t make eye contact with him. Penelope, in an equally volatile mood, yells at him for being late. Fred fumbles every maneuver and keeps bumping into people. Every time he has to yell one of those stupid, peppy cheers he feels tears welling up in his eyes again. FP’s face keeps drifting into his thoughts.
It never meant what you thought. I like you as a piece of ass.
His foot slips off the mat as Hermione’s trying to perfect a cupie, and she yells at him for a full minute for making her lose her balance. Fred feels like he’s drowning on the inside. Everything that anyone says to him seems to be coming from the bottom of a well. His ears don’t work right. His heart is thumping so painfully hard that he’s certain there’s something wrong with it, that it’s going to wear his body out from overwork.
He realizes all of the other girls have stopped practicing. Fred looks from one cheerleader to the next, trying to figure out what they’re staring at. He takes a few steps off the mats, away from the group, ignoring the voices trying to call him back. His head is spinning.
All right, you’ve chosen. I’ll see you after game day sometime.
Until then, it’s over.
Fred takes three more steps away from the mats, leans over, and vomits on the gym floor.
“Anyway, then Fred pukes everywhere ,” says Mary. “And it was clearly cafeteria potato salad and - I don’t know what else. So Svenson hustles us all out of the gym while he cleans it up.” She takes a sip of her milkshake. “There’s some stuff we can’t practice without him, so we all ended up leaving practice early. Except Hermione, I guess. She stayed to tell Coach Worthey he couldn’t serve detention.”
Mary checks her watch. Penelope, concealed near the front of the chok’lit shop, lifts her head a few inches above the rim of the booth so she can see better. Mary and Frank Chisholm are seated side-by-side at the counter, a basket of fries and two milkshakes between them. So much for the low-calorie diet she kept telling the cheerleaders to stick to!
“Geez, that’s awful,” Frank is saying. He pushes his stool this way and that with his feet. “I hope he feels better.”
Penelope rolls her eyes and takes a sip from her diet soda. What a big idiot. You didn’t say stuff like that about someone who was shaping up to be your romantic rival. Sure, Frank and Mary were all buddy-buddy now, but Fred and Mary had had this will-they-won’t-they thing going on since the summer. Frank should be more careful about who he felt sorry for.
“Someone might move in on his territory,” she whispers to herself, and giggles.
Okay, Frank Chisholm wasn’t her first choice for an escort to the football after-party, but he was pretty hot. He was a surfer, so he had a nice body. Plus, he had brains , which made him a far cry from the likes of Barry Goodman. And he was proving to be almost too easy to manipulate. Penelope had already snuck her way into his good graces at lunch, after telling Mary that Weatherbee absolutely had to see her right away about some scholarship or something. Frank had been left standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria, and Penelope, naturally, had taken it on to make sure he wasn’t eating alone.
She was just a natural goodwill ambassador. And besides, what was the matter with swapping out one redhead for another one? Boys were so dense they probably didn’t even notice. Frank had got himself an upgrade.
She peeks over the booth again. Pop Tate is refilling Mary’s empty water glass, and Penelope smiles proudly to herself. When she’d walked into the chok’lit shop after practice, she’d demanded that Pop refill well the water glasses of any cheerleaders who came in, claiming they’d all been dehydrated after practice. Pop had been playing right into her hands. Which meant any second, now -
“Can you watch my purse?” Mary asks, hopping off the stool. “I just have to go to the bathroom.”
Bingo. Penelope flips open a compact, quickly checking to make sure every hair is in place. Reapplying a quick coat of lip gloss, she smacks her lips together, shoulders her purse, and stands up. Dopey Frank Chisholm wouldn’t know what hit him. Sorry Mary , she thinks with a smug grin. By the time Mary got back, she intended to be far away from here, with Frank in the passenger seat. You shouldn’t leave your personal items unattended.
She’s about to tap Frank on the shoulder when her eye lands on the only other person on this side of the diner. Penelope stops dead. Apparently she hadn’t been the only person lurking invisibly and alone in a corner booth.
Frank Chisholm suddenly seems a lot less interesting. A slow smile building on her freshly-glossed lips, Penelope drops her compact in her purse and changes direction.
Why go for the hot dog when a piece of prime ribeye was sitting right there?
“Oh, Hal,” she tuts, wrapping her hand around the corner of the booth. The football player lifts his head from the solitary rootbeer float he’d been nursing. “Let’s get you a real dessert, shall we?”
“Not here with Alice?” asks Penelope, slipping into the booth and looking pointedly at the single float. Hal immediately looks down at the table, his lip protruding a little bit into a sad pout.
“No,” he admits with a harsh laugh. “She’s not too happy with me right now.”
Of course she wasn’t. Penelope had heard people murmuring that Alice and Hal weren’t talking, but like the lunkhead she was, she hadn’t bothered to stop and figure out if they were true. She’d been so preoccupied with her own problems. And now a solution to both of their woes had dropped out of the sky. It was too perfect! She just had to play her cards right.
“You poor thing,” she says, slipping out of her light jacket and setting it aside. “All alone.”
“Why do you care, anyway?” asks Hal sharply. Penelope pauses in adjusting her bra strap. “You hate Alice.”
Maybe he was smarter than she gave him credit for. Penelope would have to be careful with this one. She waves Pop down and orders a slice of peach pie. Boys were always more pliable when you fed them.
“Well, I just feel awful,” she says when Pop sets the pie down, playing dociley with a napkin. “Hearing about you not having a date to that party.”
Hal snorts and digs his fork into the slice. “I don’t care if I don’t have a date. You girls are the only ones who care about all that jazz.”
“Oh, of course.” Penelope drags his rootbeer float toward her and takes a small sip, grimacing at the taste. When she pulls her mouth back, she leaves a ring of lip-gloss around the edge of his straw. “It’s just that she and FP have been looking awfully chummy lately.”
Hal’s face falls a mile. “They have?”
“Mm-hmm.” Penelope nods perkily, and then lets her face drop. “Oh, no, Hal, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said it like that.”
“It’s fine,” says Hal unhappily. Penelope pushes the pie closer to him.
“Have some more.”
“Thanks,” says Hal moodily, and then his tone lightens. “No, seriously, thanks Penelope. This was nice of you.”
“What was the fight about anyway?” asks Penelope, pretending to embarrassedly change the subject. This was too easy. Like taking candy from a baby.
“It was my fault.” Hal looks miserable. “I did something really crummy. I went behind her back.”
“Oh, Hal,” says Penelope. She almost reaches out and takes his hand, but decides it might be overkill. “It can’t have been that bad. I’m sure you did it for a good reason.”
“It was that stupid article,” moans Hal, shoving a forkful of pie in his mouth. “She wrote a great one, and we were going to print it in the Register. Then she calls me with all these crazy edits, changing the whole thing. That was bad enough.” He waves the fork at her. “But then she called me later telling me not even to print it. What was I supposed to do? Pull a perfectly good article? When it was her chance to do something really good for herself?” Hal lifts his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “What did I do wrong?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. You were trying to help.”
“It’s been like this since the weekend. She won’t let me talk to her - she won’t return my calls - she avoids me at school -” Hal drops his head into his hands. “I just want to apologize.”
“You know, if I had a guy like you, I’d never torture him like that,” says Penelope, fixing her face into an expression of complete sorrow. “Not even letting you apologize. Everyone deserves to apologize. Don’t you think?”
“I guess,” says Hal, poking his straw into his ice cream float. Penelope focuses hard, and lets a single tear slip down her right cheek. Hal looks up in surprise.
“You know, I-” Penelope puts just a little bit of waver in her voice. “I won’t say I know how you feel, but-” She quickly wipes the tear away. “Oh, this is so embarrassing. It’s just - I don’t have a date to this party either.”
“Really?” asks Hal. Penelope feels a tickle of satisfaction. It was weird that the prettiest girl in school was supposed to go stag to a big party like this. Hal sure seemed to think so.
“Well, it was supposed to be -” Penelope lets her gaze drift over to Frank, staring at the back of his head with open longing. She feels like Scarlett O’Hara.
“Frank?” asks Hal, a little too loud. Penelope fixes him with a terrified expression, gesturing that he lower his voice.
“He and I were going out for awhile,” she invents, bending her head closer to Hal and letting her eyes fill up with more tears. “Nothing serious, but it was so much fun. He was so good to me. I was really hoping he was going to ask me to go steady, but now-” Her voice cracks, and Hal offers her a napkin. Penelope swallows the urge to smile with glee.
“Mary,” whispers Penelope, lowering her eyes and looking up at Hal through her watery lashes. “As soon as she saw me spending time with him she moved right in. Started sneaking around trying to get him alone. He didn’t have a chance. A smart girl like that? Next to a dumbo like me?” She blows her nose delicately on the napkin, strategically wiping under her eye so she won’t smear her mascara. “I don’t know who I was kidding.”
“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself,” says Hal. She feels his warm hand land on her forearm, smoothing the cashmere of her sweater. “You’re in my chemistry class, right? You’re smart.”
Penelope laughs miserably. “Be real, Hal. I’m just a big joke to everyone. She’s with him right now. You’ll see. They came here just to rub it in my face, I’m sure.”
“Mary wouldn’t do that.”
“You think,” Penelope corrects him. “But what boy really knows what goes on in a girl’s head when they’re not around? Girls are vicious, Hal. They make a game out of taking what isn’t theirs. I’m cheerleading captain. I know. I’ve seen sides of these girls that even their own mothers don’t. The catfights. The hair-pulling. The boyfriend stealing.” She lets another tear gather gracefully on her russet eyelashes. “I just never thought it would be me. I’ve always tried to be her friend. And now-”
Hal looks up as Mary exits the bathrooms, heading casually over to where Frank was sitting. Must be on the rag , Penelope thinks. It had taken her long enough. Still, that had worked out in her favour.
“I’m sorry. It’s not important,” says Penelope quickly, staring at her hands. Hal looks back at her. “Not compared to your problems.”
“Hey, don’t say that,” says Hal. He offers her another napkin, and Penelope takes it. What a gentleman! If only some of that had rubbed off on stupid old Barry. “Sounds like we’re both in the same boat.”
Yes! Penelope almost cheers. Ding-ding-ding! Hal was a smart boy. The trick was making him think this was his idea.
“Hey,” says Penelope softly. “You know what I like to do when I’m upset?”
“What?” asks Hal. He’s already scraping his plate clean. The boy could eat when he was upset. Penelope had chosen well.
Penelope shrugs demurely and looks up at Hal through her lashes again. “I like to get a slice or two of pie and go for a drive.”
“I could use that,” Hal admits, and Penelope has to swallow a cheer. She leans in close to him again.
“Hey, we could both use some cheering up. How about I get you another piece?”
Hal hesitates. “Well-“
Penelope gives a bright fake laugh. “Oh, Hal, you’re such a gentleman. But really, I don’t mind paying. I never have anyone to eat pie with. We can get them to-go. Have you had the strawberry rhubarb here? It’s absolutely divine .”
“No,” admits Hal, standing up with her. He grabs Penelope’s coat and helps her into it. “I usually get peach.”
Penelope turns around in Hal’s arms, looking up at him with a catlike smile. “Well, I think it’s time you tried a new flavour.”
“That was weird,” says Mary. Frank looks up from his milkshake and turns to glance over his shoulder.
“What was weird?”
“Hal and Penelope,” says Mary, taking a sip of her strawberry milkshake as she swivels around in her stool to see out the window. “I didn’t realize they even knew each other.”
“Hm,” says Frank obtusely, taking a loud slurp of his own shake. “I wonder what they were talking about.”
“Well, I was trying to eavesdrop, but you wouldn’t stop talking,” Mary scolds him. “Couldn’t you tell I was signalling you to shut up?”
Frank’s face falls a bit. “Come on, Mary, that’s none of our business.”
“I guess.” Mary cranes her neck to peer through the window nearest to the parking lot. Penelope is getting into Hal’s car. Funny, because she could have sworn that that was Penelope’s car two spots down in the lot.
“I was saying maybe you should take Fred that chicken soup we made in home ec.” Frank has turned on his stool to face her, ignoring Hal’s brown car as it backs up and drives, visible in a flash through each of the front windows before vanishing. “Since you’re a vegetarian, and he’s not feeling so good.”
“You think it’ll taste better coming back up?” asks Mary dryly. She squints at the car left behind in the parking lot. No, it was definitely Penelope’s. How many bright green convertibles could there be in this town?
“I think it would be nice,” says Frank, and Mary sighs. Frank was a great guy, but sometimes that was the problem. He was altogether too nice: it was as if he and mischief were physically incompatible. She always had to be careful about how much she gossiped in front of him.
Mary’s eyes drift over to the green convertible again. No, Frank didn’t have an immoral bone in his body.
Unlike some people in this town.
Fred sighs and shoves some pens and pencils off his duvet, following them up with his heavy math textbook. It had taken him over two hours to wade through the double-sided algebra worksheet that he was supposed to have handed in this morning. And he was pretty sure the last ten problems were just gibberish.
Shoving the offending worksheet into his bag, he lets out a helpless sigh. Algebra was hard enough without your mouth tasting like vomit. And now he was somehow supposed to finish that composition they’d been assigned for English. Fred had to write a thousand words by the end of the day. Fred wasn’t even sure he knew a thousand words.
To be fair, he was supposed to have started it almost a month ago. Fred sighs and stands up, dragging his tired body over to his desk.
Boys should be able to join the cheerleading squad , he scrawls across the first line, and then pauses, lost in thought.
“Because,” Fred says out loud, tapping the front of the pen against his teeth. “Because - oh, they just should , that’s why.”
He throws his pen down and paces in a frantic circle around his room. There’s no way he can focus when he’s keyed up like this. His gaze lands on the telephone, and he reaches instinctively for the receiver, meaning to call FP, but then pauses. FP was through with him. Right.
Fred throws himself down on his bed. “What have I done?” he moans, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. “What did I do ?”
The sharp blast of the doorbell interrupts his thoughts. Fred lets his arms fall down to his sides, staring up at the ceiling. Who would be ringing the doorbell right before dinnertime? His mom was downstairs in the living room. Maybe it was one of her friends.
Fred crosses the room and pokes his head out the attic window, straining to see the porch step below. A flash of red hair -
Fuck! Fred takes the stairs down two at a time, ignoring the ache in his legs. Mary’s already inside the front door when he gets there, chatting with his mother and holding a covered dish of what looks like soup.
“Fred.” His mother turns scoldingly to him. “You didn’t tell me you threw up at school.”
“It wasn’t a big thing,” says Fred hurriedly, almost without thinking. He stares at Mary, trying to communicate with his eyes. Mary only frowns sourly at him. “The caf food just wasn’t settling.”
“Mary brought chicken noodle soup over for you,” says his mother. “Isn’t that sweet?”
“We made it home ec,” says Mary with a casual shrug. God forbid Fred actually think she cared about him. Fred takes it from her and frantically pushes the soup into his mother’s hands. “Thanks. Mom, I need to talk to Mary for a sec - about -uh, class-”
Stepping quickly down onto the porch, Fred pushes Mary around to the side of the house, behind the rhododendron bushes.
“My mom doesn’t know,” he explains immediately, his voice thick with dread. “My mom doesn’t know I’m on the squad, and I want to keep it that way, okay? What did you tell her?”
“Nothing,” Mary wrinkles her nose. “Why wouldn’t you tell her?”
“That’s my business, okay? Look, just until finals, can you please stay quiet?”
“Well, she doesn’t suspect a thing,” Mary snaps. “I didn’t say anything about it. But if you want some free advice, I’d say tell her yourself. Soon. It’s only going to take one phone call from your mom to my mom to blow the whole thing.”
“Trust me, Fred, if you don’t spill the beans yourself, someone will do it for you. And the longer you wait the more it’s going to blow up in your face.”
“Thanks for the free advice, Dr. Phil,” groans Fred, pushing her back toward the house. “I’ll be sure to take it into consideration. Now get out of here, will you?"
“You’re such a tool, Fred Andrews!” Mary snaps. “I’m sorry I came by! I hope you throw up at the top of the pyramid!”
She turns on her heel and storms away. About a foot away, she whirls around and yells at him. “Also, you look fat in your new uniform!”
Fred lets out a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Trudging back up the stairs, he joins his mom in the front foyer, where she’s gazing out after Mary with a frown.
“Where’s she going in such a hurry?”
“She uh - she had to go do something,” mumbles Fred.
“Yoo-hoo! Mary!” Mrs. Andrews calls. Fred tenses. “Say hello to your mother for me, will you?”
Mary turns around with an obedient smile. “Will do, Mrs. Andrews!” When Fred’s mom turns around again she gives Fred the finger.
Fred scowls and pushes his way back into the house. “I’m going up to my room.”
“Don’t you want any soup?”
“No, I don’t want any soup. If Mary made it in home ec, it’s probably poisonous.”
“Fred, what a thing to say.” Mrs. Andrews plants her hands on her hips as Fred retreats to the staircase. “Did I not teach you any manners?”
“I’m sorry,” mutters Fred, dragging his feet up the stairs. “Wake me in an hour. I don’t feel good. I think I’m gonna hurl again.”
He’s been lying on his bed for forty minutes when he hears a light knock at his door. Fred rolls over and lifts his head off the covers. “It’s open.”
His mother appears in the doorway, a dishcloth held between her hands. “Dinner in five.”
“Okay.” Fred turns back over to face his desk. “I’ll be down.”
He waits for his mother to turn back around and head downstairs, but he can still sense her hovering in the doorway. Finally, he hears the floorboards creak as she steps into his bedroom, closer to where he’s lying.
“Oh, Fred, this room is a mess.”
Fred still doesn’t move.
“It looks like you haven’t picked up in a month. Look at this!” He can hear her crossing the room toward his closet. “I know you’re not feeling well, but you shouldn't treat your textbooks like that. When you get to college you’ll have to pay for those, you know.”
Fred drags the pillow above him slowly down over his head. Why couldn’t people just leave him alone?
“Fred.” Fred doesn’t look up. He hears his mother bend and pick something up from the floor. “Who does this belong to?”
“I don’t know , mom,” groans Fred and pulls the pillow off his head. He needs her to leave before he starts crying again. His mom is standing at the foot of his bed, holding up an ultra-mini pleated blue skirt. Fred’s heart skips a couple beats. Of course. He’d never bothered to return the uniform he’d worn to that Glenbrook game, he’d just tossed it on the floor and kicked it under his bed.
“Um…” stalls Fred, chewing on his lip. His mother folds her arms. “I guess...uhh…. Hermione...”
“Oh, Fred..” His mother drops her arms to her sides, looking exhausted. The skirt hangs down from her hand. “We have to have a talk, don’t we?”
“No!” Fred rolls back over onto his stomach. “I promise it’s fine. Don’t tell Dad.”
“I won’t, but at least tell me you’re being smart. I don’t want grandkids yet.”
“Yes! We are. I promise.”
Fred’s mom is looking disapprovingly at the skirt in her hand. “It’s awfully short, isn’t it?”
“The boys from Glenbrook thought so,” mutters Fred, before he’s even aware of having spoken aloud. The bed dips as his mother sighs and sits down on the end.
“Fred, you worry me.”
Fred’s mouth is very dry. “Don’t worry.”
“I have to. It’s my job.” Her hand smooths down the small of Fred’s back, caressing his spine. “Fred, you’re not acting like yourself lately. Sneaking girls into your room. Getting detention. Letting your grades slip. I don’t know what to think. You’re in and out of the house at all hours. You’re not eating properly. Look at you, you’re just skin and bone.” She squeezes Fred’s hip, and he pulls away. “I ran into Mrs. Cooper at the supermarket and she said that you, Hal and Alice have had some kind of fight. What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on.”
“You don’t tell me anything about your life anymore.”
“There’s nothing to tell, Mom! Geez!”
His mother looks hurt, and Fred opens his mouth uselessly for a moment before closing it again. Telling her even a part of the truth would mean telling all of it. What could he say about his fight with Alice without bringing up the article? About his fight with FP without admitting they’d been dating?
“All right.” His mother squeezes his shoulder gently. “I’ll tell your dad you’re not feeling well. Do you want me to save you some dinner in the fridge?”
“Okay. Cool.” Fred’s voice is very small. “Thanks.”
His mother says nothing. She rises from the bed and heads toward the door, stopping only when her foot hits a heavy picture frame, turned upside-down on the carpet.
“Fred, what is this?” Fred rolls over to see her holding up the framed photo of himself and FP that he’d flung across his bedroom earlier. “Look, the glass is cracked. You really need to take better care of your things. How would FP feel if he saw this?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” mutters Fred. His mother sighs and holds it out to him until he takes it.
“Put it back where it came from.”
“Okay,” whispers Fred, but shoves it quietly under his pillow when she’s out of the room. He keeps one hand resting on the jagged glass for awhile before he slowly draws the photo back out.
The picture shows himself and FP on the first day of school, at least a week or two before Fred had made his ill-fated decision to join the cheerleading squad. Fred’s in his favourite t-shirt and jean shorts, FP proudly wearing his letterman despite the heat. They’re both grinning for the camera, Fred’s arm flung around FP’s shoulders as he leans against his friend. Invisible in the picture, FP’s fingers have slipped beneath the bottom of Fred’s shirt and are caressing the skin of his back. If Fred stares long enough at the snapshot he can almost feel it.
Something liquid splashes on the front of the shattered glass, and it takes Fred a moment to realize he’s crying. With clumsy fingers, he sets the picture frame back up on his bedside table. His nose is starting to run and his throat aches. He buries his face back in the pillowcase and holds down a scream.
His alarm clock reads 8:10 PM when there comes another knock at his door. His mother enters, carrying a bowl of soup and two pieces of toast on the wooden tray they usually only use for sick days and special occasions. Fred scoots up obediently against the pillows so she can place it on his lap, even though he’s never felt less like eating.
“I’m not hungry,” he murmurs. His mother takes a seat on the bed with him, smoothing back his greasy hair.
“I’m sorry, Fred, you don’t get to negotiate this one. I’ll feed it to you if I have to, but you’re going to eat some of that.”
Fred picks up the spoon and drags it in a pattern through the broth. The soup has curly noodles and large chunks of beef in it.
“I thought Mary made chicken soup.”
An amused smile flickers onto his mother’s face. She keeps her hand on Fred’s forehead.“I tried Mary’s soup. It was a little too salty.”
“I told you.” Fred opens his mouth and puts a mouthful of broth in. When it goes down okay, he takes another one. “She’s been bombing home ec all year. Her husband’s doomed.”
“Eat your toast too.”
Fred nibbles obediently at the crust. His mother sits with him until he’s finished both pieces and drained half the bowl. Then she slowly stands up, carrying the tray with her and skimming her hand one last time over his hair.
“There’s leftovers in the fridge if you’re hungry later. Okay? And I’ll be up for awhile if you want to talk.”
“Thanks, Mom.” whispers Fred. When he hears his door click shut behind her he turns over again and buries his face back in the pillow.
Fred had been positive that by now he knew what heartbreak felt like. He’d felt it before- a caving, yawning, hurt inside him; a hot, teary, all-over craziness that could get him to do anything, no matter how stupid. But never had his actual physical heart felt like it was being squeezed into a pulp. The left side of his chest is physically aching . It throbs and burns like an infected wound.
Fred cries with his face buried in the pillow until he falls asleep. In what seems like no time at all, his alarm is blaring that it’s seven AM. Fred reaches out to slap the snooze and knocks the picture frame off the table all over again.
He opens his eyes as the photo clatters to the floor, squinting at the sun shining through his curtains. Thursday. Tomorrow was the big game. His composition was due third period, and he hadn’t even put a word down.
Fred sinks back into his pillows, one hand fastened over the agony in his chest, and thinking he’d trade just about anything in the whole world over just for FP to want to slip his hand under his shirt and touch his bare back again.
this chapter is pretty boring and predictable but it’ll get wild again, i promise.
Alice Smith is starting to get worried.
The cause of her worry is Fred. Physically, her ex-best-friend has been at school every day this week, but mentally he’s been vacationing somewhere on yahoo island. She hasn’t seen a glimpse of the Fred she knows since their massive blow-up last Saturday. The skinny brunette trailing their classmates through the halls was an imposter: anxious, pale, and quiet.
The violent reversal in personality has been total and complete. Once upon a time, Fred took pride in being the loudest, most rambunctious presence in a hallway. He loved nothing more than turning heads, leaping off lockers and getting whistles and hugs as he walked by. His hair was always gelled sky-high or hanging down to his waistband, depending on the length, his clothes a thrift-store jumble of faded denim, band tees, studded belts, and bright colours. If he was feeling particularly courageous he’d shove an earring through the partially-healed piercing Alice had put in his ear herself last summer. His whole demeanour screamed I was a teenage rebel, a gleeful, defiant carelessness that held up his thousand-megawatt smile and made everyone in the world want to be his friend.
That had all changed somewhere this week. Fred slouches down hallways now like he’s trying to disappear. He keeps his head low and his shoulders rounded forward as though he’s expecting the kids around him to start throwing things at his head. He winces when the boys in the hallway shout. His dirty t-shirt and sweatpants are falling off him.
Watching Fred limp down the hall toward his locker, a wave of paralyzing dread grips Alice’s heart. She’d noticed Fred had looked bad the night of their fight, but this was nothing compared to this. How had this happened in just a week? How could it have taken so long for her to notice?
Alice turns around in the hallway, searching for the familiar blue of Hal’s favourite cashmere sweater. She wasn’t quite in the mood to make up with him, but maybe it was about time. God knew she couldn’t take care of Fred alone. On her second rotation, though, she notices someone even better.
FP. Alice sets off down the hall toward the football player with determination in her heart. FP would know. More importantly, FP would fix it. She breaks into a jog as FP starts walking away, mentally cursing herself for running after him.
“FP! Wait!” she yells, attracting the glances and curious giggles of a group of nearby sophomores. Alice fixes them with her best glare. “FP,” she pants as the athlete turns around, planting her hands on her lips. “Have you talked to Fred lately?”
To her surprise, FP’s expression goes dark and closed off. “Fred?” he asks, as though it were a name he’d never heard before. “Why?”
“Why?” Alice squints at him, trying to place the expression on his face. “Look at him. He’s sick or something. He’s walking around like a shell of himself.”
“I dunno, Alice. I’m not his fucking keeper.”
“FP, this is serious.” Alice’s eyes flash dangerously and she takes a step closer to him. “I need you to find out what’s up.”
FP gestures helplessly with the hands tucked inside his letterman pockets, pulling the jacket taut. “Look, maybe he’s just upset about something.”
“What has he got to be upset about? Game day is tomorrow. He should be running around in his slutty skirt, acting like an idiot. Like usual.”
FP rolls his eyes and tries to turn away, but Alice reaches out and grabs him tight by the wrist, yanking him back.
“Alice, just leave it.” FP mutters, looking down at her. “Seriously.”
“How can you be so sure about this?”
“I just am,” says FP, looking down at their joined hands and then back up into her face. “Okay?”
Penelope, entering the hall, stops short by the first bank of lockers. Backing up, she breaks into a run and tears through the foyer in search of Hal, who she had just seen going in the opposite direction. As long as FP and Alice didn’t move from that spot-
“Hal!” she calls, seeing him headed to the East stairwell. Hal pauses, turning around with his messenger bag bumping his knees. Penelope hurries to his side.
“Don’t go that way,” she invents wildly, settling a gentle hand on his lower arm. “The East hall is closed off upstairs. Someone just told me. Another Baxter High prank, I think.”
Hal’s brow furrows adorably. “Oh. Okay.”
“I know a shortcut,” offers Penelope with her best smile, reaching back to comb her fingers through her long red ponytail, smoothing it out. “Come on, follow me.”
She crosses her fingers invisibly in the folds of her skirt as Hal walks with her down the hall and is instantly rewarded- Alice and FP are still having an intense conversation, their faces only inches from each other. Alice has dropped her hands from her hips, keeping one hand curled around FP’s wrist. As Penelope and Hal watch, she tugs FP by the wrist around the bank of lockers and out of sight, FP following her with total obedience. Penelope puts on an expression of total shock. Hal stops short by her side, and Penelope knows he’s seen.
“Well, that’s not surprising,” she speaks up softly, and Hal’s head snaps around to look at her.
“Not surprising?” he demands. “What do you mean?”
Boys were so dense. It was so fun. Penelope arranges her expression into one of perfect sorrow. “Hal, I’m sorry. I don’t want to have to-”
“Sorry for what?” asks Hal peevishly. His face is turning pink. Penelope has to hide a smile.
“This sure isn’t something I wanted to tell you, but- you remember I said FP’s been coming to practices?”
“Yes,” says Hal hoarsely, and Penelope resists the urge to roll her eyes. Imagine being this smitten with Alice Smith!
“Well, I’m in his science class, and he’s been sneaking out to meet her. And I know they’ve gone on a few dates.” Penelope looks down at her shoes. “At the bijou, and things like that.”
“Alice wouldn’t-“ Hal takes a quick step down the hall. “I’m going to talk to her.”
“Maybe you should wait,” says Penelope meaningfully. “I think she might be occupied.”
Hal pauses, his face going pale. Then he whirls around, his hands clasped into fists, and stomps off in the opposite direction.
“Hal!” Penelope calls after him. “That hallway is closed off, remember?”
Hal returns to her side as sheepishly as a little boy. Penelope reaches out and squeezes his hand, taking on the role of caring girlfriend. She hopes with all her heart that people are noticing.
“Hey,” she says softly. “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
“Why do you care so much about it?” Hal mumbles.
Penelope smiles, glad she’d pilfered her mother’s makeup from her bureau that morning, and looks up at him through her eyelashes again. “Hal,” she says sweetly, “I just hate to see a nice boy like you get taken advantage of.”
“So, um..” Fred fiddles awkwardly with a pencil in front of his English teacher’s desk. “I know that composition was due today, and we had a long time to work on it, but i’ve been sick and i was wondering if I could maybe get an extension-“
To his surprise, Miss Smitt nods understandingly. “Fred, that’s absolutely fine. You just rest. I don’t know if you should even be here. Do you want to go to the nurse?”
Fred blinks, trying to subtly steal a glance at the reflective front of the display case on the far wall. He hadn’t realized he looked that bad. “No, I’m okay.”
“Is it mono?”
Mono? Fred frowns in confusion. “Just, uh- the flu, I think.”
“Well, take it easy.” Her manicured hand lands gently on his forearm, squeezes, and then releases him. “I’ll read your composition sometime next week.”
Grateful, Fred flashes her a toothy smile and heads for the classroom door, the grin slipping from his face as abruptly as it had come as he steps out into the hall. He feels exhausted.
To quit or not to quit? The question had been turning itself over and over in his head since last night. Quit the squad, and Hermione would never forgive him. Stay with them, and he’d never see FP again. It was a sick joke: essentially the same dilemma he’d been wrestling with since sophomore year. The boy he’d made love to in the back of a white-and-blue van? Or the cheerleader he got to hold hands with in public, the one who still somehow gave him butterflies?
It wasn’t as simple as that either. He’d be letting the whole squad down if he quit: it would be a pretty asshole move. Fred had never got to be an asshole before. Maybe once in a lifetime, when your legs couldn’t stop shaking and the very thought of seeing a cheerleading pompom made you want to vomit, you got to be an asshole?
The fact of the matter was that he could barely even hold his head up, which didn’t bode well for having to hold up an entire pyramid tomorrow. Fred no longer gives a shit about the promise he’d made himself to succeed on the squad or die trying, but the game was tomorrow. If he held in there for one more day, it would all be over.
And his relationship with FP with it.
Fred lets his legs carry him automatically to the lunchroom, barely registering the stares that follow him from the door to the back of the room. Was that the FP rumour? The ghost of the word FAGGOT still etched into his locker door? The one where he’d suddenly become a stud capable of bedding the entire RHS cheerleading squad? Fred’s lost track of who he's supposed to be.
It was ironic, because hadn’t he joined the cheerleading squad for this exact reason? For the attention? For people’s heads to turn when he walked by?
You asked for it, comes that cool voice in his head again. Fred pushes it down. You asked for all of it.
Mary is sitting in the middle of the cheerleading table, so Fred avoids the group. Alice is sitting a few tables away with Sierra, looking decidedly frosty as she watches the football players nearby. Hermione and Hiram are nestled cozily together by the windows. Fred feels a lump rise in his throat as he walks past them, finally conscious of the eyes on him. His cheeks burn, and he isn’t even sure why.
FP is sitting with the rest of the football players, their heads bent forward in concentration as they go over what must be some plays for the upcoming game. Fred keeps his eyes on the far wall, heading all the way to the very back and out the door. He seats himself alone at one of the picnic tables, shivering in just a t-shirt. It’s chilly enough that there’s only a few other students eating outdoors.
He’s been staring at the heavily graffitied table in between his clasped hands for almost twenty minutes when he becomes conscious of the door banging open and someone sitting down across from him. Fred swallows nervously, ignoring the twinge in his throat, and lifts his head. It’s Alice. She nods at his lack of cafeteria tray.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Her voice is dry, and she pulls her cardigan tighter around herself with the cold. “Penelope doesn’t mean it about the carbs.”
Fred doesn’t return the joke. He doesn’t have the energy. “I’m not hungry.”
Alice wets her lips, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. “Well, you’ve got a game tomorrow-“
“Unless I quit,” says Fred tonelessly. Alice pauses in rummaging through her lunch.
“Are you quitting?”
Fred just shrugs. Alice goes back to rummaging and comes up with a ziplock bag of pretzel sticks, tossing it over to Fred’s side of the table. Fred fiddles with the bag without opening it.
“Mary says I’m getting fat.”
“Mary!” scoffs Alice, with a little more gusto than necessary. “That’s a laugh. Have you seen the way that girl eats? She thinks she’s fine now, but once she gets closer to menopause than prepubescence, she’s going to be a blimp.”
Fred bursts into tears.
“Why the fuck are you crying?”
“I eat the same shit as her.”
“Oh, Fred, come on, that’s different. Boys eat more when they’re teenagers, it’s normal. It’s a growth spurt thing. Mary’s been the same height since seventh grade.”
“Oh, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, I’m so sick of hearing that!” explodes Fred. “Boys do this and girls do that, I don’t care! There’s no way we’re that different! Why can’t girls eat burgers and boys wear skirts!”
A real smile flickers onto Alice’s lips, just for a second. “You’re such an optimist, Freddie-”
“What the fuck is so optimistic about it? I just want to know why you and I can’t go three steps in this school without being called a dyke or a faggot or worse.”
“Who called you that?”
“How about a list of who didn’t call me that, it’s shorter.”
“Fred, you asked for this.”
Fred’s temper snaps. “Well, I take it back! I hate cheerleading! I hate it!”
“A couple students seated under the trees are turning to look at them and Alice reaches out and grabs his jaw, halting him in his tracks. “Fred, you want some free advice? Buck up. It’s a big, bad world out there in small town America. No one’s going to be nice to you all the time.”
She releases him, rubbing his shoulder more gently. She can feel his bones through his shirt. “Be the Fred I know. Know your own worth. Believe in your own worth. You’re in grade twelve, now. You own this school. If you don’t want to listen to them, hold your head high and don’t listen to them. Just finish what you started.”
Fred pulls back from her, massaging his jaw. Tears are still stinging his eyes, but they don’t fall. “I guess it can’t get worse.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“I have to go,” Fred mumbles and shoves his way out of the picnic table. Alice thrusts the bag of pretzels at him. “Please take these.”
Fred looks like he’s about to argue, but then deflates and shoves them in his pocket. “Okay.”
“Fred,” asks Alice as he stands, “why’d you start all this in the first place?”
Fred starts at the grass. “I wanted to cheer for FP.”
Alice stands as well, picking up her lunch box.“And why do you think everyone let you on the squad?”
“Because Christina left.” Fred mumbles. “And Penelope probably thought it would piss Hermione off.”
“Well, yes, but I think they believe in you too. And they know you can do it.”
“I have to go,” Fred repeats. Alice opens her mouth like she wants to say more, but then closes it again.
They’re interrupted by the loud crackle of the outdoor loudspeaker. Weatherbee’s booming voice suddenly issues out over the grounds, staticky and sharp.
“Students, this is your principal speaking. Due to the football game tomorrow, all students are reminded that Friday will be a half-day of classes.”
A muffled cheer rises up from inside the cafeteria. Alice purses her lips. Weatherbee goes on.
“Those of you with detentions overseen by coaches Kleats, Worthey, or Pacer are excused for Friday afternoon. I sincerely wish that so many of you didn’t have detention this week, but apparently athletic rivalries are an excuse for you all to forget your upbringing and act like buffoons.”
If he hadn’t felt so shitty, Fred would have cracked a smile. Weatherbee’s was nothing if not honest. Hey, maybe Fred could be a school principal one day. Elementary school, hopefully. Somewhere you didn’t have to worry about students filling lockers with dirty tampons.
“A further reminder that any childish pranks during school hours will result in automatic suspension. Go bulldogs, go.” Weatherbee’s tosses the last phrase in there with all the enthusiasm of a surgeon performing skin grafts. The PA system stutters and then goes still, leaving a ringing silence out on the lawn.
The students under the tree are laughing and joking, and Fred regards them with an odd feeling of jealousy. If he hadn’t started all this, would that be him? He and FP and Alice, lazing out by the falling leaves and eating lunch without a care?
Alice is looking at him now, as tough and impenetrable as a stranger. Fred turns away from her, heading back toward the school. He feels dead. He feels hollow. He looks up at the clear blue sky and wishes for rain. For a tornado. The game to be cancelled. The school to be swept away.
I wish I was never born, he thinks, and feels the wind sweep a tiny hurricane of leaves up around his feet. A chill runs down his spine. That felt like an omen. Like a prophecy. Fred crosses his fingers and wishes it again.
I wish I was never born, he repeats to himself, eyes closed against the soft autumn breeze. I wish I never even existed.
Coach Kleats had left them with one simple instruction after Thursday’s practice: to get a good night’s rest before the big game.
Too bad FP Jones couldn’t even manage that.
He covers his head with a threadbare pillow, trying to stifle the pounding music from one of the neighbouring trailers. FP sometimes felt like he hadn’t had a good night’s rest ever since he’d moved into his own trailer in Sunnyside Trailer Park earlier that summer. There was always noise: a dog barking, a TV blaring, a fight breaking out, cars on the road. But that was nothing compared to the noise in his head. Tonight it was especially bad.
Fred, FP thinks helplessly, turning over in the crumpled mess of sheets he called a bed. It all came back to Fred, it always did. FP never should have said the things he had to him. He can’t shake the image of Fred’s shocked, betrayed expression: a look as though FP had thrown a bucket of cold water on him. The crystal tears welling up in his eyes. The hurt in his soft, perfect face.
Breaking up with Fred was supposed to give him more room to focus on football, but it was having the opposite effect. As FP tosses and turns under the hazy neon of the trailer park sign, he can’t remember a single play that the Bulldogs had practiced so hard on. All he can think of is his best friend: the gaping loneliness of their not speaking, the discomforting alienation of being without him when there was so much riding on tomorrow’s game.
FP hadn’t eaten dinner, and for once, it wasn’t because of his insubstantial food budget or the fact he didn’t own any cookware. His stomach was a jumble of nerves. If FP played well tomorrow, he could be looking at real-life university offers. If he didn’t-
His stomach locks and he feels queasy. No, focus on the positives. Having your name front-page on the newspaper. Making your whole town proud. Having your jersey hung in the display case, your number retired for generations. Being someone.
This is your future, FP. His coach’s voice comes to him out of the blue as FP sits abruptly up in bed, rummaging unsuccessfully for his favourite Grateful Dead T-shirt before giving up and pulling on a thin hoodie. Kleats had been paying special attention to him all year, building him up with encouraging words and spending extra time with him at practices talking about the possibility of a future in the sport. FP had sensed him probing at the place FP’s abusive father had failed to fill, trying in his own harsh and inadequate way to be his father figure. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Maybe FP just wanted it to be so.
FP rolls out of bed and ties his shoes on, listening to the ghost of his coach’s voice in his brain, the voice that’s been bothering him exhaustively ever since they first qualified for championships.
This is your chance, FP. This is your one shot to get out of here. Go, go, go, go. Focus. You can’t afford distractions.
FP doesn’t bother to catch the loose trailer door when he crosses the small space and leaves, letting it swing wide open and smash against the wall. He locks the door behind him and heads down the steps into the cool night, hands shoved tight in his pockets. The trailer park is as noisy as ever: a cacophony of TV noise and old stereos and men’s voices shouting. One of his broken shoelaces has slipped free from its knot, but he doesn’t bother to pause and fix it. His aim is to get out as fast as possible. Away.
FP’s not sure where he's going. He starts jogging in an effort to outrun his guilt, heading away from the trailer park and down the road that led to Fox Forest. If he didn’t have to play in this game tomorrow, he might do something stupid. Something like down a six-pack of beer and take his bike out for a spin, up on the canyon roads where the curves got tough. Fall down into Sweetwater River and let it carry him as far as it wanted to go.
How pathetic was it when football was the only thing you had to stay alive for?
He runs until he comes to the bank where Sweetwater cuts through Fox Forest, only a mile or so down from Miller’s Point. Like the trailer park within it, the Southside is always noisy at night, but here the sudden stillness is almost eerie. All sound seems to disappear, blocked out by the tall maple trees around the water. In the darkness the river looks cold and black. FP shivers.
Avoiding a patch of broken glass, FP sinks down onto one knee beside a jagged rock and lets one hand trail in the dark water. Another shiver grips him as his fingertips skim the cold. Should Sweetwater be this cold so early in the year? It felt like ice. FP whisks his hand back and wraps it in the bottom of his hoodie. He doesn’t feel like a big football star out here. He feels very young and very small and very alone. The fingertips that had skimmed the water burn.
At least no one had talked to him about that stupid rumour since Wednesday. And when his sonofabitch father had had the nerve to ask if he was still hanging around with Artie Andrews’ fairy of a son, he’d been able to give an unambiguous no. Fred was safer for it. He had to keep reminding himself of that. Fred was safe.
FP straightens up, rolling his shoulders back in a pale imitation of the warmup Kleats would put them through tomorrow. Far from being loose and limber, his joints ache from his bad sleeping position. The wrist that had been almost healed on Tuesday is starting to hurt.
You can’t afford to lose focus, FP. Baxter’s not just any team, they’re our biggest rival. You’re our star player. Losing isn’t an option on this one.
God, Kleats was even more tiring in his head than in real life.
His eye lands on the nearest tree: a thick maple with a broad, enticing trunk. For a minute FP pictures himself flying at the tree, sobbing, pummeling it with his fists. Letting all the frustration and anger and pain and sorrow out until he collapsed. Tearing his all-important hands to shreds, hitting the jagged bark over and over until his palms were hamburger meat.
Only he can’t. Because he has a big game tomorrow.
Careful not to stumble on the loose stones at the bank, FP moves away from the river’s edge, running his hands over his face. His brain is a jumble of football nerves and the hurt of being without Fred. For a moment the urge to ruin his body is even more potent. He wants to let Kleats down. That’s FP’s specialty: self sabotage. Ruining his own chances. Let Harry Clayton get the scholarships. Let the talent scouts ask Rick Banks what his plans were for the fall.
FP would stay here. In this town where nothing changes. Stay here and die here, let everyone leave him.
God, he wants to get high. Or drunk, or something. He’s not thinking straight. FP puts his hood up and rounds his shoulders forward, disappearing into himself. In the pitch black, all anyone would be able to see was the dark shape of him. No one would ever pause to think they’d passed Riverdale High’s star football player.
As he’s jogging back down the road, a blue car passes him going in the opposite direction. FP blinks a few times in surprise. Hadn’t that been Hal in the driver's seat? But the girl with him hadn’t been Alice- it had been a redhead.
FP whips his head around and catches the back of a long ponytail on the passenger side of the car. He knows that ponytail- it’s the same one he sees during sideline cheers when the Bulldogs are playing. That had been Hal and Penelope. Going up to Miller’s Point.
No, there was no way. FP watches the disappearing my child is an honour student at Riverdale High school bumper sticker as it’s swallowed by the dark. Hal would never spend the night before game day with a girl. Especially not Penelope. That wasn’t even Hal’s car.
But FP knew what he’d seen. Uneasy, he turns back around and keeps heading down the gravel road toward home. Sweetwater was a creepy place late at night. FP suddenly wants nothing more than to be home in bed.
Oh, Fred, thinks FP helplessly as the gravel crunches under his feet, his thoughts switching back to his best friend as automatically as a magnet. I miss you so fucking much, baby. Why’d you ever have to take up cheerleading?
Coach Kleats had left them with one simple instruction after Thursday’s practice: to get a good night’s rest before the big game.
Too bad Hal Cooper couldn’t even manage that. At 11:00pm on Thursday night, he and Penelope were staking out Miller’s Point - a popular makeout spot for Riverdale-area teens - waiting to catch a glimpse of FP Jones with his girlfriend.
The very thought made his blood boil. Not only was FP apparently making time with Alice, the love of Hal’s life, he had the nerve to blow off a good night’s sleep before the big game to goof around Miller’s Point? When their championship hopes were riding on his back? The big lunk was probably drinking too. What was it Hal’s mom always said about the Joneses? Like father like son. Hal had never believed it before, but maybe she was right. Maybe the only thing FP was good for was running stupid plays and knocking people down.
To add insult to injury, Hal’s car had given up the ghost on the way home from school, and the bill from the shop was going to eat a big hole in his all-important savings. He and Penelope were in his mother’s blue Toyota- the one with the my child is an honour student at Riverdale High bumper sticker. It was embarrassing enough to be at Miller’s Point in it, let alone consider showing up to the afterparty. Hal didn’t believe himself to be a shallow person, but cars were important when you were a guy in your last year of high school. Especially when you were a football player. Maybe he could get a ride in Rick’s Porsche.
“They’re not here, Penelope,” says Hal now. They’d just done another lap of the point, crawling along behind the rows of parked cars. The tree-lined clearing is mildly busy, but nothing like the action it would have seen tomorrow night. The moon is full and wide above the trees.
“Let’s just wait a little longer,” Penelope says encouragingly. Her warm, slender hand lands on his thigh and squeezes. “We wouldn’t want to miss them.”
Hal marvels at what a good sport she was. He was ashamed to admit he’d thought of Penelope as being stuck-up all these years. The redhead was turning out to be a lot of fun. When he’d picked her up from her house, she’d had two bags of takeout from Pop’s with her, containing four more slices of Pop’s famous pie. “I brought reinforcements,” she’d declared cheerfully, clearly intent on trying to cheer him up. Hal had cracked a smile despite himself. To tell the truth, there was nothing that cheered him up like splitting a slice of peach pie.
Hal glances hopefully at the takeout bag now, balanced carefully between the front seat cupholders as not to spill crumbs on his parents’ new car mats. “What kind of pies are left?” he asks offhandedly, trying not to sound too eager.
A big smile lifts the corners of Penelope’s cheeks. She has a deep dimple on one side that makes him think painfully of Alice. Penelope roots around in the bag and comes up with a small takeout container.
“Blueberry and two banana cream. But I bet you want the banana cream.”
“Yes, please,” says Hal, his mouth starting to water. There went another one of Kleats’ simple instructions- their coach had been begging them to eat healthy all week. “If you don’t mind.”
Penelope let’s out a light giggle.“Of course I don’t mind. I got them to share. There’s only one fork,” she adds, glancing into the bag. “But you’re not afraid of my cooties, are you?”
Hal laughs and shakes his head. “I don’t believe in cooties.”
“Good,” says Penelope scooting closer to him and holding out a bite of pie on the fork. “Me either.”
It was kind of fun to have another person feed you. Nothing Alice would have tolerated, that was for sure. Hal takes the bite of pie obediently, and Penelope grins as she slips the fork back out of his mouth.
“Want to try the blueberry this time?” she asks, already digging off a chunk from the second container. Hal hesitates, but decides it would be impolite to say no. He leans forward obediently as Penelope slips the fork past his lips, a warm dribble of blueberry filling and whipped cream escaping his lower lip and running down his chin. Hal catches it with his cupped hand before it can land on his shirt, and Penelope passes him a napkin.
Hal smiles at her. Penelope was a good kid. They’d got to know one another under less than ideal circumstances, but maybe they might end up being friends once this was all cut and dried. They could probably look back on this one day and laugh. The two of them at Miller’s Point, in the front of the car, eating pie.
Penelope shifts a bit closer to him, sliding one slender arm around the back of the driver’s seat as she sinks the fork luxuriously back into the cream. Hal stares out the front window, not noticing. He’s never missed a girl so much before. Every minute that passes makes him achingly conscious of Alice’s absence from his side. How she’d smell if she was here: the way she’d tuck her newly-shorter hair against the hollow of his neck at the drive-in.
Why did she have to be so stubborn? Why did she have to hold grudges for so long?
“Pop put extra whipped cream on this one,” he hears Penelope say. Hal forces himself back to reality. There was no reason to make Penelope feel bad just because he was pining after Alice. She scrapes some filling off the bottom of the carton. “I hope you like it sweet.”
Hal smiles at her. “I do.”
“Open up,” drawls Penelope, the plastic fork poised inches from his lips, and Hal obeys.
Hermione had given the cheerleaders one simple instruction after Thursday’s practice: to get a good night’s sleep before the big game tomorrow.
Apparently Mary Moore couldn’t even manage that.
She’s been staring wide-awake at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling for the past two hours. Ordinarily Mary would have turned in by nine, but tonight she’s up wrestling with a moral quandary. Specifically: whether she should be telling Alice Smith that Penelope was currently doing her darndest to make a move in on Hal Cooper.
Frank had somehow persuaded her to keep her mouth shut about seeing Penelope and Hal together at Pop’s. It wasn’t any of their business to start rumours, he’d insisted, which, well, maybe was part of some fucked up guy code, but it made ethical sense as well. Mary truly wanted to do the ethical thing.Besides, Alice was such a heinous bitch to Mary most of the time that Mary figured being left in the dark this once was just about what she deserved.
When she’d turned into bed that night, though, the guilt had finally set in. Was she doing the right thing? See something, say something, right? Wasn’t it ethical to give someone the information they needed to draw their own conclusion?
She’d been tossing and turning without reaching an answer. It sucked to even be up worrying about what was right and what was wrong. Mary was positive Alice would never spare this much thought to her in her life.
“I’m just too goddamn nice of a person,” she grouches, kicking her blankets off and sitting up in bed. Mary flicks her bedside lamp on and crosses to her dresser, biting her lip as she thinks. To tell Alice or not to tell Alice? Mary stares at herself in the mirror, trying to decide what she’d want someone to do in that situation. Suppose Frank, hypothetically, was being courted by some floozy and she didn’t know. Would she want to hear about it from someone who didn’t really know what was going on?
The problem is, she doesn’t really care if Frank sees someone else. Even hypothetically. In fact, if it happened, she might cheer and jump for joy.
Okay, and maybe that was the real reason Mary was up so late staring at the ceiling- she was tired to death of her boyfriend. She liked Frank a lot. She really, really did. But that didn’t change the fact that if Frank took her to that afterparty tomorrow she was going to absolutely lose her mind.
Frank was wonderful. Without a doubt. He wanted to be a lawyer too, he took his studies seriously, and he taught surfing lessons in the summers, which was pretty cool. Frank had never done anything wrong. He was just so- safe. So predictable. Sweet, loyal, intelligent, sure- but dull as dishwater. Mary had heard every single one of his good stories at least a dozen times. Mary would never tell anyone, but sometimes when she kissed him she felt like she was kissing one of her brothers. There was no thrill when they kissed. No spark. No pizzaz.
Sure, high school hierarchies were all bullshit, but there was something a little exciting about dating a football player on the night of the big game, wasn’t there? That was the kind of thing that had never happened to Mary, and probably never would. She got Frank sitting in the bleachers, and that was it. Probably snoring his head off, because he didn’t really care about football.
But suppose - just suppose, because it would never happen - but suppose she was dating that reject from all human decency, Fred Andrews. Even that would be kind of fun, wouldn’t it? The male cheerleader and the female cheerleader. He could pull her into a big kiss when they won the game and everyone in the stands would cheer. Yes, she’d rather French-kiss a chainsaw than kiss Fred Andrews, but that wasn’t the point.
“You’re shallow,” she says to herself in the mirror. No way was she actually considering that pig Fred just for appearances sake.
Of course, it wasn’t usually Fred she was thinking about when she considered locking lips with a member of the squad. No, this whole Fred fantasy was clearly a projection of her feelings for her best friend.
Hermione sure would never have gotten herself into the kind of dead-end that Mary had with Frank. Hermione changed boyfriends more often than she changed clothes. In fact, the brunette had been bragging all week to Mary about her great plan to date both Fred and Hiram that weekend: meeting Fred at a restaurant for dinner and then feigning a headache only to have Hiram pick her up to go dancing. Mary thought it would never work, but Hermione had a way of making even the most hairbrained schemes work out. Fred and Hiram would probably be none the wiser unless she wanted them to be. Mary was sick and tired of being so predictable. If only she could have Hermione’s life for a day!
You know. Minus the Fred part.
Tell Alice. Her thoughts returning to the subject at hand, Mary piles her hair casually up on top of her head, wondering how she should wear it to the party. If telling Alice was the only way to get rid of this guilty conscience, so be it. It was no skin off her back, either way. She’d tell Alice about Penelope first thing tomorrow.
A weight lifted, Mary crawls back into bed, her eyes already closing. She’s still mentally planning her hair for the party tomorrow. Should she crimp it? French braids?
One thing was for sure- whatever she did, Frank Chisholm wouldn’t even notice.
Penelope feels a thrill run through her as she feeds Hal the last bite of a generous slice of blueberry pie. She’d known that once she got Hal alone at Miller’s Point and made her move that he’d forget all about that dopey Alice Smith. And so far her plan was going perfectly. She had Hal eating out of the palm of her hand - literally. And boy, had Penelope picked a good one. Hal had just polished off four slices of pie without even breaking a sweat. Once Penelope really turned on the charm, he’d be a goner.
Hal licks his lips now, looking sated, but still hungry. Penelope passes him the container and fork so he can clean the whipped cream out of the bottom.
“You know, if I was stuck on a desert island and could only have one food, i think I’d pick Pop’s pies,” Hal says, massaging his stomach through his shirt. “Wouldn’t you?”
Penelope’s about to vehemently agree when a sharp rapping on the driver’s side window interrupts them. Penelope leans forward to see as Hal rolls the window down, revealing the shadowy head and torso of a teenage boy.
“You the Riverdale High honour student?” The stranger asks, his voice tough and sexy, with a hint of a smirk in it.
“What?” says Hal.
The next sound she hears is the smack of knuckles on flesh as the unknown boy reaches through the window and punches Hal in the face. Penelope, acting on instinct, throws her passenger side door open and bolts out of the car, running smack into the arms of another boy. In a flash of moonlight, she catches the words spelled out across the front of his sweatshirt, embroidered in silver thread:
“Hey, I got a cheerleader,” laughs the boy she’d collided with, releasing her. “I recognize you. Think you’re going to beat us tomorrow, huh?”
Even though he’s not touching her, Penelope screams as if she’s being murdered. “HAL!” she screams. “HELP ME! HELP ME!”
She hears a loud thud from the other side of the car, and the sound of someone hitting the ground. Hal quickly dashes over to Penelope’s side, grabs the Baxter student by the front of his shirt and punches him hard.
“Hey!” cries the student. “I wasn’t hurting her! I-“
Hal silences him with another punch. The Baxter student collided with the side of the car, and Hal hits him again, sending him down to his knees. Penelope watches with her heart racing, fascinated. This was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She’d always dreamed about seeing two boys fight for her sake. Maybe someone would bleed.
Penelope’s screams and the muffled sounds of their scuffle have drawn the headlights of a nearby car, and she has a full view of the two boys fighting. As she watches, the Baxter student head-butts Hal hard in the stomach and grabs his neck when he doubles over. Hal seizes him and pushes him down hard, driving him to the ground. They scuffle in the dirt until Hal finally gets the upper hand, flipping the rival student to the ground and punching him again. Penelope wonders if pretending to faint is too much. Probably. Even so, what a stroke of luck. This couldn’t have happened better if she’d planned it.
“Are you okay?” Hal is suddenly in front of her, gripping her gently by the arms. The other student is hightailing it out of there with his friend. Penelope stares up into Hal’s soft, honest face and feels something she’s never felt before in her life. The connection that passes between them is like electricity. Her heart flutters in her chest.
“You saved me,” she says breathlessly, staring up into Hal’s warm eyes. Their faces are barely inches apart, the moonlight glittering off of Hal’s eyes. “I don’t know what he would have done if you hadn’t…. you’re so brave.”
“It was nothing,” says Hal, his voice quieter than usual. Penelope can feel his eyes on every part of her skin. She rises up on her tiptoes, and Hal doesn’t pull away. Penelope holds her breath as their faces come closer, wrapping her arms tightly around Hal’s neck. Time seems to slow down. Despite the cool air, Hal seems to be sweating.
This is it, she thinks victoriously. This is what I deserve. There was no way that Hal would even think about Alice Smith again once his lips touched Penelope’s cinnamon-scented lip gloss. Alice’s glory days were over, baby. It was Penelope’s turn to shine.
And face it, there was no part of Hal that wouldn’t be thrilled to be escorting the head cheerleader to the after-party. He could tell everyone this story: how he’d saved her life out at Miller’s Point and the chemistry had been instant. Penelope would play the damsel in distress if he wanted.
“What were you guys doing out at Miller’s Point?”, Hal’s teammates would ask, and they would have to laugh like they were embarrassed. Penelope could hardly wait. She’d practice her demure, embarrassed giggle all night if she had to.
No, she’d made the right choice. FP was out. Hal was in. Their faces only separated by a few millimeters of night air, Penelope starts to let her eyes slip luxuriously closed. The places where their skin touches feel tingly and hot.
Only Hal doesn’t kiss her. A strange, pained expression slips over his face and he abruptly releases her from his grip, stepping backward out of her embrace. Penelope’s certain for a horrible moment that she’d misjudged his attachment to Alice after all, when Hal suddenly hunches over in a patch of weed and vomits all over the ground.
So much for her fucking kiss.
Hal groans and leans over, one hand planted on the side of the car to keep him upright, the other arm wrapped firmly around his middle. Penelope could play the caring girlfriend, but she’s suddenly feeling a lot less compassionate. A lot less.
In fact, Barry Goodman isn’t even looking so bad right now.
Hal doesn’t even seem to notice her shift in personality, clinging to the car door with everything he’s worth as sweat drips down his pale face.
“Penelope, I have to take you home,” he apologizes, as Penelope fumes, her arms folded and her expensive shoes planted in a patch of scrubby dirt. “I really don’t feel well.”
Game Day, Riverdale, 1992.
Cooper Residence. 7:31 AM.
Somewhere in between trudging back and forth to the bathroom all night, Hal had had a revelation.
He could see it all clearly now: he’d been selfish. He’d refused to listen to Alice when she needed him to. He’d been, in short, an ultimate asshole of a boyfriend. And skulking around Millers Point trying to catch her in the act of cheating wasn’t going to fix anything. If Alice was indeed seeing FP, was it any wonder she’d turned to someone else when he was acting like this?
Besides, she and FP had been friends for a long time. What if he was overreacting? What if it had just been two friends hanging out? Hal would look like a Grade A idiot. Penelope had seemed pretty sure, but hey, mistakes were possible, right?
As he steps out of the shower and dresses on Friday morning, Hal’s heart feels a hundred times lighter. His heartache was over. He’d apologize to Alice right away and promise her he loved her more than FP ever could. She’d have to believe him. She would. Hal combs his wet hair down, relief and anxiety bubbling in him as he stares hard at his reflection. He rests one hand against his stomach- still tender, but no longer upset. Honestly, he might help himself to another slice of pie after the game. Just not blueberry.
Okay, maybe blueberry. But just a small one. If they won.
“You’ve got this,” he tells his reflection confidently, unsure if he’s talking about the game or the Alice situation. “So don’t fuck it up.”
Hal’s heart skips six beats at the sound of his mother’s voice. He’d called Alice before he’d showered this morning, but her line had been busy. It had to be her now- who else would be phoning him this early?
Abandoning his comb on the side of the dresser, Hal dashes down the stairs and scoops the phone out of his mother’s hand without even a thank you. It was too important that he apologize, as soon as possible. Then they could both move past this. He could have Alice back.
“Hello?” he says hopefully, his heart beating double time. “Ali-“
Hal’s heart sinks at Penelope’s voice, and he immediately feels guilty for his own disappointment. It wasn’t Penelope’s fault he had been hoping for someone else.
“Hi,” he says, trying to force some enthusiasm into his tone. Hal glances out the kitchen window at the bright, sunny day. If only he’d got up earlier! He could have walked Alice to school. At this rate he’d have to catch her in the Blue and Gold office before the bell. With everyone so worked up over the Baxter game, the halls were bound to be a zoo.
“I’ve decided to forgive you for last night.” Hal tunes in briefly to Penelope’s voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve been thinking about the party tonight, and-“
“Me too,” Hal interrupts her, his relief and enthusiasm bubbling over. “You made me realize what I was doing wrong, Penelope! We were sitting around trying to catch her in the act and it made me really think about her. How much I care about her. And need to trust her.” He can feel his face glowing, but he doesn’t care. “I’m going to apologize to her at school today. Straight up. Just lay out all my feelings. Be straightforward about it, you know?”
Nothing but silence. “Thanks Penelope,” says Hal generously, oblivious to the frostiness from the other end of the line. “You’ve helped me so much. You’re such a pal, you know that?”
A sharp click is his only reply. Penelope had hung up. Hal frowns at the receiver in his hand, wondering if they’d had a bad connection. He shrugs and replaces the phone on the cradle. What had she been about to say? Something about the party?
His eye lands on the clock. Maybe Alice hadn’t left yet. Maybe there was still time. Hal quickly dials Alice’s number from memory, but is rewarded by only a busy signal. Deflating, Hal drops the phone back into the cradle once again. All right. He’d catch up to her at school.
Heading back up the stairs to brush his teeth, Hal feels in good spirits nevertheless. He was sure he’d run into Alice outside the Blue and Gold office. They could finally talk it out.
What could go wrong?
Riverdale Southside, 7:33 AM.
“That nasty conniving creep!” Alice yells. To think she’d been all ready to apologize to Hal that morning! “And I mean both of them.”
Tucking the phone firmly against her shoulder in a way she’d learned from watching Hal’s mom, Alice uses her free hands to step into a knee-length denim skirt, buttoning it up at the waist. Sleeve by sleeve, she follows it by tugging on a men’s button-down shirt over her plain white camisole. There. A bit of lip gloss and mascara and she’d be good to go.
Even down the phone line she can hear Mary gesturing helplessly. “All I know, Alice, is that I saw them together. And they looked kind of cozy. But that could mean anything.”
“If you didn’t know what it meant, Mary, you wouldn’t have called me.”
“And here I’ve been feeling sorry for him,” Alice muses, doing up her small hoop earrings. “All men are scum, you know that?”
Mary laughs, but Alice just feels tired. She had tried to forge some kind of reconnection with Fred over the picnic table yesterday, but her stubbornness prevented her from outright apologizing. Zombie-Fred, for his part, couldn’t take a goddamn hint. She was out of her depth here. And the two people she could usually count on for help, Hal and FP, were both acting like complete jerks. Eating out with Penelope? How crummy could you get?
And then there was FP. He’d refused to talk to Fred, refused to believe her about anything being wrong and dodged all her questions about what the hell was going on between them. He’d maintained until the end of the school day yesterday that Fred had probably gotten hurt by some girl and would bounce back within the week. FP’s conviction was so strong and his word so absolute in matters of Fred’s heart that Alice had folded and tried to believe him. But she had begun to doubt just how much FP actually knew.
As for Hal, he had some nerve. Alice debates leaving her watch off just to be petty, but decides she’d rather be able to tell time. She fastens it on and tucks the sleeve of her button-down over it.
Alice had forgotten Mary was still on the line. “What?” she gripes, pulling a brush through her hair.
“Are you going to be at the game?”
“Where else would I be, Mary? They’re probably shutting down Main Street again.” In a town as small as Riverdale, high school football was their only real entertainment. “Besides, it’s my journalistic duty.”
“Sheesh, I was just asking.” Alice can hear her cover the mouthpiece and speak to someone - maybe a parent or sibling - on the other side of the line. For a moment her heart gives a sharp, shallow pang. She’d never admit it, but she was envious of Mary’s cookie-cutter life. The normalcy of it. Mary’s voice reappears. “I’ll see you there, I guess.”
“See you there,” echoes Alice, looking around her sparse bedroom and trying to picture Mary’s. Probably in pink, right? Or green. A big bed and loads of cuddly stuffed animals. Some wacky patterned bedspread and a bunch of family photos. Potted plants everywhere. Posters tacked up, or framed. She drops her voice to be more gentle. “Mary? Thank you for calling.”
“Eagle Scout motto,” Mary deadpans. “Do a good turn daily. I’ll see you at school.”
The phone goes dead at last. Alice sets it down and quickly brushes on some mascara, grabbing her reporter’s notebook and tucking it safely into her messenger bag. She might as well get this over with. It was this stupid football game that was making everyone lose their heads. Once it was done, things would go back to normal - right?
Alice picks up her keys from the dresser and slips down the stairs, stepping out the front door and into the beautiful sunny morning. Whatever was happening with Fred, at least his last day as a cheerleader was upon them. Then he could go back to antagonizing Hiram and trying to date three girls at once. Which, okay, Alice was starting to gain new respect for. She’s been worrying about three separate guys for the past forty-eight hours, platonically, and she’s already drained.
Alice lets the door bang behind her and heads down the street toward the bus stop. For better or for worse, a feeling of palpable excitement is in the air. Alice is hit with a renewed sense of invigoration. Hey, if Hal wanted to be with Penelope, let him. Those two sneaky creeps deserved each other.
Alice could do just fine on her own.
Acorn Way, Northside. 7:34 AM.
Contrary to what he’d hoped, Fred wakes up on Friday morning.
His room is full of sunlight. Despite the late season, the air drifting in his window and stirring the pictures on the walls smells summer-sweet. It’s a perfect day for football. Fred breathes slowly in and out and feels like the walls of his room are breathing along with him.
From far away downstairs, he can hear the clatter of plates and the slapping of cupboard doors as his parents set the table and put the coffee on. Outside the window, birds are singing. He can hear traffic rolling past.
I’m not alive, he chants to himself. I don’t exist. I’m not alive, I don’t exist. I’m not alive, I don’t exist.
What did his dad always say? If wishes were horses-
“Beggars would ride,” he finishes, and stares uselessly at his unmoving ceiling fan. He tries his hardest to cease. Just to disappear. Hard to believe that a week ago he’d been looking forward to this, crossing his fingers that it would come quickly. Now all he can do is hope for one last miracle: an asteroid to plummet through his roof, maybe. Instant obliteration. A nice funeral.
“Fred!” a voice calls from two floors below him. “It’s 7:30! Time to get up!”
It takes the most incredible display of energy and willpower he’s ever shown to force himself out of bed and stumble toward the stairs. Every step he takes feels like a metal spike being driven through the heel of his foot. Fred’s busy contemplating the flowers at the funeral he won’t be lucky enough to attend, and walks right into his door frame when he tries to leave his room. Roses? Daisies? What did he want to be remembered by?
He cradles the newly-bruised bridge of his nose as he descends the stairs, his sense of doom heightening with every step. A feeling of intense vertigo comes over him, and he has to stop and take a break.
If only he was still grounded. But of course his dad had given him permission to attend the football game, despite his punishment. Fred would be all clear to go wave his pompons around. His legs shaking, Fred descends the last five steps to the first floor and enters the kitchen. His mother and father are seated at the table, two glasses of orange juice and a stack of toast between them.
“Hey, big game today!” says his father cheerfully.
“Are you excited?” chimes in his mother.
Fred looks at them both as if they’ve grown three heads. How could they be so chipper? How could they sit there with their toast and cereal and act as though it was just an ordinary day?
His mothers smile fades as he stands there. “Fred?” she asks. His father exchanges a worried look with her over the morning paper. “Are you okay?”
No, is the obvious answer, but Fred can’t even seem to manage that. “I- I think I have mono,” he says instead, faintly, wondering when and why the room had gotten so hot.
Through his fragmented vision he sees his mother rise up from the table, her hand brushing the glass of juice beside her plate. Orange liquid splashes onto the ground, and for some stupid reason that’s his last thought: that they’re going to have to clean up that orange juice before it spreads all over and gets under the fridge.
“The-“ he whispers, trying to tell them, and then the ceiling comes rushing up to meet him as he collapses.