Better than Perfect, Page 2Simone Elkeles
I want her to tell me she’s kidding, but she doesn’t. It was bad enough my dad married the bimbo. I expected him to realize eventually that marrying her was a mistake, but now . . . a baby permanently seals the deal.
I’m gonna be sick.
“I wanted to keep it a secret until you came home for the Fourth of July,” she explains excitedly. “Surprise! Your father and I are expecting a baby, Derek. I think your being expelled is a sign that we’re all supposed to be together in Chicago. As a family.”
She’s wrong. My being expelled is a sign, all right, but not that we’re supposed to be together in Chicago . . . it’s a sign that my life is about to implode.
I’ve been the only girl on the football team at Fremont High since freshman year, so it’s not a big deal when Coach Dieter shouts a warning to the guys to make sure they’re decent as I head into the boys’ locker room for the first football meeting of the summer. My coach pats me on the back as I pass, just like he does to the guys.
“You ready for senior year, Parker?” he asks.
“It’s the first day of summer break, Coach,” I answer. “Let me enjoy it.”
“Don’t enjoy it too much. Work hard this summer during practice and at that football camp in Texas, because I expect a winning season come the fall.”
“We’ll take State for the first time in forty years, Coach!” one of my teammates yells out. His words are met by enthusiastic cheers from the rest of the team, including me. We almost made it to State last season, but we lost in the playoffs.
“All right, all right. Don’t get ahead of yourselves,” Dieter says. “Let’s get down to business first. It’s that time of year to vote for who you consider the player most deserving of leading this team. Think of the player whose talent, hard work, and dedication to this team is undeniable. The player who receives the most votes will be chosen as captain for the coming season.”
Being voted captain is a huge deal at my school. There are a bunch of clubs and sports teams, but only one counts—football. I glance proudly at my boyfriend, Landon McKnight. He’ll be voted captain. He’s the first-string quarterback and expected to lead us to the Illinois state championship. His dad was in the NFL, and Landon is all set to follow in his footsteps. More than a few times last season Landon’s dad even brought college scouts to watch his son. With his talent and connections, there’s no question he’s going to get a scholarship to play in college.
We started dating at the beginning of last season, right after Coach Dieter moved me up to first-string kicker. I perfected my technique the summer before my junior year and it paid off. The guys on the team would watch me practice, making bets on how many field goals I could make in a row.
I used to be self-conscious about being the only girl on the team. Freshman year I stayed in the background, hoping to blend in. The guys made comments to intimidate me, but I laughed them off and threw comments right back. I never wanted special consideration and fought to be treated like another teammate who just happened to be a girl.
Dieter, wearing his trademark khaki pants and polo shirt with FREMONT REBELS embroidered on it, hands me my ballot. Landon gives me a nod. Everyone knows we’re dating, but we keep our relationship on the down low at practice.
I write Landon’s name on the ballot, then hand it in.
Dieter goes over our brutal practice schedule while the assistant coaches count the ballots.
“You don’t win games by sitting on your asses,” Dieter says during his lecture. “And besides, we’re expecting to attract more college scouts this year. I know more than a few of you would like to play college ball. Seniors, this is your year to prove yourselves.” Dieter doesn’t say the obvious, that the scouts are coming to see Landon but we’ll all benefit from their presence.
It would be amazing to play college ball, but I’m not delusional enough to think scouts will be knocking down my door. Only a handful of girls have been chosen to play for collegiate teams, and almost all of them are walk-ons without scholarships. Except Katie Calhoun. She was the first female to get a Division I football scholarship. I’d do anything to be like Katie.
I’ve watched football with my dad for as long as I can remember. Even after my mom left and he checked out of being a parent, we still watched the Bears together. He was a kicker for Fremont High forty years ago, the first and last time our high school won the state championship. The lone championship banner hangs on the gymnasium wall.
I guess going out for football freshman year was a way for me to try to connect with my dad . . . Maybe if he saw me kick enough goals he’d be impressed. Freshman year, I hoped my dad would come to games and cheer me on. He never did—he still hasn’t, and I’ll be a senior in the fall. My mom hasn’t seen me play, either. I think she’s living in some high-rise apartment in New York, but I haven’t heard from her in almost a year. One day I’ll prove to my parents that they’re missing out, because it sucks feeling like your family doesn’t care if you exist.
Luckily I have Landon.
As Dieter winds up his big pep talk and lecture, one of the assistant coaches hands him the voting results. He reads the paper silently, nods his approval, then writes on the whiteboard:
Wait . . . what?
No way. I read that wrong.
I blink a few times as I feel pats on my back from my teammates. My name is clearly written, no mistake about that.
Jet Thacker, our star wide receiver, gives a hoot. “Way to go, Parker!”
The other guys start chanting my last name . . . “Parker! Parker! Parker!”
I glance at Landon. He’s staring at the whiteboard. I want him to look at me, congratulate me, or make me feel like this is okay. It’s not. I know he’s floored. I am, too. I feel like the earth just tilted on its axis.
Dieter blows his whistle. “Parker, meet me in my office. The rest of you are dismissed,” he says.
“Congrats, Ash,” Landon mumbles, barely pausing as he walks past me on his way out. I want to pull him back so I can tell him I had no clue how this happened, but he’s gone before I have a chance.
I follow Dieter to his office. “Congratulations, Parker,” he says as he tosses me a patch with the letter C on it so I can sew it onto my letterman jacket. Another one will be sewn onto my game jersey. “Starting in August you’ll have weekly meetings with me and the coaching staff. You’ll have to keep your GPA at or above a 3.0 and continue to lead this team on and off the field.” He talks to me more about my responsibilities and ends with: “The team is counting on you, and so am I.”
“Coach,” I say as I run my fingers over the smooth embroidery on the patch. I place it on his desk and step back. “Landon deserves to be captain, not me. I’ll step down and let him take my—”
Dieter holds up a hand. “Stop right there, Parker. You were voted captain, not McKnight. You got more votes than any other player. I don’t respect players who quit when they’re asked to step up by their peers. Are you a quitter?”
He tosses the patch back to me. “Then get out of here.”
I nod, then walk out of his office. Back in the locker room, I lean against a locker and look down at the patch with the big C on it. Captain. I take a deep breath as reality sinks in. I was voted captain of the football team. Me, Ashtyn Parker. I’m honored and thankful my teammates voted for me, but I’m still in shock.
Outside, I hope to see Landon waiting by my car. Instead Victor Salazar and Jet Thacker are talking in front of my old beat-up Dodge that needs a new paint job . . . and a new engine, for that matter.
Victor, our middle linebacker with more sacks than any other player in the state of Illinois, doesn’t talk much. His dad practically owns this town, and Vic is expected to do whatever his father orders. Behind his father’s back, Vic is reckless and a daredevil. It’s as if he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, which is
why he’s so dangerous on the field.
Jet drapes an arm over my shoulder. “You know Fairfield is gonna have a field day when they find out their rival is about to have a girl captain. Those motherfuckers egged Chad Young’s house the day he got voted captain last year, so we retaliated and tp’d their captain’s house. Watch your back, Parker. Once word gets out, you’re a target.”
“I’ve got your back,” Vic says in a gruff voice. He means it.
“We all do,” Jet says. “Just remember that.”
Target? I convince myself that I can handle being a target. I’m strong, tough, and nobody is going to get the best of me.
I’m not a quitter.
I’m the captain of the Fremont High football team!
My muscles are tense when we pull into the driveway at my stepmother’s childhood home in a small suburb of Chicago. I drove my dad’s SUV and followed Brandi in her new white Toyota with blinged-out rims. We drove for six days. As soon as we step out of the cars, an older man I assume is Brandi’s father appears on the front porch of the two-story redbrick house. He’s got brown hair just starting to gray at the temples, and he sure isn’t smiling. The dude is staring at Brandi as if she’s a stranger. It’s a standoff, with neither willing to make the first move.
I don’t know what went down with Brandi and her old man. She didn’t explain much, except to say she left home right after her parents’ divorce and hadn’t been back . . . until now.
Brandi grasps Julian by the hand and tugs the tired kid up the porch stairs. “This is my son. Julian, say hello to Grandpa.”
Brandi’s son is a cool kid who can talk your ear off. But he’s acting shy right now and doesn’t say hello to his grandfather. Instead, he keeps his eyes focused on his sneakers. Brandi’s old man does the same.
“And this is my stepson, Derek,” Brandi finally says as she waves her hand in my direction.
Her father looks up. “You didn’t say anything about a stepson when you called.”
I’m not surprised Brandi didn’t prep her father about me. Common sense is not her strong suit.
Brandi cocks her head to the side, her big red hoop earrings reminding me of those ring-toss things at the carnival. I think she’s got a set to match every color in her wardrobe. “Didn’t I? I’m such a flake I must’ve forgotten to tell you, with all the moving and packing and . . . other stuff. Derek can stay in the den.”
“The den is filled with boxes,” he tells her. “And I gave the old couch that was in the den to charity a while back.”
“If you’d rather, sir,” I drawl, “I can sleep on the porch. Just give me a blanket and toss me scraps of food every now an’ then and I’ll be just fine.” It’s times like these that I’m wound so tight I can’t turn off the natural twang in my voice even if I want to.
Brandi’s dad narrows his eyes at me. I have the feeling if I let three greased pigs loose in his yard he’d shoot ’em, eat ’em, and then attempt to skin me alive.
“Nonsense,” Brandi says. “Derek can stay in my old room with Julian, and I’ll sleep on the couch in the living room.”
“I’ll move the boxes and put a blow-up bed in the den,” her dad says, reluctantly giving in when he realizes that I’m not about to hightail it back to California.
“I’m cool with that,” I say.
It’s not like I plan on hanging around the house all that often.
“Derek, can you and my dad bring our stuff in the house while I put Julian down for a nap?” Brandi asks. “I’m exhausted from the trip and need a nap myself.” I note she doesn’t spill the beans to her dad that she’s pregnant, not that she can keep the secret for long.
Before I can answer, she slips through the front door with Julian, leaving me alone with her grouchy old man.
Her father scans me up and down. He doesn’t look impressed.
“How old are you?” His gravelly voice carries down the steps and across the yard to where I’m standing near the packed SUV.
“I don’t expect you to call me Grandpa.”
“I wasn’t plannin’ on it.”
“Good. I suppose you can call me Gus.” He sighs in frustration. I’m about as thrilled to be here as he appears to have me here. “You gonna come in, or are you about to stand there all day and wait for an invitation?”
He disappears inside. I’m tempted not to follow, but I have no choice. The house is old, with dark wood floors and well-lived-in furniture. The floorboards creak as I walk, reminding me of a haunted house.
He leads me down a hall to a back room and swings open a door. “This’ll be your room. I expect you to keep it clean, do your own laundry, and make yourself useful.”
“Do I get an allowance?” I joke.
The guy looks at me with a deadpan expression. “You’re a real comedian, aren’t you?”
“To people with a sense of humor, yeah.”
He makes a harrumph sound in response.
I follow again when he makes an about-face and heads back to the car. I don’t expect him to help unload the boxes, but he does. It doesn’t take us long to lug everything into the house. We put Brandi’s and Julian’s stuff in her room upstairs and mine in the den. There’s no conversation. This is definitely going to be an interesting living situation—not in a good way.
I’m moving boxes to the corner of my room to clear space when Gus reappears. Without a word, he hands me an air mattress and leaves me to figure out how to inflate it. I have no clue why Brandi would want to come back and live with a father who obviously doesn’t want her here.
My dad is the opposite of Brandi’s. When I was younger and my dad came home on leave, he was all smiles the second he saw us. He’d hug me and my mom so tight we’d pretend we couldn’t breathe.
Brandi’s dad didn’t even hug her, when I know they haven’t seen each other for years. Hell, they didn’t even bother to shake hands or pat each other on the back. And he hardly acknowledged his own grandson.
I shove my suitcase behind the door and take in my new room. Faded wood paneling is on the walls. Boxes are scattered everywhere. There’s an old fireplace in the corner that looks like it hasn’t been used since the Civil War. At least there are two windows to keep the place filled with light. This place doesn’t feel like home—not by a long shot. It doesn’t remind me of Regents, either, surrounded by friends. I remind myself I’m here because I have to be.
Suddenly this house feels like it’s suffocating me.
I head to the backyard. It’s hot and the sun is shining, so I strip off my shirt and tuck it into the waistband of my jeans. The grass is so tall I wonder if it’s ever been mowed. I walk through a small garden of weeds to a big wooden shed. The paint is chipping, obviously having been neglected for years. An old padlock on the latch is open, so I push back the door. Rusty garden tools hang on wall hooks, spray-paint cans and bags of weed killer are scattered on the workbench, and little metal buckets crowd the floor. I kick a bucket aside, then pick up a second one, thinking about everything that’s changed in the past two years.
I swear under my breath and whip the bucket across the shed, the sound of the metal hitting the wall echoing in the small space.
“Stop or I’m calling the police!” demands a girl’s voice from behind me.
I turn to find a hot chick about my age with blond hair in one long braid snaking down her chest. She’s blocking the doorway and holding a rusty pitchfork. She looks like she’s ready to stab me to death, which lessens her hotness factor, but not by much.
“Who’re you?” I ask, taking in her black T-shirt and matching hoodie. If she weren’t threatening to stab me, I could imagine her being one of those sexy warrior girls in a video game or action flick. And while it’d be damn cool to fight her in a video game, in real life that’s never gonna happen.
Next to her is a monstrosity of a dog with short gray hair and gunmetal eyes that match hers. The b
east barks at me as if I’m fresh meat and he hasn’t eaten in months. Streams of drool fly from his mouth with each bark.
“Quiet, Falkor!” the warrior girl orders. The beast goes silent, but his lip twitches in a menacing snarl as he stands next to her like a soldier, prepared to pounce at her command. “You thugs from Fairfield think you can come here and—”
I hold up a hand, halting her tirade for the moment. Me, a thug? That’s hilarious. This girl’s thug radar is way off. I don’t think I’ve ever been called a thug before. “I hate to break the news to you, sweetheart, but I’ve got no clue where Fairfield is.”
“Yeah, right. I’m not stupid. And I’m not your sweetheart. I don’t even fall for that really bad fake southern accent.” Rustling in the garden captures her dog’s attention. He abandons his post and leaps toward some unlucky critter. “Falkor, come back here!” she orders, but the beast ignores her.
“Put the pitchfork down, honey.” I take a step closer to her and the exit.
“Not on your life. I’m warning you . . . take one step closer and I’ll stab you.” One glance at her shaking hands tells me she doesn’t have the nerve to go through with her threat.
I put my hands up in mock surrender.
I wish this girl had an on/off switch so I could permanently shut her down. I’m standing directly in front of her now, the points of the pitchfork an inch away from my chest. “You really don’t want to stab me,” I tell her.
“Yes, I think I do.” The warrior girl blinks her fierce eyes. For a second I’m sure she’s about to lower her weapon, until I hear something creak behind me. As I glance over my shoulder, a bracket holding a bunch of tools on the wall crashes to the ground. The sound startles the girl and she drops the pitchfork. On my foot.
She stares at the pointed tine sticking out of my left shoe and her mouth opens in shock. Before I know it, she backs up and slams the door shut. I’m swallowed by darkness as I hear the padlock snap into place. Two thoughts cross my mind: she thinks I’m a thug and I think she’s a wackjob.