Monday, December 1, 2014

1

+ What's on: Believe, by The Bravery

A small part of this was posted before, but that was way back in April 2013, so maybe you'll forgive me for including it? It would've made no sense to jump past that scene. Takes place ~4 years before the start of Foxhole Court.


#1 - DANIELLE LEIGH WILDS
April 29, Taurus



The day passed as a blur of bells and droning voices. Dan spent half the day trying to not fall asleep and the other half doodling Exy strategies in the margins of her textbooks. Her teachers said little to stop her. They'd never figured out if she had a learning disability or if her upbringing just put her at a disadvantage compared to her classmates, but the ongoing debate meant they were more lenient toward her flagging grades than any teacher should be. As they saw it, things were hard enough for her without them making life any harder. They were just relieved she was still in school—she was the only kid from the mobile home park still attending public school. The others had dropped out in favor of homeschooling. She knew she should try harder, but she'd run out of energy for school years ago. All that mattered anymore was Exy.


"What dedication," Coach Francis often said. "What passion."

 
What a lie, Dan thought, but she could never say that aloud.


Dan could get herself out of Hunters Pointe. If she was patient enough, she knew she could scrounge together enough money to move far away from here. As soon as Joanna was old enough, Cathy would go back to work, and Dan wouldn't have to worry about supporting them. She could move to the big city and finally have a life of her own. She wanted it so badly she could taste it.


Exy was the answer. Exy was her only ticket to freedom and a higher education since Dan's grades were too far gone to get her any regular financial aid. She didn't have a lot of free time these days, but what little she had she poured into honing her skill. Now, after four years on a high school team, with her team in championships a third year straight thanks to her hard work, Dan was praying that it would all pay off.


She threw herself into afternoon practice with everything she had and forced her team to keep up with her. The Hunters Pointe Bears were up against their greatest rivals this Friday: the West Jackson Wolves. The two schools were only fifteen miles apart, and the rivalry between their sports teams stretched back a good hundred years. West Jackson was the first one to put together an Exy team, and Hunters Pointe and formed one in response. As they were both small towns with fairly new teams, they were pretty evenly matched in skills, but residents in both towns attended their matches with a nigh-religious fervor.


Dan didn't care much for traditional hatred. Her grudge was personal, and the focus of it was West Jackson's newest goalkeeper. Playing against her was pretty much an exercise in futility. Dan's team had lost every game against the Wolves since she'd started two years ago. Losing this Thursday's match meant getting booted from championships, and Dan would lose her last chance at catching a recruiter's eye. Fear kept her at practice later than she meant to stay, and she had to run home after.


Cathy was sitting at the kitchen table when Dan arrived, looking pale and worn. She glanced up at the sound of the door but quickly dropped her eyes again. "How was school?"


That was suspicious, because Cathy never asked such things, but Dan didn't have time to play games with her tonight. "Fine."


She locked the door behind her and hurried for her quarter of the trailer home. A curtain served as her door, so she tugged the edge aside and chucked her backpack at the blankets that made up her bed. She took as quick of a shower as she could and hurried back to her "room" to change. She dug through her crate for tonight's outfit, stuffed the skimpy pieces in her coat pockets, and put on the same clothes she'd worn to school. Checking the lock on her lockbox was habit even though she knew it was empty, and she brushed her long hair into a high ponytail.


"Danny," Cathy called. "We need to talk."


"Later," Dan said. "I gotta go to work."


"This can't wait."


"But it has to," Dan said. She tossed the brush aside, buttoned her coat to her throat, and patted her pockets. She never brought her wallet with her—she wasn't stupid enough to bring her real ID anywhere near Snowy Starlets. Her boss knew as well as she did that she wasn't eighteen, but so long as she had a realistic piece of plastic saying otherwise he wasn't going to stop her. She was a good worker and fairly profitable. That was all that he cared about.


"Danny, don't pull this attitude with me right now," Cathy said. "I'm too tired to deal with it."


Dan yanked open the curtain and sent her aunt a livid look. "You're tired?"


Cathy opened her mouth to argue, but they both knew she couldn't win this fight. She looked back down at the tabletop without another word, and Dan was out the door a few seconds later. She slowed just long enough to lock the door behind her, then took the stairs two at a time. She didn't make it far before the door rattled open again, and Cathy's words froze her heart in her chest.


"Danny, I'm pregnant."


Dan rocked to a stop so fast her left knee popped, but she didn't look back. She couldn't.


The two stood in silence for an endless minute, and then Cathy said, "Say something."


Dan said the first thing that came to mind: "Get rid of it."


Cathy said nothing. Dan didn't wait for her to come up with a response. She wasn't sure her legs would hold her up, but she started walking away anyway. By the time she reached the edge of the subdivision, she was running. If she couldn't breathe, she couldn't scream, and if she couldn't scream, she wouldn't cry. Her lockbox flapped back and forth at the end of its short handle, banging against her knuckles as she ran, and she thought about the money she'd hidden inside her suitcase last night. She thought about diapers and bottles and hospital bills and her dream of getting out of Hunters Pointe.


Maybe trash was always trash, and she'd been fooling herself all along.


..


The bus dropped her off ten blocks from the club. The sidewalks were busy, but not as busy as they'd be in another couple hours. Dan hid her lockbox under one arm and kept her head down as she made her way to Snowy Starlets. There was a back entrance, a door without an outside handle on it. She knocked and waited for one of the bouncers to answer. He let her through unchallenged, and Dan went down the hall to the dressing room.


Starlets employed nineteen strippers, though they rarely had more than eight on schedule a night. The front doors opened at eight-thirty, which meant all of tonight's girls were still chilling in the back rooms. The bouncers hadn't noticed anything amiss, but Dan's stage sisters took one look at her face as she swept into the room and knew something wasn't right with their youngest dancer.


"Hey, Hen." Scarlett turned on her stool when she saw Dan in the mirror. "What's with the long look?"


Dan shook her head, but Destiny wasn't deterred. She slid an arm around Dan's shoulder and tugged the teenager up against her side. "You look like someone ran over your pet cat," she said. "Not a good look for our pretty little sister."

"It's nothing," Dan said, and even she heard the lie in her raw voice.


Destiny quirked a brow at her, challenging that, but Dan lifted her chin in defiance. Destiny sighed and kissed her temple. "Come on. Get changed out and let me do something with your hair."


Dan set her lockbox down on the vanity counter and shrugged out of her coat. Her sweater and jeans were easier to get off, and she buried them in one of the empty lockers. She traded plain underwear for something flashier and skimpier and let Destiny sit her down in front of the mirrors. Dan knew how to style her own hair by now, but there was something comforting in letting her sisters take care of her. Destiny understood that, and she started on Dan's makeup as soon as she'd finished with a curling French braid.


"Do a routine with me," Dan said when Destiny paused to inspect her handiwork.


Destiny couldn't hide her surprise. Girl-on-girl stage acts weren't rare, but Dan rarely participated in them. She was more comfortable doing her own thing. When she was up against one of the other girls in such proximity, she felt her inexperience keenly. They were beautiful and graceful, with an intoxicating confidence from years of working men's wallets from the stage, and she was dolled-up trailer trash too young to even make it through the front door. Tips for such shows were always triple what a girl could make on her own, though, so Dan was ready to feel the fool.


"You sure?" Destiny asked.


Dan managed a weak smile. "Yeah. Got bills to pay."


"Thanks for reminding me," Ginger moaned. She inspected her rear in the mirror and adjusted the strings of her thong. 

"Rent's up in two days and I'm six lap dances short."


"Told you to wear the blue outfit." Chastity flicked a pistachio shell at her. Ginger scowled at her reflection, debating, then stalked off to dig through her wardrobe. Chastity smirked victory and slid off her chair with boneless grace. "You don't want Hennessy, I'll take her," she told Destiny. "I wouldn't mind the extra money."


"No way, Hen's mine." Destiny wrapped her arms around Dan in mock-possessiveness. "I'mma make her feel real good."


"If you could just make her relax that'd be a start," Scarlett said. "Either loan her your buzzer or take her into the back room for a minute."


"One minute!" Desiree said, feigning scandal. "My, you're stingy."


"Maybe I'm just that good," Scarlett said, examining her blood red polish.


Ginger gave an unladylike snort as she slipped into her blue skirt. Her bra was little more than translucent blue gauze a half-size too small for her ample chest. Ginger hated this getup and complained about it nonstop as the most uncomfortable set she had, but Ginger was right—it definitely earned her the most money. They were used to making compromises when it meant making bank.


There was a knock at the door a couple minutes later, and Maurice shepherded the girls into the main room. They lounged indolently against the walls to wait for the front doors to open. Dan stayed close by Destiny's side as their first customers trickled in. The stage was in the center of the room with short chairs all around it. Taller stools lined the wall for those who didn't get in early enough to get a ringside seat, and the bar was far back enough from the lights to give the illusion of intimacy.


Angelo was at the microphone, welcoming the night's crowd and laying down ground rules. The girls smiled from their places along the back wall and let their patrons find seats before working their way through the crowd. The music started, a slow beat that was typical of Ginger's routines, and the redhead was the first called up on stage.

 
Wash rinse repeat, Dan thought morosely.


The first half hour was a jumble of lights and sound: girls taking turns on stage while the rest of them worked the crowd and generated interest. Dan kept an ear out for her name as she teased and flirted with the men around the room. Scarlett was finishing up her routine when Dan heard the summons over the speakers: "Hennessy to the stairs."


She smiled apologies at the men she'd been talking with and started down the length of the stage to the steps. She was almost there when Angelo said, "Ohhh, lookie here, we've got a bachelorette party in the house! Ladies, ladies, welcome, welcome. Please make yourselves at home."


Dan's smile was a little more real as she set her lockbox down beside Scarlett's. Girls were infrequent visitors to Snowy's, but the Starlets never minded their presence. Women tended to tip just as well if not better than the men did, and they watched the shows without the gnawing, hungry interest that made Dan's skin crawl.


Scarlett collected her dollars and clothes on her way off the stage. Dan waited until she'd cleared the stairs before starting up them.


"Applause is nice, but dollars are better," Angelo announced, buying Dan time to clean the poles. The cloth she'd brought on stage with her had alcohol on it, both to sterilize the pole and to dry it. She wasn't interested in slipping off wet metal halfway through a routine. "Let's show our love for Snowy's fiercest Starlet, Hennessy! Come on, I don't see nearly enough ones out there. Yeah, that's a little better—for now!"


Dan dropped her cloth by her lockbox and was ready when the beat to her first song started. She started at one end of the stage and worked her way to the other, moving with the music. Most nights she zoned out, content to think about Exy strategies. Tonight she focused on the crowd to keep her thoughts from going back to Cathy's problems. She'd hoped the bachelorette party would be seated up against the stage, but there wasn't enough room for them there yet. They hung back in the shadows still, drinking and enjoying the show from a distance.


She brushed aside her annoyance before it could trip her up and concentrated on finishing her routine. She was almost done with her solo act when the crowd finally shifted. Angelo was advertising a lap dance special, which helped thin the crowd a bit. It made room for the bachelorette and her friends to finally take ringside seats, and Dan gave them a smiling once-over now that she could finally see them. She only made it halfway down the line before she saw a too-familiar face.


Her world ground to a sickening halt, and only instincts saved her. She kept moving like nothing was wrong and bit the inside of her lip hard to keep her smile. She turned her gaze and didn't dare look back. There was no point in taking another look; there was no mistaking who she'd seen. She'd only met one other person with hair like that, bright white most of the way with rainbow streaks taking up the bottom inches. West Jackson's precious goalkeeper was sitting at her stage.

 
Impossible, Dan thought wildly. She's not old enough to be here.


But then, Dan wasn't old enough either, was she?


"Don't look now, but Destiny's come a-knocking," Angelo said.


A rush of heat in her face made her lightheaded. She didn't know if she was relieved or horrified to be joined on stage when a rival was barely out of arm's reach. This was worse than spotting a teacher in the crowd. An adult might at least understand if Dan laid out all the reasons for being here. Another teenager from a rival school, though—? Dan would hear about this for the rest of her short high school career.


Destiny pinned Dan against one of the poles and laced their fingers together. She dragged their joined hands up Dan's bare body, careful to keep Dan's hands on the inside, and tipped her hand in as if kissing a line up Dan's throat. No one in the crowd could tell those kisses weren't landing, and only Dan could hear Destiny's quiet, "What's wrong, babe?"


Dan turned her head into Destiny's and breathed the name into the scant space between their mouths: "Rainbow Bright. I know her."


"I'm cuter than she is," Destiny said. "Just look at me, Hen. Just look at me. I'm the only one who matters to you right now."


It wasn't much, but it was all she had, so Dan forced herself to blank out everything and everyone outside of Destiny. She let Destiny lead her through the dance with rolling hips and whisper-light touches and exaggerated intimacy. She focused on the feel of Destiny's breath against her skin and arched into the touch like it meant anything to her. The crowd bought the show hook, line, and sinker, and the stage was littered with green by the time the last note petered off.


Destiny helped her get dressed again afterward. Dan collected money from one half of the stage, and Destiny gathered the cash from the bachelorette party. Dan smiled at the men as she took money from their eager hands and met Destiny at the stairs. The interlude beat was already going, giving Destiny time to straighten and clean her stage for a solo act. Instead of tucking her earnings into her lockbox, though, Destiny stuffed folded bills into Dan's bra.


"Keep it, Hen."


"That's not fair," Dan said. "Half of it's yours."


"Come on now," Destiny said with a hint of her usual wicked smile. "You think I can't earn it all back and then some by myself? I've got skills you've never even seen." Dan arched an eyebrow at her, clearly skeptical, and Destiny laughed. "Off my stage, amateur, and let me show you how it's really done."


Dan gave up arguing and went down the stairs. Destiny trotted back to the poles to clean them, and Dan secured her savings in her lockbox. When the lock snapped shut again and she'd given it a testing tug, she sneaked a look at the six women at the stage. The goalkeeper had disappeared.

 
Too disgusted to stay? Dan wondered.


There was a light touch against her elbow, and Dan shot a startled look over her shoulder. Rainbow Bright was standing at her back. Her expression was calm, not triumphant or mocking, and she kept her gaze on Dan's face. Such serene consideration was a little eerie after the lust Dan had put up with all night from the rest of her customers.


"Tell me if you need me to leave," the girl said.


"Go," Dan said immediately.


The girl nodded and turned away. Dan moved without thinking and caught her wrist. Mindful of the four bouncers around the room, Dan slipped in close to the other girl to speak. If it bothered the goalie to have a nearly-naked rival standing up against her, she didn't show it. Dan smiled when she didn't want to, not wanting Angelo or Maurice to think something was amiss.


"Don't say anything about this to anyone," Dan said. "You hear me?"


"Don't threaten me," the girl said. "This isn't anyone's business—especially not mine. I know that."


Dan searched her eyes, looking for a reason to believe her, and then the girl dug her fingers into Dan's wrist and twisted free. The goalie smiled brightly like they were long-lost friends parting on good terms and went around the stage toward the rest of her party. Dan watched as she spoke at one woman's ear and hugged a couple of them goodbye. She left the club without another look back.


"Wake up, Hennessy," Ginger warned her in an undertone.


Dan dragged her stare away from the front door to see Devon watching her. Dan flashed her manager a grin she wasn't at all feeling and nodded at the unspoken order to get back to work. She clenched her hand tight around the handle of her lockbox and set off in search of the night's next sucker.


..


Dan had Wednesdays and Thursdays off from Snowy Starlets—Thursdays were game nights, and Dan needed all the rest she could get on Wednesdays—but an hour after Wednesday's practice she was still sitting outside the court. She hadn't spoken to Cathy since Monday night and she wasn't looking forward to tonight's inevitable fight. She felt sick just thinking about it.


The jangle of keys said she'd stalled long enough that Coach Francis was finally done with all of his paperwork. She listened to him lock up behind her and didn't look up when he came to stand in front of her.


"Holding up all right?" he asked.


She wondered if he honestly cared or if he felt obligated to ask such things. "Just thinking about tomorrow's game," she lied.


"It's not the end of the world if we lose," he said. "Don't lose sleep over it."


She hated that about him—his willingness to accept a loss before it had even happened. It was his way of consoling his team, she guessed: he believed it was better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised than to be crushed by an unexpected loss. Dan thought a coach had no right to be so pessimistic. She didn't want a coach who softened the blow. She wanted a coach who believed in the impossible.


"I can't afford to lose," she told him. "I need to make it to finals if I'm to catch a recruiter's eye."


There was an accusation in her biting words, and judging by his frown Francis had no problems picking up on it. She'd made it clear at the start of the year that she wanted—needed—an athletic scholarship. As far as she could tell, he'd done nothing to help her. He'd never said a word about sending out her files or inviting recruiters to the games. She'd never seen officials in their stands. After everything she'd done for him she'd expected better, and she almost hated herself for relying so heavily on his favor. She'd sent out packets of her own this spring, but no one looked favorably on a young athlete's self-promotion.


"Danielle," he said at length, "I need you to understand something."


"I'm good," Dan insisted. "I'm more than good enough to make the cut."


"You're very talented," he agreed as he crouched in front of her.


"Don't patronize me, Coach."


"You're amazing," he said, ignoring that, "but it's not enough to be good."


Dan stared hard at him, daring him to explain himself. He didn't look a whit ashamed of what he was saying. If anything, he seemed surprised that he needed to spell it out for her. She knew where he was going with this, but she needed him to say it, needed to hear that close-minded prejudice out loud.


"You're a girl."


"That means nothing."


"That means everything in the NCAA," Francis said. "Maybe it's not fair, but it's a fact. Men are faster and stronger. They can hit harder and throw further. Nothing you do can change that bias. If a coach has one spot open on a line and he can choose between a man and a woman, he will choose the man every time."


"There are plenty of women playing for college teams."


"How many can you name?"


Dan counted them off on her fingers. "Laila Evans, Theodora Muldani, Jessica Stanson, Erica Smith, Jasmine Macon, DeAndra Willis…" She stopped only because Francis looked like he was going to interrupt her. "Even the Big Three have women on their lineup, so don't tell me it can't be done. The difference is those schools are smart enough to not look at weight room numbers. They look at stats. If it's down to me and a guy and my stats are better, I'm the smarter choice for the team."


"I didn't say there aren't women," Francis said. "I'm saying they're the exception."


"So you think I shouldn't even try."


"I think it's good to have dreams."


Dan got to her feet. "I'll see you tomorrow."


He wished her a pleasant goodnight, undeterred by her abrupt exit and oblivious to what he'd done to her with his words tonight. Dan walked away from there with her head high and her world crumbling under her feet. She held her racquet so tight her fingers were numb by the time she made it home, but she'd take numbness over the ache chewing at her chest and throat.


She stood at the entrance to the trailer park, stared at the mobile homes pressed too close to each other, and hated everything about her life. The temptation to turn around and just keep walking was almost overpowering, but Dan couldn't walk away from the only family she had.


"I am more than this," she whispered.


If she didn't believe in herself, no one would, but how much longer could she hold her ground when everyone else kept kicking her feet out from under her? Not even Cathy would stir herself to settle Dan's fraying nerves. She'd settled into this life and saw nothing wrong with dead-end jobs and penny pinching. She didn't see the point of aspiring to anything else and pitied Dan's desperation to break free. Now she was dragging Dan down with her and she wasn't at all sorry.


Dan swallowed hard against hurt and rage and went up the front steps at their trailer. She had her key out, but there was no resistance in the lock. Cathy had left the door open again. Dan had tired of this argument some twenty-odd fights ago, but she was saved from having to give Cathy another lecture. A strange man was sitting with Cathy at the tiny kitchen table, and he was infinitely more offensive than Cathy's complete lack of security.


Dan pointed her racquet at him. "Who the fuck is that?"


Cathy frowned. "Watch your mouth."


"Get him out of here right now."


"This is my house," Cathy shot back. "I can have friends over if I want to."


"So long as I'm the one paying the bills for this rathole, it's my house," Dan snapped. "Get him out before I throw him out."


The man wasn't smart enough to feel threatened, but he wasn't interested in watching them fight. He muttered an aside to Cathy about coming back later and patted her hand as he stood. Dan glowered at him as he came around the table and barely moved enough to let him out past her. As soon as he was through the doorway she slammed the door and bolted it. Cathy looked put-out when Dan rounded on her again, and it was all Dan could do to not throw her racquet at her aunt's face.


"You can't talk to me like that," Cathy said.


"Oh, fuck you," Dan snarled, stalking for her bedroom. "You disgust me."


"Like you have room to talk," Cathy said hotly. "You're just as much a whore as I am."


Dan threw her racquet at the curtain separating her corner from the rest of the trailer, needing it out of her hands before she did something they both regretted. She grabbed the hem of her shirt with both hands as she turned, and in one easy move she peeled her tee and sports bra off. The bold move startled Cathy into momentary silence, and Dan gesture at her bare chest.


"Oh my god," Dan said, enunciating every word. "You see these? They're called breasts. Does this make me a whore? This?" She jerked a hand between them, and Cathy shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "This is what I do. I strip. I dance. I work a stage five nights a week. I give lap dances to creeps who can't get enough action on their own. But I don't let them touch me, and I still make enough money to keep us afloat. What do you do except sit at home and wait for my checks?"


"You got yourself into that mess," Cathy said. "You're the one that decided you wanted to play on a team. All those hours wasted at practice—you could be working a respectable job closer to home."


"At what, Taco Bell? Food Mart?"


"At least Food Mart gave you an employee discount. You never should have left."


"At least I have a job. You could be working if you'd keep those legs of yours clamped shut. You can't even turn tricks on the corner. Why would they pay you for something you already gave them for free? Huh? What are you going to do when I leave?"


"Leave," Cathy echoed. "Grow up, Danny! There's nowhere to leave to."


"I don't believe that."


Cathy said nothing, but she didn't have to. The look on her face said enough.


"Fuck you," Dan said, then louder, angrier: "Fuck you! I'm seventeen! I'm too young to be your mother!"


"No one asked you to be my mother," Cathy said.


"I asked you to be mine. Thanks for failing so spectacularly at it."


Cathy actually flinched at that. Dan stomped into her makeshift room and yanked the curtain closed between them. Neither woman said another word to each other that night. Dan went to bed early and slept curled around her Exy racquet.


..


Their game against West Jackson was away. Dan stared out the school bus window as the driver parked, only sparing Francis half a mind. He was standing by her seat at the front, droning on and on about good sportsmanship and doing their best. Dan had believed his speeches once upon a time. After last night's conversation, she didn't care what he thought or said anymore.


 She was captain of the Hunters Pointe Bears, so she was the first off the bus. She waited to one side and counted heads as her teammates filed off after her. Francis did the same a couple spots down. Satisfied that everyone was accounted for, he let the security guards lead them to the Away locker room. The Bears had come dressed to play, since the two schools were only a half-hour's drive from each other, so they went right through the locker room and into the court's inner ring.


The West Jackson Wolves were on the court and the stands were already packed. Matches between the schools were always guaranteed to sell out, but the tension during championships was unparalleled. The Wolves' fans greeted the Bears with a roar, loud enough that the Wolves could hear it through the court walls. A couple gray helmets turned their way, and Dan wondered if she was imagining the goalie's heavy gaze.


The referees called the Wolves to a stop, and Dan led her team onto the court for warm-up drills. Dan watched her teammates work out their tension and nerves in sharp passes and shots. It took a couple minutes, but they finally relaxed into their usual easy style. By then it was nearly time to exit the court again. Dan ignored Francis' gesture to gather close and called her teammates to her side.


"I want each of you to look me in the eyes and say We're going to win tonight," Dan said, looking around at them. "I want you to believe it with everything you have in you. Don't you dare listen to him when he says it's okay to lose. Don't buy into that or you'll always sell yourself short. Have faith—in yourself, in us. We are a good team, and we deserve to win this game. We deserve to go to finals. That's what you want, right? You want to win. So hold tight to that thought with everything you have and refuse to let go. We can do this. We will do this. Okay? Let's go! We're going to win tonight!"


The Bears repeated it back to her one by one, each voice louder than the one before until the last Bear was shouting and they were all clapping along. Dan thrust her hand into the circle, and the others were quick to pile their gloved hands on top.


"Hunters Pointe!" she yelled.


"Bears!" they returned, and they jogged for the open court doors.


Francis said nothing about the delay but motioned his team close for his own version of a pep talk. He cautioned them against injury and red cards and reminded them that having fun was always more important than winning. Dan's teammates were fidgeting by the end of it, torn between the energy Dan fed them and the premature consolation Francis offered. In the end they sided with Dan, and they hit the court for first half with an almost savage energy.


Enthusiasm led them through a stellar first half. The score stayed even for the most part, neither team pulling ahead for long. Dan was feeling good when they stopped for halftime break, and she answered her teammates' cheery shouts with a toothy grin.


The Wolves were the first onto the court after the break, and they were led by Rainbow Bright. Dan watched through hooded eyes as the rainbow-haired goalie crossed the court. The Bears' strikers were muttering anxiously to each other further down, confidence shaken by the very sight of her. Dan hadn't thought it possible to hate the other girl any more than she already did, but she quickly discovered all new depths to her dislike.


Dan sat out the first twenty minutes of second half. There was nothing she could do but watch her teammates start to unravel. The Wolves' goalie was too good for the Bears' offense, and the strikers started panicking. They made one stupid mistake after another in their frantic attempts to score, and the Wolves' backliners helped take them further apart.


By the time Dan stepped onto the court again, her team was four points behind and she was so mad she could barely breathe. Her mark only made things worse. In annoying coincidence, the Wolves' captain was also their starting dealer. He was a big guy who'd let his status as most popular kid at school go straight to his head. The worst part was that he was really good, so he deserved to be a little arrogant. His attitude was unforgivable, though. Dan ignored his taunts as best she could and vented her frustration through physical aggression. She fought him up and down the court, doing everything she could to give her teammates an edge. Desperation helped her get past the captain time and time again, but no matter how many times she got the ball to her strikers they failed to score on the Wolves' goalie.


"This is pathetic," the captain said as Rainbow Bright knocked away another shot. "I can't wait until I'm playing for NDU and get to face off against real teams."


"That bitch goalkeeper of yours is the only reason you're winning," Dan said. "Without her you wouldn't stand a chance against us. Don't try to take the credit."


"What, should she take it?" He raked Dan with a contemptuous look. "What's the point? No one's going to sign her. She's going nowhere almost as fast as you are."


Dan had had enough. Cathy had the right to say such things to her, on account of being family. Coach Francis could think what he liked, since he supposedly knew more than she did about Exy. But some rich jackass no older than she was trying to put her in her place? That justified violence.
 
Dan put a week's worth of rage behind her fist and knocked him clean off his feet. The bell sounded, calling both teams to a stop, but it wasn't like anyone needed a heads-up. Athletes could smell a fight halfway across the court, and they were all too happy to jump each other. The only ones who didn't start swinging were the goalies, who were too far away from the action to get in any hits, the captain, who wasn't getting up again anytime soon, and Dan, who had no reason to keep fighting. She stood silent watch over his crumpled form and waited for the referees to catch up with her. They threw her off the court with a red card, but Dan didn't care anymore. Her team had lost. Their season was over.


She watched the last four minutes of the game from the sidelines and closed her eyes when the final bell rang. She didn't want to watch the Wolves celebrate an undeserved victory.


She had no choice but to face them again when she led her team through post-game handshakes. She kept her expression as impassive as possible as she slapped hands down the line. She sent her Bears off the court ahead of her and stayed behind on the center line. She stared up at the scoreboard and tried not to panic.

 
It's okay, she cautioned herself. There's always another way out.


She could pick up more shifts at Snowy and get a day job as soon as she graduated high school. Maybe she'd piece together enough money to take classes at the community college, and in a couple of years she'd have good enough grades to qualify for financial aid. She could transfer to another school far away from here and—


"Father Ballesteros will ream me for saying it, but Lord knows that boy needs to get beat within an inch of his life at least once."


The amused voice startled Dan out of her frantic planning. She dropped her gaze and saw the Wolves' goalkeeper only ten feet away. They were the last ones on the court, and the referees watched from the door to make sure another fight wasn't about to break out. Dan ignored them in favor of staring hard at the goalie. She tried not to hate her on sight, but it was hard. Rainbow Bright was smiling like what had happened tonight was at all fair.


"We were never formally introduced. My name is Renee Walker," the goalie said. She held out her hand and didn't seem bothered that Dan wouldn't take it. If anything her smile softened. "You're very good. I've wanted to tell you that for two years now. Thank you for the games. I appreciated the challenge."


It was an acknowledgement and a farewell, because their rivalry meant nothing now. Renee's team was proceeding through spring championships, but it didn't matter how far they got. Dan and Renee were seniors and girls. In a couple months they'd graduate and it wouldn't matter that they'd once been the best players on their respective teams.


Dan wondered if Renee was okay with that, if it honestly didn't bother her that she'd been used and discarded so easily. Maybe this game meant nothing to her; maybe the rivalry had always been one-sided. Maybe this was just a hobby, not the only way out of a dead-end life. Maybe Renee was going to college with her parents' money or an academic scholarship and she'd rush a sorority and wear trendy clothes and study medicine and be set for life. Maybe she wouldn't spend graduation night crying into her pillow and trying hard to not be overheard.


"Why are you talking to me?" Dan asked, angry all over again. "Go celebrate with your friends and stop pitying me."


"Oh, they're not my friends," Renee said, not an attempt at earning sympathy but simple, unconcerned fact. "And I certainly don't pity you. Why should I? You're all fire. A tiny loss like this can't put such a great flame out, right? You and I are the same that way, I think. We don't sit well with being told no.


"But you're right," she said, and looked toward the far wall. "I should congratulate them on their win. Good night, then, and good luck."


She finally let her hand fall back to her side and walked alone toward the door. Dan watched her leave the court, not sure what had just happened or what was supposed to happen next. All she knew was that the loss didn't hurt quite as much as it had a moment ago.


It was annoying finding comfort in a rival's parting words, but Dan clung to them all the same.


..


Dan woke up in a tangle of limbs and heat. She blinked fuzzily at the ceiling, trying to figure out where she was and what that awful taste in her mouth might have been. A pounding headache kept her thoughts from going too far, and in the end she gave up trying. She let her eyes fall closed again and drifted back to sleep.


When she woke again, it was to the quiet rumble of a voice near her ear. She blinked until her eyes finally focused and the blurry shapes around her made sense. She was curled up in the middle of a futon, half-buried beneath pillows and blankets. The warmth at her back was Destiny. The older stripper was talking to Scarlett, who was struggling with a coffee maker halfway across the room.


Scarlett glanced back, mouth open to answer Destiny's admonishment with a likely smart remark, but she stopped when she saw Dan's eyes open. A grin twisted her mouth instead, and Destiny shifted at Dan's back. "Look who's up," Scarlett said. "Morning, Hennessy. How's your head?"


Dan groaned something incoherent. Destiny laughed and pulled a blanket over her head. "We'll make a champion drinker of you yet," Destiny promised. She untangled herself Dan and slid off the bed. Dan waited until her nausea subsided before trying to sit up, but it was another minute before she dared open her eyes again. Destiny brought water and a few pills back to her and watched as Dan choked it all down. "I'm guess you don't want breakfast?"


Just the thought turned Dan's stomach. "Oh, god no."


Destiny went to help Scarlett with the coffee. Dan focused on her water and fumbled with her memories. Facing Cathy after Thursday's loss had been painful, but her aunt had—for once—known to keep her mouth shut. Somehow her silence only made Dan feel worse about the result. When she showed up at work Friday night she told Destiny she didn't want to go home. Her sisters took her drinking after Snowy closed and they'd ended up here to sleep it off. Dan wasn't sure whose apartment it was or what time they'd stumbled in. She remembered stubbing her toe on the stairs and someone falling down in the elevator, but anything beyond that was gone forever.


The t-shirt she was wearing wasn't hers, but it smelled clean. Dan was a different story entirely, but the other two weren't much better. They reeked of liquor, cigarette smoke, and sweat. Despite the stench they lounged around with coffee until nearly noon, and then Destiny finally volunteered to take the first shower. Dan went last. She had nothing to put on but what she'd worn the day before. She stared at her reflection, trying not to feel secondhand all the way through, and went to rejoin the others in the living room.


She would have left, except by then it was already early afternoon. Scarlett and Destiny reasoned that there was no point going all the way home just to come back for work in a couple hours. Dan let them talk her into staying without putting up much of a fight. They were finally sober enough to be hungry, so Destiny cooked a greasy lunch that they ate in front of the TV.


They passed the rest of the afternoon laughing and talking, sharing horror stories about customers and news from mutual friends up and down the entertainment district. They left the apartment early so they could do a bit of pre-game drinking. All of the bouncers on Broadway knew them, so they had no problems getting into the clubs and bars. Scarlett bought the first round, so Dan got the second with last night's money. Destiny got the third, and Dan put money down for the fourth.

 
Fuck Cathy's bills, Dan thought, and downed her Jameson in one easy swallow.


When they'd had just enough to drink to feel good about life, they made their way up the street to Starlets. Dan didn't have a clean outfit on her, but a few of the others kept spare clothes on hand in case they changed their mind about what they wanted to wear. Destiny managed to patch something together for her, and Dan shrugged into the borrowed clothes with quiet apologies.


"How have you done this for so long?" Dan asked.


Destiny shrugged. "Got comfortable with it, I guess. I haven't decided what I want to do next, so this is good enough for now. Pays my bills and buys me booze—what else can I ask for?"


"A future."


"Hell, Hen, I'm still young," Destiny said. "I'mma be around for a while yet. Why should I rush sorting things out when I could be having fun right now?" She looked at Dan's expression and pressed a careful finger to Dan's temple. "Find the one thing that makes this good and hold tight to it with all you've got, okay? For me it's days like today, living it up with my friends and not caring about a thing. Scarlett hoards her winnings so she can travel. You? Well, only you can figure out what this is worth."


Dan said nothing, but she thought about it until the bouncers collected them. When it was time to go she still didn't have an answer, and a sick flicker of panic had her clinging to her lockbox. She didn't want a reason. She didn't want an answer. She didn't want a reason to settle into this routine. She wanted something more than this—and she'd run out of ways to reach for it.


..



Dan got home at five Sunday morning, and she knew as she stepped through the trailer door that something wasn't right. For starters, the trailer was clean, and Cathy had never been a tidy person. The kitchen counters were cleared and wiped down, the table chairs were neatly in place, and the living room had been straightened. On the heels of surprise was anger, and Dan wondered who Cathy had been so eager to clean for. It was almost enough for her to turn the entire mobile home on its head again, except Cathy's bedroom door was open, which meant she was alone.



Someone knocked at her door, and Dan rethought her murderous impulses. She undid the locks and yanked the door open. There was a streetlamp at the corner, so it was easy enough to see Cathy's newest suitor. He was older than Dan expected—twice her age at least. He hadn't shaved in a day or two, and he had two cigarettes going, one perched between his lips and the other safely tucked between his fingers. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a sweater that had seen better days, and he stood with a folder propped under one arm.



"I think you're lost," Dan said.



"You have a nice right hook," he responded.



"If you want another look at it, I'm happy to oblige."



"Maybe in a minute. You going to invite me in or what? I'm freezing my balls off out here."



"No major loss there," Dan said coolly. He seemed startled for a moment, and then he grinned. It was a slow expression creeping across his mouth, and Dan had the distinct impression he was pleased. She tried to shut the door in his face, but he caught it with his hand. She raised her other fist in a warning. "Fuck off."



"Two minutes," he said.



"She's asleep. I'm not waking her up."



"I'm not here for her," he said. "She said you'd be back about this time, so I've been waiting."



"You're a real creeper, aren't you?" Dan demanded. "I don't know what the fuck she offered you, but—"



"Hi, can I finish?" he interrupted. "How about I talk, then you talk, since what I have to say is infinitely more interesting?"



"How about you go home and leave me alone, because I'm not interested?"



"I'm asking for two minutes."



She stared at him, fighting the urge to just hit him in the face, and said, "Ten seconds."



"Good enough." He held out his hand but didn't wait for her to take it. "Coach David Wymack, Palmetto State University, South Carolina. I need someone to captain my Foxes next year. You feeling up to the job?"



The silence that followed that was absolute. Dan couldn't breathe; maybe it was because her heart was lodged in her throat. The stranger gazed back at her, content to wait it out. Dan swallowed hard, but there was still a hoarse edge in her voice when she said, "Is this your idea of a sick joke?"



"Jokes aren't my style." He gave up waiting for a handshake and offered her his folder instead.



 Dan went through it with unsteady fingers, staring at the official letterheads and lengthy contract details. There were brochures for Palmetto State as well, and a course catalogue at the back. The man—coach—gave her a couple seconds to rifle through it before he started rattling away about some of the finer details. It was a full-ride scholarship for five years at Palmetto State. She'd never even heard of them, but apparently the Foxes were Class I.



"Dan is short for Danielle," Dan said hollowly. "My coach said universities almost never recruit girls."



"Fact," Wymack admitted.



"But you…?"



"Fuck 'em," he said. "Gender doesn't mean anything to me. Kayleigh Day taught me how to play and I'm sure she'd have a thing or two to say about biased policies. I don't care what my school board wants—I care what my team needs. That means you."



Her mouth moved, but nothing came out. He gave her a minute to find her voice again, then asked, "You have a coffee maker in there? No? Then we're going. This conversation requires more caffeine."


He turned and went back down the stairs. Dan lingered for a moment longer, torn between disbelief and fear, and then ran to catch up. 

Five a.m. was one of those rare lull hours at Jelly's Diner—after the late-night drinkers and night shift finally turned in but before most of the regular work crowd was out and about. Aside from the waitstaff Coach Wymack and Dan had the place to themselves aside. Wymack set them up in a corner booth and spread his paperwork out. Dan waved at her coffee to try cooling it off, but Wymack drained half of his like it wasn't scalding his tongue.


"Okay," he said. "I'll tell you what I need from you, then what's in it for you if you succeed. You can decide from there if it's a fair enough trade. Sound good?" She nodded, and he emptied the rest of his mug. A wave of his hand brought a waitress around for a refill, and he waited until she'd left before speaking again. "Have you heard of my school?"



 "No," Dan admitted.



"Good," he said, to her surprise. He tapped his fingers on his mug, gaze distant as he thought. If he'd prepared a speech for her, he found it wanting now, and Dan wondered why he was having so much trouble finding a place to start. She wanted to tell him that it didn't matter what he said—he was offering her a way out of here. She'd put up with anything in exchange for that.



"Gandhi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'," Wymack said. "I don't think a man can change the world, but I know he can change his little corner of it. My corner is Palmetto State. The Foxhole Court is more than a stadium. It is a second chance. It is a halfway house for athletes who have nowhere else to go. I recruit orphans and victims and addicts and impoverished dreamers, and I give them five years to put their lives back together. Five years to learn self-worth and self-confidence and how to respect those around them. I give them the means, but I cannot show them the way. That is what I need from you.



"I can't give you a team except in name. The Foxes are a new team; this past fall was their first season. As you might expect, we have… kinks to work out." He considered that and huffed a bit. "I'm offering you a collection of talented individuals who have no concept of teamwork or trust, and no real desire to learn either one. I am asking you to help me make a difference. I need you to inspire them. I need you to lead them. I need you to make them believe. It is not going to be easy," he cautioned her. "You'll be fighting your team and your team's reputation, and the latter will take years to turn around."



Dan idly wondered if she was asleep, because this was too strange to be real. "You already have a reputation?"



"Consensus is that we should withdraw our team from the NCAA. We scored straight losses last season, including two forfeits when half the Foxes decided they didn't want to show up for the games." He dug cigarettes out of his pocket, belatedly remembered he was in a no-smoking establishment, and tossed the pack onto the table. "I don't care what the reporters say, or what the athletic board says, or what any of our rivals say, but that's me. You, as the team's captain, are going to shoulder some of that burden. You're going to be harassed for being female, for being a Fox, for a thousand reasons you can't even imagine yet. I need to know that you're going to be okay, too."



It was the second time he'd called her captain. Dan swallowed hard. "What about this year's captain?"



"Quit," Coach said breezily. "We started with eleven players last year. Two left in December. Four have made it clear they're leaving in May. I warned you: kinks." He emptied his coffee again, and Dan had the niggling sensation he wished it was something harder. "I'm recruiting six more for this year: three girls, three boys. I've edited the contract, too, to make it harder for my players to walk out on me."



"Why me?" she wanted to know. "You shouldn't even know I exist."



"That's where we're both lucky," Wymack said. "I was at your game Thursday monitoring the West Jackson goalkeeper. I saw how you played, and I liked what I saw. I spent Friday and Saturday asking around about you, getting people's opinions and borrowing tapes. Your teammates had nothing but praise for you."



Dan wasn't expecting that, and she had to look away. She hid her face in her coffee cup. The rush she felt wasn't quite pain, wasn't really pride. "Do you mean what you're saying?" she asked. "About your team, I mean. Your little foster system wannabe thing."



"Every word," Wymack said.



"Why?" she pressed. "What's in it for you?"



He considered it, and she liked him a little bit more for that. She let him mull his reasons over. "Redemption, perhaps," he said. "The ability to sleep at night."



She lifted her chin, met his stare boldly, and said again, "Why?"



He didn't answer her immediately. He studied the bottom of his empty coffee cup, searching it for answers, and finally beckoned for the waitress to refill it. He held it while she poured, cradling it in one big hand, and nodded absently when she left.



"I'm going to tell you a story," he said, carefully setting his mug to one side, "if you can tolerate me talking about myself for a while. It's a bit cliché, but it's the only one I've got."



Dan nodded, but she wasn't sure if it was encouragement or acknowledgment that he was sharing something very personal.



"My mother was fifteen when she had me. She never finished high school—she dropped out her freshman year when she got pregnant. My father was seven years older than she was and was pressured by parents on both side to marry her. When they met, he was a lousy drunk. By the time I was eight, he'd moved on to other things and brought my mother with him: LSD and ecstasy and huffers and whatnot. When I was twelve, he started on PCPs. And that… Well, let's just say he went from being angry and useless to being violent and insane.



"I was fourteen when he took my mother's eyes out with a corkscrew," Wymack said. Dan recoiled, mouth open on a horrified protest she didn't have the air for. "I beat the ever-living shit out of him and threw him out of the house. Not quite sure how," he mused. "He was a big fucker." He considered the backs of his hands as if looking for his father's blood on his knuckles, then shrugged it off as unimportant.



"I stayed at the hospital with my mother that night. The following morning, when we were talking about what had happened and what we were supposed to do next, she looked at me and said, 'Don't worry. You'll never amount to anything, either.' They were the last words she ever said to me. I moved out that same day and never looked back. I didn't see her again until her funeral."



"I'm sorry," Dan said through numb lips.



He shrugged. "I moved up to Baltimore. Lived on the street part of the time and at the local shelters the rest. I picked up a couple odd jobs and went back to school when my bosses pushed me to. Got into sports and finally found my niche. My junior and senior years I helped coach the local little leagues. I went to college knowing I wanted to be a coach, but it wasn't until Exy hit the States that I figured out what to specialize in.



"I've been coaching Exy for about nineteen years now," he said. "I started with neighborhood teams in New York City. Amazing people, but it didn't make enough money to pay rent. Worked my way into the high school systems and now I'm here, with a Class I university team. And since I have the chance to start a team from scratch, I'm going to build it however I see fit.



"Long story short, moral of the monologue, whatever: I am living proof that success is not determined by socioeconomic status," he said, stabbing the table with his finger. "I am proof that big dreams don't belong to those with the easiest means of achieving them. All it takes is heart—knowing what you want and having the fortitude to go for it day after day, no matter the odds.



"So you tell me," he challenged her, "what do you want more than anything?"



Dan floundered, but only for a moment. She'd been living with this ache for so long, she knew the words by heart. "I want someone to give me a chance. I want someone to believe in me."



"Danielle Wilds," Wymack said, speaking slowly to give his words emphasis, "I will never give up on you."



Looking into his eyes, Dan knew that was the truth. She had no reason to believe him, but she knew with every fiber of her being that he was the real thing. Her vision blurred. She blinked to clear it, and a hot tear streaked down her cheek. She scrubbed it away with an impatient hand and swallowed against the tightness in her throat.



"I don't care what anyone says about the Foxes," she said thickly. "I want to believe in the impossible. I want to be something. I want my chance to change a piece of the world. Let me have your team and I'll make of it whatever you want."



"Yeah," he said, studying her with a distant look on his face. "I think you just might."




..


It took two hours to eat the big breakfast he'd ordered and go over all the paperwork he'd brought to North Dakota with him. Afterward Wymack drove her back to the trailer in the airport's rental car and left her with his business card. He didn't care how small or big the question; if she had any concerns at all he wanted her to reach out to him as soon as she could. Neither Cathy nor Dan had a phone, but Dan knew she could borrow Destiny's if she needed to get in touch with him.


Dan watched him drive away, forced away the fear that she'd dreamed all this up, and went inside to find Cathy at the table. Dan didn't know how much Wymack told her when he first dropped by looking for Dan, but the look on Cathy's face now was expectant.


"I'm going to college," Dan said. "Class I NCAA team, full ride scholarship."


"It won't change a thing, you know," Cathy said. "All it's going to do is buy you time. When it's over you'll be back where you started, and you're not going to be able to live with yourself."


"I hate you," Dan said quietly. "After everything I've done for you, can't you even pretend to be happy for me now?"


"You're leaving me," Cathy said. "What am I going to do?"


"You're going to learn how to take care of yourself again," Dan said.


She shut herself in her room and sank to her knees on her blankets. She stared down at the folder Wymack gave her, struggling hard against a rush of hurt anger. She hadn't expected Cathy to react any differently; she knew better than to let Cathy's selfishness get to her. But her throat was still tight when she finally opened the folder and pulled Wymack's papers out.


PALMETTO STATE UNIVERSITY FOXES, the front page said, in embossed glossy orange.


She traced the letters with her fingertips, reading the promise in those four words, and managed a smile.


The curtain rattled a bit. When Dan didn't say anything, Cathy pulled it to one side and peered in at her. "When do you leave?"


"May 31st," Dan said. "He's going to send the ticket to my school so someone can sign for it."


She found the college catalogue halfway down the stack and thumbed through it, amazed by how many choices there were. How could anyone settle on just one topic? Palmetto State offered everything from computer science to equestrian studies to international trade. She wanted to take a little of everything just because she could, but on the heels of that heady glee was a painful bit of reality. Cathy was right; Dan's grades had never been that good because she'd never tried harder than she had to in any of her classes. It was one thing to slide by here, but Wymack had warned her there was a minimum GPA to maintain at the collegiate level. She'd lose her scholarship and her spot on the team if she couldn't keep her grades up.


The only hope she had was in the academic assistance program Wymack said Palmetto offered its athletes. Dan was going to take advantage of every single one. This was a chance to start her life over. She was going to do everything right this time.

She wanted to read the catalogue from start to finish, but she was too tired to fully appreciate it right now. Instead she picked up the visitor's guide and flipped its pages. Pictures of the sprawling campus filled every other page, showing off luscious gardens and brick buildings. Dan had never been outside of North Dakota. She couldn't even imagine what the south would be like. Warmer, for sure.


"Give me a loan," Cathy said.


Dan sent an incredulous look over her shoulder. "You're dreaming."


"For the abortion," Cathy said impatiently. She answered Dan's shock with a mulish look. "I called Planned Parenthood after your fancy coach came by. There's a bus route nearly to the clinic, but I need fare and the fee. I wrote the number down around here somewhere. What's that look for? It's not like you left me a lot of choices."


"You mean it?" Dan pressed. "If I get you the money, you'll take care of it?"


Cathy huffed. "You can even come with me to the clinic if you don't trust me, you stingy ho."


"Stingy," Dan echoed. "I hope you starve to death when I'm gone." Cathy pointed at her as if those cold words proved her point. Dan, in turn, pointed at the curtain. "Get out of my room."


Cathy scowled but left. It was one of the few rules they had to adhere to no matter what if they wanted to keep their sanity in such a small place: whenever they were asked to they had to leave each other's rooms, no matter what they were in the middle of. A curtain did a lot to cut arguments in half and kept their occasional screaming matches from escalating to violence.


Dan waited until she was alone before looking back at her things, but Cathy had ruined her good mood. Dan stacked everything neatly off to one side. She didn't bother to change out before curling up in her blankets, and she drifted to sleep thinking about her future.


She and Cathy didn't say a word to each other when Dan woke up again. Dan got showered and dressed for the night, and the two ate separate dinners. Dan took her oatmeal back to her room to skim through her brochures some more. One packet explained the different meal plans available for purchase. Wymack had circled the one included in her scholarship: unlimited access to the meal halls and the right to use the athletes' separate dining hall whenever she wanted. There were a few sample menus printed on the page opposite the street view shots of one of the dining halls. Dan's mouth watered as she perused it.


She left earlier than she needed to, wanting to share the good news with her girls. They responded with the unabashed enthusiasm Cathy should have shown her, and they had enough time for Scarlett and Destiny to take her out for celebratory drinks. The girls' excitement only helped rekindle her own, and that night was the easiest shift Dan could remember. Her joy made her smiles brighter, and the knowledge that she was so close to being free of all of this put a triumphant, cocky edge in her dance.


The Starlets wanted to take her out afterward, but it was a school week and Dan needed to reassess her grades. She allowed herself a couple rounds, then regretfully excused herself from their cheerful company.


"No worries, love," Chastity promised her as she left. "We'll throw you a proper farewell party when you go."


"You might even remember some of it!" Ginger added.


Dan laughed and left them at the bar. She stood on the sidewalk, oblivious to the swirling crowd around her. It was late and it'd been a long day, but she was wired and restless. She'd never felt so alive. She tipped her head back and stared up at the sky, looking for stars. The street was so well-lit she could only see one, but one was enough.


"Make a wish," she whispered, and hugged herself for luck.


..


She had a headache until fifth period on account of her two hours of sleep and her seven drinks beforehand, but she didn't care. Instead of sleeping through study hall she went over her most recent report card and planned for finals. Her Exy season was over, which opened a chunk of time in the middle of her afternoon. Dan had planned to add in more shifts at Starlet. Instead she prioritized her classes by whichever ones were the most dire and blocked off time to study. Her GPA was a 2.0, which was enough to qualify for the team, but Wymack had said there were risks in just barely scraping by.


The bell rang, forcing her to pack her things before she was ready, and she went to her last two classes. At the end of the day when the student body president was making closing remarks, Dan was issued a summons to Coach Francis' office. Dan didn't want to see Francis again anytime soon, but she grabbed her bag and set off in grim search of the teachers' offices.


The teachers' offices were in groups by subject. Francis taught geometry during the day, so he was in one of the smaller lounges with the math and astronomy teachers. Mrs. Davies looked up from her desk when Dan stepped in but bent back to her reports when she saw the visitor wasn't hers. Dan swallowed an automatic greeting and slipped past her desk for Francis' in the back. She was only a couple steps into the room before she realized Francis already had a guest: Rainbow Bright was sitting across from him. Dan stopped alongside the other girl to stare. Renee had a heavy book open in her lap and a finger on the page to guide her eyes. She didn't look up but held up her other hand in either a greeting or a bid for patience.


"Congratulations, Danielle," Francis said. "I heard from Coach Wymack this weekend."


"Thanks," she said stiffly, and slanted a look down at Renee. "Thank your coach for me, would you? Coach Wymack would never have found me if he wasn't there looking for you."
 
"Unfortunately my coach had nothing to do with that." Renee finished her verse and closed the book. The gold letters on the front read HOLY BIBLE. It wasn't Dan's idea of a good read, but Renee was mostly through the massive tome. Renee smiled up at Dan, but there was a sly edge in it. "He doesn't think women should play on the collegiate level, you see."


Francis motioned between them. "Miss Walker wanted to talk to you, so I let her in. I have a couple things to check on, unless you two need anything else?"


"No, thank you," Renee said politely, and he left. Renee got to her feet and turned to face Dan. "I apologize for barging in like this, but I wanted to talk to you. I didn't have your address, but I knew I'd find you here. How are you feeling?"


"You have a lot of nerve showing up here," Dan said. "A good two-thirds of the student body would love to pound you into the dirt."


"I'm sure they'd like the chance to try," Renee agreed pleasantly. "Likewise, I'd like the chance to get to know you better. I promise not to take up too much of your time."


"You really need to get your own friends."


Renee smiled like she found Dan's rudeness endearing. "Friendship comes later in its own right. Right now I'd settle for a reason to respect my new captain."


It hit Dan then. Wymack hadn't said outright that he'd signed Renee, only that he'd come here to consider her and found Dan by extension. Dan should have put the pieces together and realized they were going to be playing on the same team this year. Dan's first response was denial, because there was no way she could tolerate playing with a girl she despised so much. On the tail end of that was a bit of resentment. She wanted to trust Wymack's judgment. Besides, she'd rather have Renee guarding her goal than her opponent's.


Renee took her silence as encouragement. "Fifteen minutes?"


"Fine," Dan said grudgingly, "but not here. I'm not going to be the one who tells Coach Wymack you got your dumb self killed."


Sneaking Renee off school grounds proved to be impossible, though. With Exy such a big thing and West Jackson their greatest rivals, there were maybe a handful of students who couldn't put together Renee's reputation and her distinctive coloring. Her face had been on target signs at the start of the year as a morale boost, at least until teachers tore the posters down and started looking for the culprit. This soon after the final bell rang the halls were crowded, too, so Dan had to push her way through clumps of students and pull Renee along behind her. She looked back once or twice to make sure Renee was keeping up, but Renee didn't seem at all concerned to be the new center of attention.


"Dan, what the hell?" someone demanded.


Dan followed the voice to see one of her backliners. "It's a long story. I'll have to tell you later."


"You lost, Rainbow Bright?" someone else called. "You're on the wrong fucking side of town."


Just like that, the girls couldn't move any further. The group ahead of them planted their feet and refused to budge, walling off the way to the door. They weren't on the Exy team, but they were athletes from other teams, and they were ready to rally against the girl who'd cost them championships.


"Out of the way," Dan said, taking a threatening step forward. "I'm trying to get her out of here."


"She shouldn't be here in the first place."


"Hey, hey, hey." A teacher shoved into the throng and sent a fierce look around. "What are you all doing? The bell rang. School's out. Get your things and get home. There's nothing to see here. Go before I start calling parents." She waited until they started to drift off, then motioned for Dan and Renee to follow and escorted them as far as the door. Dan nodded gratitude, but the teacher just did an about-face and headed back inside.


Dan started across the emptying parking lot. "You're so stupid. You shouldn't have come here."


"I wasn't trying to make things difficult for you."


"Yeah?" Dan demanded. "What did you think would happen?"


"I wasn't thinking," Renee said. "I was too excited to think, perhaps."


"Stupid," Dan said again.


"Reckless," Renee corrected her, "due to an unforgivable arrogance. But I'm working on it, I promise. It's just going to take a little more time to learn humility." She smiled at the bewildered look Dan sent her and said. "It's not as crazy as it sounds. I'm a bad person trying very hard to be a good person. There's a learning curve there I haven't fully got the knack of."


"Not crazy at all," Dan said derisively. Wymack had said he recruited troubled kids, but she hadn't thought he meant mentally unstable ones. Renee had taken one too many balls to the helmet.


They'd gone a half-mile down the road before Renee asked, "Is it Dan or Danielle?"


"Dan," Dan said. "Coach Francis is the only one who calls me Danielle even though I've told him for years that I hate it. I think he has a learning disability. At least Coach Wymack got it right the first time." She glanced over at Renee. "You said your coach didn't nominate you, so how'd you get a Class I school to stop by?"


"That was Stephanie's idea," Renee said. "My foster mother, I mean. She works for a newspaper and covers sports. She'd heard about Coach Wymack's team and seemed to think I'd be a good fit. She tried to get Coach Lewis to send my file over and, when he refused, contacted Coach Wymack herself." She smiled, tucked her bible under her arm, and said, "They don't give up easily, do they?"


Dan thought she meant her foster mother, but then Renee looked over shoulder. Dan followed her gaze to see a small group of students following them. One or two were from the angriest group in the hall; the others were brothers and sisters of her teammates. A quick headcount said there were seven of them, which was five too many for Dan to deal with. The thought of running never crossed her mind; she would rather get kicked to the dirt than flee before a couple bullies. Dan had very few things to call her own: pride and dreams were just about it.


"Go on ahead," Renee said. "If you're still willing to talk to me, I'll meet you wherever you like."


"What, you going to preach peace at them?" Dan asked.


"That's always an option."


"Just do us both a favor and stay out of the way."


They stopped and turned to face their would-be attackers. Smiles twisted some of the boys' faces when they realized the pair was going to make this easy for them. The seven fanned out as they got closer and formed a loose circle around the girls.


"You can go," one of the girls told Dan. "Just say this ain't your business, and it ain't."


Dan put her hands on her hips. "Why don't all of you fuck off?"


"That was your only chance," the biggest boy, a footballer named Tray, said.


"Shaking in my boots," Dan said. "Am I supposed to be scared of you?"


The girl fixed her with a mean look. "You should be, now that everyone knows you're a sell-out. You're buddy-buddies with the Wolves?"


Tray nodded. "How long've you been planning that one? Woe, woe, everyone hates me, nobody likes me, let me screw them over in championships. You planned it, didn't you? You threw the game on purpose."


"Say that again," Dan warned him, "and you'll regret it."


"You'll regret not walking away." Tray cracked his knuckles. "You're finished, see? The team doesn't need you anymore, and if they don't, no one does. No one's going to mind if you have a couple broken bones at graduation."


"Take her teeth out, too," the second girl said. "She doesn't need 'em to be a whore like her Aunty Cathy. It'll even make blowing people that much easier."


Dan didn't know she'd lunged at the girl until Renee caught her shirt and hauled her back. Renee's smile was gone, but her expression was calm as she surveyed the group. Dan tried to wrench out of her hold, but the goalie didn't even seem to notice her struggle.


"Apologize," Renee said. "That's a terrible thing to say."


"You going to make me?" Tray asked, getting right in her face.


Renee let go of Dan. "I would prefer not to."


Dan heard the scratch of gravel behind her, but Tray was starting to move for Renee. Dan left her back wide open and shoved Tray as hard as she could. She didn't get a chance to chase him, because someone caught her ponytail in a fierce grip. There was a stab of icy heat down her neck as she was yanked back the way she'd come, and then Stan whipped her around and threw her at the ground. Dan slapped her hands out to brace her fall, shredding her palms on the asphalt, and scrambled to her feet. She turned around, fists up and at the ready despite the angry throbbing in her hands, and froze to gape.


Stan was already on his hands and knees and making an awful choking noise. Renee was taking on two of the other boys, dodging their holds with a laughable ease and swatting their flying fists away from her face. She ducked and weaved between them like it was nothing and systematically took the whole group apart one-handed. The girls figured out fast they didn't want any part of this and backed off with their hands up. Renee skipped them in favor of clothes-lining Peter. Tray grabbed her wrist and hauled her around. He caught her high across her face with a meaty fist.


Renee moved her arm, loosening her grip on her bible so it fell, and caught the book when it reached her hip. She pulled hard against Tray, using his hold on her to drag him closer, and slammed her bible into the bridge of his nose. Dan heard bones crackle under the impact, and Tray let go of Renee to howl into his hands. Renee looked around to see if anyone else was ready for another try, but the students were staring at her in white-faced anger. Renee nodded and went past them to Dan.


"Should we go?" Renee asked.


Dan stared at her: first at the glittering cross necklace around her neck, then at the blood-smeared bible in her hand. She looked at Renee's bruising face, and this time she really looked. She stared past Renee's easy smile to the darkness in her pale stare.


"You might be a little fucked up," Dan said.


"I did warn you," Renee said.


So had Wymack, but Dan was late in putting the pieces together as usual. He'd told her what sort of athlete he recruited. The girl Dan had always assumed Renee was, the well-to-do and well-adjusted child who had everything she wanted, was so far from the truth Dan almost felt the need to apologize.


"You and I are the same that way," Dan said. Renee recognized her own words, judging by the slow smile that curved her lips. Dan looked past her at the beaten students, then started off down the road like none of this had happened. Renee caught pace with her easily and wiped the bloody spine of her book off on the hem of her shirt. Dan watched her do it and said, "Pretty nasty fighting style for a Jesus freak."


"Thank you," Renee said.


She didn't explain how such a thing was possible, but Dan didn't push her yet. They were going to spend the next five years together, after all. She had plenty of time to figure everything out.

3 comments:

Lege Artis said...

I love Dan and Renee and David to pieces... Between them, they have hope and spirit enough to move mountains. :)
Thank you for these countdown reads and happy release day!

Olga Katri said...

I loved that I got to know Renee so well, as well as learning a bit of Wymack's past... Let the Final Countdown begin!!!...

Marina Elena said...

So good!
Now I'm fully stocked on cookies and tea and will spend the time rereading a few scenes from the previous books.
This whole countdown was a massive joy, but I'm super ready to get back into Neil's head. I've missed the boy terribly. ^^