Gretchen Page stroked a brush through her straight blonde hair as she pressed the phone to her ear with her free hand. She tried parting her hair in the middle and letting the sides fall to her shoulders. Then she brushed some forward to see what a row of bangs might look like.
Gretchen couldn’t look into a mirror without knowing her hair was her best feature. If only her olive-colored eyes were spaced a little farther apart, not so close to her nose, which she considered short and too cute and not at all elegant. And then there was that tragic tiny cleft in her chin.
She ranked herself a seven, which was good enough to be the prettiest cheerleader at Savanna Mills High. But now she was starting at Shadyside High, ten times the size of her old school, and how could she compete? There wasn’t even a Sephora in Savanna Mills!
“I miss you, too, Polly,” she said, fumbling the phone against her ear. She set down the hairbrush, turned away from the mirror with a sigh, crossed the bedroom, and perched on the edge of her bed. “Starting a new school junior year is the pits.”
Gretchen leaned back against the big, plush Hello Kitty pillow her Grandma Hannah had given her when she was eight. A lot of the stuffing had oozed out, but she couldn’t bear to part with it. Grandma Hannah was the only relative she liked.
“I always call you when the nightmares start,” she told Polly. “Talking to you always makes me feel better. Yes, I had one last night. It’s so sad. It was so real, so totally vivid … I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or not.”
Gretchen sighed. “I woke up drenched in sweat. And my jaw hurt from gritting my teeth. Thank goodness I can always call you.”
She shifted the phone to her other ear. “No, I haven’t made any friends here,” she said.
Gretchen and Polly Brown had been inseparable—like sisters—back in Savanna Mills. Their friendship went well beyond being cocaptains of the Hawks cheerleading squad.
“How could I make friends in only two weeks? The kids here aren’t unfriendly. But they’ve all known each other for ages. I’m the only outsider.”
She tugged at a string on the bedspread, listening to Polly’s purr of a voice. She pictured Polly—round-faced with freckles and curly copper-colored hair. Polly looked about twelve—but she had a deep, sexy voice that seemed to come from deep in her throat.
“So your new school is really big?” Polly asked.
“The first few days, I couldn’t even find my homeroom,” Gretchen told her friend. “That’s how big the school is. I mean, it’s on three floors and it stretches on forever. It’s like as big as the mall back home. Some kids drive from class to class!”
She listened to Polly’s low chuckle. Gretchen wasn’t known for her sense of humor. In fact, she was earnest and serious most of the time. But she always knew how to make Polly laugh.
“I guess it’s nice to have a fresh start,” Gretchen said, shifting the phone to her other ear. “And I understand why Mom had to move. I mean, after Dad left, she had to do something.”
“True,” Polly murmured. Polly never liked talking about serious, real-world troubles. She really was like a twelve-year-old in more than just looks.
“She got a really good deal on this house,” Gretchen continued. “The real estate woman said because it’s on Fear Street. I don’t really get it. It’s a perfectly nice street, with awesome old houses and lots of trees and big front yards.”
She shifted the phone again. She realized she was squeezing it so hard, her hand ached. “My room is huge,” Gretchen continued. “I even have my own bathroom, believe that? No more sharing. But I guess Fear Street is a big deal here in Shadyside. I haven’t had a chance to Google it.”
A cool breeze fluttered the curtains at the open bedroom window. The air chilled Gretchen’s skin, an early sign of fall. Clouds covered the sun, and a gray shadow swept across the bedroom floor.
“Of course, I’m dying to make the cheerleading squad,” Gretchen told Polly. “But I’m totally tense about it. Everything is so big and serious here. The high school has a real stadium behind the parking lot. Not what we had—bleachers set up on the grass.”
Gretchen snickered. “No, everyone isn’t rich here. It’s a normal place. But they take their football seriously. The Shadyside Tigers were All-State last season. And the cheerleaders went to the state tournament and got an Honorable Mention.”
“With you on the squad, they’ll do better than that,” Polly replied.
Gretchen sighed. “I’m not so sure about that. I’ve been so tense about it, I’ve been practicing after school all week in my backyard, believe that?”
Before Polly could answer, Gretchen’s mom strode into the room, her eyes on the phone in Gretchen’s hand. “Who are you talking to?”
Mrs. Page was tall and trim and athletic-looking. Back in Savanna Mills, she played tennis at her club almost every afternoon and spent at least an hour in the gym six or seven days a week.
She had short blonde hair, darker than Gretchen’s, with stylish white streaks back through the sides, a broad tanned forehead, high cheekbones like a fashion model, and dark green eyes.
She was young-looking for forty-three, but Gretchen saw that the divorce and all the trouble back home had aged her. She had dark circles under her eyes, a tiny network of wrinkles on both cheeks, and even her eyes had lost some of their sparkle.
Mrs. Page made up for the change with too much makeup and too much bright orange lipstick. At least, that was Gretchen’s harsh opinion.
Her mother strode quickly up to Gretchen. She wore a turquoise crewneck T-shirt over white tennis shorts that showed off her thin legs. “Gretchen, who are you talking to?” she repeated.
“None of your business,” Gretchen snapped. The words came out louder than Gretchen had intended. She ended the call.
Mrs. Page let out a short gasp. “Oops. Sorry.”
“Go away,” Gretchen said, making a shooing motion with her free hand.
“I was just asking a simple question, Gretchen.”
“Mom, what don’t you understand about the words go away? Stop hovering over me like a drone!”
“Gretchen, think you might be overreacting a bit?”
“You can’t treat me like an infant, Mom. I’m a person. I’m entitled to a little privacy. You can’t barge into my room and—”
“I just want you to get off to a good start here,” Mrs. Page said, suddenly breathless. She tugged the turquoise T-shirt down over her shorts. Then she ran both hands back through her short hair. “I don’t think asking who you are talking to on the phone is a very big invasion of your privacy. Seriously.”
Gretchen softened her glare. She nodded. “Okay. Maybe I overreacted a little.” She shrugged. “Whatever.”
She and her mother had always had what her mother called a difficult relationship. The simple fact was they hadn’t gotten along since Gretchen was two and learned the word no.
Mrs. Page tried to show how much she cared about her daughter by involving herself in everything Gretchen did. Gretchen felt constantly smothered. The more she tried to push her away, the more Mrs. Page clung to her.
At least, that was Gretchen’s side of the story.
And now that her dad had flown the coop, it was much worse.
Mrs. Page softened her expression, too. “Would you like to talk about why you overreacted?”
“Would you like to get out of my way?” Gretchen snapped. She pushed past her mother and crossed the room to her closet. She pulled out a silky maroon hoodie and swung it over her shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Page asked.
“To school,” Gretchen said, checking herself one more time in the dresser mirror.
Her mother followed her to the bedroom door. “But it’s Saturday, dear.”
Gretchen sighed. “I know, Mom. I have an appointment. With the cheerleading coach.”
“Gretchen, just wait a minute,” her mother insisted. “Just give me a minute, okay?”
Gretchen spun around in the hall. “Mom—I’ll be late.”
“Are you sure you want to be a cheerleader right away?”
“Excuse me? You know how important this is to me, right?”
“I’m just saying…” Mrs. Page hesitated. “Don’t you think you should settle in first?”
“Settle in?” Gretchen’s words burst out high and shrill. “You’re joking, right? You can’t be serious, Mom. Settle in? That had to be a joke.”
Mrs. Page took a few steps back, as if retreating. “I’m only thinking of what’s best for you, dear.” She shook her head. “That’s all I ever do. I just want things to go right for you. I’m not your enemy. We have to be friends. With your father gone, we have to try harder, don’t you agree?”
Gretchen sighed again. “You’re right, Mom. Bye.” She pounded down the stairs, taking them two at a time, and out the front door.
As she climbed behind the wheel of her mother’s blue Camry, the nightmare lingered in her mind. The knife … the blood … the screams …
She clenched her jaw tightly. Pounded the wheel with both fists.
“Got to get past this,” she said out loud. “Got to put it all behind me. Time for my fresh start.
Gretchen drove to the high school. It wasn’t a long drive, but she was still unfamiliar with the streets. There were probably shortcuts, but she stayed on Park Drive, which she knew cut straight through the middle of town and led to the high school at the corner of Division Street.
She could feel her heart start to beat faster as she pulled the car into the student parking lot behind the school. She didn’t have a parking permit yet. But it was Saturday, so she figured no one would be checking.
As she climbed out of the car, she could hear the shouts and cries of the football team, having their afternoon practice in the stadium. She was tempted to go watch them, but she was already five minutes late for her appointment.
She trotted to the back doors of the school. It still looked immense to her. With its brick walls, faded from the sun, ivy climbing up one side, rows of tall windows, and sloping red tile roof, it looked unreal to her. Like a movie high school. Somehow high schools always looked too perfect in movies, and this one did, too.
She stepped into the back hallway. The lights had been dimmed. Silence. A ringing silence that made her stop and squint down the long, empty hallway. Gray metal lockers down both sides. Perfect. Too perfect.
Her footsteps thudded noisily as she hurried toward the front. She turned a corner and could hear the Shadyside cheerleaders practicing in the gym all the way down the hall.
She stepped under a hand-painted maroon-and-white banner that had been hung from the ceiling: TIGERS ROAR. It reminded her that the first football game was only a week away. That thought made her heartbeats race even faster.
The chanting voices from the gym grew louder as she approached. Gretchen was only a few doors away from the gym when a tall boy in faded jeans and a denim jacket burst into the hall in front of her.
She let out a startled gasp. Nearly walked right into him. “What are you doing here?” she blurted out.
“Shhhh.” He raised a finger to his lips. “I’m stealing some laptops. Want to help?
Gretchen stared at the laptop tucked under his arm. She raised her gaze to his dark eyes. Serious eyes that crinkled up as he started to laugh. “I’m messing with you,” he said. “Did you believe me?”
“I-I don’t know,” Gretchen stammered. She quickly got herself together. “You do look a lot like a thief,” she joked.
He had a great smile, very warm. She liked the way his eyes crinkled up. He had short brown hair, buzzed close at the sides. The only thing that kept him from being totally awesome-looking were his ears, which stuck out like small cabbages.
“Sid Viviano,” he said, introducing himself. He actually shook hands with her, and as he did his dark eyes seemed to study her face. “I’m the equipment manager for the cheerleaders.”
She blinked. “Equipment manager?” They didn’t have an equipment manager back in Savanna Mills.
He grinned. “I just like hanging out with a bunch of hot girls in short skirts.”
“Well, at least you’re honest,” Gretchen said, grinning back at him.
He’s very cute, and he seems to know it.
Sid raised the laptop. “I took this from the AV room. We need it for music for the practice.”
“I’m late,” Gretchen said, glancing at the time on her phone. “Can you tell me where Coach Walker’s office is?”
“It’s in the gym,” he said. “This way.” He motioned for her to follow him. “You’re new, right? I think I saw you in Sawyer’s Government class. What’s your name?” He put a hand on her shoulder. “No. Wait. Let me guess. I’m good at guessing names.”
He studied her for a long moment, his hand resting on her shoulder. He brought his face so close to hers, Gretchen thought he might kiss her.
Would she like that? Well … it was a little soon.
“I’ve got it. Heather,” he said. “Your name is Heather, right?”
“Right,” Gretchen said. “Wow. How did you do that?”
He laughed. “I just read your mind.”
“Actually, my name is Gretchen. Gretchen Page.”
He shook his head. “No way. No way do you look like a Gretchen.”
“What does a Gretchen look like?”
He grinned but didn’t answer.
“I’m really late,” Gretchen said.
He brought his face close to hers again. His dark eyes burned into hers. “Would you like to hang out sometime?” he asked, just above a whisper.
Gretchen was about to answer when she saw the cheerleader at the gym doors. She was short and blonde and very pretty, and even from this distance, Gretchen could see that she was glaring at them angrily.
“Oh.” The word slipped from Gretchen’s mouth.
The girl strode up behind Sid, her face set in a scowl. She wore a maroon-and-white cheerleader uniform, a short skirt over maroon tights and a long-sleeved top with a large tiger head across the front.
Sid didn’t see her until she was next to him. He was still grinning at Gretchen. His eyes widened in surprise as the girl wrapped herself around him. She draped one arm around his shoulders and pressed her face against his cheek.
As if she owns him, Gretchen thought.
“Are you Gretchen Page?” she asked, eyeing Gretchen up and down.
Gretchen nodded. “Yes. Sorry I’m late. I—”
“I’m Stacy Grande. I’m the cheerleading captain.” She laughed. Her blue eyes flashed. “Did you think you could get a spot on the squad by flirting with my boyfriend?”
Gretchen could feel her face grow hot and knew she was blushing. She was one of those people who blushed easily, blushed all the time, often for no big reason at all, and she hated that about herself. It embarrassed her so that she blushed even darker.
“I-I wasn’t flirting,” she stammered. “I’m … late.” She brushed past Sid and Stacy and vanished into the gym.
“Well … that went well,” she muttered.
Not a good start. But she had no way of knowing her troubles had just begun.
Coach Walker’s office stood at the far end of a row of small glass-windowed offices along one side of the gym. The cheerleaders, Gretchen saw, had taken a break from their practice. They were perched in the bleachers, water bottles in one hand, phones in the other.
Through the glass window, Gretchen could see that two girls were already in Walker’s office, seated in front of the cluttered desk, both talking animatedly. Gretchen hesitated outside the door, unsure whether to go in or wait.
Coach Walker was a tall, lean black woman. She was dressed in purple sweats and had a blue-and-white Yankees cap over her short hair. She saw Gretchen through the glass, stood up, and opened the office door. “Are you Gretchen? I’m Coach Walker.”
Gretchen nodded. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No worries. I’ll be right back.” Walker was at least a foot taller than Gretchen. She turned and jogged to the gym doors.
The two girls in the office both stared intently at Gretchen. She swept her hair back with both hands and entered the office to introduce herself.
“I’m Devra Dalby,” said one of the girls. She had beautiful, wavy red hair and creamy white skin, unreal skin, Gretchen noticed immediately. Her blue eyes were large and round and icy cold. And she had an amused little grin on her face even though Gretchen didn’t see anything to be amused about. “And this is my friend Courtney Shaw.”
Courtney was in a cheerleader uniform. She had very short black hair, shaved close on one side. She had a slender face, gray eyes surrounded by a lot of dark eye makeup, a short turned-up nose, a silver ring in one nostril.
Courtney had the same amused look on her face as Devra. As if the two of them shared a joke.
Am I the joke? Gretchen wondered.
“I like your outfit,” Devra said. “Nice hoodie.”
The girls exchanged glances. Gretchen caught their vibe. They were laughing at her for some reason.
“Coach Walker said you were from Savanna Mills,” Devra said. “Is that really a place? It sounds made up.”
She and Courtney laughed, as if that was a great joke.
“It’s a real place,” Gretchen said. “But if you blink, you miss it.”
“Small towns are the best,” Courtney said to Devra, her eyes flashing.
“If you’re a small town person.…” Devra added. She changed to a funny voice and did a short dialogue. “‘Want to hang out at the 7-Eleven tonight?’ ‘Huh? The 7-Eleven? That’s too exciting. How about the DQ?’”
Gretchen watched them laugh. How do I win them over? They’re both so snotty.
Devra’s smile faded. Her blue eyes turned icy. She had a red-and-yellow bandanna tied tightly over her forehead. She untied it, then tied it again. “Listen, Gretch,” she said, peering out to see if Coach Walker was returning. “If you’ve come for the cheerleader position, it’s already taken—by me.”
The two girls didn’t wait for Gretchen to reply. They both jumped up and hurried out of the office. Gretchen could feel that her face was still hot. Without realizing it, she had balled her hands into fists. She watched the two girls as they crossed the gym to the bleachers.
But her eyes wandered to the wall at the side of the bleachers. She saw Sid and Stacy. Sid had his arms around Stacy’s waist, and they were locked in a long kiss.
To Gretchen’s surprise, Devra stopped halfway across the gym floor. Her mouth dropped open as she watched Sid and Stacy against the wall.
Why does Devra suddenly look so angry? Gretchen wondered. She looks as if she wants to kill them both.
A few minutes later, Coach Walker returned to her office. She dropped behind her desk and slid her phone onto the desktop. She adjusted the Yankees cap over her hair. Gretchen saw that she had tiny diamond studs on both sides of her nose.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Did you meet Devra and Courtney?”
Gretchen nodded. “Yes. We … uh … talked for a bit.” She clasped her hands tightly in her lap, surprised to find them damp and ice cold.
“Your family just moved to Shadyside?”
Gretchen nodded again. “My mom and me. A few weeks ago.”
Coach Walker toyed with the silver whistle that dangled from her neck. “How are you finding it?”
“Big,” Gretchen said.
That made the coach smile for the first time. But the smile faded quickly. “I’m afraid your timing is bad. We had only one position to fill, and I just gave it to Devra.”
Gretchen couldn’t hide her disappointment. She let out a long sigh.
“Devra was the alternate last year,” Coach Walker said. “So I thought she should move onto the squad for this year.”
“But…” Gretchen fumbled in her bag and pulled out the disc she had brought. “I have a highlight reel,” she said, raising it to the coach. “Maybe if you have time, you can watch.…”
Coach Walker took the disk from her. “Is this video from your old school?”
“Yes. I was cocaptain. The school was smaller, but we had six girls on the squad, just like here.”
Coach Walker studied the disc for a moment. She smiled again. “Why don’t we watch it now?”
She pulled a disc drive from a bottom desk drawer and plugged it into her laptop. Then she motioned for Gretchen to slide her chair around to her side of the desk so they could watch it together.
As the video started and Gretchen watched the Savanna Mills cheerleaders run onto the floor to start their routines, she felt a pang of sadness. She watched Polly do a series of cartwheels across the floor. She liked all these girls. They had so much fun together. They were a real team.
The girls suddenly looked so young to Gretchen. She had the weird feeling she was watching an old movie. Something that happened far away in a different time.
Can’t let the sadness take over.…
She raised her gaze to Coach Walker, who was watching the routines intently. “Good. Very good,” she murmured. She turned to Gretchen. “Very good L Stand to a Shoulder Sit. That’s so basic, but you made it look fresh.”
“Thanks,” Gretchen said. “I think the Thigh Stand is next.”
Coach Walker turned her attention back to the laptop screen. “Yes. That’s impressive,” she said, nodding her head. “Both Thigh Stands are perfect. And I like your smile, Gretchen. I like the way you make it look as if you are enjoying yourself.”
“Well … actually, I was,” Gretchen said.
Coach Walker stopped the video. “I’m impressed.”
Gretchen felt her heartbeat start to race again. “Thank you. I do a Flying Somersault at the end. It’s kind of my specialty.”
“I’m going to watch the whole thing later,” the coach said. “Have you met Stacy? She’s our captain. I want her to watch it, too.”
“I met her. Out in the hall,” Gretchen said. Then she thought: And Stacy thought I was flirting with her boyfriend.
“Tell you what, Gretchen,” Coach Walker said, twirling the silver whistle. “Devra isn’t going to like this, but I’m going to let you try out. I think this team has a chance of going to the state tournament. And I want it to have only the best cheerleaders we have in school. I think you’re really good, and it’s only fair to give you a chance to make the squad.”
Gretchen’s heart skipped a beat. She wanted to jump up and hug Coach Walker. “Oh … thank you,” she managed to say.
Walker jumped to her feet. “I have to tell Devra right away.” She saw Devra sitting beside Courtney at the far end of the bleachers. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted for Devra to come to the office.
Devra entered the office with her arms crossed in front of her, a suspicious look on her face. Coach Walker motioned for her to take the chair next to Gretchen. “Change of plans,” the coach said.
Devra’s blue eyes grew wider. She adjusted her red-and-yellow bandanna and flipped back her wavy, red hair with a toss of her head.
Coach Walker hesitated. She took a breath. “I’ve decided to give Gretchen a chance to try out for the position on the squad,” she said. Both of her hands gripped the edge of her desktop, as if she expected a torrent of protest.
She squinted at Coach Walker. “What did you just say?”
“I said we want the best talent we can get on the squad,” the coach replied. “So I’ve given Gretchen a chance to try out.”
Devra’s eyes flashed. She glared at Gretchen, a hard, angry stare.
But then she said in a voice just above a whisper, “No worries. No worries at all.”
A few minutes later, Gretchen was driving home, singing along to the radio, the music cranked way up. She roared up Park Drive, made a squealing turn into a street she didn’t know, singing and laughing, and feeling the joy of being a winner.
She sailed through several blocks, the houses and cars a colorful blur sweeping past the windshield. Stopping for a light, she cut off the music and pulled out her phone. She pushed Polly’s number to tell her the good news.
“I know I can beat Devra Dalby,” she told her old friend. “I know I can make this squad. You should have seen the coach’s face. She was definitely impressed. And I’m impressed with her. I think it took courage to give this girl Devra the news. Devra seems to be some kind of tiger.”
Gretchen turned back onto Park Drive. “Hard to believe, Polly, but I made two enemies in one day. Stacy and Devra. But they’ll get over it. I’m sure they will.”
Gretchen let out a shocked scream as a gunshot—a deafening crack of sound—rang out right behind her. Her hands flew up, the phone fell to the floor, and the car squealed out of control.