“That’s sacrilegious to even utter.”
“I don’t think you know what that word means,” she replied.
“I don’t think you know when to shut up.”
Tipping her blond head back, Megan laughed. Sometimes I wondered how we’d become such close friends. We were polar opposites. She didn’t read unless it was flirting tips in Cosmo or the weekly horoscopes in the magazines her mom had around the house. I, of course, read every book I got my hands on. I was going to be applying for financial aid, and she had a major college fund. Megan ate McDonald’s only if she’d been drinking, which wasn’t often, and I ate McDonald’s so much I was on a first-name basis with the lady who worked the window in the morning.
Her name was Linda.
Megan was more outgoing than me, more willing to try new things, while I was the person always weighing the pros and cons before doing something, finding more cons than there were pros to almost every activity. Megan seemed years younger than seventeen, oftentimes acting like a hyper kitten climbing curtains. She was downright goofy half the time. But what seemed like cluelessness was only surface deep. She was an ace at math without even having to try. On the outside, she appeared to take nothing seriously, but she was as bright as she was bubbly.
We both planned—or hoped—to get into UVA, prayed that we’d get housed together and strived to give Dary the hardest possible time, with love, every day of our lives.
Deciding I was going to order two hash browns and eat them right in front of her face, I cut in front of her as we walked to where our captain was waiting.
Practice was grueling.
Since it was preseason and a Friday, it was all calisthenics. Lunges. Squats. Suicide sprints. Jumps. Nothing made me feel more out of shape than these kinds of practices. I was dragging ass by the time we wrapped up, sweating in places I didn’t even want to think about.
“Seniors, I need you guys to stick around for a few minutes,” Coach Rogers called out. “Everyone else can head out.”
Megan shot me a look as we lumbered to our feet. My stomach ached a little from the sit-ups, so I concentrated on not bending over and crying like a teething baby.
“Our first game is a couple of weeks off, as is our first tournament, but I want you all to make sure you realize how important this season is.” Coach straightened his cap, pulling the bill down. “This isn’t just your final year. This is the time that scouts will be coming to the tournaments. Many of the colleges here in Virginia and surrounding states are looking for freshman players.”
Pressing my lips together, I loosely crossed my arms. A volleyball scholarship would be sweet. I wanted one. Was going to gun for it, but there were better girls on the team, including Megan.
The likelihood of both of us landing positions at UVA was slim.
“I cannot stress how important your performance will be this season,” Coach droned on. His dark gaze lingered on me in a way that made me feel like he’d noticed just how crappy my sprints had been. “You’re not going to get a do-over. You’re not going to get second chances to impress these scouts. There isn’t a next year.”
Megan’s gaze slid toward mine and her brows lifted about an inch. This was a wee bit dramatic.
Coach went on and on about good life choices or something, and then he was done. Dismissed, our group made our way toward the remaining burgundy-and-white gym bags.
Megan bumped her shoulder into mine as she reached to grab her water from the top of her bag. “You kind of sucked today.”
“Thanks,” I replied, mopping the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. “I feel so much better after hearing that.”
She grinned around the rim of the bottle, but before she could respond, the coach yelled out my last name. “Oh crap,” Megan whispered, widening her eyes.
Swallowing a groan, I pivoted around and jogged over to where he was standing near the net we often had to repeatedly jump in front of. When Coach used your last name, it was a lot like your mom using your full name.
Coach Rogers’s neatly trimmed beard was more salt than pepper, but the man was fit and more than intimidating. He could run those bleachers in half the time Megan could, and right now he looked like he wanted to order me to do another set of ten. If he did, it would be RIP Lena.
“I was watching you today,” he said.
“Didn’t look like your head was in practice.” He crossed his arms, and I knew I was in for it. “Are you still working at Joanna’s?”
Tensing because we’d had this conversation before, I nodded. “I closed last night.”
“Well, that explains a lot. You know how I feel about you working when you have practice,” he said.
Yes, I did know. Coach Rogers didn’t think anyone who played sports should work, because work was a distraction. “It’s just during the summer.” That was kind of a lie, because I planned to work weekends during the school year. I needed to keep my McDonald’s fund fluffy, but he really didn’t need to know any of that. “I’m sorry about practice. I’m just a little tired—”
“A lot tired by the looks of it,” he cut in with a sigh. “You were forcing yourself through every set.”
I guess I wasn’t going to get credit for that effort.
He lifted his chin and stared down his nose at me. Coach was a beast during practice and the games, but most days I liked him. He cared about his players. Really cared. Last year, he organized a fund-raiser for a student whose family lost everything in a house fire. I knew he was against animal cruelty, because I saw him wearing ASPCA shirts. But right now, in this moment, I did not like the man at all.
“Look,” he continued, “I know things are tight at home, especially with your father... Well, with all of that.”
Clenching my teeth until my jaw ached, I fixed a blank expression on my face. Everyone knew about my dad. It sucked living in a small town.
“And you and your mom could use the extra cash—I get that—but you really need to look at the big picture here. Take these practices more seriously, dedicate more time, and you can up your playing this year. Maybe catch the eye of a scout,” he said. “Then you get a scholarship. Less aid. That’s what you need to be focused on—your future.”
Even though I knew he meant well, I wanted to tell him that my mom and I and my future were really none of his business. But I didn’t say that. I just shifted my weight from one foot to the next, picturing the greasy hash brown in my head.
Oh my God, I was going to smother that baby with ketchup.
“You have talent.”
I blinked. “Really?”
His expression softened a bit as he clapped a hand down on my shoulder. “I think you have a shot at landing a scholarship.” He squeezed gently. “Just keep your eye on tomorrow. Work for it, and there’ll be nothing standing in the way. You understand?”
“I do.” I glanced over to where Megan waited. “A scholarship would be... It would help a lot.”
A way lot.
It would be nice not to spend a decade or more after college working myself out of student-loan hell I’d already been warned about.
“Then make it happen, Lena.” Coach Rogers dropped his hand. “You’re the only person standing in your way.”
* * *
“I don’t care what you say, Chloe was the better dancer!” Megan shrieked from where she was perched on the edge of my bed. I expected her hair to rise and turn into snakes at any given moment, to snatch out the eyeballs of anyone who disagreed with her.
Okay, maybe I was reading way too much fantasy lately.
“We seriously can’t be friends if you disagree!” she added vehemently.
“It’s not a question of who is a better dancer, but I personally think you’re going with the ‘blondes have to stick together’ route.” Abbi was sprawled on her belly on top of my bed. Her hair was a mess of tight, dark curls. “And honestly, I’m Team Nia.”
Megan frowned as she threw up her hands. “Whatever.”
My phone rang on my desk, and when I saw who it was, I sent the call to voice mail without even thinking twice.