Authors: Belle Payton
Alex Sackett stared down at the pale-yellow wrap dress she'd laid out on her bed and nodded with satisfaction. Combined with her brand-new, first-ever pair of cowboy boots, it would be just the right first-day-of-school outfit. She even had a matching yellow headband to wear with it.
Talk about a down-to-the-wire decision. School starts tomorrow!
She frowned at the heap of discarded clothes on the floor. She'd had to try on half her wardrobe before arriving at the perfect combo, so it was going to take a while to get her room back in shape. And she still had new vocabulary cards to memorizeâshe tried to memorize five each day.
Alex guessed that her twin sister, Ava, was not laying out her school outfit or memorizing vocab words. Ava wasn't someone you'd describe as a slave to fashion. Just last week she'd appeared at breakfast wearing one of their brother Tommy's T-shirts, inside out. Nor was Ava the plan-ahead type. Alex hoped that maybe this year she'd be able to convince Ava to try getting her stuff ready the night before, so their mornings would be less rushed. Alex loved her twin sister, but she could be pretty disorganized.
The smell of cookies wafted up the stairs, and Alex heard the oven door slam.
“Al! Tommy! Cookies!” yelled Ava from the kitchen.
With one backward glance at the outfit she'd chosenâmaybe she should go with the green dress instead?âAlex headed downstairs.
“Second batch will be out in just a couple more minutes,” said their dad, Mike Sackettâor Coach, as Ava and Tommy called him. He had tied on one of Mrs. Sackett's ruffled aprons, which made Alex giggle. It was a funny accessory on such a big, athletic-looking guy, complemented by the flowery oven mitts he wore
to pull cookies out of the oven. Coach loved to bake, and it was a Sackett family tradition to have milk and cookies the night before the first day of school.
“Got that outfit all set, Al?” asked Ava with a mischievous grin as Alex poured herself a glass of milk. Ava was sitting at the kitchen table, with their school schedules side by side in front of her. They had gone to Ashland Middle School earlier that day to pick them up and take a tour.
“Ave, don't tease your sister,” said Coach as he transferred cookies to a cooling rack. Moxy, the Sacketts' energetic Australian shepherd, sat beneath him, waiting hopefully for a cookie to fall to the floor. “It's natural to be a little nervous for your first day at a new school. New town. New state. It's a big change.”
“I'm not nervous so much as apprehensive,” said Alex, who liked to work her vocab words into sentences as often as possible. She sat down next to her sister to look at their schedules.
“We don't have a single class together,” said Ava with a frown. “Not even homeroom.”
“We have the same lunch period,” Alex noticed.
“You have Mr. Kenerson, the middle school football coach, for homeroom,” Ava said, pointing to the name at the top of Alex's schedule.
“Oh, great,” she said, blowing back a stray curly tendril that had escaped her ponytail. “You're the one who knows football, but I get the coach. He'll probably expect me to know every play in Daddy's playbook.”
“Maybe it'll inspire you to learn a little about the game,” said Ava. Their dad set a platter of cookies in front of them, and she helped herself to one of the biggest ones, which was still gooey in the center. “I mean, we have just moved to a football-crazy part of Texas, and our dad is the head coach at the high school.”
“Studying up on the rules is definitely on my to-do list,” said Alex. “Look, you have Ms. Kerry for homeroom. She's my math teacher.”
“Awesome, she'll expect me to be as brilliant as my twin sister,” said Ava drily.
Just then their mother burst into the kitchen with the phone in her hand. Her eyes were shining. “Guess what? I just got my first bigâand I mean bigâorder!”
“Aw, honey, that's terrific!” said Coach. He tugged off his oven mitts and gave her a hug.
“What's the order for, Mom?” asked Alex. Their mother was a potter, and Alex had recently helped her create a new website to sell her pieces.
“Remember Katie McCabe, Daddy's colleague back at the old school in Massachusetts? She's registering with me for her wedding!” said Mrs. Sackett. “I'll be making plates, bowls, coffee cups, serving plattersâthe works!”
“I knew your business would take off fast,” said Alex. “You're so talented, Mom.”
“Of course she's talented,” said their older brother, Tommy, walking into the kitchen with his easy athletic gait. “Where do you think I get all my talents from?” He grinned and put an arm around his mother's shoulders. Alex was still not used to seeing her sixteen-year-old brother looming over their mom. He'd probably grown six inches in the past six months. He was looking more and more like their dad every dayâhe wasn't as bulky as Coach yet, but he was getting there.
“It's going to be a busy next few weeks, Michael,” said Mrs. Sackett, helping herself to a cookie. “I was talking with April Cahill earlier today, and she casually mentioned that as the
coach's wife, I'm more or less expected to plan a barbecue for the team for Homecoming weekend. And evidently your predecessor's wife gave each player a towel with his initials embroidered on it!” She shook her head and chuckled in disbelief.
Alex studied her dad's face. He laughed along with her mom, but it was an uneasy laugh.
Mrs. Sackett must have noticed this too. She raised her eyebrows. “What?” she said, laughing. “You don't seriously think I should take up embroidery, do you, hon?”
“Oh, no, no, of course not, Laur,” said Coach as he put a large football-shaped cookie down in front of Tommy. “But you know as well as I do that the role of a coach's wife comes with its own set of expectations and pressures.”
Mrs. Sackett sighed and took a bite of her cookie. “I know,” she conceded. “It's just that it's a bigger deal here than it was in Boston,” she said. “Every time I turn around, people ask me about the team, your strategies. The newspapers call practically every day. And now I've got this huge order.”
“You should concentrate on building your business, Mom,” said Tommy as he stood up
from the table, his cookie only half-eaten. “So we can afford that piano.”
“There he goes with the piano again,” said Alex to Ava in a low voice.
Tommy gave his dad a playful block with his shoulder as he headed out of the kitchen. A couple of minutes later they heard the sound of his keyboard up in his room.
Their mom and dad exchanged a look.
“Something bothering Tommy?” asked Mrs. Sackett.
Coach shrugged. “I think he's a little bent out of shape that he's third-string quarterback, behind PJ Kelly and Dion Bell. But he's still growingâhe's got the talent to be a really fine quarterback. He doesn't have to give up on football yet!” he joked.
“But maybe with my business starting to grow, we should consider getting that piano he's been asking about,” said Mrs. Sackett thoughtfully.
Coach turned back to his tray of cookies. “It's just a phase. Football and music just don't mix.”
Now it was Ava and Alex's turn to exchange a look. Alex didn't think Tommy's love of music was “just a phase.”
Ava slid out of her chair. “Thanks for the snack, Coach,” she said, and headed upstairs.
Ava heard Tommy playing an old-time jazz piece and quietly let herself into his room. She sat on his bed as he finished.
“That sounded great,” she said. “You're really good, Tommy.”
He shrugged. “It would be nice to have a real piano,” he said. “But I think Coach would sooner put a gridiron in the backyard than buy one.” He plunked himself down onto the bed next to her. “I did discover a really great pianoâa Steinway baby grand!âat the church on the corner. And they said I can play it anytime I want as long as there isn't a service going on.”
Ava loved how psyched her brother got when he talked about music. “Is there a piano at the high school, too?”
Tommy's blue eyes danced. “Yup, several. And I think they maintain them pretty well. I'm going to the info session for the concert jazz band after school tomorrow.”
“How can you be in the band, with football?
Are you going to change uniforms for the halftime show?”
“It's not the marching band, goofball,” he said, grinning. “It would be hard to march with a piano. But the concert jazz band is really good. Rehearsals are last period during sports study hall. That's when we're supposed to be in the trainer's, getting taped and suited up for practice. So it might mean I'm a few minutes late for practice twice a week, but whatever. I'm only the third-string QB, Ave. And this is an incredible group.”
Ava swallowed down a worried lump that had risen in her throat. “Music is really important to you,” she said. “You're right, you should at least go to the info session. Maybe you and Coach could work something out,” she added, but her voice faltered a little. She was pretty sure Coach wouldn't care how incredible the concert band wasâshe wasn't sure if he would ever understand if his own son, a talented athlete, chose piano over football.
“Thanks, pal,” said Tommy. “Now get out of here. I have to pick out my outfit for tomorrow.”
An hour later Ava joined her sister to wash up in the small bathroom the girls shared. It wasn't
quite the same as sharing a bedroom, as they'd done back at their old house in Massachusetts, and it was pretty cramped for two, but they'd learned to take turns at the sink, and the bathroom was quickly becoming the girls' favorite place to touch base and recap their days together.
“So, Ave,” said Alex briskly, rinsing off her electric toothbrush and putting it back in its charger. “Do you promise me you'll get up on time? Maybe even a little earlier than usual, so our first morning isn't the usual mad rush for the bus? It's stressful enough starting a new school. I don't want to be stressed waiting for you, too.”
“Yes, I promise,” said Ava, running a comb through her short wavy dark-brown hair. She'd had long hair like her identical twin until very recently, when she'd gotten a dramatically shorter cut so it was easier to play sports. At first Alex had been really upset with Ava for making such a drastic change without talking to her first, but the twins had since talked about it and made up. Now Alex called Ava's haircut “adorable” so often that Ava wondered if Alex was going to cut her hair too. “I'm going to set my alarm clock and set an alarm on my phone, and I'm going to put them both across
the room so I can't fall back asleep.”
“Good,” said Alex, but Ava could still see little lines of tension in her neck. She and Alex had always shared a near-telepathic ability to read each other's moods and feelings, and Ava could tell Alex was nervous about their first day at Ashland Middle School. Ava was tooâsixth grade in Boston was still a part of elementary school, so this was the first year the twins would be switching classes. Ava sometimes had a hard time keeping track of assignments with one teacher; she wasn't sure how well she would be able to handle having six teachers. She gave herself a little shake as she rinsed off her toothbrush. It would be okay.
Alex paused at the doorway to her room and turned back toward Ava. “It's going to be a great first day of school, right, Ave?”
Ava smiled back at her. “It's going to be awesome.”
Alex gave a loud cry of exasperation. She finished her eggs and slammed her fork onto her plate. Ava had overslept. Even though she'd promised Alex over and over again last night that she wouldn't. Alex had heard both of Ava's alarms blaring at 6:25 while she was in the bathroom putting the finishing touches on her hair. She had even called to Ava to be sure she was awake, and Ava had assured her that she was.
But then she hadn't appeared at breakfast, and now it was seven o'clock. The bus was due to arrive at 7:20, and they'd been told to be at the stop at least fifteen minutes early because
bus routes on the first day of school were always chaotic.
“You go on,” said Mrs. Sackett, thrusting Alex's lunch into her hands and propelling her toward the kitchen door. “I'll make sure Ava's right behind you.”
Alex gave one last glance at her harried-looking mother. Her long wavy hair was uncombed and wild, and over her cotton pajama bottoms she wore one of Coach's old Texans T-shirts that was way too big for her. Even in this disheveled state, Alex noted, her mom still looked pretty.
“Go!” said Mrs. Sackett.
She didn't want to be seen running to the bus stop on her first day of school, but she set out at a brisk race-walk. Her nearly empty brand-new backpack bumped up and down with each step. The air was already warm, despite the time of day, and promised to be blazing and humid later. But Alex was getting used to the heat here in Texas. Sort of.
She rounded the corner and saw a line of four kids. She slowed her pace to a casual walk. They all turned to regard her as she said, “Good
morning!” and they nodded back. Three of the kids looked like sixth graders, but one boy looked like an eighth grader. He carried what might be a French horn case and wore pressed khaki pants and leather lace-up shoes, despite the impending heat of the day.
In the distance Alex heard the
of air brakes, and a second later the yellow school bus was visible, turning the corner at the other end of the block, heading in their direction.
Alex glanced worriedly behind her. Could it be possible that Ava was going to miss the bus on the first day of school? Her heart sank. She'd been so sure Ava was going to have her act together this morning.
Just a second or two later, Ava came careening around the opposite corner at a full sprint. Alex closed her eyes with a pained expression, and then opened them again. Ava's striped tank top was half tucked in, the hem on the right side hanging a good three inches lower than the left. In one hand she carried her partly unzipped backpack, and in the other, a half-eaten bagel with peanut butter.
Ava made it to the bus stop in a dead heat with the school bus, skidding to a stop at the
end of the line just as the bus doors swished open.
The boy with the French horn took an alarmed step back as Ava bent over to catch her breath and almost dropped her bagel.
“Close call, Ave,” said Alex in a low voice. “You really had me worried.”
Ava stood back up and followed her sister onto the bus. “I had it all planned,” she said with mock casualness, although she was clearly still out of breath from her sprint. “I just wanted to add a little bit of excitement to our first day of school.”
Alex rolled her eyes as she and her sister found an empty seat toward the middle of the bus. “Ave, has anyone ever told you how exasperating you can be as a sister?”
“Yep,” said Ava with a twinkle in her green eyes. “You have. Frequently.”
They got to school before the first bell and were able to remember the way to their lockers, which, thankfully, were right next to each other.
“This place looks really different when it's full of kids,” said Ava. She rotated her wrist to
peer at the locker combination she'd written in pen on the palm of her hand. “It's about eleven times the size of our old school.”
“Think of it like a big plus sign,” said Alex. “There are four wings: North, South, East, and West. Remember what they told us on the tour yesterday? The gym is in the middle, and the cafeteria is on the second floor, just above it.” She trailed off. “Ave? Are you even listening to what I'm saying? What? Did you forget something?”
“Um, yeah, sort of. My schedule,” said Ava.
“Oh no!” moaned Alex.
The first bell rang, and the hallways swelled with kids, now moving at a faster pace to get to their homerooms.
“It's fine,” said Ava. “My homeroom is right here, in the S wing. I remember that from the tour. I'm sure Ms. Kerry will be able to give me a new schedule, and besides, I think I remember every classâexcept when my English is.”
Alex nodded and closed her locker. She moved closer to her sister and held out her fist, down low, so that Ava could bump it with her own. “Good luck,” she said under her breath.
“You too. See you at lunch,” said Ava, and off they went in opposite directions.
The first person Alex saw when she entered Mr. Kenerson's classroom was Lindsey Davis surrounded by a group of girls Alex didn't know. The second bell hadn't yet rung, so kids were standing around in clumps exclaiming over new haircuts, summer tans, and cute outfits.
As Alex stood near the doorway, assessing where the best tactical place to sit might beâclose to the popular girls, but not so close as to suggest she thought she was already in the groupâLindsey smiled and waved her over.
Alex thought. She had only met Lindsey once, but she had already figured out that Lindsey was pretty popularÂ .Â .Â . and Alex hadn't exactly made the best first impression. Grateful for the chance to change that, she walked over and joined Lindsey's group.
“Guys, this is Alex,” said Lindsey. “Alex Sackett.”
Had she emphasized Alex's last name in a meaningful, nudge-nudge, do-you-know-who-this-is kind of way? Alex couldn't be sure. She wished Ava were here.
The girls all smiled and said hi, although Lindsey didn't tell Alex what their names were. To fill the awkward moment, Alex turned to Lindsey and said brightly, “I love your hair up like that!”
“Thanks,” said Lindsey. “Your dress is really cute.”
“Oh, thanks.” Alex flicked at it casually, as though she hadn't put hours of thought into choosing her first-day-of-school outfit. “I got it at Cooper and Hunt last week.”
Lindsey's smile twitched to a frown, and then became a smile again, although not quite as bright as before.
Alex wondered what she'd said wrong. Then she remembered what she'd heard about Lindsey's family. Lindsey's cousin Jack had told Ava that they were having financial troubles. Oh, great! Cooper & Hunt was kind of expensive, so now Lindsey probably thought she was spoiled and wealthy. “I got it on the clearance rack at the end-of-summer sale,” she put in hastily. “It's amazing what you can get on clearance.” She felt an urge to keep speaking, to smooth over the awkwardness. “I almost never buy clothes full price at Cooper and Hunt, because it's way
overpriced. They have good sales, though.”
Lindsey raised her eyebrows.
The bell rang, and Mr. Kenerson told everyone to take a seat.
Alex slid miserably into her chair. Was Lindsey offended? Maybe she should have just said thank you and not gone on about buying stuff on clearance. She was just trying to make Lindsey feel better!
Mr. Kenerson was taking attendance. Alex sat up straighter and paid attention to the names. The sooner she learned who was who, the sooner she could start moving forward with her plans to ascend to the top of the student government. Alex had been sixth-grade class president at her old school in Boston, and she was hoping to continue her reign here in Texas.
“Alexandra Sackett,” Mr. Kenerson droned, and then his eyebrows furrowed and he looked up, startled.
“Here!” said Alex, shooting her hand up into the air.
“Are you Coach Sackett's daughter?” he asked, and the rustling of papers and snapping of binders suddenly ceased. Alex could feel the whole room go quiet, staring at her.
“Um, yes,” she said. For the first time she noticed that Mr. Kenerson had Ashland Tigers pennants on his wall, and his paperweight and wastepaper basket were emblazoned with the Tigers' logo. Her stomach did a little flip. Uh-oh.
“How's the team look so far?” asked Mr. Kenerson, fixing her with a keen stare. Alex could easily conjure up a visual of him in his coaching attire, a whistle around his neck.
“Um, okay, I think,” said Alex. “The first game's a week from Friday, soâ”
“Does your father like the idea of his corners jamming the wideouts, or will they play off?”
Alex prayed for a miracle. Maybe the ceiling would cave in. Or the fire alarm would go off. “I don't, um, really followâ”
“Now really, Mr. K, just because her dad's the coach doesn't mean she's an expert, does it?”
Alex turned. Lindsey had saved her!
“What's that? Oh, right. Sorry. Got carried away there,” said Mr. Kenerson sheepishly. He stared back down at his clipboard. “Moving along.”
“And besides,” Lindsey continued, “doesn't that strategy depend on how confident he is that his front four can apply pressure?”
Alex gaped at her.
“Well, I suppose that's true,” mused Mr. Kenerson, stroking his chin thoughtfully. He continued with the roll call.
Alex's eyes were wide with astonishment and gratitude. “Thanks for jumping in!” she whispered to Lindsey. “I had no idea you knew so much about football!”
Lindsey smiled back at her, a hint of triumph in her expression. “No worries,” she said. “You learn a thing or two when you've been cheering as long as I have.”
“Oh, right,” said Alex. “And cheerleading starts up soon, doesn't it?”
Lindsey shrugged. “Yeah, well, I'm still deciding if I'm even going out for the squad again,” she said. She suddenly became very interested in organizing her pencil case.
Once again Alex felt baffled, like she'd said the exact wrong thing to Lindsey.
Ava and Alex had arranged a meeting location near the cafeteria, and Ava was glad when she spotted her sister through a gap in the throngs of kids hurrying to get in line.
“Hey,” said Ava, slightly out of breath.
“Hey,” said Alex. “How's it going?”
Ava hesitated. “Okay, I guess. I was late for science because I got lost. It's a really big school.”
They headed toward the cafeteria together. It was easy to findâall they had to do was follow the stream of kids and the smell of pizza.
Alex nodded vigorously. “I was almost late for social studies. And people keep asking me football questions I can't answer.”
“Yeah, I'm thinking of changing my last name,” said Ava with a grim smile.
“Oh! Look! There's Emily and Lindsey sitting at that table over there!” said Alex, and she began waving an arm at them as though she were landing an airplane.
Ava looked. She put a restraining hand on her sister's arm, but Alex shrugged it away.
“Come on. Let's go sit with them,” said Alex, and marched off in their direction.
“Al, their table already looks pretty full,” Ava called after her, but she knew it was useless to try to talk her sister out of something once she had set her mind to it. She followed Alex unhappily.
“Hey, guys!” said Alex, flashing a dazzling smile.
“Alex!” said Emily, seeming genuinely pleased. “You look so cute! I love your cowboy boots!”
Ava had been hanging back, but now she stepped forward.
Maybe they will let us sit with them,
“Mind if Ava and I squeeze in with you guys?” asked Alex, pointing to the empty space between Emily and Lindsey.
“Oh, sorry,” said Lindsey, cocking her head to one side and pursing her glossy lips. “We
promised Annelise and Rosa we'd save these seats for them.”
“That's fine,” said Ava quickly. “There are tons of empty tables still.” She tried to drag Alex away.
Lindsey gestured to the lunch bags the girls were carrying. “Did you guys bring your own?” she asked. “Cafeteria pepperoni pizza not doing it for you?”
Lindsey's tone was friendly, but Ava could detect an edge to it.
Alex looked flustered. “Well, I'm a vegetarian,” she admitted. “And our dad likes to make our lunches for us.”
Ava spoke up quickly. “The food at our old school wasn't great,” she said. “So we just got used to bringing our own.”
“That's so cute that he makes your lunch,” said Emily, and she seemed sincere.
“And I guess you'll get used to Texan dining eventually,” said Lindsey. “There are one or two vegetarians somewhere here in the state, or so I've been told.”
Ava scanned the crowd for open seats and tugged at Alex's arm a little more forcefully.
“Yo! Over here!” a voice called.
It was Jack Valdeavano, Lindsey's cousin. He
was sitting with Corey O'Sullivan and a group of other guys and girls, three tables over from Emily and Lindsey. Ava felt her heart beat a little quicker. It wasn't as though she
liked Jack or anything, but she definitely liked him. They'd met the first week she'd arrived, at a park in their neighborhood, and had hung out and played basketball a few times since. And he did have a pretty great smile.
“Let's go, Al,” said Ava, and she pulled her sister over to where Jack and Corey were sitting.
Alex hissed into her ear. “Ave! I can't sit with Corey! Remember what you told me? I think Lindsey likes him! This could be a very bad tactical maneuver, socially speaking.”
Ava had to admit she was right. Alex liked Corey, but they had recently found out that he and Lindsey used to date, so it probably wasn't the best idea to sit with him. It was too late, thoughâthey were at the table, and Ava slid into the seat across from Jack. Alex sat down warily across from Corey. Both girls glanced in Lindsey's direction. Ava saw a dark expression pass Lindsey's face, which was quickly replaced by a smile. Ava darted a look at Alex, who had seen the same thing. Alex gave a nervous little
shrug. There was nothing she could do now.
Ava unzipped her lunch and grinned at the contents. Coach had packed her a peanut butter and banana sandwich with the crusts cut off. She was way too old to be eating a sandwich with the crusts cut offâthat was something preschoolers demandedâbut her dad knew how much she hated crusts, and it was a sweet gesture for her first day at her new school. Plus, he'd packed her a football-shaped cookie.
Corey leaned forward and grinned at Alex. “I can't believe we haven't had any classes together yet,” he said. “What do you have next?”
“What? Um, I think English, with Ms. Torres?” Alex's face was scarlet. She'd put her sandwich on the table but hadn't taken a single bite. “And then math, with Ms. Kerry.”
“Oh, awesomeâme too! So we're in two classes together. I heard Ms. Torres is tough.”
“Really?” said Alex. “Well, I've already read the first book on the list,
. Like, twice. So hopefully that will help me. Actually, I've already read most of the books on the syllabus.”
“You already looked up the books on the syllabus?”
Alex laughed awkwardly. “I just wanted to
see what they read last year. You know, to prepare,” she said.
Corey nodded. Ava cringed inwardly. Why did Alex become so nervous and weird around guys she liked?
“So who do you have for English?” Jack asked Ava.
“Oh! I don't know. I forgot my schedule at home and my homeroom teacher didn't have the right printout. I have time to stop by the office to checkâactually, I should probably go do that.” She finished her sandwich hastily.
“I hope it's Palmer, next period,” said Jack. “I hear it's a pretty cool class.”
Ava popped her last carrot stick into her mouth and grabbed her cookie and apple for the road. Then she stood up, waved to the table, and headed for the office, trying not to feel guilty for leaving Alex there alone.
There was already a line of kids in front of the secretary's desk when Ava arrived.
Good, other kids also forgot or lost their schedules,
Ava thought, relieved. Mrs. Gusman, the secretary, hustled the line along, looking information up on her computer and then directing the students where to go.
“Hi, can you tell me what English class I'm in? I know it's next period,” said Ava when it was her turn.
Mrs. Gusman's fingers flew over the keyboard. “A. Sackett, Palmer, room W106.”
“Thanks,” said Ava with a big grin. She and Jack were in the same class! She sent him a quick text to tell him that, but he didn't answer. No surpriseâthey weren't allowed to text in class, and the first bell had already rung.
The second bell rang just as she walked into Ms. Palmer's classroom. She scanned the room for an empty desk and saw that there was oneâright next to Jack. He was smiling that half smile at her. He'd saved her a seat!
“I'm sorry I'm late,” she said to the teacher as she slid into her desk.
Ms. Palmer glanced down at her clipboard and furrowed her brow. “Your name?”
The rest of the class was a pretty standard
first-day-of-English class. Ms. Palmer passed out textbooks, sternly admonished everyone to cover their books that night and to refrain from writing in them, and outlined her expectations about the writer's notebooks they were going to be maintaining. Then toward the end of class, she passed out the first book they would be reading:
The title was certainly promising, Ava thought, although the picture of the dog howling at the moon on the cover was somewhat of a letdown. So it wasn't about vampires or sharks. Ava opened to the first page and scanned the very small text with a sinking feeling.
“Please read the first three chapters tonight and write a short response in your writer's notebook,” said Ms. Palmer. “And be prepared tomorrow, or any day, for a pop quizâI need to make sure you're keeping up. This is a wonderful book, but not an easy read, so it's essential not to fall behind. But I'm sure no one in this class will have a problem with that.” She smiled at them just as the bell rang.
Ava had some trouble finding her social studies class, and when she got there, most kids were already sitting down. She didn't know a single person, but everyone looked up at her as she walked in. Did they know somehow that she was Coach Sackett's daughter, or was she just being super paranoid? There was one girl who hadn't bothered to look up, thoughâshe was sitting quietly at her desk, reading a book with a knight and a dragon on the cover.
Ava sat down next to her, and then the girl did look up and smile at her. It was a genuine, friendly smile. Ava's instincts about people were rarely wrong, and she instantly liked this girl, from the colorful beads at the bottom of
her braids to her funky black-and-white cowboy boots.
“I'm Kylie,” she said, holding out a hand for Ava to shake. She had an interesting ring on every finger, and her nails were painted different colorsâthe same colors as the beads in her hair.
“I'm Ava,” said Ava, relieved not to have to mention what her last name was.
Kylie's handshake was firm. “You're not from Texas, are you?”
“Um, no, I'm new,” said Ava. “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. Plus, you have a New England Patriots sticker on your notebook.”
“Yeah, I guess that's kind of a giveaway,” Ava said, smiling.
“You look athletic, too,” Kylie said. “What sports do you play? Wait. Let me guess. Are you a runner?”
“I play football,” replied Ava automatically. “And basketball, and soccer,” she added quickly. She realized that saying she played football could come across as a little strangeâafter all, usually only boys played football. Then again, Kylie looked like the sort of person who would appreciate someone who was unconventional.
Kylie nodded without missing a beat. “I like that. My sister is a cheerleader at the high school, so I've been to plenty of games. It's not really my thing, though. I have trouble following the rules. So where in New England are you from?”
“Just outside of Boston,” said Ava, laughing a little. Kylie practically talked at Alex's pace!
Kylie's eyes sparkled. “I went to Boston this summer!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down in her seat. “We went to the aquarium and rode in the swan boats. And I had my first New England clam chowder. It was sooo good!”
Ava laughed. Kylie's enthusiasm was infectious. “I love the aquarium too,” she agreed.
Their teacher, Mr. Antonucci, clapped his hands to get people's attention, and class began.
Their first task was to partner up and fill out a worksheet about the history of Texas. Kylie and Ava shared a computer station.
“State bird,” Ava read off the worksheet.
“Mockingbird,” said Kylie, without even doing an Internet search. She opened her notebook and started sketching a bird.
“State flower,” said Ava.
“Bluebonnet,” said Kylie. Her pen performed a series of loopy maneuvers, and a
pretty flower appeared. Ava was impressed.
“Bluebonnet? Really?” asked Ava. “I would have said the yellow rose. Isn't there a song about the yellow rose of Texas?”
“There is, but it's the bluebonnet, trust me.”
Ava wrote that down and then looked up. “Guess I chose the right partner.”
“You sure did, pardner,” said Kylie. She smiled as she added little leaves to her flower.
Ava smiled too. She'd hardly been talking to Kylie for five minutes, and she already felt comfortable around her. Like she did with Charlie, her best friend back in Boston. She hadn't felt that way about anyone in Texas yetÂ .Â .Â . well, except for Jack. But the slightly twisty feeling that developed in her stomach when he smiled prevented her from feeling totally comfortable around him too.
“Have you ever ridden a horse?” asked Kylie, interrupting Ava's thoughts.
“Not since I was little. I don't think it counts that I was led around a corral when I was four,” admitted Ava.
“No, that doesn't really count. But it's a start! Anyway, I live on a ranchâyou should come over and I'll teach you how to ride.”
Ava grinned. “I'd love that.”
When the twins got home from school that afternoon, they found a note from their mother waiting for them. Mrs. Sackett would be firing at the kiln late, so the twins were supposed to prepare dinner and walk Moxy. Alex got to work chopping veggies for lasagna, and Ava put her shoes back on to take an eager Moxy outside.
Coach and Tommy arrived in silence a few hours later. Coach went to take a shower, but Tommy gave Ava a discreet thumbs-up before going upstairs. “The info session was great!” he said. “I was, like, thirty seconds late to practice, so Coach is mad, but it was worth it!”
Their mom came home just as Ava was pulling the lasagna out of the oven. Alex tossed the salad. Moxy leaped up to greet Mrs. Sackett, her tail wagging her whole back end as though they hadn't seen each other in months.
“Down, girl,” said Mrs. Sackett.
Moxy sat, her tail thumping loudly on the linoleum floor.
“Coach and Tommy just got home,” Ava reported. “They're taking showers and then coming down to set the table.”
“Thank you, girls, for taking care of dinner. I can't wait to hear all about your first days!” Mrs. Sackett set her bag down and leaned against the counter. She had a smudge of dried clay on her nose and some green paint in her hair.