Am I Pretty Yet?

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Chapter 10: Melway vs. Trinity

One, bus rides to sports games are not given justice in teenage films. Two, Michelle held a vengeance against her ex-boyfriend Will that was so strong, it could burn down the bridge to Terabithia. Lord knows that bridge has already been burnt.

“Are we almost there?” I mumbled, my eyelids drooping shut. Coach Tracy had demanded for us to be in the school parking lot and stand in front of the bus at exactly seven o’clock in the morning. Therefore, Faith thought she would be an ace friend by waking me up at five thirty to ensure I wouldn’t sleep past my alarm. I had to quickly leave my mom a note stating that Faith had wanted to go to a mall outside of town and that we had to beat traffic. Of course, she didn’t know that we were supposedly leaving for the mall at five thirty in the morning, but by the time she woke up, she’d probably assume we’d left much later than that.

Faith had a hair tie in her mouth and was gathering loose ends of her hair and pulling it back. “If you ask that one more time, I will bite your arm.”

“How specific,” I groggily replied before hitting my head against the window, feeling the road bumps rattling my brain. I was not good with mornings. Michelle sat just one row behind us, blabbering angrily about how she was going to “do some serious control damage” and “beat her ass after the game,” said “her” being the girl her boyfriend left her for. The other girls on the bus were either attempting to catch some sleep before we arrived to our destination or blabbering about the game with adrenaline running through their veins. Courtesy of a Red Bull, I was sure. The seats were a squeaky leather and the windows had the occasional fingerprint smudges. Coach Tracy sat up front behind the bus driver, chatting his ear off. He clearly could care less about her, and was very much like me: in great need of more hours of sleep.

“What you need is a bran muffin. Here,” Faith said, rummaging through her black overnighter before pulling out a Ziplock bag with a medium sized blueberry muffin inside. “These are organic. They give you that boost of energy that you clearly need right now.”

“Where is the remote control? You sound like a health commercial,” I groaned, pulling the hood of my jacket over my face. She plopped the bran muffin down onto my lap regardless of whether I wanted it or not. I knew Faith was just trying to be a good friend, but I felt exhausted. I had gone to sleep late last night helping Mom do inventory for the shop, then continued to finish up the missing half of my essay on To Kill A Mockingbird for English that was due on Friday. Then there was the fact that Richel had sent me photos through email of possible dresses that I needed to choose from for the luncheon tomorrow. I wasn’t used to my schedule being this jam packed. My days were once filled with mundane events like school and work. Now, I could barely squeeze in some time to watch Starcrossed reruns in bed or even waltz around the greenhouse and admire the blooming roses.

Faith bared her teeth at me. “Eat it. You need to stay awake. We have to beat Trinity or else-”

“Michelle will lose her head?” I finished, lowering my hood away from my face and bringing the bran muffin up to my mouth, taking a small bite. Not bad.

“She might make that other girl lose her head,” Faith corrected. She turned to look at the window, her eyes widening. “We’re here!”

I turned to my left and felt my whole body sit up straighter. Trinity was gigantic: tall buildings, a clock tower, green lawns holding benches and lunch tables that looked like they had never seen a spot of dirt before. A lot of the buildings were built from glass, with see through window panes that showcased the gleaming desks inside of the classrooms and the globes sitting atop the principal’s desk. It was all too bright and unreal for an academic institution. I squinted my eyes, putting a palm up to protect myself from seeing stars later.

“There’s a rumor that the glass they used for the buildings is bullet proof,” Faith whispered. I laughed it off, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that rumor turned out to be true. We all began to get off the bus in a single line formation, the girls chattering loudly, tightening their ponytails, gripping their gym bags and taking sips from their multicolored Gatorade bottles. We stepped onto the lawn and I almost expected for an alarm to sound off like in The Princess Diaries, but nothing of the sort happened. I sighed in relief and tiptoed the rest of the way. When we neared the double doors to their gymnasium, I felt my heart pound. This was it. I had made the decision of joining the volleyball team, and now here I was, about to play my very first sports game in all of my sixteen years.

As soon as we entered, the first thing that came to my attention was how loud it was inside. Every time someone spoke, it seemed that the voices were carried across the room and echoed along the walls all the way up to the ceiling. There were volleyballs being dribbled against the floor, girls yelling “Mine!” as they practiced passing the ball and hitting it to one another. The Trinity players looked like soldiers: straight faced expressions, sleek and tight ponytails, red and white uniforms. Some of the girls even had black lines smudged across their cheeks. They all eyed us as we stepped inside. The Trinity Coach seemed even more menacing, considering the fact that she was over six feet tall and held a whistle between her teeth, blowing it every five seconds. I cringed.

“I feel like I’m going to be sick,” I whispered to Faith, feeling myself grow smaller as we passed by a volleyball player who was glaring at me. If looks could kill, I would’ve been in a stretcher right now heading to the E.R.

“You’re the one who gave me a pep talk the other day. Now it’s my turn,” she said, sending me a comforting smile. “You’ve got this. You’ve come a long way. I know your main priority has been the beauty pageant, but for just one day, place all your focus on winning this game. Think of it as a distraction. Take a break from the dresses and mascara.”

“I don’t wear mascara, and I haven’t worn a dress yet,” I pointed out.

“Whatever it is that Richel has you putting on your face, none of that matters here. All that matters is what you can bring to the court,” she continued, brushing off my remark. “Focus. And don’t be intimidated by them. They’re just a bunch of bean stalk bullies.”

I let out a small laugh, then faltered in my step as my eyes fell on two familiar figures sitting in the bleachers, one of them clutching a hot dog. “Is that-”

“-Parker and Richel?” Faith finished, her jaw dropping. “What the hell are they doing here? So much for you taking a break!”

“Hold on,” I mumbled, moving my way past the volleyball net and climbing up the bleachers carefully, one step at a time. When I finally reached them, Parker was on the last bite of his hot dog. I folded my arms. “What are you two doing here?”

Richel grinned, taking out a large glittery poster from her purse. “To cheer you on! You don’t think I forgot about this game, did you? I am going to be your Number One cheerleader for today!”

“Parker?” I pointedly asked, turning to him. He crumpled up the silver foil in his hand, rising to his feet.

“I’m here for the food,” he said before sidestepping me and walking down the bleachers, heading for the trash can. I sighed, shaking my head and turning my attention back to Richel.

“Thank you for coming but,” I paused, trying to put it as gently as possible, “don’t go hardcore cheer on me, alright?” Richel was very much the type of person to go into screaming, fanatic mode. I could only imagine how she was at concerts.

“I’ll try not to act like a proud mother,” Richel promised, smiling at me. I jogged back down the bleachers, checking my phone for the time. The game started at eleven o’clock. It was ten thirty now. The clock was ticking. I moved towards the bench on the other side of the gymnasium, where Michelle sat wearing earphones, tapping her foot and nodding her head along to the music. I made a daring move and took a seat beside her. Ever since Faith had told me about her unfortunate relationship experience, I couldn’t help but feel my heart go out to her. She may have been on the top of the food chain in terms of being athletic and much taller than me, but when it came down to it, we were one and the same. Lost. Confused. A little bit broken.

“Hi,” I said. She turned to me, removing her headphones roughly as they fell onto her neck.

“What?” she asked, not necessarily in a rude manner but her choice in reply was an obvious statement that I should back off and leave her alone. Yet I didn’t.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Are you alright?”

Her eyes softened and she cleared her throat uncomfortably. I recognized the look on her face in an instant. In fact, I’d seen the same look on my face every time I looked in the mirror. She was hurting. “I could be better,” she chuckled sarcastically, sighing. “My stomach could stop twisting itself into knots.” She paused, and at first I thought she was trying to signal that our conversation was over, but then she continued. “I’m not going to mince with words, so I’m just going to come out and ask you: do you think I’m stupid?”

I blinked, taken aback. “Stupid? Why?” I asked.

“For wanting to plot all of this revenge against the girl my boyfriend chose over me,” she replied. “For wishing he would wake up and tell me he was just joking and that it was all some lame prank. For me to stop feeling so… ugly.”

She emphasized “ugly” with such anger and disgust towards herself; it was startling to hear someone who looked beautiful on the outside turn out to feel so ugly on the inside. I felt as if the axis of the world had tipped me sideways, my hair hanging on one end and blood rushing to my forehead.

“Michelle, you aren’t ugly. You’re confused. You’re hurting. And that is entirely okay.”

“But it’s not,” she insisted. “It’s not okay to feel this way, Nina. Is it okay to feel like you’re nothing? Like the person you loved, who you put all your heart and soul into, never cared about you at all? Does that sound okay to you?”

I took a deep breath, feeling that familiar catch forming in my throat. “No, it doesn’t,” I said in a low voice. I could hear Coach Tracy blowing her whistle from across the court and standing beside the net, calling us out to do some warm-ups. I wished I could come up with some miraculous recovery speech, something to make Michelle feel instantly better, something that would lift her spirits. But I could barely lift myself up from the dust. It was still a task I had to work on and practice. So instead I got down in front of her and sat on the heels of my feet. “It’s not okay to feel this way. You’re right. It hurts too much to bear sometimes, and it makes you find flaws in yourself. But it’s also not okay to tell yourself that you’re to blame, because that’s technically what you’re doing isn’t it?”

Michelle stayed silent but her eyes lifted up to meet mine.

“You need to prepare yourself for when you are ready to feel okay again, even if that time isn’t now. You need to make space inside of you to grow.”

She sniffed, swiping at her eyes. “To grow?” she repeated.

“Ladies!” Coach called again, and this time Michelle and I both got up. She took a deep breath, then let it out all in one whoosh. She moved past me, not saying a word. But when I noticed the way she high fived one of her team mates and avoided making contact with any of the girls from the opposing team, I knew that somehow, in some way, what I had said made the tiniest impact on her.

That was all that really mattered to me.

“Mine, mine, mine!” Faith called, passing the ball high enough for me to spike it downwards across the net. I jumped up, arching my hand back before bringing it forward and smacking the ball. A Trinity player dove for it with her hands cupped one over the other, ready to hit the ball, but she missed it by an inch. The crowd roared and us Melway girls chorused into a series of whooping and high fiving. Electricity was running through my veins, sweat was dripping down my temples, and my hair was surely a mess- but I, for once, didn’t care.

We were winning, the score twenty to eighteen. There were only two rotations of the game left, and Coach Tracy’s confidence in us was flying high. Michelle’s spirits seemed to have lifted as soon as she started playing the game and serving. She’d even patted me on the back when I made my first successful spike and a Trinity team member hadn’t been able to hit it. Now, everyone on the team was smiling at me and sending me thumbs up gestures.

When a break was called, we all flitted towards Coach, who was grinning ear to ear and clutching her clipboard with a certain optimism. Once we were huddled all around her, I peered past her to see a familiar face in the crowd. A dark haired boy waving at me and smiling. I waved back. The Melway members looked at me, then towards Harrison. They laughed, whistling. I felt my face turning warm. Coach Tracy winked at me.

“Are you done there, Gregory?” she asked. I nodded, quickly turning my attention back to the team and what was at stake. “Alright. Two more rotations and we can win this game! Remember what we’ve practiced, listen to one another, and keep an eye out for those last minute tricks Trinity may have up their sleeve.”

We all nodded in unison, then placed our hands in the middle, fingers interlocking and laying across one another. I had always seen teams cheer on TV, but it was a different experience altogether first hand. You felt like you were a part of something. Like you belonged somewhere.

As we headed back to the court, I noticed two of the Trinity girls sending me the stink eye but merely brushed it off. People sent me the unfortunate stares all the time back at the flower shop; it made no difference here on the volleyball court. We were just five points away from winning. We could do this. I could be a part of this win for Michelle, for the team, for myself. I had put this down as one of my important extracurricular activities for the pageant.

Now, I had to prove that.

I heard someone yell my name in the background and turned to see Harrison, pumping his fist into the air. Beside him sat Leslie, whom I didn’t recall seeing before. She had driven him, but I’d never thought that she’d actually come inside and watch. The last time we had talked, she’d bulldozed me down in the halls with her words.

The referee blew the whistle, and the server on Trinity’s side of the court threw the ball in the air. Unlike the movies, everything did not happen in slow motion, but rather at the speed of light. The ball came zooming just in between Faith and I, who were standing in the front row near the net. I dove to the side for the ball, my arms out and ready, but didn’t realize that my foot had taken an awkward step. I felt myself falling to the side, my ankle bending in a way that should never be done, and then I felt a pop. Collapsing onto the floor, I gasped in pain, seeing white hot spots forming in my vision. I grabbed at my ankle, and a whistle was blown for a pause in the game. Footsteps came racing towards me, and I felt Faith and Michelle rushing to be by my side.

“Christ, that was quite a fall,” Faith commented, rubbing my shoulder.

“That bitch! She served the ball in that direction on purpose! She knew she was going to lose because of your spikes and she just couldn’t even manage to be a good sport,” Michelle hissed, getting up from her feet, clearly ready to throw a punch. But I had been there and I had done that, and something told me that unlike Harrison and I, she wouldn’t be developing a friendship through swinging at her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. The other team members seemed to agree as they pulled her back by the arm, reassuring her and calming her down for our sake.

“I don’t think I can get up by myself,” I whispered to Faith, humiliated. Another person was trying to push their way into our circle, and when I looked up to see that it was Harrison, I felt my lip tremble. This was mortifying. He had come all the way to watch me play, only to see me fall. I willed myself not to cry, not in front of the volleyball team, and especially not in front of Leslie. I had a feeling she would enjoy it too much. He knelt down beside me, his brows furrowed and his eyes wide.

“Nina, are you okay?” he asked, his tone desperate. “Can you stand? What hurts?” He placed a hand on my knee, and I could tell that despite the anxiety hanging in the air, the team was sending me smirks and winks. Hopefully Leslie wasn’t noticing their sly glances.

I opened my mouth to reply but was interrupted by a shrill piercing noise in the air. Everyone’s heads snapped up, including mine, and turned to look at a frantic Parker attempting to push his way past the referee, who was profusely blowing his whistle right in Parker’s face. Richel sat slumped down in her seat on the bleachers, clearly humiliated and eager to turn into a complete chameleon as to avoid being connected to her twin. The referee’s face was growing red and his brows were furrowing deeper and deeper by the minute. His whistle stayed between his now gritted teeth, and his eye contact was already moving past Parker to the Trinity school faculty standing near the double doors at the both ends of the gymnasium. Parker was screaming a string of curse words and continuously kept shoving his chest and arms against the ref, the sleeves of his plaid flannel shirt rolled all the way up.

“Parker!” I yelled as loud as I could, my voice echoing along the walls of the gym. He stopped ramming himself into the indignant ref and snapped his neck up at me, the muscles in his face instantly relaxing. He stopped frowning and his eyes seemed to droop. I sent him a small smile. That was what I was waiting for: him to stop and breathe. “I’m fine.”

“Unfortunately you’re not, Gregory,” Coach Tracy sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose and squeezing her eyes shut. “This is a high ankle sprain you’ve got here. If you even try to get up, you’ll place a tremendous amount of force on this ankle, which will only place it in a much worse condition.”

Faith rubbed my shoulder in a circular motion, but instead I felt like a failure. The faces of my teammates were incredibly distraught, more specifically Michelle’s expression, which could be compared to that of a child getting lost in a supermarket. If Michelle was a flower, my sprain was the equivalent of a cloudy day or too much water being poured over her. She was drowning. Before I knew it, I was being lifted off the flooring with my legs wrapped around Harrison’s hips and my chest against his back. His hands were clutching onto my fingers, pulling my arms around his neck. I felt myself flush and was certain my cheeks were turning crimson.

“What are you doing?” I hissed in his ear. I could feel Leslie’s glare burning holes through my volleyball polo. I was positive Richel was watching us in the bleachers with knowing eyes, peering over the edge of her “Go Nina!” poster.

“Taking you to the nurse’s office,” he replied. The referee moved to blow his whistle at us, however Coach Tracy thankfully stopped him and began talking to him in a hushed voice. The last thing I saw was him nodding his head grimly before calling a timeout, in which the Trinity Coach called her team over. She didn’t sound very happy.

Harrison exited the gym, turning around a corner, and I wondered how he knew where the nurse’s office could possibly be in a school this big, more so on the fact that this wasn’t even our school. But being on his back like this, with my chin settled onto one of his shoulders and his hands wrapped beneath my thighs, I was brought back to a time in the Seventh Grade. We had been one week into our newfound friendship, and the skin of my left shoe had peeled off entirely just as the lunch line was moving up in the cafeteria. Back then, I had owned only one pair of Converse. A hole was already beginning to form in one of the heels, and the color was becoming faded. Mom would constantly nag me about purchasing new ones, but my heart was stubbornly set on those black and white Converse.

Before I could even stand or plan my next move, Harrison had picked me up and given me my first boy-girl piggy back ride. He didn’t care that the boys behind him waiting in line gagged, or that a group of Eighth Grade girls were shooting us looks of incredulity. Their thoughts were obvious: Why was a boy like him carrying a girl like me? But he did. He just carried me all the way up the lunch line, getting trays and filling them with food for the both of us. Then, for my thirteenth birthday, he bought me a new pair of Converse.

“I have no clue where I’m heading right now,” Harrison finally admitted, and I let out a rather loud, unexpected laugh, clapping a hand over my mouth. He stopped right next to a water fountain in the hallway beside a window seat, carefully setting me down.

“Lovely,” I breathed, shaking my head and wringing the hem of my shirt with my hands. “I have a high ankle sprain, I let down the volleyball team and crushed Michelle’s dignity, and I embarrassed myself in front of a whole gymnasium full of people.”

Harrison raised his eyebrows at me, startled. “I don’t know who Michelle is, but,” he said, taking a breath, “I thought you kicked ass today. Your overhand serves were fire, and the Trinity Coach looked like she was going to cry when you guys were four points ahead of them during that rotation at the very beginning.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “It still doesn’t excuse my clumsiness. Obviously I should have listened to Coach Tracy about the tricks Trinity had up their sleeve. They were planning to take me down all along. I'm nothing but a fallen warrior.”

“Fallen warriors always turn out to be legends, you know,” he pointed out to me, leaning down to observe my ankle more. He took off my shoe and peeled my sock back a bit, just by my ankle. I winced. “Sorry.”

“S’okay,” I mumbled, observing the way his eyes squinted as he lightly brushed his fingers along the slowly swelling skin along my ankle bone. I took a sharp breath, and he apologized once more. “How is it looking?”

“Not so great,” he admitted. “We need to get you into a cast or wrap some bandage around this, at least. I have some crutches at home from when I’ve gotten broken bones during basketball practice. Remember that time I called you to fetch my crutches all the way from home in order for me to save face in front of that red head girl I used to like?”

I smiled fondly at the memory. “It was pouring rain that day. My hair was soaked, and I was wearing a white T-shirt. You kept teasing me about my Minnie Mouse bra for ages.”

He cracked up at this particular detail, looking up at me. “I remember that. And now I’m definitely going to bring back that never ending joke.”

“Hey, no fair!” I shot back, crossing my arms and frowning. “I grew that out a long time ago.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and in that moment I could tell that we both got this sense of feeling like so much time had passed between us. We had been friends for quite awhile now, longer than most friendships when in the transition from middle school to high school. We had stuck together naturally; drifting apart didn’t even seem like an option. Harrison had been my one constant.

“I didn’t ask Leslie out to the spring formal. She asked me, the night of the party, when I got into that fight. She came to my house and had a poster and everything. Then your mom called, going manic and begging me to come pick you up. So we did.”

I felt my hands clench together, my knuckles turning white. Why had he said that? I’d never even confronted him about Leslie the spring formal. “She followed through on what you were hoping for, then,” I said quietly in return. “For her to ask you, I mean.”

“That’s not what I was hoping for,” he said.

“Then what were you hoping for?” I asked, our eyes connecting. He seemed to be searching my face, looking at everything from my hairline to my eyes to… I pulled back, not realizing how close our faces had come together. I cleared my throat, hoping the whole thing hadn’t been just a dream or the science of gravity at its finest. I hoped it was chemistry, and not the kind test tubes.

“What will you tell your mom?” he asked.

I fiddled nervously with my thumbs. “That I don’t have a date.”

The tips of his ears turned bright red. “About your ankle.”

Now, it was my turn to blush. “Oh,” I stuttered. “Um, I tripped going down the escalator. We didn’t use the elevator to get to the shop we wanted to go to because it was crammed, so that’s why we took the escalator.”

“Good alibi,” he agreed, nodding his head and pulling my sock back up. He carefully wiggled my shoe back onto my foot, making sure it didn’t hit my now swollen ankle. “You know, you’re getting better at lying to your mom, Nina. I’m not sure if I should feel worried or impressed.”

I sent him a weak smile in return. If only he knew that she wasn’t the only person I had been lying to lately. She wasn’t the only person I had to put up a front with. The lies were spreading a wild fire within me, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it at a low flame without getting burned.

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