- Pages: 320 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Razorbill
- ISBN: 9780593114148
An Excerpt From
The Falling Girls
The pep rally. I wake up before Jadis this morning because I don’t want to be late. Jadis Braff, my best friend, says pep rallies and organized sports are archaic. But I keep us on schedule because I don’t miss pep rallies. No matter how Jadis complains.
Jadis and I have been best friends since the fourth grade, since she moved into the big-walled castle down the street from me. She’s the person I wake up with almost every morning with her arm across my chest. Her blue veins are translucent through her pale skin. Her light-brown eyelashes. Her newly dyed black hair like the color of tar over her face, that sandy brown, her natural color, the last strand of her childhood and who she used to be, gone.
Jadis, who tattoos drawings on my body and hers. She taught me how to do it to her too, but I’m not as good. We mark each other because we own each other. Just two weeks ago, we tattooed two tiny hands on each other’s forearms. Inked on our skin forever. Pinkies entwined.
I shake her lightly and whisper, Wake up, sunshine, to her, but she pulls the covers over her head.
“Saccharine devil!” she cries. “Make it stop. I curse you back to your virginal hole.”
“Hey, don’t virgin-shame me,” I say, and throw a pillow at her.
She climbs out of my bed and rifles through my clothes like they’re her clothes, and they might as well be. In the bathroom, I swipe deodorant under my arms, then she swipes. I squirt face wash in her palm, then in my own. I brush my teeth and then hand the toothbrush over to her. She pees. I pee. We share everything except bras. She swims in mine. She’s flat and I’m wider, more fleshy.
We stare at ourselves in the mirror. We heard this line in a movie once where a woman described her relationship with her best friend: “We’re the same person, but with different hair.” That’s me and Jadis. We’re the same person, on the inside at least. On the outside, I’m curly and frizzy. She’s straight and geometric. I’m olive-skinned. She’s ghostly. My wide, dark eyes. Her deep-set, ocean blues.
Except Jadis is the better, cooler, more interesting version of me. The person everyone stares at when they walk in a room. Like no one else is there. She’s been the coolest girl in our school since . . . forever. Not the most popular or most feared. Just the most brazen.
At the pep rally, we stand out like two sore thumbs. I grab Jadis’s hand, and we stare at the wooden bleachers filled to the brim. Because we’re late, there’s no room except for the front.
“Take a seat, girls,” Mr. Falcone, the oldest teacher on earth, says to us.
“Just trying to find a spot,” I say, and then he points to the front row. We stare at him in horror.
“I’m not sitting here,” Jadis says. “I’m sure there’s a place in the back.” Because the front row is an unthinkable gesture. I want to be here probably more than anyone else, and we never sit up front. It’s way easier sitting on the last bleacher against that cold wall because there, no one looks at you. Up there you have a vantage point. You can see everyone below. You get the best view of the cheer stunts from up top. I can watch their moves with my mouth agape. I can gasp or be critical at the back and no one notices how into it I really am. Up front, you’re left on display.
“Would it hurt you to smile, girls?” he says, his greasy comb-over like an animal’s nest. “When I was a kid, girls used to smile.”
I promise you that girls his age didn’t smile. Especially when they were talking to him.
So we sit down because we have no choice. The pep rally is about to start, and the place is packed. Say what you want about the cheerleaders, but they always get a crowd. Down in the front, you can feel the pulse of the room. You get the full view. We’re so close to the cheer squad I can see the hair on their arms. The clogged blackheads on their noses. The stubble in their armpits. Rashy thighs. Their coach, pacing back and forth. All those cheer championship banners from twenty years ago filling the gym walls like ghosts.
“I can’t wait to get waterboarded by pom-poms and the Three Chloes,” Jadis sneers.
The Three Chloes are Chloe Orbach, Chloe Clarke, and Chloe Schmidt. The in-your-face tight circle that heads the squad. They’re all juniors, like me and Jadis.
Their uniform tops cropped a little shorter than everyone else’s, their tight cheerleader stomachs and glossed lips glinting under the gym’s dingy lights. They’re ferocious about their bond, the way they grip each other’s hands in the hallway, making a wall so you have to walk around them. They’ve been doing it since middle school, so everyone is used to it.
Except for Jadis.
Jadis, of course, has to make a point that this is not 1958 and you can’t just rule a hallway, so she forces her way between them until they split apart.
The Three Chloes are the reason anyone comes to the pep rally.
The blaring dance party music starts as the cheer squad and their hyperfocused faces, their eyes wide, jaws clenched, take their places. There are only five of them out there; they’re a skeleton of a team. The Three Chloes and two seniors, Gretchen Paley and Keke Achebe. There’s a desperation. No giggling on the side. No tightening each other’s bows.
During a graduation party in June, two girls from the cheerleading team, Randi Schaffer and Isla Davidson, went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. The year before that, one girl broke her collarbone trying to do a stunt. Another girl needed knee surgery. There were endless school meetings about the number of concussions cheerleaders were getting. Football players had helmets and precautions. They had a concussion expert on the turf. Cheerleaders, on the other hand, had two-inch-thick gym mats separating their heads from the ground. That was it.
Right away, the focus is on Chloe Orbach. Her wild, blonde ponytail tied back in a giant white bow. The other girls shaking their gold pom-poms in a line, in formation, waiting for their leader.
Chloe Orbach sprints into a roundoff and then hurtles her body into three backflips, one exploding after the other.
That’s all it takes. Three perfect backflips, and I’m in a trance.
Spread out in a line. Clap, thigh slap, head nod. All of them, grunting, “We. Will show. Who’s best.” And they hurl their bodies into perfectly synchronized back tucks.
Four of the girls turn in to make a circle. Their bodies in a blue-and-white blur. White bows clipped in their ponytails, their arms up to the sky, those pom-poms whizzing.
Then on Chloe Orbach’s one, two, three count, they rocket Chloe Clarke, dark hair, big brown eyes. They propel her up to the gym’s rafters, her long, tan legs in a wide V, arms out to the side, huge smile on her face, all that glitter sparkling in the light. Then she comes down as hard and as quick.
And they catch her, and somehow she rises again and does a tight scorpion, one leg above her head, the other straight as a pin, and she spins in a double down back into their arms. (I watch competitive cheer videos incessantly on YouTube. I know the terms.) The three of them, Chloe Schmidt, Gretchen, and Keke, catch her like she’s nothing.
The crowd screams and the girls, in sync, drop to their stomachs. Except for Chloe Schmidt, who flips her body backward and then lands hard, two feet planted on the ground. Like it’s nothing. Like she didn’t just lift Chloe Clarke seconds before that flip. If that’s not enough, she jumps up with her knees to her chest, then one leg stretched out, then down again, rounding her arms up, and explodes into a spread eagle.
It’s everything I want.
I was a mini gymnast. For a little over a year when I was eleven and twelve. Twice a week. Splits and handstands and roundoffs and back handsprings. “She’s a natural,” the coaches told my mother. And wasn’t I? My little tween body, so skinny and malleable, so flexible, just weirdly flexible, that I could do all of these routines so easily. I never got my mother’s jokes when I was little. “Being flexible runs in the family, honey,” she’d guffaw. How embarrassing.
The Three Chloes were there too. They were equally as assertive then as they are now. Just as aggressive, with Chloe Orbach as their leader.
They played this game where they’d rate us, all of us. It was the beginning of middle school, that time when girls like the Three Chloes delight in punishing other kids. Their little squeaking voices. “You get a four. Bad form.” Shit like that. They were gymnastic terrorists.
A parent complained that the Three Chloes were intimidating her daughter. But the gymnastics coach, a beast of a man, tiny, a powerful chest and spindly legs, said it was good for competition. So the ratings went on, and I’d watch girls get ripped apart, waiting for it to be my turn.
And then I learned how to do a back tuck on the balance beam before Chloe Orbach, and this became a problem. I could feel Chloe Orbach, her eyes on me while I was up on the beam. She screamed, “Five!” right there in front of everyone, and I tripped off, landing on my bottom and falling to my side, something I had never done.
I wanted to kill Chloe Orbach, because I knew I was better than her. But she had what I didn’t have: discipline. And a mother who wouldn’t let her quit. A mother who talked her up, who made sure she made it to the gym on time, who bought her real competition leotards, not the cheap black ones from Target I wore.
I was humiliated and I refused to go back to gymnastics. My mother was relieved when I quit. She didn’t want to drive anyway, and she always said gymnastics would stunt my growth and that the costumes were tacky. “I couldn’t stand doing small talk with those mothers,” she said, “especially Chloe Orbach’s mother. Jesus. What a maniac.”
And so that was the end of gymnastics.
Watching them now at the pep rally reminds me of how still, all these years later, I can go right down into a split without even trying. Some people run to relax. I do handstands in the middle of the room. Back walkovers while I’m watching a show. Competitive cheer documentaries. Gymnastics qualifiers. They say our muscles remember. And mine never forgot.
Jadis nudges closer to me just as the squad breaks. “Well, that was jam-packed with energy,” she deadpans. “Did you get your cheerleader fix?”
“For five girls, they’re really good. They’re tight.”
“Oh, please. You’re just as good as they are, Shade. I’ve seen you backflip off a fence. You can do a split without even stretching. Those no-handed cartwheel air thingies.”
“Right. So don’t tell me you’re not as good.”
But she’s wrong. I can’t do that. I can’t fly.
The squad lines up, everyone back in formation. Everyone together. Hands over thighs. Faces smiling. Shoulders back. Shoes gleaming. Chloe Orbach commanding them into the next drill.
That fire. That drive to keep going. And that’s when something in my brain clicks. Because Jadis is right. I’m watching them, but it could be me. It’s so clear that I belong out there. That my body is throbbing to be on the gym floor. Then there’s a deep rush up my chest and into my throat, an excitement. The way it feels the first time you kiss someone. Taking your breath away.
And that’s when it really locks in.
I want to do that.
Imagine me. Off the ground. Into the air. Flipping like that. Flying like that.
I can do that.
But I could also think of a million reasons why not.
For one, the cheerleaders had traditional mothers. Even if they were drugged up on their Vicodin or drunk on merlot. Even if they were lawyering all day, or outsourcing their pajama fundraiser duty, sending their daughter’s uniform to the dry cleaners along with Mommy’s designer suits. These moms filled out forms on time. They showed up to PTA meetings. They had husbands at home. They had calendars they checked. Cheerleaders had someone, a housekeeper, anyone, making them lunches every morning or the night before so they didn’t have to eat the tater tots at the cafeteria. Their mothers did everything for them.
My mother bought me pencils with sayings like Little Miss Hard-Core Feminist. I don’t have a curfew because she wants me to make the judgment call on my own. She wants me to rebel. To try new experiences and take chances. That’s my mother’s big theory about parenting, that it’s her job to push me to experience life, not wander through it following someone else’s lead.
My mother smokes hash with her friends. Most of them don’t have kids—they aren’t chained to the suburbs—so they read poems together long into the night because my mother thinks she’s Gertrude Stein, hosting literary salons in Paris for fledgling artists.
These girls, they would never understand me.
Except I can’t stop watching them. The way they flip casually on the mat. The way they lifted Chloe Clarke up so easily.
What do I even want with cheer?
I want to go up high.
Backflip into it.
I want them to lift me up to the sky, above all of them, so that I arch my leg out like a goddamned angel’s wing.
The Three Chloes and their tight flips, the way they exploded into synchronized spread eagles, pom-poms flying, all that glitter sparkling as the light peeks through the gym windows.
I can do that.
I just have to admit it to myself. The decision is already made.
I can do that.
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