Book excerpt

Weregirls: Birth of the Pack

Petru Popescu

Tor/Forge

WEREGIRLS: BIRTH OF THE PACK
PART ONECaptain's Log1September 
This was the open letter for our school paper, the Highlights. I wrote it all myself. But I thought, hey, I shouldn't be narcissistic, so I let Nikki, Arielle, and Grazia cosign it. The four of us started playing soccer on our street when we were seven. And my dad was our first coach. He also nicknamed us the Weregirls, the meaning of which I'll explain presently. But first, the letter:To our whole girl population, grades 9-12: What about starting some association football, commonly known as soccer in America, at South Pas? So that we girls can excel at a team sport, which, by the way, originated in themists of prehistory--Inca Indians kicked balls of llama skin in the courtyards of Machu Picchu, and the Roman legionnaires played a ball game with offense and defense. So why shouldn't we have the same kind of opportunity? Other high schools, like in L.A., already have girls' soccer teams! Friends, think about it. Even if the equality tip doesn't move you, think about the workout. In just a few weeks, you'll look sculpted. Not to speak of the pure pleasure of the game. We'll play to kick, to knock shoulders, to head-butt the ball, to shout. Major release! That's the message from the four of us. We're hereby requesting the school authorities to bless this new club, which we're naming the Weregirls, and every female student 9th to 12th grade is invited to join, irregardless (Mr. Harris, the journalism teacher, says "irregardless" is a "nonstandard word." I find it really expressive. He also says that I tend to write "screaming journalism"! Whatever!) of creed, race, or the physical shape you're in. See you on the field, Weregirls!Signed: Lily Willison  (I did give myself first credit), Nikki Stone, Arielle Knelling, Grazia Barbieri So, our proposal for a girls' soccer team gets published in the school newspaper. The school doesn't say no, doesn't say yes right away either. Coach Brum, the boys' coach, shrugs. "Chicks' football, huh? Might be cute to watch, but ... hmm ..." I spared him a speech on his sexism (chicks! cute!). Coach Brum wears baggy pants and his shirt out, trying to seem hip; he manages to look old and depressed, his youth passed him by, now we pass him by! I ask for support from Ms. Padgett, woman and principal. She nods thoughtfully. "Girls' soccer, that sounds doable. I'll have to talk it over with the athletic director. Did you mention this to your mom, Lily?"I remember this in such detail. What the others said. What I said. "Of course," I hurry to reply. "My mom thinks it's a great idea.""I'm so glad she does," Ms. Padgett says. (Why my mom is referred to as such a trusted authority, I'll enlighten the readers soon.)So, Ms. Padgett confers with Coach Brum, who's also the athletic director, and with some other teachers, then gets back to me and tells me, due to budget restrictions the school can't sanction us as an official team. But we could start a girls' soccer club. "Like the chess club. They'renot an official school team, but they have matches with other school clubs in the area." I don't even know who's in the chess club--geeks with glasses sniffling over a board game? I don't care. Official, unofficial, we're going to have a team and play!Ms. Padgett is really not so uncool about it. She tells Coach Brum to find us a place to play. Brum invites me to go with him to the running track adjoining the school, to measure if it could fit a soccer field. Inside the track there is a rectangle of sun-bleached grass two hundred feet long and about eighty feet wide. A soccer field, by all standards. All we have to do is draw the touchlines, and build the gates."You can train here," Brum says, "and invite other teams playing in the area ... if there are any. Now, soccer's not as tough as football, but it's still a lot of scrimming and scrumming ... . You sure you girls will like that?""Girls can be pretty tough," I reply with an undercurrent of menace, which he misses. "And we love running.""Running! Ha!" He burps nostalgically, shifts his feet on the grass. "All right. You're in command, Lily." One hour later, Brum hands me acopy of the key to the steel padlock that seals off the running track.So now I'm free to organize games and training sessions! Even in the evenings up to 9 P.M., if I notify him, and if I present a register book to the night guard (who snoozes off in a completely different building) in which I sign us in and out.I've never been a straight-A student, though I do have good vocab--and I never felt super civic about school, but when I get that key in my palm, I feel a rush of pride. Kids should be told to create new things at their schools; I don't know why that's not done more often. It can't be the kids--we're so willing. Anyway, now I'm officially the club founder and first captain of my team!That night, after receiving the key to the track, I started jotting the events in a little log book. I'm aware of my historical responsibilities as founder and recorder--and I won't drop this, as I did with my earlier journals. Of course, I could write a real diary, but that requires discipline, while if I do it only when the events dictate, it's more suspenseful. And I abbreviate words in my own way, so they're really hrdtfgr by someone else peeping in.(Hrdtfgr equals hard to figure, hmm. Not so hard really, I'll make it harder.)In the next few weeks, me, Grazia, Nikki, and Arielle did everything. We bought the paint to draw the touchlines, and asked my mom to ask the police department to lend us a line-tracing vehicle. There is such a thing. It's responsible for signs painted on the drivable parts of roadways or in parking lots. Our school has one too, in fact, but since we're not an official team, wouldn't you know it, we couldn't use the school's equipment! But the po said yes and sent theirs over, for one afternoon, complete with a driver. We built the goals ourselves, from scratch. We launched a public subscription in the school paper, for money to buy lumber, and didn't raise enough. But after cannibalizing a tree house that a classmate of ours had outgrown, and after countless splintered fingers, we built the goals, and started scrimmage after school. Kids came and plopped down on the ground and watched and yelled, and after the game threw us kudos, like, "Hey, black tee (me), you the team captain? What's your name?" or, "You, the redhead chick (Arielle)! You kick so nasty, I feel it!"We played by the most basic rules at first, almostnever with full teams. Eight of the original players, after hits with the ball in the nose, mashed toes, kicks in the gut, accidental or not so accidental, quit. But another twenty signed up--these girls really want to get sculpted! So in these past three weeks, our ragtag team, no rule book, no real coach (I'm coach and captain), in our own shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers reinforced with tape, played "informals" with teams from Azusa, Ontario, Crestmore, Mentone, Upper West Highlands. Real ratty holes. There's this underground soccer circuit of mostly Latin kids (and even some Indians), who play soccer because it's the prime sport in Mexico. Parents of such kids write soccer meet schedules in ballpoint pen on any kind of paper, tacking them by the cash register of the neighborhood taqueria: Domingo, fútbol a la 5 P.M. We played against Latin boys from migrant families, on unlevel fields with not-by-code goalposts, with twenty volunteer refs shouting in Spanish, and a barbecue flaming on right by. Hot dogs for all.The Latin boys were blown away when this horde of gringas with ponytails dropped on them out of an old bus that Nikki's uncle, a retired car mechanic, reanimated. He's driving us personallyto our out-of-town games. The Latin boys would've never played their own girls--they made that clear. But we were a curiosity they couldn't pass up!They played rough, but kind of gave us the games at the start, and even told us we'd be welcome again--if we kept it on the DL. Because their families are illegal. Now, that's way down DL! And I who thought Mom would eventually drive us to the games! Not if we played illegals; if they glimpsed Mom, they'd scatter like birds from buckshot--Mom's a cop and always in blue. That's why she's treated like such an authority ... mom and cop, double the power. But really she couldn't, because of her work hours. With soccer itself, Mom was kind of okay. Like, "Lily, I'm glad that you're playing, but you're getting bruised all over. Isn't that game too aggressive for you?" That was funny, I swear! "And you're tearing up a T-shirt every week!""Yeah, and I need some nice T-shirts. I don't want to wear trash anymore!""You never called what I bought you trash before!""Maybe it wasn't trash for the ninth grade. Mom, please, can you give me and the girls a rideto L.A.? To Santee Alley downtown? They got True Religion knockoffs.""Right now?""Why not?"Mom strapped on her bulletproof vest. "I can't now. I'll be late for overtime."She works overtime, always, so we can save for my college tuition. Last night, she was on regular patrol, and now she's rushing off to overtime. "Also, that Santee stuff is stitched by kids in Bangladesh for two cents a day.""Mom, how else will kids in Bangladesh gain exposure to high-end fashions? Anyway, me and the girls know exactly where those knockoffs are. We'll be in and out, and it's not like you have to pay for the gas to get us there, since you're a cop. If you need an excuse to be there, walk down the block and arrest someone while we try on our knockoffs."Can you believe this contention, for some lousy knockoffs? Instead of loading us into the patrol car pronto, storming downtown with sirens blaring, so we could be done shopping quicker?But with Mom, no is no. So I escalated. "I have no clothes, and we need some better money thanwhat you're making, if I'm to keep going to this school filled with richie-rich brats, and drive a car that even compares to their cars--and stop making me feel like I'm a vacuous ditz!"She escalated too. "Stop making me feel like I'm a bad mother.""If you were a good mother you would've driven me there already!" (I felt my cell phone in my pocket, throbbing with calls from the Weregirls: Hey, are we going shopping, or what?)"Lily, I can't do things like that. It's my job.""Oh God! Dad wouldn't have said no!" Then I see that I almost made her cry, so I cry. I too have a heart, you know? And she did take us downtown--the following Sunday, on the metrorail. And I got in trouble again, because I found some great knee-high team socks, and Grazia, who always has cash (she takes it direct from her dad's pizzeria till), offered to buy me a pair, which I deserved--I'm the OWG (original Weregirl), the founding vixen. But Mom wouldn't have that. She bought me the pair herself, and said from now on soccer was on a budget.So I hate Mom.Okay, okay, I love her too.It's all pretty complicated, because Mom recentlydiscovered this fellow patrolman, Tim. So she's too busy to supervise me like she did before, which is very cool, but the guy's at our house all the time--not so cool. Anyway, now I spend more time at school than at home due to soccer practice. Nikki's uncle plus some deadbeat divorce dads happy to share any time with their twice-a-month daughters keep driving us to our eccentric little games, and I'm a talked-about kid because I started this. I've never done anything before that I could consider a personal achievement. So I should be totally happy.I am and I'm not, because I don't like my body all of a sudden. I have this gut, not so big that you'd spot it through my clothes, but it drives me crazy, and it grew muscular and hard as I kept stopping balls with it. My feet are bumpy and rather large, not boy feet, but almost, and after a game my toes are purple. My face is okay, but my chin's too small, and my mouth--I can't decide, is my mouth too big, or a little too small? I can't even complain about all this, because Mom's like, "Lily, you look fine!" always. But Mom has an agenda: Mom thinks if I'm not gorgeous, I won't have sex early.She can chill. I'm not gorgeous.Anyway, lo and behold, the Daily South Pasadenan (the "official rag," as we who put out the Highlights call the grown-up local paper) printed a story about our team getting ready for our first home game. I was in two practice photos, kicking, my hair out of its ponytail, really billowing--wish I had my dad's hair, black and straight and full of body, but I got Mom's, a lazy light brown, just okay. Soccer helps--when my hair gets dusty, it stiffens it. The best line in that story was what I said: "We're a testament to young women everywhere, and really want to make waves in the community!"They quoted Principal Padgett too, saying she was proud of us and knew we would be a success. The school paper reprinted the story and conducted an interview among the students, who were asked what they thought of soccer and were they proud of our team. They published a lot of the replies. Many boys said they hadn't thought we could pull it off, and Lily Willison was a better organizer than she seemed, but generally they were supportive.That same day, in the Pasadenan's business section (which is a skimpy two pages), it was announced that our city had just gone from bankruptback to solvent, due to a loan arranged by a certain Howard Hewlit, a native South Pasadenan who had returned to live here, after years in New York, with his whole family, which includes a daughter my age. Howard Hewlit owns real estate, and businesses and hotels all around Pasadena, and I heard Mr. Harris, our journalism teacher, mumble, "He was chased out of New York for ..." I think he said "insider trading," but I wasn't really listening. "Now he wants to play hero back home. He's putting his daughter in our school." Harris is bitter--he was once the editor who made the Pasadenan into a real paper, then he disagreed with some policy and had to quit.Andra Hewlit in our school--that felt made up. With their kind of money she should be in Switzerland someplace. I didn't even think about it. We'd gotten so popular all of a sudden, we couldn't walk the halls without turning heads--so who cared about some new rich girl? Then, two days ago, after practice, as we peeled off our slushy socks, Grazia said, "Maybe Andra will join our team and her dad will buy us a new ball, or new outfits or something. Why don't you write her a friendly note, Lily?""Huh?" I said. "When'd she make it over here?""You're full of it," Grazia said. "Weren't you with me this morning, when she came to school, in a Jag?" I narrowed my eyes like I connected. Oh, that Andra. I still acted like she was a fly on a sock. Grazia continued. "Maybe we could get her email address." Nikki started looking at me, and I knew that she could sense my resistance. "Write her a note, and stick it on the intra-student notice board," Nikki said, and then waited, and I said nothing.Nikki's my best friend. Well, they all are. We grew up together, all four. But I'm closest with Nikki. Nikki's short, but she's a fierce offense. She wears hoops, one in her nose. She's cute and the fastest runner on our team. Grazia is round, with nice olive skin and wavy brown hair, like an old Italian painting. I'm glad she's big, she's our goalie, more body to stop the ball--thud! thunk!--that's the ball in play, zapping into Grazia. Our fans are not nice to her. "Come on, Grazia, shake those pizza pies!" they shout. Her dad owns the best pizzeria in South Pas. Arielle is long-limbed, with brassy red hair and a good face; she's pretty. She's kind of an airhead, but I still like her. My friends have character. Definitely.Now, none of us are rich. Grazia always hascash, but she's not like diseased from it; she still has a lovable innocence, always ready for pack fun. Arielle's competitive--her mom's this attorney who passed her bar pregnant with her, and now she wants Arielle's dad to make some real money--he's a court reporter, but you can't make anything off that today. All true crime is invented. So Arielle's dad is depressed. Nikki became an orphan at ten. Her parents died in a car crash--now she lives with that uncle who's driving us to our games, and his wife; they already raised a set of kids. He saves his juice for driving us; she doesn't even make it to open school night. Nikki's free, but she lives with two ghosts, and she's poor. Anyway, America's wealth is supposed to be shrinking, but where is it shrinking? I look on TV, all I see is rich-rich. That's why I don't watch too much TV; it's real pressure on someone like me."I don't want to write to Andra," I growled. "There's something in the way everyone talks about her that gives me the creeps. I know I'm not jealous, guaranteed. What's she got to make me jealous?""Come on, Cap," Nikki said. "We've got to be political.""All right. You write the note. I'll sign it."So later that night, Nikki wrote a note inviting Andra to watch us scrimmage, and maybe play with us, see if she likes it. I signed it. It got tacked on the intra-student notice board.Next day, it's still pinned on the board. No reply.The next day, and the next day, and the next day, it's still pinned on the board. Then it vanishes. It fell off, or someone took it down.I stop checking the board for a reply--she probably never read my note. But I'm not going to write another one. I don't care.Copyright © 2007 by Petru Popescu Petru Popescu, author of the international bestsellers Amazon Beaming and Almost Adam, grew up in Romania and defected to America in the 1970s. Weregirls: Birth of the Pack is his first book for young adults. His inspiration was his teenage daughter, Chloe, who was the first reader and first fan of the book. He lives in Beverly Hills, California.