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“COACH?” THOM SAID. BUT NO one heard her. Everyone was too busy gearing up for the second half of the game.
“Coach?” Thom called, a little louder.
Coach Pendergrass whirled around, looking at the space above Thom’s head in confusion before spotting her down below. “Oh, uh. No.”
Thom was used to hearing the word no. But the problem was, she never knew if people were really telling her no, or if they just didn’t know how to say her last name, which was pronounced literally how it was spelled, like ING-O without the I: Nng-O.
So when Coach Pendergrass said no from behind her clipboard, Thom wasn’t surprised. She was a nobody. Invisible.
But Thom wanted to be on the field. She didn’t want to go back to the Bench of Shame and Decay—so old and worn that you had to make sure not to let your exposed skin touch it or you’d get splinters. She wanted to feel the crunch of grass beneath her cleats, run alongside the other girls, know that she was part of something. She wished her mom was there. Ma would have made sure Thom played in the game, but Ma had to work late again.
“I want to play,” Thom said before one of the other girls could grab Coach’s attention. The words squeezed out of her like the last bits of an empty toothpaste tube. “I thought you said earlier? That I could play in the second half.”
“Oh,” Coach said, looking at her clipboard. “Right. Okay.” She turned to Bethany Anderson, whose mouth was all tight and pursed. Bethany didn’t look at Thom, though. She never looked at Thom—like she might contract some sickness just from the eye contact. “Anderson, center forward. Jones, grab some water for this play. No, you’re on left defense.”
Thom’s stomach did a weird flippy thing. Left defense wasn’t even a real position. Okay, it was, but it was a filler spot, the weakest angle. You barely got to play from that position; you were just there to stay low and wave your arms around, hoping the ball accidentally rolled your way.
Still, it was better than sitting on the bench. Thom ran onto the field and joined the rest of the DeMille Middle School soccer team standing in position against Monrovia Middle.
Shelley Jones glared as she took Thom’s place on the bench.
The referee blew his whistle, and Bethany kicked the ball. Everyone ran forward, even the other two defense players on Thom’s team, even though they weren’t supposed to leave the goal. Thom glanced at Coach Pendergrass, but she was too focused on the ball and on DeMille’s dynamic trio—Kathy, Bethany, and Sarah—weaving across the field like they were performing a dance routine.
Kathy Joon, Bethany Anderson, and Sarah Mazel were the stars of the team. They always got to play. Granted, the team was pretty small, so there was only one person on the bench at a time. That person was usually Thom.
It wasn’t that Thom was bad at soccer. She was actually pretty good when she had played for her last school, in West City. Back then, soccer had been fun, an escape, where she and her friends played and hung out and got boba and popcorn chicken after. She was good then. She was still good now, when she played by herself, anyway. But because soccer isn’t exactly a play-by-yourself kind of sport, she couldn’t prove this to everyone else.
The thing was, Thom couldn’t kick the ball. Well, no, she could kick the ball, but she shouldn’t. The last time she’d tried ended in a small disaster, and she hadn’t found the courage to try again since.
Suddenly, Monrovia’s offense stepped it up, and the ball was rolling toward Thom. She hesitated.
“No,” Coach Pendergrass called from the sidelines. Thom stopped. “No! Go for it, No! Send it flying!”
She could send it flying. She could show them all how good she really was.
But what if something went wrong? They’d never give her another chance. It was her first time in a game that season, the first time playing for DeMille, and she had to be perfect.
Text copyright © 2020 by Van Hoang
Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien