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Pantyhose were invented by the devil. This is a well-known fact. They squeeze the life from your ovaries while simultaneously giving you a wedgie big enough to make any middle school bully proud. And to make things worse, they are never a perfect color match, no matter what the package says. But right now, they were the perfect distraction.
I picked up two different options and turned to my best friend, holding them close to my face to compare.
“Do you think my skin tone is closer to Peaches and Cream or French Vanilla?” I asked.
“Don’t they know it’s not good to call skin by food names?” Naomi asked, leaning in close to get a better view. “The girl in this one looks like Emma Watson. Think she modeled for Hanes back in the day?”
She grabbed the one from my left hand. “This one.”
“M’kay. Help me find all the ones in size small.”
Naomi scrunched her nose and stepped toward the rack. “There’s no kind of organization here. Why do you need so many?”
“Because they get more runs than a marathon, and I need enough for the whole speech and debate season. Coach’s rules. If I ruin a pair each tournament, that’s sixteen pairs.”
“You know, if you got some nicer quality ones, they probably wouldn’t snag as much.” Naomi looked behind a pile of tights to see if more Peaches and Cream nylons happened to be hidden there. Her black curls fell into her face, and she brushed her hair out of the way.
“Like I have forty bucks to spend on a single pair of pantyhose,” I said. “I’m seventeen and I don’t have a job.”
Naomi didn’t reply. She just held out another package for me to add to the pile we’d started collecting on the floor. This was why we were friends. She didn’t judge me for my geeky love of speech and debate, and I didn’t act awkward around her because she was taller than Taylor Swift and 99 percent of the boys’ basketball team.
“Thanks again for driving me to the speech and debate barbecue,” I said, gathering the pile up in my arms. We’d only found eight, but that would have to last until I could get more. “And thanks for stopping here on the way.”
If I’d taken the bus, it would have eaten up half my day. And stopping for nylons would have added at least an hour to the trip. It wasn’t like Boise, Idaho, was known for its impressive public transportation system. I definitely didn’t need all that time alone with my thoughts right now. Then again, the whole point of this trip was to distract me from what was going to happen at the barbecue, so maybe I should have taken the bus after all.
Naomi slung an arm over my shoulders as we walked to the checkout.
“Life wouldn’t be worth living if I was actually on time for a game,” she said, and a pang of guilt zipped through me.
“Tell your volleyball coach it’s my fault,” I said.
Naomi grinned. “I always do,” she sang. I tried to slug her in the arm, but she danced out of the way.
We made it to the front of the store and I let the nylons tumble to the counter. The worker raised his eyebrows, but I didn’t feel like explaining why a high school senior needed so many pantyhose on a Friday night. Let him imagine what he would.
“September’s almost over,” Naomi said to me as the worker scanned my items. “Volleyball season ends soon anyway. If my coach hasn’t cared before, she won’t now.”
“What must that be like?” I mused aloud. “To have a coach who doesn’t have a death grip on every detail of your life?” Mine was a tyrannical robot in human skin. She controlled how I did my hair for tournaments (French twist—classy but alluring), how tight my skirt suit was allowed to be (just enough to remind judges I’m a woman and should be taken seriously), and even the MAC Ruby Woo shade of lipstick I reapplied between each round (okay, full disclosure, I really loved that lipstick).
“Forget your coach. And her opinions,” Naomi said, helping the worker put all my nylons in a bag. “Like, take tonight, for example. You nervous?”
I grimaced. I’d been doing so well at not thinking about it.
Naomi saw my expression and put a hand on my shoulder. “See, Quinn? That’s what I mean. It makes zero difference what your coach thinks. You’re still A-plus team captain material, no matter who she announces at your speech and debate welcome barbecue thing.”
I paid the cashier and we walked through the automatic doors and into the crisp fall air.
“If she doesn’t pick you, it’s her loss. You know you’re the best on the team.” Naomi clicked the button on her key fob, and her Jeep chirped.
“That’s not true,” I said, climbing in the passenger seat and placing the bag at my feet. Naomi turned the keys and I messed around with the temperature controls until I wasn’t dying. This time of year always ping-ponged between hot and cold, and the leather interior of Naomi’s car magnified it by infinity. “She could pick Grayson.”
Grayson Hawks. My mouth twisted in distaste. He was the poster child for Tall, Dark, and Handsome, and he wore trendy hipster glasses that were all kinds of pretentious. He had everything in life handed to him, no matter if he deserved it or not. Spoiler, usually he didn’t. We’d been competitors in practically everything since he’d moved here, and he came out on top more times than I cared to admit. Sometimes I won, but he was always just there, making my life harder than it needed to be. In speech and debate, in school, in gym class—it didn’t matter what it was, he made it a competition.
Everyone loved a good-looking geek, especially someone as charismatic as Grayson. He had this perfect light brown skin and wavy black hair that looked so smooth and shiny. Everyone thought he walked on water, even though it was all a show. It really wasn’t fair. He was almost guaranteed the team captain spot.
He’d probably do anything to get it too. Just like when he ran for class president junior year, when he’d dated Zara, his only real competition, only to dump her right before the election speech so she’d bomb it. He never denied the rumors either. My friend Carter asked him about it once and Grayson had only laughed. Who does that?
Naomi snorted as she backed out of the parking spot.
“If your coach picks him, it’s because he’s the governor’s son and she’s playing favorites. As much as I think you’re wrong about him, you’re still the one who’s been on the varsity team all four years.”
Yeah, and once he’d made varsity, he’d proceeded to taunt and torment me at every competition. It was like he defaulted to some kind of “annoying” preset whenever I walked into the room. What made things worse—he routinely beat me at competitions. Like the universe had it out for me.
But I tried to believe Naomi. Tried to stop my racing heart from banging out of my chest. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was anxious about tonight or simply because thinking about Grayson made my blood boil. I hummed along to the radio for a measure or two, but my throat turned dry and I swallowed instead.
More than anything, I really wanted to beat Grayson at something. Maybe he got better grades and he had all the teachers in his pocket, but I wanted to take something from him that he wanted for himself. So that just once, he could know how it felt to come in second.
I changed the radio station again and again until Naomi swiped my hand away from the controls. We’d first bonded over our love of boy bands, and now music was a common theme of our friendship. But her Jeep was older than we were, and didn’t have any way to connect our phones to the speakers. We had to endure whatever happened to be on the air at the moment.
As we drove closer to my coach’s house, my pulse picked up speed. Before I was ready, we pulled up front and I was out of reasons to delay.
“You sure Carter can give you a ride home?” Naomi asked, putting the Jeep in park. Carter was my closest friend on the team. Off the team as well, except for Naomi. We grew up together, so he’d seen me through all my worst stages, including the years of braces and the time I’d accidentally gotten a brush stuck in my hair and had to shave the left side of my head—he stuck by my side the whole time. That was true friendship right there.
Carter had no filter whatsoever, and I liked that he was so open with his thoughts. So many people in high school were fake, but with Carter, I knew where he stood. I was always so introverted and I counted on him to bring me out of my shell. When we were together, he didn’t act quite so out there, and I didn’t hide from all social interactions. I clung to that with a strange kind of desperation. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of friends to begin with.
I would have asked him for a ride here, but shopping for pantyhose might have actually killed him.
“I’m sure,” I said, unlocking my seat belt. I took the nylons out of the plastic shopping bag and began placing them in my shoulder bag, taking my time. Naomi saw through me, of course.
“Go on, get. Your coach has already made her decision by now, so you might as well get it over with.”
I sighed and stepped out of the car. Naomi was gone by the time I’d made it up the sidewalk and walked around back, the way we always entered. Coach was grilling on the patio and she nodded in approval as I took off my shoes and left them in the pile already gathering outside. We’d had enough events at Coach’s house to know wearing shoes inside meant murder. Voices drifted from the open door and I made my way inside the kitchen, smiling at Carter when I saw him leaning against the counter, talking to someone. My smile froze when I saw that it was Grayson.
I wasn’t sure I could make polite small talk right now, at least, not with the one guy who could take away my chance at being team captain.
“Quinn!” Carter called, motioning me over before I could pretend I had someone else claiming my attention. I moved slowly. Grayson was wearing a blazer. Like an actual suit coat with jeans. The suck-up.
“Hey, Quinn,” Grayson said, turning to me. “You ready to lose tonight?” His question, and the way he said it, with eyebrows raised and cheeky grin in place, set my teeth on edge. I wondered what his mom would think of his political mind games.
“Oh, I’m sorry, are you talking to yourself again?” I asked.
That’s when Carter cut in, probably sensing the verbal spat coming this way. Grayson always knew how to get under my skin.
“Did you get whatever girly things you needed at the store?” Carter asked.
My cheeks flamed and I very carefully did not look at Grayson so I wouldn’t see his reaction. I knew he’d look smug. I fiddled with the strap of my bag and tried not to overreact.
“I told you I had to buy pantyhose for the speech meets, not period stuff,” I said.
Carter’s eyes opened wide. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I was just saying—” He stumbled over his words and brought his hand to the back of his neck. “Never mind, sorry.” The tips of his ears turned pink and his lips formed a tight line, like he was trying not to say anything else. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair and shrugged an apology.
I wanted the floor to eat me alive, but Grayson smiled like he found the whole thing amusing, as he would. He grabbed a chip from a bag on the counter and popped it into his mouth with a crunch. Glancing around, I tried to find someone else I could talk to. Or maybe the nearest exit.
No viable escape routes opened up, so I said, “So, uh, Carter, can you give me a ride home after this?”
“Did your mom bring home any leftovers from the diner last night?” he asked.
Carter was the definition of a mooch. Or maybe it was just the teenage boy in him that made him inhale any food within a ten-foot radius. Even now, he’d taken a handful of the chips from the counter and was busy shoving them into his face like we weren’t all about to eat dinner in a few minutes.
“You know how her mom works at that diner on Ninth?” Carter asked Grayson.
I didn’t know why he bothered prolonging this conversation, but that was just Carter. Always thinking the best of people and being friendly to everyone, like a shaggy puppy dog. I wanted to be more outgoing like that. Just not with Grayson.
“At the end of the night, they let her take food home if they made too much,” Carter said.
“Nice,” Grayson responded. I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not, so I bristled in silence. Sure, my mom worked at a diner. But it wasn’t like Grayson was any better just because his mom was the governor. My mom was also an amazing photographer, and one day that’d be her primary business. I’d been helping her set up a website and portfolio, and since she let me take over her Instagram account, she’d had more bookings than ever.
I loved doing it too. Seeing results like that? It was intoxicating. Maybe it was geeky, but my plan for college was to go into marketing. I couldn’t get enough of it, and even after I helped get my mom’s business up and running, I’d still use those skills in influencing the world around me. I wasn’t entirely sure what industry I wanted to go into the most, but everybody could use a good marketer. In the meantime, I’d be able to help out my mom. Okay, yes, most teens might not be that excited about working with their parents, but then again, I never claimed to be normal.
“Oh!” Carter slapped his forehead with his palm. “I forgot I said I’d give Mike a ride home already. But I can tell him to get someone else.”
Carter didn’t drive a two-seater convertible. It had five spots. But the back of his car was a literal pigsty, with more fast food bags and questionable gym clothes than anyone should ever be forced to touch, let alone sit on. I’d probably contract some kind of deadly disease.
“That’s okay. I’ll find someone who—” I started.
“I can help you out,” Grayson said.
I froze. What fresh torture was this? Grayson lived on the other side of the city. I knew, because Idaho was one of a handful of states that didn’t have a governor’s mansion, so his mom got paid a stipend to live in their home.
“Oh, I don’t want to bother you,” I said overly sweetly, hoping he’d let it drop. “I know how much it physically hurts you to think of anyone else before yourself.”
“Maybe I joined the Boy Scouts,” he said, smiling. His teeth were so white, I wondered if he used bleaching strips. “Or maybe I just want to try some of your mom’s leftovers.”
I sucked in a breath while plotting how to get out of this. There was no way Grayson was taking one step through my front door.
Coach came inside the kitchen, looking at us from the doorframe.
“Hamburgers and hot dogs are ready,” she called, and a surge of twenty teenage bodies headed toward the door. I picked up a paper plate and grabbed on to Carter’s arm, holding him back from the crowd so Grayson could move ahead. Carter glanced back at me incredulously.
“We’re going to be at the end of the line,” he said, and I picked up some more chips and put them on his plate.
“You’ll survive. That’s your payback for forcing me to talk with Grayson. And for not giving me a ride.”
Carter sighed and looked wistfully at the grill on the backyard patio. “You can still come with us, but we’re going to leave a little early. I can make Mike sit in the back.”
I patted his arm. “Thanks, but I’ll figure something out. I don’t hate Mike enough to do that to him.”
We moved forward a foot in the line, and for a bit, neither of us spoke. Then Carter broke the silence.
“You know, if you’re team captain, you’ll have to talk with Grayson a lot more,” he said, picking up a chip from his plate.
Oh, I knew that, unfortunately. I was trying not to think about it.
“If I win, then there won’t be a problem,” I responded, stealing a chip for myself. “He can’t talk back to the team captain.”
Carter’s look was skeptical, and I didn’t say anything else, knowing there was no reality in which Grayson would ever not talk back to me. I chewed on my lower lip while we waited. Grayson was one of those naturally gifted people. I wouldn’t fault Coach Bates for picking him. Sure, I’d been on varsity longer. But would that be enough? Maybe Grayson had already sabotaged me in some way and I just didn’t know it.
“What if he wins?” Carter said.
It was the one question I hadn’t allowed myself to actually ask out loud. The noise around me muted to a buzz, and I focused on taking one step after another. My paper plate was shaking a little, so I gripped it harder. Traitorous plate.
“I mean, what if he wins and you have to ride in his car all the way to your apartment?”
My stomach dropped and I genuinely thought I might be sick, right then and there. I would spend the whole night begging people for rides if I had to. There was no way I was walking into that trap willingly.
Coach was dishing up the meat at the grill as students slipped their shoes back on. Her eyebrows pinched together when Carter snuck a second hamburger patty onto his plate, but she didn’t say anything. She had her straight brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail as usual, and her reading glasses were perched on top of her head. She smiled when she saw me, and I couldn’t help the flutter of hope that rose in my chest. She wouldn’t be smiling if she wasn’t planning on making me captain, right?
We took our seats on the grass with everyone else. My teammates were all talking excitedly about something, but I was too busy wondering if Coach smiled at Grayson too.
The whole time we were eating, I couldn’t taste my food. Twenty minutes had never felt so long in all my life. By the time Coach stood up on the porch and waved for us all to be quiet, I was pretty sure I was developing an ulcer.
“Welcome to a new season of speech and debate!” she announced, and all I could think was Blah, blah, blah, get on with it already.
Coach Bates cleared her throat.
I died a little inside.
“We have a few announcements, like the itinerary, information on our home tournament since we’re hosting the state competition this year, and other specifics, but I know you all want to find out who this year’s team captain will be.”
I didn’t breathe.
“There were so many qualified candidates this year. The problem was narrowing it down.”
I sneaked a glance over at Grayson, who didn’t seem nearly as concerned as I was. I could feel the eyes of my teammates on me like a heavy blanket. Grayson leaned back nonchalantly in the grass, putting his weight on his elbows. I sat up straighter.
“I’m breaking with tradition this year,” Coach said. “I couldn’t pick only one, so there will be two. Everyone, please congratulate Quinn Edwards and Grayson Hawks, who will be co–team captains this year!”
I heard the clapping around me, but it didn’t register. Once again, I hadn’t been enough to beat Grayson.
“Think of it this way,” Carter said, leaning over, “at least the car ride home won’t be so awkward.”
But that was where he was so, so wrong.
Copyright © 2020 by Tiana Smith