Authors: Belle Payton
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“So it really happened just like that?” Alex Sackett asked.
“Absolutely,” answered Charlotte Huang. “Mom was like, this kitchen renovation is driving me crazy, I just can't take it anymore, and the next thing I knew we were on a plane to the Bahamas.”
“That sounds amazing,” said Rosa Navarro, a dreamy look in her brown eyes.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, Christmas break was over, and Alex and her friends Charlotte, Rosa, Emily, Lindsey, and Annelise were hanging out at Emily's house. They had piled into Emily's cozy bedroom. Alex sat on the floor, clutching a throw pillow.
Sometimes it was hard to believe that she and her family had only moved to Ashland, Texas, a few months ago. It hadn't been easy to leave her life and friends in Boston behindâbut here she was, with all new friends, laughing and talking like she'd known them forever.
“What's amazing is your tan, Charlotte,” said Annelise. “I get so pale during the winter.”
“Not to mention freezing,” said Lindsey with a shiver. “I'd love to be on a sunny beach right now.”
Alex held back a smile. It was forty-nine degrees out, which was chilly for Texas, but downright balmy for a winter day in Boston.
Emily, the girl in the group Alex felt closest to, noticed her amused expression.
“I bet this is beach weather in Boston, right, Alex?” she teased.
“Exactly,” said Alex, playing along. “Back home everyone's wearing flip-flops and building snow castles by the ocean.”
“Ooh, we built this fabulous sand castle at the beach by our hotel,” said Charlotte, scrolling through her phone to find the photos. “Mom hired a sand castle architect, and he helped us. It had, like, twenty towers and a stable and everything.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Is there really such a thing as a sand castle architect?” she asked. Although as soon as she asked the question, she knew she shouldn't have been surprised. Charlotte's family had two housekeepers and a driver. Hiring someone to help build your sand castle was probably no big deal.
“Yeah, he worked with the hotel,” Charlotte replied, and then she frowned. “I can't find it! Oh, wait, here's that shot from the Christmas party!”
Everyone gathered around Charlotte to look, even though they all had tons of photos from the party on their phones. They'd held an Ugly Sweater party on the Saturday after Christmas, and it had probably been Alex's best night in Ashland so far.
The photo on Charlotte's screen was a group selfie of everyone in their ugly sweaters, mugging for the camera. There was Alex, laughing with her arm around her twin sister, Ava. They looked identical except for Alex's long, wavy hair and Ava's shorter, sporty haircut.
Next to Alex was Emily, sticking her tongue out, and Lindsey, who was posing like a supermodel.
There were boys in the photo too, but the one who caught Alex's eye was Corey O'Sullivan. He wore a silly grin on his face and a Santa hat on top of his red hair.
“That was such a fun night,” said Rosa. “Although I'm glad I won't have to wear that ugly sweater ever again!”
“The sweaters are what made it a fun night,” Emily pointed out.
“And the Secret Santa exchange,” added Annelise.
Lindsey got a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “That was a sweet gift that Corey gave you, Alex,” she said quietly. “You know, you never told me if you and Corey used that mistletoe.”
Alex felt her face get hot, and she knew she must be bright red. She and Corey had almost kissed that night, under the falling snow, but she hadn't told anybody about itânot even Ava. She wasn't about to tell anyone in this room.
Part of the reason was that everything with Corey was super complicated. She had developed a crush on him right away when she first met him, but then she learned that Lindsey liked him too, so she backed off. Corey and Lindsey went out, but broke up. Then Lindsey started
liking Johnny Morton, an eighth grader. That led to the Christmas party, where she gave Alex mistletoe and told her she should go talk to Corey.
And Alex had talked to Corey, outside, and they almost kissedâuntil the snow started to fall, which didn't happen too often in Texas. Everyone had streamed outside, and the moment was over. But it had still been a magical moment, and it had been hersâjust hers and Corey's.
“Mistletoe? What about Alex and Corey and mistletoe?” Annelise asked eagerly.
“Hey, didn't we come here so that you guys could work on your Variety Show routine?” Alex asked, trying to change the subject.
Her ploy worked. “That's right!” Emily said, jumping up off her bed. “The show is only three weeks away and we've barely started practicing.”
“Or working on our costumes,” said Rosa. “We've got to think of something that will go with the Wild West theme.”
“So what are you guys doing?” asked Alex. The Variety Show seemed to be a big deal at Ashland Middle School. It was just about all anyone could talk about now that the holidays were over.
Annelise smiled. “We're going to do a dance, like we did last year. You should dance with us!”
“Come on, you know I have two left feet,” Alex said. “Besides, as student council president I volunteered to work backstage.”
“That makes sense. I can just see you with a clipboard, organizing everybody back there. It can get pretty hectic,” Emily remarked.
Lindsey shook her head. “You could still dance with us. It's a pretty easy dance. Charlotte's new, and she picked it up right away. Here, I'll show you.”
Lindsey jumped up and kicked a pillow out of her way. Then she played a song on her phone. It was a country song that Alex had never heard before, something about a broken heart.
Lindsey started moving her hips from side to side and tracing a heart in the air with her fingers. Emily, Rosa, Charlotte, and Annelise joined her. It was close quarters and the girls kept bumping into one another. They looked a little stiff, and frankly, Alex thought, pretty silly.
“See how easy it is?” Lindsey asked. “Anytime you hear the word âheart,' you just go like this.” She traced a heart in the air again.
“Wow, that looks way too complicated,” Alex
fibbed. “Now that I've seen it, I know I would just make a fool out of myself up there. And I am trying very hard not to commit myself to too many activities anymore. But I promise that I will be cheering you on backstage.”
“Aw, it's not
complicated,” Lindsey protested.
“If I can do it, you can do it!” Charlotte said, as she bumped into Rosa.
Alex glanced at the clock on Emily's nightstand. Four o'clock. She'd almost forgotten.
“Sorry, I have to get to Ava's game,” she said, grabbing her backpack. “But you guys look great!”
Alex hurried out of the room, relieved to be spared from joining the dance routine.
Sometimes having a twin sister came in handy!
The sound of Coach Rader's whistle rang through the Ashland Middle School gym.
“All right, Cubs! Time to stretch!” he called out.
Ava Sackett ran onto the basketball court with the rest of her teammates. She lined up with the others while her friend Callie Wagnerâwho had recently been made team captainâjogged forward to lead them in stretches.
As Ava stretched, she started to feel the energy flow through her body. She loved that excitement that built up inside her just before a game. It was almost the same feeling she got when she had played football with the Tiger Cubs in the fall.
On the football team, she had the added pressure of being the only girl on the boys' team. But she also had the confidence that arose from having played football pretty much ever since she could walk. That came with the territory when your dad was a football coach, although her twin sister, Alex, couldn't explain the difference between a running back and a wide receiver.
Here on the basketball team, Ava didn't have to worry about standing out as the only girl. But while she had shot many casual games of hoops in parks with her friends, she had never played basketball on a school team before.
As she stretched, she glanced over at the other side of the court, where the girls on the Midvale Mustangs were warming up in their brown-and-white uniforms.
They look so tall!
Ava thought, as nervousness about the game crept in.
Coach Rader's whistle blared again. He was also Ava's English teacher, and she was grateful he didn't use his whistle in class.
“All right! Time for drills! Just like we did at practice!” Coach called out.
The girls jogged into position.
“We've got twenty minutes to warm up before each game, and we're going to make the most of it,” Coach Rader had explained at the last practice. Then he'd outlined their warm-up routine.
Ava and four other girls practiced dribbling on the left side of the court. On the right side, two girls practiced passing in a zigzag pattern up and down the half-court. In the center, three players took turns shooting and catching rebounds.
“Go, Ava!” someone in the stands yelled, and Ava looked up to see her best friend, Kylie McClaire, holding up a sign that said the same thing. Kylie had even threaded blue and orange beadsâthe Tiger Cubs colorsâinto her braided hair.
Ava grinned. Kylie didn't even really like sports, but she had shown up to every football game Ava had ever played in, and now, here she was at Ava's first basketball game. Ava felt lucky to have made such a good friend so soon after moving to Ashland.
Ava's mom and dad sat behind Kylie and gave her a wave.
“Ava, figure eights!” Madison Jackson hissed at her, and Ava realized she had lost focus during the drill. She started dribbling the ball between
her legs, directing it left and then right to make a figure-eight pattern as she dribbled.
Convincing her parents to let her join the basketball team hadn't been easy. Shortly after they'd moved to Ashland, Ava had been diagnosed with ADHD. She'd been assigned to a learning specialist at school, which helped. And a sophomore named Luke, who was friends with her older brother, Tommy, had started tutoring her at night, which had been greatâuntil she realized that half the basketball practices were at night because other teams needed the gym in the afternoon.
Ava's parents were worried that the nighttime practices would interfere with her study schedule, but Ava had convinced them that playing basketball would actually help her get good grades, not hurt her. And so far, Ava had been right. She was practicing hard and getting decent grades too. Now she just had to prove that it was all worth itâright here on the court.
At the sound of the whistle, Ava and Madison ran across the court to begin zigzag passes. Their sneakers pounded in rhythm as they moved up and down the half-court, passing the ball back and forth to each other.
Ava was facing the bleachers, so as she caught the ball from Madison, she saw her twin sister Alex enter the gym and climb up to meet their parents.
Ava and Madison moved to the basket, where they were joined by a tall blond girl named Tamara whom Ava didn't know very well. Ava knew Tamara was related to Andy and PJ and was wondering if she was mean like them when Madison jogged to the foul line and shot the ball.
Ava caught the rebound and switched places with Madison, taking her turn to shoot.