Under Pressure, page 1
My cleats were a blur as I raced across the soccer field, keeping the ball close to me. I darted quickly around the other players.
Was it my speed that got everyone’s attention? Or my control of the ball? Nope.
“Devin, you haven’t stopped smiling since you stepped onto the field,” Jessi remarked, panting slightly as she ran alongside me.
My grin got even bigger. I was back on my home turf, surrounded by my best friends. How could I not smile? I was one of the Kicks again, and we were all together at our first practice of the spring season!
I used to live in Connecticut, where I could compete in soccer only during the spring and summer months. Here in California I could play all year long. When the school soccer season had ended in the fall, I’d been going into some serious soccer withdrawal. Jessi had suggested we try out for the winter league, and I had jumped at the chance.
The winter soccer season had ended a few weeks ago, and even though I’d been a member of the champion team, the Griffons, I had been eagerly waiting for the spring soccer season to start. Now that it had, I was with my friends, playing on the Kentville Middle School Kangaroos (otherwise known as the Kicks) again. As a Griffon I’d had to compete against some of my very best friends. That had been tough. But now we were all on the same side once more. Together we would be unstoppable!
An image of the Kicks sweeping the spring season and being crowned champions flashed through my mind. I pictured the crowd, dressed in the Kicks’ colors of blue and white, chanting our team’s name. I had just scored the winning goal. My teammates hoisted me up on their shoulders, cheering as we celebrated. I guess I got a little too caught up in my fantasy, because I was taken totally by surprise when I felt something push against the front of my shoulder, throwing me off balance. I fought to regain my equilibrium, but it was too late. I had lost control of the ball.
I saw a girl running away with it, her curly brown hair bouncing on her shoulders as she raced down the field.
“Way to fight for the ball, Hailey,” I heard Coach Flores shout approvingly. “Perfect use of your body to win the ball!”
Whenever Coach Flores yelled, she still sounded nice, no matter what she was saying. Coach Darby from the Griffons was always barking at us, whether she was praising or correcting. She was tough, and I learned a lot from her. Yet I couldn’t be happier to be back with Coach Flores—except that I wanted her compliments directed at me! (Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m competitive.)
Hailey charged down the field with the stolen ball. She passed it to Grace, who was the co-captain of the Kicks with me. Grace sent the ball flying over the grassy field, over the goalie’s head, and into the net. Everyone clapped and cheered.
“Go, new girl!” Maya, one of the eighth-grade players, yelled. Hailey was a new student at Kentville Middle School and new to the Kicks, too. She was a seventh grader, like me and my best friends on the team—Jessi, Zoe, Emma, and Frida.
“Her name is Hailey,” Jessi called to Maya, her hands on her hips. “And something tells me you won’t forget it.”
As we switched sides to continue our practice game, Jessi gave me a knowing grin. “She’s going to give you a run for your money, Devin,” she teased.
“That’s why I encouraged Hailey to join,” I replied. “I want the Kicks to be the best they can be!”
Yet even as I said this to Jessi, I felt a pang of jealousy rise up inside me. My friends knew I was competitive too. They also knew that I ate, slept, and breathed soccer. I did want our entire team to be the strongest it could be, yet part of me wanted to be the strongest of the strong. Was that so terrible?
The ball was in play, so I didn’t have time to dwell on Hailey or anything else. The other team in our practice game had control of the ball. Brianna raced toward our goal, her blond hair flying behind her. Frida, a defender, stood between Brianna and the goal. While Brianna drew closer, Frida stood gazing up at the sky, completely oblivious to what was happening.
Giselle, the other defender closest to Frida, yelled in frustration. “Frida! Look alive!”
At the sound of her name, Frida turned her head from the clouds back to the field. It was too late. Brianna was in striking distance. Giselle rushed in to descend on her, but Brianna quickly took her shot. Our team’s goalie, Emma, dove to catch the ball, but she missed. It hit the back of the net, hard.
Jessi looked at me, one eyebrow arched questioningly. “Frida’s head was totally somewhere else,” she said. “Maybe back on the movie set?”
Frida was a good soccer player and an even better actor. She had recently had a starring role in the TV movie Mall Mania with teen pop star Brady McCoy. Impressive, right? When I’d lived in Connecticut, I hadn’t known anybody who was a TV star. It was just one of the many ways life was different in California, like mild winters and having to always be careful to conserve water. An actor friend was by far the most glamorous thing about living in Cali, although I enjoyed being able to wear flip-flops pretty much year round too.
I shrugged. We all had our bad moments on the soccer field. Frida being inattentive at a practice wasn’t the end of the world.
“She’ll shake it off,” I said. “It’s only the first practice of the season. Maybe she’s just rusty because she didn’t play in winter league, like the rest of us.”
But Frida didn’t shake it off. After our scrimmage Coach Flores had us work on a simple passing and receiving drill. When Emma tried to pass the ball to her, Frida was looking up at the sky again.
“Oops, Frida!” Emma said in that cheerful way she had. “Maybe I overshot that.”
Jessi gave me a pointed look. We all knew Emma had been on target. Frida hadn’t been paying attention again.
When Frida passed the ball to Zoe, it went far and wide. It was nowhere near Zoe. Actually, it was nowhere near anyone else, either. Frida, who was usually very dramatic and expressive, was very quiet. After each mistake she made, she looked at the ground or up at the sky. She didn’t react at all. Maybe Jessi was right and something was up with Frida.
Frida continued blundering her way through practice. After Coach blew the final whistle, Jessi, Zoe, Emma, and I ran up to her.
“Is everything okay, Frida?” Emma asked. She put a hand on Frida’s shoulder, and I noticed that Emma seemed even taller than usual. She must have had a growth spurt over the winter.
Zoe peered out from underneath her strawberry-blond bangs. “Yeah, is anything wrong?”
In the beginning of the school year, Frida hadn’t wanted to play soccer, but her mom had made her. After we gave Frida the idea to imagine she was playing a different character in each game, Frida began to love soccer as much as the rest of us. She pretended to be everything from a fairy princess to a military commander to a space alien. Not only did it help Frida play better, but it made the games much more fun for the rest of us. I’ll never forget the looks on the opposing team’s faces when she yelled at them, “Surrender, earthlings!” We all still laughed about that.
But today Frida wasn’t laughing. She didn’t seem angry. Or upset. She was just . . . quiet. Which was really weird for Frida.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Frida said in a quiet, mousy voice that was very un-Frida-like. She shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
We all exchanged worried glances as Frida turned away from us and jogged back toward the locker rooms.
Emma’s brown eyes got big with concern. “What’s up with Frida?”
Zoe frowned. “Do you think she doesn’t want to play anymore now that she’s a famous actor?”
I hadn’t thought about that. Frida had chosen acting over playing in the winter league. If it had been me, I would never have given up soccer for anything, even to star in a movie. It just w
With the Kicks finally back together, the thought that Frida might quit was stressing me out. But I didn’t want to start panicking yet.
“Are we still on for your house this Saturday, Jessi?” I asked.
Jessi nodded. “You bet! My mom is even letting me pick out total junk food snacks. I know she feels guilty about making me give up my bedroom, so I can ask her for just about anything right now and she says yes.”
“That’ll probably stop once your new baby brother or sister comes around,” Zoe said.
Jessi’s eyes narrowed. “What did I tell you? Do not say the B word, please. I have four more months of peace, and I want to enjoy them.”
Emma laughed. “Well, at least we know what’s bugging you, Jessi. Too bad we don’t know what’s up with Frida.”
“It’s pretty obvious that Frida doesn’t want to talk about whatever is bothering her now,” I said. “Maybe whatever it is will have blown over by Saturday. If not, we’ll talk to her then and figure out what’s going on.”
“And how we can help her,” Zoe added.
That was exactly what I loved about my Kicks friends. We definitely had each other’s backs, both on and off the soccer field. I was so psyched to be back, and couldn’t wait for the season to begin.
Grace started clapping her hands loudly. “Great first practice, everyone. This is going to be an amazing season. Let’s sound off!”
All of the remaining Kicks quickly formed a circle.
“I don’t know but I’ve been told!” Grace began.
“I don’t know but I’ve been told!” we repeated.
“This year the Kicks will grab the gold!” she shouted.
“This year the Kicks will grab the gold!”
“No one can beat us on the field!”
“No one can beat us on the field!”
“And when we play, we never yield!”
“And when we play, we never yield!”
Then we all cheered together. “Sound off. One, two, three, four—sound off!”
Saturday morning Mom dropped me off at Jessi’s house.
“What time should I pick you up?” she asked as I took off my seat belt.
“I’m not sure. This might take a while,” I replied. “Mrs. Dukes is making us lunch.”
“Text me when you’re done,” Mom said. “And not too much soda, Devin!”
“I won’t!” I promised as I jogged to the door. But I knew there would be at least one root beer in my future.
When I rang the doorbell, Jessi answered me from inside. “Come on up!”
I pushed open the door and ran upstairs. Jessi’s bedroom door was wide open. I walked in, and my jaw dropped.
“Oh, wow,” I said. “Was there an earthquake in here?”
Jessi, Emma, and Zoe were standing in the room, surrounded on all sides by cardboard boxes. Piles of clothes were mounded on Jessi’s bed. Her empty dresser drawers were stacked on the floor.
“Finally, you’re here!” Jessi cried. “Can you please move that box? We’re sort of trapped.”
She pointed to a box, and I picked it up. It was so heavy, I had to drag it across the floor. “What’s in here?” I asked. “A bunch of rocks?”
“Those are my scrapbooks,” Jessi explained. “I had to do something in the days before Instagram.”
“You should see her trophy collection,” Zoe said. “And her sneaker collection. And her DVD collection.”
Emma picked one of the DVDs out of the box. “Oh, The Sunshine Puppies! I loved them.”
“So, you’ve saved everything you’ve ever had since you were a baby?” I guessed.
“No B word!” Jessi snapped. “That . . . you know . . . is the reason I have to leave my beautiful room in the first place.”
“Why exactly do you have to move, again?” I asked.
“So the you-know-what can have a room next to Mom and Dad,” Jessi replied. “There are only two bedrooms up here. I’m moving to the room downstairs that used to be Dad’s office.”
“Unless his office is like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, you’re going to be in trouble,” Emma said, and Zoe laughed.
“Can you translate for those of us who don’t speak nerd?” I teased.
“The TARDIS is bigger on the inside,” Emma explained. “And Jessi’s new room, right now, appears to be very small.”
“I’ll show you,” Jessi said.
We followed her downstairs and walked past the kitchen. Jessi’s dad was doing dishes, and her mom was looking at a take-out menu.
“Hey, girls!” Mrs. Dukes greeted us. “Is Frida coming? I’m going to order the pizza soon and want to make sure to get enough.”
“Extra pepperoni, please,” Jessi said. “And chicken wings. And yes, Frida’s supposed to be coming.”
Mrs. Dukes rubbed her belly, where Jessi’s baby brother or sister was growing. “This one loves pepperoni. Go figure,” she said. “Extra pepperoni it is!”
“See? You and your new sibling have something in common already,” Mr. Dukes said encouragingly, but Jessi just rolled her eyes.
“Come on,” she told us. “Let me show you my new prison.”
She led us to a small room off the dining room, and we all stepped inside.
“Definitely not bigger on the inside,” Emma said.
“Seriously, Jessi, how are you going to fit everything in here?” Zoe asked. “I don’t even see a closet.”
“Mom says I have to purge,” Jessi answered. “But what am I supposed to give up?”
“How about The Sunshine Puppies boxed set?” I suggested.
“Those are part of my childhood!” Jessi argued. “And besides, the b—” She caught herself in time. “The new member of the family might want to watch them.”
Emma put an arm around her. “Oh, that’s sweet, Jessi. You do have a soft spot for the B word after all!”
Jessi sighed. “I guess. I’m just bummed that things are changing, though,” she said. She motioned around the room. “How am I supposed to live in here? Upstairs I have a view of the beautiful blue sky. Down here I have a view of the recycling cans!”
Zoe walked to the window. “Yeah, that is a bummer.”
“It won’t be so bad,” I said. “At least you and the . . . At least you won’t have to share a room with anyone. Maisie and I had to share before we moved out here. That was such a pain!”
“And we can make this room totes adorbs!” Emma said. “You’ll see. But first we should go back to your room and finish packing.”
“And purging,” Zoe added. “It’ll be like that show Tiny Living, where people get rid of all their stuff and move into insanely small houses. We’ll make a game of it.”
“Oh boy. That sounds like so much fun,” Jessi said in a flat voice.
I lightly punched her in the arm. “Come on, let’s give it a try.”
Once we were back upstairs, Zoe picked up a plaid shirt from Jessi’s bed.
“When was the last time you wore this?” she asked.
Jessi frowned. “Um, I don’t know. Maybe last year?”
“Toss!” Zoe cried, throwing the shirt onto the floor. “That goes in the giveaway pile. So does anything else you haven’t worn in the past six months.”
Jessi looked horrified. “Even my lucky sweater? It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I still keep it.”
“Don’t be cruel, Zoe,” Emma said. “Let the girl keep her lucky sweater.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “We’ll see.”
It took us almost an hour to go through Jessi’s clothes. Zoe held them up one by one and helped Jessi decide whether to keep them or not. Emma bagged up the giveaway stuff, and I folded the “keep clothes” and boxed them. Zoe looked completely satisfied when we had finished.
“Excellent!” she said, her blue eyes gleaming. “Now let’s start on those sneakers.”
“Nobody is touching my sneakers!” Jessi protested, and before Zoe could argue, Jessi’s mom called up to us.
“Pizza’s here!” she yelled. “And so is Frida!”
We raced downstairs. Jessi’s dad was carrying three pizza boxes into the kitchen, and Frida stood in the doorway.
“Sorry I’m late!” she apologized. Her cheeks were flushed, and tendrils of her wavy, auburn hair were coming loose from her ponytail. “I was at some dumb audition and they made me wait forever and it was all for nothing anyway.”
“So you didn’t get the part?” I asked.
“No,” Frida said, looking down at her sandals. Then her voice became a mumble. “But why would I, anyway?”
Jessi and I looked at each other. We were both starting to figure out why Frida had been in such a weird mood. Jessi put an arm around her. “Come on. Let’s go eat some pizza,” she said.
We went into the kitchen and filled our plates with salad, pizza, and chicken wings. Then the five of us went outside to eat at the patio table.
Frida had put on her plate only some salad and one lonely chicken wing. She picked at her food with a fork while the rest of us started gobbling pizza.
“All that purging made me hungry!” Emma remarked.
“Well, it made me lose my appetite, but luckily, I’ve got it back,” Jessi said, taking a bite of her pepperoni slice.
Zoe turned to Frida. “Things will go faster now that you’re here,” she said. “Sorry about your audition.”
Frida didn’t say anything. I got the idea that maybe her auditions hadn’t gone well, and that’s why she had been in a bad mood lately.
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