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Choosing sides, p.1

Choosing Sides, page 1


Choosing Sides

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Choosing Sides

  Chapter One

  We are not a team because we work together. We are a team because we respect, trust, and care for one another.

  I found this meme one night when I was randomly searching for teamwork on the Internet, because that is something I do sometimes. Maybe that sounds silly, but I do it to get inspiration. And this quote inspired me, so I made it my cell phone wallpaper, with a background of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team in a huddle.

  Not long after I found it, I discovered how true that quote really was, and how bad it could be when a team wasn’t working together. When I think back about it, I realize that the problem started one day at lunch.

  “Heads up, Devin!” a voice called out over the din in the crowded Kentville Middle School cafeteria.

  Usually when I heard that expression, I was on the soccer field, ready to pounce on the ball that was coming my way. At the moment it wasn’t a soccer ball sailing toward me; it was a wadded-up piece of paper.

  As I caught the paper in my right hand, I looked up and saw my friend Steven grinning at me.

  “Good catch!” He gave me a thumbs-up. “Those are my notes for the World Civ test. Carlo took it during third period, and he said it’s a killer. You might want to do some studying during lunch.” Then he shrugged. “Not that you need it. You usually ace your tests.”

  “Thanks.” I smiled back at him. “I’ll check them out. You can never be too prepared. See you later,” I said as his friend Cody began calling his name, waving him over to an empty seat.

  “Bye.” Steven smiled at me again before running over to join Cody. Both of them were on the boys’ soccer team at Kentville, and the team members usually all sat together.

  That was who I was sitting with too, my bffs and soccer teammates. Officially we were the Kentville Kangaroos, but everyone called us the Kicks. Middle school could be a social nightmare, and so I was really glad that I had a team to sit with. My team.

  Sitting on my right was Emma. Her family was Korean, and on most days her mom liked to pack her a totally tasty and loaded lunch: pickled vegetables, rice, chicken or some other protein, and fruit. It always looked so good, and Emma was so sweet that she regularly brought an extra pair of chopsticks in case someone wanted to dive into her bento box and try something new. Emma was the tallest member of the Kicks and the team goalie. She wore her long, black hair in a ponytail, and she was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt.

  Zoe, sitting next to Emma, hovered her chopsticks over the food-filled compartments of the bento box. The shortest person at the table, Zoe was fast and feisty on the field. Off the field she was a true fashionista. That day, she wore a mustard-yellow cropped sweater with a black-and-white tartan-print short skirt. I would look like a clown if I ever attempted the prints that Zoe wore, but she always looked super-chic. She’d been growing out her strawberry-blond hair, and now it was long enough for her to tuck behind her ears.

  “I can’t decide!” Zoe sighed as she contemplated all of Emma’s lunch treats.

  “Mom made veggie bibimbap,” Emma said. “I know it’s your favorite.”

  “The first day we met, I tried your mom’s bibimbap,” Zoe reminded her. “And that was all the way back in kindergarten!”

  “I never knew if you liked me for me or for my mom’s cooking,” Emma teased, and Zoe gave her shy smile that I had come to know so well.

  “Maybe it was a little bit of both,” she replied with a laugh.

  “No bibimbap for you!” Emma pretended to pout as she grabbed the bento box and turned away from Zoe.

  “If you don’t want it, I’ll have it!” Jessi exclaimed. “I don’t know what’s in this salad my mom packed for me, but it tastes so bitter. Blech!” She stuck her tongue out.

  Zoe grabbed a green leaf and nibbled. “Tastes like kale,” she said.

  In the seat next to me on my left, Jessi rolled her eyes. “I think she’s spending too much time with your mom, Devin. First she confiscates all of my hot Cheetos. Now kale salad! It’s not natural!”

  We all burst out laughing. Everyone knew that my mom was a total health-food nut, and she and Mrs. Dukes, Jessi’s mom, were becoming friends. Which was awesome, because Jessi had been my first good friend when I had first moved to Kentville, California, from Connecticut. I’ll never forget how nervous I was the first day of school. Meeting Jessi, Emma, Zoe, and Frida had made me feel not so alone.

  Jessi was a midfielder. Today she wore her black hair in a cascade of bouncy curls. Jessi was high energy, on and off the field, and was always a lot of fun.

  “Kale is a natural food, unlike disgusting processed snack foods.” Frida tossed her auburn hair over her shoulder as she spoke. My most dramatic friend, Frida, was an actress who usually pretended to be a character while on the soccer field. She’d been everything from a spy, to a princess, to an Amazon warrior. It totally confused the opposing team, especially when she shouted things like “Princess power!”

  “You’re an athlete,” Frida continued. “You need to eat healthy, whole foods. That’s why I’m going on an organic, gluten-free diet. It’s great for the skin.”

  “Why, so you’ll look fabulous on camera?” Jessi wondered “Do you have a new starring role?”

  Frida had acted in a TV movie called Mall Mania and in several commercials. That was another big difference about living in California. None of my Connecticut friends were TV stars!

  Frida beamed. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said. “I’ve got some exciting news! I’m the lead in the local theater production of the Mystery Date musical.”

  “Mystery Date? Is that, like, a thriller?” Emma asked.

  “No, it’s a board game from the sixties and seventies,” Frida replied.

  “Yeah,” Zoe chimed in. “It’s this game where you try to get the best date while avoiding the dud. If you get the dud, you lose.”

  “How do you know that?” Jessi asked her.

  “My mom had it when she was a kid, and she saved it,” Zoe replied. “My older sisters love to play it. I’d rather play Monopoly.”

  “Wait. I still don’t get how they could make a musical out of a board game,” Emma said.

  “Musicals can be inspired by almost anything,” Frida said. “There are no rules to creativity.”

  Jessi shook her head. “Seriously? Have they turned checkers into a musical too?”

  “No, but there was an award-winning musical about chess,” Frida replied.

  I was less concerned about the creative source of Frida’s musical than I was about her schedule.

  “Are you sure you have time to do all those play rehearsals?” I asked, thinking about soccer practice. “We’re right in the middle of the spring season, and we’re on track for the semifinals.”

  “Don’t worry, Devin.” Frida waved her hand as if waving away my concerns. “I know it will take a lot of effort on my part to honor all of my commitments, but Miriam told me that live theater is exactly what I need to hone my craft.”

  Miriam was a famous (and very old) actress who had starred in a lot of black-and-white movies. We had met her at a nursing home where we’d all been volunteering. Miriam and Frida had hit it off and had kept in touch ever since. They were both divas at heart, and it explained why Frida had been talking less like a seventh grader and more like a seventy-year-old lately.

  “Tomorrow we’re playing the Santa Flora Roses,” Jessi added. “Not much to worry about there. They are the weakest team in the league!”

  “Yes, tomorrow’s game should be a snap,” Zoe said.

  Emma sighed. “I can’t believe I almost gave up soccer for good! If it weren’t for all of you, I never would have played again.”

  Jessi reached across the table and patted Emma’s arm. “The K
icks wouldn’t be the same without you. So what if your cleat flew off during a game and banged you smack in the forehead? It could happen to anyone.”

  “Jessi, you know that my flying shoe wasn’t the problem—it was that somebody took a picture right when the shoe hit me in the head, and then I became a meme sensation,” she said with a groan. Then she started to giggle. “Looking back, I can see how funny it was. At the time, not so much!”

  “I’m glad you’re back to your old self, Emma,” I chimed in. “Santa Flora might be an easy win tomorrow, but we’ll need you in the goal if we want to get to the semifinals.”

  “I’m all in!” Emma said. “What’s everyone up to after the game tomorrow?”

  Jessi smiled. “Devin and I are going bowling with Cody and Steven tomorrow night. I can’t wait to see the look on Cody’s face when I demolish him.”

  Jessi could be really competitive when it came to Cody. At the mention of our bowling night, I got a big smile on my face. I wasn’t allowed to date, and neither was Jessi, but we were allowed to hang out in groups with some of our guy friends. I was kind of crushing on Steven, and Jessi had also been crushing on Cody, but things had gotten a little weird when Jessi had made a new friend named Sebastian. I wasn’t sure if Jessi still had a crush on Cody or if they were just good friends, but I was glad that the four of us could start hanging out together again. We always had so much fun.

  “Well.” Emma put her chopsticks down and beamed happily. “Zoe and I are going to be attending the first ever in-person county fan club meeting for the Real McCoys!” she squealed.

  “Wait, is Brady McCoy going to be there?” Jessi asked, sounding confused. Brady was Emma’s favorite pop star. He had starred in Mall Mania with Frida, and thanks to her, Emma had had the chance to meet her idol in person. “Haven’t you already met him? I thought maybe after that you would have cooled down a little bit, you know?”

  “I am still obsessed with Brady,” Emma admitted. “But this is just a meeting of the fan club. It’s cool because we’ve only ever communicated with one another online. Now I finally get to meet some of my favorite peeps, like BradyLover4Ever and McCoyest, in person! We’re both so excited. Right, Zoe?”

  Zoe stared blankly at the piece of mushroom trapped between her chopsticks, before shrugging and placing the chopsticks down. “I told you I wasn’t sure if I could make it. I have other plans,” Zoe said softly.

  Emma laughed. “You’re kidding, right? What could be more important? Besides, you are almost as crazy about Brady McCoy as I am.”

  Zoe sighed and shrugged again, but Emma acted like she didn’t notice.

  “We’re going to watch his concert video for his second album, Brady’s Back,” Emma said. “I can’t wait! McCoyest has the director’s cut with special, never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage. It’s going to be totally amazing!”

  Emma kept talking about the fan club thing, while Zoe kept looking down at the table, frowning. Emma’s enthusiasm about Brady could be exhausting, and it looked like it was starting to get to Zoe.

  I didn’t care if Emma talked about Brady McCoy for hours, as long as she brought that energy with her onto the soccer field. If she did that, the Kicks would have a clear shot at the semifinals! So I tuned out Emma. But sometimes I wonder, if I had been paying more attention that day at lunch, if I could have helped to prevent a crisis—a crisis like the Kicks had never seen before.

  Chapter Two

  I hopped up and down on the Kicks field, warming up my legs and stretching. Not only were the Roses currently last in the league, but the Kicks also had the home-field advantage. I wasn’t stressed about the game, but there was no way I was going to get overconfident. For all we knew, the Roses might have been practicing really hard, or had learned some new plays. You never could tell. I was determined to stay on my toes and not let my guard down.

  “Go, Devin!” my mom yelled from the stands. Normally my dad and my little sister, Maisie, would be with Mom, but Maisie was on her elementary school soccer team, and my dad had volunteered to coach.

  I thought Maisie might have ended up hating soccer because our parents had been dragging her to my games ever since she was a baby. Instead it had inspired her to play, and I had to admit she was pretty good at it. On this Saturday morning her team had a game at the same time as mine. My mom had insisted on coming to my game, even though I’d told her she didn’t have to.

  “Devin, there will always be one member of the Burke family there to cheer you on,” Mom had said. “Even if you end up playing for years and going pro.”

  “Pro? Me?” I had said. Of course I had thought of it before—but in that daydream kind of way, where you imagine yourself in a huge stadium and your fans are doing the wave. But I hadn’t seriously thought about making a career out of playing soccer, not until Mom had said those words. Usually I thought about being a teacher, or maybe a physical therapist or something like that.

  I must have had a slightly panicked look on my face, because then Mom had said, “Oh, no pressure, Devin! I was just trying to encourage you. I think you have the drive to become anything you want to be in life.”

  Now I looked up and saw Mom’s face in the stands, and I wanted to make her proud. And I also wanted to figure out something for myself: Was being a pro soccer player something I could accomplish? Was it something I wanted to accomplish?

  Then I heard my co-captain, Grace, call out, “Sock swap!” I had brought the pregame ritual with me from Connecticut, and my new teammates had liked it—even Grace and the other eighth graders, who hadn’t wanted a newcomer to come in and start changing things right away.

  I ran to join my teammates, and we all got into a circle and sat down on the grass. Since Coach Flores didn’t make us wear uniform socks, we could wear whatever crazy pattern we wanted to. For the sock swap we passed one sock to the teammate on our right, and the result was that nobody on the field wore matching socks. It made the Kicks unique and always raised our spirits before a game.

  Zoe passed me her sock, a pretty one with cherry blossom flowers going up the leg, with bands of deep burgundy at the top and toes.

  “Wow, nice sock, Zoe!” I said.

  Jessi held up a black sock with rows of garden gnomes running up the legs. “Look at what Emma is forcing me to wear! Strange little men in funny hats!”

  “Garden gnomes are adorable!” Emma protested.

  “No way! They’re super creepy!” Jessi said. “Didn’t you see Blood Garden: Revenge of the Gnome?”

  “Ew, no!” Emma squealed. “And I never will!”

  With our socks and shoes back on, everyone on the team jumped up and put a hand into the center of the circle.

  “Goooooo, Kicks!” we cheered.

  Coach Flores approached us, with her curly brown hair pulled into a ponytail. She wore a Windbreaker in Kicks blue, along with her usual smile. Coach Flores usually looked happy. If she wasn’t, something was very, very wrong.

  “All right, girls. Go out there and do your best,” she said. “When we do our best, we never lose.”

  Then she announced the game lineup. “Zarine, you’re starting on goal. Sarah, Anjali, Jade, and Frida, you’re defense. Jessi, Taylor, Anna, you’re my midfield. Devin, Hailey, Grace, I want you on forward.”

  I ran onto the field, ready to face off against the Santa Flora Roses. Yes, we had beaten them in the fall season. And they had the worst record in our division. But the Kicks had been underdogs before too. When I’d first joined the Kicks, the team had been in last place and totally disorganized. When we had come together as a team, everything had changed, and we’d even made it to the state championships! So I knew that sometimes underdogs could win.

  The California sun shone down onto the field as I waited for the game to start, and I wondered what the delay was. The Roses coach was out on the field, trying to get the girls into position. She looked pretty young—almost like a college student. She had short brown hair, serious-looking black eyeglas
ses, and a confused look on her face.

  I figured she was confused because she had two forwards, two midfielders, and six defenders on the field, which was not a really smart formation. One of the girls ran up to the coach and said something to her, and then the coach started waving at the defenders. All six of them ran up to the midfield, but she sent four of them back and told one girl to go into the midfield, and another to play forward.

  “But I’ve never played forward! I’m always on defense!” the girl told her.

  “Don’t worry. You’ll do fine,” the coach reassured her. “It’s good to try new experiences, right?”

  The girl frowned and took her place, and that was when I noticed that all of the Roses were frowning.

  “Um, good luck, Roses!” their coach called out. Then she nodded to the ref, and the game finally started.

  The Roses’ pregame disorganization spilled into the rest of the game, right along with their frowning faces. We ran circles around them from the start and scored two goals in the first ten minutes.

  One of the Roses got the ball and started to dance through our defense, but Frida quickly stole the ball from her.

  “No time travelers in the red zone!” Frida yelled, and she shot the ball down the field. I had no idea what character she was playing, but I didn’t care, as long as she got the job done.

  The Roses forward whom Frida had intercepted slumped her shoulders in despair as she jogged back to the center of the field. I recognized her as Sasha, one of my teammates from the Griffons, the winter league team I had played on.

  It bothered me to see Sasha looking so defeated, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it, because Grace passed the ball to me. I dribbled down the field and blew right by the slow Roses defenders. It wasn’t even a challenge. I had a clear shot at the goal, and I sent the ball flying toward the net. I grimaced, because it looked like I had kicked the goal right into the goalie’s hands. But it brushed past her fingertips and slammed into the net.

  My teammates cheered, but the usual thrill I felt when scoring a goal was kind of muted. I hadn’t had to work for it. I felt guilty when the next thought flashed through my mind, but I felt like I could have been playing against Maisie’s elementary school team.

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