A Lot to Tackle
“State! State! State!” The chant filled the crowded restaurant, echoing off the wood-beamed ceilings. Fans pounded the rhythm onto the worn tables. People just walking in immediately started stamping their feet to the beat in the aisles, dodging the waitresses balancing trays of steaming ribs and steaks.
Ava Sackett chanted so loudly that her throat hurt. The Ashland Tigers football team was going to the State Championships!
She felt dizzy with excitement. Everyone in town was celebrating tonight, but Ava was sure that she was the happiest of all. This past summer, her family had moved from Massachusetts
to Ashland, Texas, just so her dad could coach the high school team to victory. A lot of people had doubted him—but not Ava. She’d known Coach would lead the team all the way to the play-offs. And she knew he would win State, too.
Ava watched her twin sister Alex weave her way back from the bathroom at Fighting Tiger BBQ through the mass of fans. Strangers called out their congratulations. Alex beamed as she slid onto the bench next to Ava.
“Perfume much?” Ava teased, holding her nose. As usual, her twin sister had overly spritzed herself with the honeysuckle body mist that she carried in her navy cross-body bag.
“You should try it,” Alex teased back, knowing that unlike her, Ava refused to wear makeup and perfume. “Besides, I can’t handle smelling like cooked cow.”
“You don’t have to put it that way!” Ava cried. Alex had become a vegetarian this year, so she wasn’t a huge fan of the many barbecue restaurants in Texas.
Their older brother, Tommy, pushed in alongside Alex, squishing the twins closer together. Tommy had bulked up since he’d started playing high school football. The three
of them barely fit onto the booth’s bench.
The restaurant grew louder than other Friday night postgame celebrations. People roared, pretending to be actual tigers. Ava inhaled. Though she wasn’t a fan of Alex’s perfume, the familiar sweet floral scent comforted her in the chaos. She wasn’t big on crowds.
“Austin, here we come,” Alex said. She gazed across the table at their mom. “We’re all going to the game, right? You and Daddy promised.”
“Of course!” Coach jumped in. “I need my family with me in Austin.”
The championship game would be played two weeks from that night at the big university stadium in the state capital. Austin was a few hours away, so they’d have to stay overnight in a hotel. Ava hoped it would be a nice one with room service.
“Alex and I will check out all the cute boutiques and art galleries.” Mrs. Sackett clapped her hands together.
“For sure!” Alex agreed, twirling a strand of her long, chocolate-brown hair.
Shopping was one of Alex’s passions, but it certainly wasn’t one of Ava’s. Dressing rooms held the top spot on her Most Hated Places list. Give her a worn jersey over a dress and tights
any day! The Sackett twins looked identical, except for Alex’s long hair and Ava’s short hair, but when it came to their likes and dislikes, they were polar opposites.
“And there’s this restaurant I’m dying to try called Mercury Grill. It’s small and very fancy,” Mrs. Sackett said.
“Is that the one we saw on TV?” Ava asked. She loved to watch cooking shows with her mom, even if she didn’t love cooking itself.
“Exactly.” Mrs. Sackett had a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes.
“Football first,” Coach reminded her.
“Way to go, Sacketts!” Xander Browning waved a barbecued spare rib at them from across the room.
Ava waved back. Xander was also in seventh grade. He sat next to his older brother, who played defense on the high school team. After the game, most of their other friends had headed to Sal’s, the small pizza place where the middle school kids hung out. But Mrs. Sackett had insisted that tonight was family night.
“This is crazy, right?” Alex called over the noise. “We’re celebrities.” Her green eyes sparkled. Alex loved the attention.
“Great job, Coach!” Floyd Whittaker cried. His enormous 1979 high school football ring gleamed as he slapped Coach on the back. He was a former Tigers player. “We crushed the Falcons.”
Mr. Whittaker loudly reviewed the final run of PJ Kelly, the quarterback, with the group of former players crowded around the table. Coach nodded but said little. He stole glances at his phone, which rested on the table.
“Any word?” Mrs. Sackett said softly. She tilted her head toward the phone.
“Not yet.” Coach glanced up and waved to another fan calling his name.
“What about you, Little Sackett? Going to get us the win tomorrow, too?” For a moment, Ava didn’t realize that Mr. Whittaker was talking to her.
“Uh, sure. I hope so,” Ava said.
“Got to have more confidence than that!” Mr. Whittaker boomed. “Got to keep up the Sackett tradition!”
Ava gulped. The middle school football team had their play-off game tomorrow. She played kicker and sometimes wide receiver. She was the only girl on the team, but that no longer seemed the big deal it’d been at the beginning of the
season. Winning was the focus—even more so now that the high school team was heading to State.
“Ava’s got it covered.” Tommy reached across Alex and gave Ava a high five.
Coach picked up his phone to respond to a flurry of texts.
“How is he?” Mrs. Sackett finally asked.
“Who?” Mr. Kelly demanded, joining the conversation. Even though he wasn’t on the coaching staff, PJ’s dad liked to know everything about the team.
“Dion’s going to be okay.” Coach didn’t look up, as his thumbs punched the keys.
Mrs. Sackett let out a relieved breath. Dion Bell, the second-string quarterback, had been tackled roughly in the fourth quarter. He’d walked off the field, but when he complained of dizziness after the game, his parents had driven him to the hospital. Most of the fans didn’t know he’d been hurt.
The night’s excitement drained from Coach’s face. “But he does have a concussion. He’s out for State.”
“Out?” Tommy’s usually deep voice erupted in a squeak.
“Out?” Mr. Whittaker boomed.
“Out?” Mr. Kelly echoed.
Coach nodded. “He can’t risk being tackled again. It’s the smart choice not to play.”
Ava watched as all the men around their table moved their gaze to her brother. Tommy, who’d rarely made it off the bench this season as third-string quarterback, would take over Dion’s spot. PJ Kelly would be first-string quarterback, but if something happened to him, Tommy would go in.
“You could play in State!” Ava cried, unable to hide her excitement.
“Boy, you just won the jackpot!” Mr. Kelly said. Ava nodded. Every boy in Texas dreamed of playing quarterback in the State Championship football game. A lot of girls probably did too. And Tommy might have the chance. How lucky was he?
Tommy pressed his lips together tightly and nodded. He looked nervous.
“Sacketts all the way!” Mr. Whittaker cried.
“Sackett! Sackett!” The restaurant erupted with chants of their last name.
Ava couldn’t stop smiling. Coach and Tommy were part of Ashland football royalty! And at
tomorrow’s game, she’d kick the ball so far and so high that they’d chant for her, too.
Alex scanned her checklist on Saturday morning as the Ashland Middle School cheerleaders reached for corn muffins and breakfast burritos. Pitchers of orange juice stood next to a big pot of coffee, where the moms had gathered. Several stifled yawns and complained about the early hour.
Wimps, Alex thought. She’d been up since sunrise. There was so much to do before the big football game. She’d already set up the pregame breakfast for the cheerleaders at Rosa Navarro’s house. And Alex wasn’t even on the squad.
No surprise there, she thought. She’d never been able to touch her toes. Splits would surely send her to the hospital. And forget back handsprings!
Her best friends in Ashland, Lindsey Davis and Emily Campbell, were cheerleaders, so she’d tried out to be with them. What a joke! She’d happily ditched the pom-poms when she
discovered that she could be in charge of the squad’s public relations instead.
Wait! Pom-poms! Alex checked her list. “Excuse me!” she called over the noise. “Don’t forget to pick up your new pom-poms in the box by the front door before the game. I ordered metallic silver ones for the play-off game. You guys will really sparkle!”
“Woo-hoo! Thanks, Alex!” Lindsey called. Several other girls cheered.
“And bows,” Alex said, reaching into a bag by her side. “I bought silver hair bows too.”
“Where did you get the money for all this?” Mrs. Navarro asked, shaking her head in amazement.
“Oh, you know, fund-raising. We had that bake sale two weeks ago. And I decorated jars with ribbons and placed them in all the stores in town for donations. We raised a lot of money that way,” Alex said proudly. “Eat up, everyone! You’ll need to leave for the field in thirty minutes.”
Alex pulled a second piece of paper out from under her checklist. She had tallied all the cheerleaders who’d already paid for the coach’s gift. Now she went from family to family to collect the remaining money. I’ll need to walk into town
this week and buy something nice for Coach Jen, she thought. But what? People who had no imagination bought candles and hand cream. She liked to give gifts that had meaning.
Maybe a pretty picture frame, she thought. And I’ll pose the squad for a photo to place in the frame. Excellent!
“Before everyone leaves, we need to snap a photo!” she called. She added the photo to her list.
“Alex, you amaze me,” Mrs. Campbell said, handing her five dollars for the coach’s gift. She turned to Mrs. Navarro. “You watch. This girl is going places.”
“I agree.” Mrs. Navarro rested her hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Alex has it all together. She’s a superstar!”
Alex felt a blush blanket her pale cheeks, but she wasn’t really embarrassed by the attention. She liked being a superstar!
“I predict that you’ll run a huge company someday,” Mrs. Navarro announced.
“Alex Sackett will be mayor of Ashland,” Emily interjected.
“Oh, please!” Lindsey moved into the conversation. She hated not being the center of
attention. “You have to think bigger. Alex will be president of the United States.”
Emily nudged her. “Hey, Alex. Stop being so perfect. You’re making the rest of us look bad.” Emily grinned, and Alex knew that her friend was teasing.
“I’m so not perfect,” she said.
Emily rolled her eyes. “Tell that to the teachers.”
Mrs. Campbell nodded. “Emily tells me that not only are you helping the cheerleading squad, but you were elected seventh-grade class president and your grades are out of this world. All As!”
Alex shrugged modestly, secretly delighted by the shower of praise. She dreamed of being a senator or a governor someday. Or even running a big business with thousands of employees. Middle school was the beginning of bigger things. Much bigger.
And then her mind flashed back to the big red B scrawled at the top of her English quiz yesterday.
She chewed her lip. Her first B on a quiz, ever. She hadn’t told her parents or Ava. Her mom and dad were too busy before the big football game to worry about her English grade, and telling Ava seemed unfair. Ava would be happy
with a B. Thrilled, even. Alex tried to make a point of never bragging to her twin how easily school came to her. Ava struggled with ADHD, and that made focusing on schoolwork more difficult for her.
Alex sighed. She knew why she’d gotten that B. She’d been making posters for the playoff game and organizing this cheerleader breakfast. She hadn’t had time to make her special color-coded study sheet.
No big deal, she told herself. I’m a superstar. One B isn’t going to mess that up.
Alex excused herself and headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. On the way, she pulled out her phone and searched for the number of the restaurant in Austin her mom had mentioned last night. Before bed, she and Ava had decided to surprise her parents by making a reservation. What better way to celebrate after the championship game? Alex said she’d call, since Ava had to warm up before her own game.
Alex listened as the phone rang.
“Hello, you’ve reached Mercury Grill. We’re closed right now. Please leave a message at the beep.” The recording was delivered by a man with a deep voice.
Alex left her phone number and glanced at the time. Of course—fancy restaurants weren’t open this early. She’d add calling them back to her list.
“Alex, hey, Alex!” Lindsey tugged at Alex’s royal-blue sweater. “I need your opinion.”
Alex looked up. Lindsey and Emily stood before her in their cheerleading uniforms and perfect blond ponytails.
“About what?” Alex asked. She self-consciously re-did the hair band on her own ponytail, smoothing down the flyaways.
“Me and Corey,” Lindsey said. “Tomorrow is our two-month anniversary.”
“Oh. Wow! Congrats,” Alex said.
“I want to do something nice for him,” Lindsey said.
“Something romantic,” Emily added.
Alex wondered what she would do. Maybe share the huge Arctic Blast sundae at Rookie’s or fly side by side on that new zip line at Adventureland. She gave a small chuckle. Who was she kidding? She’d never had a boyfriend for two hours, let alone two months.
When she’d first moved to Ashland, she’d actually wished Corey would be her boyfriend.
That was before she knew about his history with Lindsey—and before she and Lindsey became friends. Now the idea that he could have been into her seemed crazy! Everyone at school, including Alex, saw that Lindsey and Corey were so right together, even though it was kind of a cliché. He was the middle school quarterback. She was a cheerleader. Their mothers had been college roommates, linking Lindsey and Corey together since they were born.
“Alex, you keep spacing out on us.” Lindsey’s voice broke through her thoughts.
“Oh, sorry.” Alex looked back at her phone. She’d have to remind the cheerleaders about their new pom-poms again. It was almost time to go.
“What about a party?” Lindsey asked. “An anniversary pizza party!”
“I love parties!” Emily clapped her hands together. “We can all celebrate with you.”
“All of us?” Alex wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that . . . well, a lot?”
“It’ll be fun,” Emily insisted. “We can do it at my house tomorrow night. We can make it a surprise for Corey.”
“He’ll be shocked. We’ll get all his friends
and our friends too. I’ll be the most awesome girlfriend!” Lindsey bounced on her toes.
“Do you think he’ll want that?” Alex asked. A pizza party didn’t sound very romantic.
“Sure,” Lindsey said confidently. “Will you help me plan it, Alex? You’re so good at organizing these things.”
“Well . . . I . . .” She liked parties, but something about Lindsey’s idea felt wrong. For two months of going out, a party seemed a bit excessive.
Stop it, Alex chided herself. Corey is Lindsey’s boyfriend. She knows him best.
“I’ll totally help,” Alex promised. She pulled out another piece of paper and began to make a party list.