The high school cheerleading squad has a new coach: Colette French, perfect in every way, a cool and commanding presence who instantly wins the girls’ approval and allegiance. The girls find themselves drawn into Coach’s life, opening up to her and eagerly vying for her attention. But when a suspicious suicide hits close to home, and the police investigation involves Coach and her squad, the girls are left wondering where their loyalties truly lie—and how far is too far to go for those in power. When it’s all over, someone will emerge on top, and the others will have fallen. Megan Abbott brings all of the raw passions of girlhood to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of what it means to be a leader, and what it means to truly fly.
Release date: July 31, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 304
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FOUR MONTHS AGO
After a game, it takes a half hour under the showerhead to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair.
Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.
You’re really just trying to get your heart to slow down.
You think, This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, flip, fly.
After, you stand in front of the steaming mirror, the fuchsia streaks gone, the lashes unsparkled. And it’s just you there, and you look like no one you’ve ever seen before.
You don’t look like anybody at all.
At first, cheer was something to fill my days, all our days.
Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.
All those misty images of cheerleaders frolicking in locker rooms, pom-poms sprawling over bare bud breasts. All those endless fantasies and dirty boy-dreams, they’re all true, in a way.
Mostly it’s noisy and sweaty, it’s the roughness of bruised and dented girl bodies, feet sore from floor pounding, elbows skinned red.
But it is also a beautiful, beautiful thing, all of us in that close, wet space, safer than in all the world.
The more I did it, the more it owned me. It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high.
It was something. Don’t say it wasn’t.
And Coach gave it all to us. We never had it before her. So can you blame me for wanting to keep it? To fight for it, to the end?
She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen flickering from the corner of my eye. Did I ever feel anything at all until she showed me what feeling meant? Pushing at the corners of her cramped world with curled fists, she showed me what it meant to live.
There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.
Look at how my eyes shutter open and closed, like everything is just too much to take in.
I was never one of those mask-faced teenagers, gum lodged in mouth corner, eyes rolling and long sighs. I was never that girl at all. But I knew those girls. And when she came, I watched all their masks peel away.
We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.
So look at me here, in the locker room before the game.
I’m brushing the corner dust, the carpet fluff from my blister-white tennis shoes. Home-bleached with rubber gloves, pinched nose, smelling dizzyingly of Clorox, and I love them. They make me feel powerful. They were the shoes I bought the day I made squad.
Her first day. We all look her over with great care, our heads tilted. Some of us, maybe me, even fold our arms across our chests.
The New Coach.
There are so many things to take in, to consider and set on scales, tilted always toward scorn. Her height, barely five-four, pigeon-toed like a dancer, body drum-tight, a golden collarbone popping, forehead high.
The sharp edges of her sleek bob, if you look close enough, you can see the scissor slashes (did she have it cut this morning, before school? she must’ve been so eager), the way she holds her chin so high, treats it like a pointer, turning this way and that, watching us. And most of all her striking prettiness, clear and singing, like a bell. It hits us hard. But we will not be shaken by it.
All of us, slouching, lolling, pockets and hands chirping and zapping—how old u think? looka the whistle, WTF—the texts flying back and forth from each hiccupping phone. Not giving her anything but eyes glazed, or heads slung down, attending to important phone matters.
How hard it must be for her.
But standing there, back straight like a drill officer, she’s wielding the roughest gaze of all.
Eyes scanning the staggered line, she’s judging us. She’s judging each and every one. I feel her eyes shred me—my bow legs, or the flyaway hairs sticking to my neck, or the bad fit of my bra, me twisting and itching and never as still as I want to be. As she is.
“Fish could’ve swallowed her whole,” Beth mutters. “You could’ve fit two of her in Fish.”
Fish was our nickname for Coach Templeton, the last coach. The one plunked deep in late middle age, with the thick, solid body of a semi-active porpoise, round and smooth, and the same gold post earrings and soft-collared polo shirt and sneakers thick-soled and graceless. Hands always snugged around that worn spiral notebook of drills penciled in fine script, serving her well since the days when cheerleaders just dandled pom-poms and kicked high, high, higher. Sis-boom-something.
Her hapless mouth slack around her whistle, Fish spent most of her hours at her desk, playing spider solitaire. We’d spot, through the shuttered office window, the flutter of cards overturning. I almost felt sorry for her.
Long surrendered, Fish was. To the mounting swagger of every new class of girls, each bolder, more coil-mouth insolent than the last.
We girls, we owned her. Especially Beth. Beth Cassidy, our captain.
I, her forever-lieutenant, since age nine, peewee cheer. Her right hand, her fidus Achates. That’s what she calls me, what I am. Everyone bows to Beth and, in so doing, to me.
And Beth does as she pleases.
There really wasn’t any need for a coach at all.
But now this. This.
Fish was suddenly reeled away to gladed Florida to care for her teenage granddaughter’s unexpected newborn, and here she is.
The new one.
The whistle dangles between her fingers, like a charm, an amulet, and she is going to have to be reckoned with.
There is no looking at her without knowing that.
“Hello,” she says, voice soft but firm. No need to raise it. Instead, everyone leans forward. “I’m Coach French.”
And you ma bitches, the screen on my phone flashes, phone hidden in my palm. Beth.
“And I can see we have a lot to do,” she says, eyes radaring in on me, my phone like a siren, a bull’s-eye.
I can feel it still buzzing in my hand, but I don’t look at it.
There’s a plastic equipment crate in front of her. She lifts one graceful foot under the crate’s upper lip and flips it over, sending floor-hockey pucks humming across the shiny floor.
“In here,” she says, kicking the crate toward us.
We all look at it.
“I don’t think we’ll all fit,” Beth says.
Coach, face blank as the backboard above her, looks at Beth.
The moment is long, and Beth’s fingers squeak on her phone’s pearl flip.
Coach does not blink.
The phones, they drop, all of them. RiRi’s, Emily’s, Brinnie Cox’s, the rest. Beth’s last of all. Candy-colored, one by one into the crate. Click, clack, clatter, a chirping jangle of bells, birdcalls, disco pulses, silencing at last upon itself.
After, there’s a look on Beth’s face. Already I see how it will go for her.
“Colette French,” she smirks. “Sounds like a porn star, a classy one who won’t do anal.”
“I heard about her,” Emily says, still giddy-breathless from the last set of motion drills. All our legs are shaking. “She took the squad at Fall Wood all the way to state Semis.”
“Semis. Semi. Fucking. Epic,” Beth drones. “Be the dream.”
Emily’s shoulders sink.
None of us really cheer for glory, prizes, tourneys. None of us, maybe, know why we do it at all, except it is like a rampart against the routine and groaning afflictions of the school day. You wear that jacket, like so much armor, game days, the flipping skirts. Who could touch you? Nobody could.
My question is this:
The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators?
It isn’t immediate. No head-knocking conversion.
But with each day that week, the New Coach continues to hold our interest—a feat.
We let her drill us, we run tumbles. We show her all our routines and we keep our claps tight and our roundoffs smooth.
Then we show her our most heralded routine, the one we ended last basketball season with, lots of chorus line flips and toe touches and a big finish where we all pop Beth up into a straddle sit, her arms V-split above her head.
Coach seems almost to be watching, her foot perched on top of the crunking boom box.
Then she asks us what else we got.
“But everyone loved that number,” peeps Brinnie Cox. “They had us do it again at graduation.”
We all want Brinnie to shut up.
Coach, she’s just tighter, fleeter than we’d expected, and that first week, we take notice. Planted in front of us, her body held so lightly but so surely.
We can’t fluster her, and we are surprised.
We can fluster everyone, not just Fish but the endless sad parade of straw-man subs, dusty-shouldered geometry teachers and crepey-skinned guidance counselors.
Let’s face it, we’re the only animation in the whole drop-ceiling, glass-bricked tomb of a school. We’re the only thing moving, breathing, popping.
And we know it. You can feel that knowingness on us.
Look at them, that’s what we can hear them—everyone—say when, Game Day, we stride the hallways, pack-like, our ponytails rocking, our skirts like diamonds.
Who do they think they are?
But we know just who we are.
Just like Coach knows who she is. It’s in the click and tap of both her aloofness and nerve. So unconcerned with our nonsense. Bored with it. A boredom we know.
Right off, she won something there, even if—or because—she didn’t ask for it, care about it. Not because she’s bored but because we’re not interesting enough for her.
Not yet, at least.
The second day, she takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers. Pixie-eyed, apple-breasted Emily lifts her arms languorously above her head in an epic yawn. Oh, we know this routine, this routine which so provokes Mrs. Dieterle and makes Mr. Callahan turn red and cross his legs.
Coach’s hand appears out of nowhere and reaches for the spot laid bare by Emily’s tank top lifted high. She plucks the baby fat there and twists it, hard. So hard Emily’s mouth gives a little pop. The gasp, like a squeeze toy.
“Fix it,” Coach says, eyes lifting from the skin between her fingers to Emily’s stricken eyes.
Fix it. Just like that.
Fix it? Fix it? Emily, sobbing in the locker room after, and Beth rolling her eyes, her head, her neck in annoyed circles.
“She can’t say things like that, can she?” Emily wails.
Emily whose balloony breasts and hip-cascades are the joy of all the boys, their ga-ga throats stretched to follow her gait, to stretch around corridor corners just to see that cheer skirt dance.
All those posters and PSAs and health class presentations on body image and the way you can burst blood vessels in your face and rupture your esophagus if you can’t stop ramming those sno balls down your throat every night, knowing they’ll have to come back up again, you sad weak girl.
Because of all this, Coach surely can’t tell a girl, a sensitive, body-conscious teenage girl, to get rid of the tender little tuck around her waist, can she?
Coach can say anything.
And there’s Emily, keening over the toilet bowl after practice, begging me to kick her in the gut so she can expel the rest, all that cookie dough and cool ranch, the smell making me roil. Emily, a girl made entirely of donut sticks, cheese powder, and haribo.
I kick, I do.
She would do the same for me.
Wednesday, Brinnie Cox says she might quit.
“I can’t do it,” she pules to Beth and me. “Did you hear my head hit the mat on the dismount? I think Mindy did it on purpose. It’s easy for a Base. Her body’s like a big chunk of rubber. We’re not trained for stunts.”
“That’s why we’re training for stunts,” I say. I know Brinnie would rather be pom-shaking, grinding, and ass-slapping during halftime, or all the time.
Brinnie’s the one Beth and I have always ridden the hardest, out of irritation. “I don’t like her big teeth or her chicken bone legs,” Beth would say. “Get her out of here.”
Once, practicing double hook jumps, Beth and I made loud comments across the gym about how Brinnie’s slutty sister got caught making out with the assistant custodian until Brinnie ran off to the far showers to cry.
“All I know is,” Brinnie lisps now, through those big teeth, “my head is killing me.”
“If you ruptured a blood vessel,” Beth replies, “you could be slowly bleeding inside your head.”
“You probably already have brain damage,” I add, eyeing her closely. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
“The blood may be squeezing your brain against the side of your skull,” Beth says, “which eventually will kill you.”
Brinnie’s eyes wide and wet and brimming, I know we have achieved our goal.
On the last day of that first week, Coach calls a special meeting.
There are anxious texts and phone calls. Talk of cuts to the squad and who might it be?
But her announcement is simple.
“There isn’t going to be a squad captain anymore,” she says, standing before us.
Everyone looks at Beth.
I’ve known Beth since second grade, since we braided our bodies together in sleeping bags at girl camp, since we first blood-brothered ourselves to each other. I know Beth and can read her every raised eyebrow, every toe pivot. She holds certain things—calculus, hall passes, her mother, stop signs—in a steely contempt that drives her hard.
Once, she dunked her mother’s toothbrush in the toilet, and she calls her father “the Mole,” though none of us can remember why, and there was that time she called our phys ed teacher a cunt, though no one could prove it.
But there are other things about her that not everyone knows.
She rides horses, has a secret library of erotic literature, is barely five feet tall and yet has the strongest legs I’ve ever seen.
I might also tell this: In eighth grade, no, summer after, at a beer party, Beth put her scornful little-girl mouth on Ben Trammel, you know where. I remember the sight. He was grinning, holding her head down, gripping her hair like he’d caught a trout with his bare hand, and everyone found out. I didn’t tell. People still talk about it. I don’t.
I never knew why she did it, or the other things she’s done since. I never asked, that’s not how we are.
We don’t judge.
The main thing about Beth, though, is this: she has always been our captain, my captain, even back in peewee, in junior high, then JV, and now the Big Leagues.
Beth has always been captain, and me her badass lieutenant, since the day she and I, after three weeks of flipping roundoffs together in her backyard, first made squad together.
She was born to it, and we never thought of cheer any other way.
Sometimes I think captain is the only reason Beth even comes to school, bothers with any of us, anything at all.
“I just don’t see any need for a captain. I don’t see what it’s gotten you,” Coach says, glance passing over Beth. “But thank you for your service, Cassidy.”
Hand me your badge, your gun.
Everyone pads their sneakers anxiously, and RiRi peers dramatically at Beth, arching her whole back to see her reaction.
But Beth gives no reaction.
Beth doesn’t seem to care at all.
Doesn’t even care enough to yawn.
“I was sure it’d be bad,” whispers Emily to me, doing jump squats in the locker room later. “Like when she got mad at that math sub and keyed his car.”
But, knowing Beth, I figure it will be some time before we see her true response.
“What’ll cheer be like now?” wonders Emily, lunging breathlessly, paring that body down to size. Fixing it. “What does it mean?”
What it means, we soon see, is no more hours whiled away talking about the lemonade diet and who had an abortion during summer break.
Coach has no interest in that, of course. She tells us we’d best get our act together.
End of that first week, new regime, our legs are loose and soft, our bodies flopping. Our moves less than tight. She says we look sloppy and juvenile, like Disney tweensters on a parade float. She is right.
And so it’s bleacher sprints for us.
Oh, to know such pain. Hammering up and down those bleacher steps to the pulse of her endless whistle. Twenty-one high steps and forty-three smaller steps. Again, again, again.
We can feel it in our shins the next day.
We can feel it everywhere.
Stairwell to hell, we call it, which Beth says is just bad poetry.
By Saturday practice, though, we’re already—some of us—starting to look forward to that pain, which feels like something real.
And we know we will get a lot better fast, and no injuries either because we’re running a tight routine.
The bleacher sprints are punishing, and I feel my whole body shuddering—pound-pound-pound—my teeth rattling, it is almost ecstatic—pound-pound-pound, pound-pound-pound—I feel almost like I might die from the booming pain of it—pound—I feel like my body might blow to pieces, and we go, go, go. I never want it to stop.
So different from before, all those days we spent our time nail painting and temp tattooing, waiting always for Cap’n Beth, who would show ten minutes before game time after smoking a joint with Todd Grinnell or gargling with peppermint schnapps behind her locker door and still dazzle us all by rocketing atop Mindy’s and Cori’s shoulders, stretching herself into an Arabesque.
Back then, we could hardly care, our moves so sloppy and weak. We’d just streak ourselves with glitter and straddle jump and shake our asses to Kanye. Everybody loved us. They knew we were sexy beyotches. It was enough.
Cheerutantes, that’s what they called us, the teachers.
Cheerlebrities, that’s what we called ourselves.
We spent our seasons prowling, a flocked flock, our ponytails the same length, our matching nfinity trainers, everything synchronous, eyelids gold-flecked, and no one could touch us.
But there was a sloth in it, I see now. A wayward itch, and sometimes even I would look at the other kids who filled the classrooms, the debaters and yearbook snappers and thick-legged girl-letes and the band girls swinging their battered violin cases, and wonder what it felt like to care so much.
Everything is different now.
Beth is tugging at her straw, the squeaking grating on me.
I should be home, drawing parabolas, and instead I’m in Beth’s car, Beth needing to get out of the house, to stop hearing her mother’s silky robe shushing down the hallway.
Beth and her mother, a pair of impalas, horns locked since Beth first started speaking, offered up her first cool retort.
“My daughter,” Mrs. Cassidy once slurred to me, slathering her neck with crème de la mer, “has been a delinquent since the day she was born.”
So I get in Beth’s car, thinking a drive might do some kind of soothing magic, like with a colicky baby.
“The test’s tomorrow,” I say, fingering my calc book.
“She lives on Fairhurst,” she says, ignoring me.
“French. The coach.”
“How do you know?”
Beth doesn’t even give me a shrug, has never, ever answered a question she didn’t feel like answering.
“You wanna see it? It’s pretty lame.”
“I don’t want to see it,” I say, bu. . .
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