It was a strange thing for me to realize. I’d never been part of a group before, let alone a team. I’d always been a loner. I’d never liked sitting on the sidelines, but that wasn’t what was getting to me about this. It was the fact that all of the others were part of something, and I wasn’t.
For the first time, I considered what it would really mean if we couldn’t figure out who had tagged me. If there was a person out there who knew my identity, and we didn’t catch them, I wouldn’t be able to go on any more missions. I wondered briefly if they’d replace me and thought about what it would be like to go back to being the old me. I wouldn’t have to worry about wearing the right clothes or saying the right things. I could see if Jack really liked me for me, or if part of the draw was who and what I appeared to be, even though he knew better than to believe a word of it. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about using the only guy who’d ever kissed me.
I would never have to go to a pep rally again.
The twins would stop fussing over my makeup, and I could go back to using regular soap, and I wouldn’t have to take any more crap from Chloe or deal with the fact that Lucy was way, way too perky before noon. Zee would stop psychoanalyzing me, and Brooke’s totalitarian tendencies would be none of my concern. I’d never fully figure out what the deal was with Jack’s family.
Tara wouldn’t be my partner.
I wouldn’t have a partner.
I wouldn’t have a team.
Life would suck.
In my head, the whole thing wasn’t laid out sequentially. The thoughts hit me all at once, and I couldn’t sort them apart enough to really analyze the fact that my entire stomach dropped at the idea of not being a part of something bigger than just me. The Squad had ruined me for being a loner. As much as I wanted to insist that I hadn’t, I had changed, and if all of a sudden I wasn’t a cheerleader anymore, there was a distinct chance that I would miss it. Not just the missions and the training and the overall purpose in life, but the other girls and the games and maybe even the actual cheering.
On the tail end of this realization, it occurred to me that if they did replace me, I seriously hoped that they transferred somebody in. If they brought one of the JV cheerleaders up to varsity, I was not going to be a happy camper.
I thought of Hayley’s words to me the day before. “If you’re still a part of the God Squad,” she’d sniffed. “I wouldn’t want to be.”
It was official. If Hayley Hoffman got my spot on the Squad, I was going rogue. I had some secret-agent skills now, and I’d use them to do something drastic.
That cheerful thought in my mind, I resigned myself to the fact that while the others were out determining whether or not I even had a future, I was stuck here painting banners. I thought about painting them down in the Quad, where I could at least keep tabs on how the mission was going, but thought of the way Chloe had reamed me that afternoon and decided against it.
I might have been going down, but strangely enough, the last thing I wanted was to bring the rest of the girls with me.
The practice gym was eerily quiet as I unrolled the banner paper and filled two tins with paint. Blue and gold, the colors of Bayport. Unsure what to do next, I stared at the blank paper. Zee had been pretty explicit about what not to write, but no one had actually versed me on the finer points of making banners. I vaguely remembered holding one up for the boys to run through at our last game, but the task of actually making it had fallen to one of the girls whose bubble letters were far superior to my own.
Needless to say, girly script was not my forte.
“Oh, well,” I muttered. “Here goes nothing.”
I dipped my foam brush into the blue paint, and set about writing GO LIONS! on one banner and GO BIG GOLD! on the other. The whole process was strangely soothing, though I wouldn’t have admitted my lack of enmity for it under threat of death.
I jumped at Mr. J’s voice. Something about thinking the phrase threat of death and then having someone call out my name when I’d thought I was alone put me a little on edge.
“Oh, hey, Mr. J,” I said.
“Why aren’t you at the Spirit Lunch?” he asked.
“The Spirit Lunch, honoring the state’s most esteemed cheerleaders,” Mr. J said. “I believe that’s where Brooke said she and the seniors were going this afternoon, and the rest of the girls appear to have gone as well.”
Personally, I thought my Seventeen magazine excuse had more oomph, but I wasn’t going to quibble with the vice-principal.
“Someone had to stay and paint the banners,” I said simply.
“Oh,” he replied. “Good girl.” Then he paused and turned back over his shoulder. “She’s in here, Joanne,” he called. “I’ll let you tell her the exciting news yourself.”
Joanne. My mind took in the name and recognized the reference. Joanne McCall. The PTA president. The nauseatingly reminiscent mom.
“Exciting news?” I asked.
Mrs. McCall came into the room, her smile proving that as Botox-ed as her face was, she still had control over at least a few of her facial muscles. “The homecoming game is going to be televised,” she said. “Including your halftime routine and the coronation ceremony. Isn’t that wonderful news?”
Wonderful wasn’t the word I would have chosen myself, even with my newfound insight into my feelings about my cheer identity. Cheerdentity. Whatever.
“If you girls will excuse me,” Mr. J said, “I have a student in my office. Something about Abraham Lincoln and streaking.”
Mr. J left, and I looked down at the banner, hoping the NRM would get the hint and leave, but she didn’t. Instead, she came further into the gym, blathering on about the “excitement” as she did.
“It’s the Game of the Week, you know,” she said. “For the entire state. There’s a chance that the feed may even be picked up nationwide. It’s such an exciting opportunity for you girls!”
Blah, blah, blah…
“It’s so unfortunate that you won’t be there to enjoy it.”
The tone of her voice never changed, but my body reacted as if it had. Even before my mind processed her words, a chill ran up my spine, and I made my way to my feet.
“What did you just say?” I asked her.
She pursed her lips. “I said it’s unfortunate that you won’t be there,” she repeated. “These are such precious and wonderful times. It really is a shame that I have to do this. I didn’t want to, you know, but you girls make these things so difficult.”