1. Friday, August 26: 12:27 P.M.: Luci
FRIDAY, AUGUST 26
Bite down as hard as you can.”
Luci Capurro sinks her teeth into a perforated metal tray packed with pink clay. The overflow pushes through the tiny holes and streamers of orthodontic Play-Doh quickly fill the empty spaces inside her mouth. Luci gags, but thankfully the other girls—her new teammates—don’t notice.
A celebration is brewing across the classroom.
Desks are bulldozed into corners. A platter of still-warm bagels and tubs of cream cheese carried away. A cooler with mini bottles of orange juice dragged across the linoleum. Someone turns up the volume on a cell phone and drops it into an empty plastic Solo cup. The vibrating plastic warbles the lyrics incomprehensibly, but it was the song of this summer. Everyone already knows the words.
As quickly as the dance floor appears it is filled by returning players. Luci identifies them as such by the varsity Wildcat gear they already possess. Dropped duffel bags from different regional tournaments. T-shirts boasting championships won before Luci moved to this town, boxy unisex styles snipped into more flattering silhouettes, like loose window dressings for their sport bras.
Though damp with sweat, they happily drape themselves onto each other and dance, paw, pinch, prune, grind, hip check. They seem so much older. Practically a different species of girl. The intimacy between them makes Luci feel like a creeper for staring.
But she is not the only one.
A smaller group of girls stands pressed against a table of computers, the dim monitors a contrast to their bright, adoring smiles. They must be the new players promoted from last season’s freshman and JV teams, Luci decides. The veteran players shimmy over and take their hands. There is not a sneaker squeak of resistance. Even the shy ones close their eyes and dance.
No one notices Luci. It is not a slight. Luci is the only incoming freshman—technically still an eighth grader until Monday—to have made varsity. She is grateful that the dental tech’s body mostly shields her from view, grateful she could point to the tray in her mouth if she were seen and beckoned to the dance floor. At this moment Luci doesn’t have the courage to join in the fun. It took every last drop she had to bring her this far.
“And open.” The dental tech pokes inside her mouth with his bitter rubber-gloved hand, scooping out the excess clay with his fingers and then checking the fit. “Okay, Luci, this looks good. Go ahead and close again. No talking for five minutes while the mold sets.”
The song ends but the girls continue the beat, drumming on desks and walls, stomping their feet on the floor. The tech rolls his eyes and flings his used gloves into the trash. No one notices or cares that he’s annoyed. The beat gets faster, building, blurring, until an impromptu cheer suddenly breaks out and nineteen teenage girls scream-sing the Wildcat fight song.
Luci hasn’t memorized the words yet. It didn’t feel particularly pressing. She wasn’t making the team.
What a difference an hour makes.
Luci threads some stray wisps of hair behind her ears. Lowers her chin to her chest. Listens close.
We are the Wildcats, the navy blue and white,
We are the Wildcats, always ready for a fight!
Luci needs to learn names, too. She’s picked up only a few. Not from any introductions or pleasantries but because the best players simply make themselves known.
One, a senior named Phoebe, breaks the horizon of bobbing heads by hopping up on a classroom chair. Phoebe’s knee is double wrapped—an Ace bandage under a compression sleeve—and by her euphoric grin, you’d think she’d reached the summit of Everest. Phoebe reaches down into the crowd and starts pulling another girl up with her.
Mel. The Wildcats’ varsity team captain.
Luci watches Mel try to gently wriggle free, but it is no use—Phoebe won’t let her go—so she relents. The two girls then deftly negotiate their small, shared platform, finding their balance, turning butt to butt so they both can fit, their toes cantilevered off the seat’s edge. Mel knots up her silky chestnut hair, lifts a fist, and punches the air with a cheerleader’s precision, her face beaming joy and hope and pride.
Don’t mess with the Wildcats, we won’t accept defeat,
For we are the Wildcats, and we just can’t be beat!
Arms are thrown over shoulders, zipping the cluster into a tight, impenetrable spiral. They sing the last verse to one another.
Three cheers for the Wildcats, your honor we’ll defend,
’Cause when you’re a Wildcat, you’re a Wildcat till the end!
The chant fades like a summer firework and everyone exhales a breath collectively held for an entire week. The girls slowly untangle themselves from one another, though not before one last bit of tenderness. Squeezing each other’s hands, patting each other on the head, swatting a whip of ponytail.
Even from across the classroom, Luci feels the warmth.
Coach enters the room a moment later. He signals for Mel to follow him with a crooked finger. The other girls get busy straightening desks, resuming order.
The dental tech checks his clipboard. “Grace Mosure! You’re up next!”
Luci recognizes the girl who walks over. During most of the scrimmages, Grace played defense to Luci’s offense. Grace operated at one speed—full-throttle charge—and she was relentless in trying to strip Luci of the ball. Most intimidating were Grace’s eyes, wide and desperately hungry behind the metal cage of her face mask, like a stray dog’s. Now that the mask is off, Grace exudes a cooler, more relaxed vibe, though a faint pink ring remains etched in her skin from its suction.
Grace hops up on a desk and pulls her mousy hair into a sprout of ponytail at the top of her head. After scribbling a signature down for the dental tech, she gently peels the tape back from the rims of her ears, exposing on each a ladder of tiny silver hoops climbing the cartilage.
Grace’s style is definitely edgy. Not what Luci has come to think of as the typical West Essex look. And yet Grace eagerly bites off the tag on a new Wildcat windbreaker and pulls it over her head. It is navy blue with a white zipper, a white paw print over the heart, and “Varsity Field Hockey” across the shoulder blades in blocky white letters. Grace cracks the entire length of her spine peering over her shoulder to admire it.
Grace becomes yet another piece of the puzzle Luci’s trying to solve on the fly. Despite her incongruence, Grace clearly fits here somehow. It gives Luci hope that she might too.
Behind them, navy-blue-and-white Wildcat gear is bricked in neat stacks, along with folders of permission slips to be taken home for signature. Lastly, twenty white three-ring binders. The Wildcats Varsity Field Hockey Playbook. Luci takes one into her lap, opens it with reverence.
The first page is their schedule. For the next three months, there will be games once or twice a week and nearly every Saturday afternoon.
Luci turns the page and finds the Wildcats Varsity Field Hockey Code of Conduct. Any hairbands, wristbands, or headbands must be either white or navy. Makeup and jewelry and perfume are expressly forbidden from practices and games. Varsity players are expected to dress up for school on game days. Skirts or dresses, no jeans. There is a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew imposed on nights before games. Attendance at Psych-Up Dinners is mandatory. Attendance at practices and meetings is mandatory. There are many, many more.
Centered at the bottom of the last page, in capital letters, a catchall:
TEAM FIRST, ALWAYS.
Me, Luci thinks, dumbfounded. This includes me.
The remaining pages, comprising the bulk of the binder, each depict a different chaos, Xs and Os and arrows zooming across a rectangular representation of the field. Squinting, Luci wants this section to make more sense than it does. Maybe she’s dehydrated? Her temples throb. She pinches the bridge of her nose.
She closes the binder and sees that Grace is watching her.
Luci tries to smile around the dental tray. A trickle of drool drips from the corner of her mouth.
Both girls laugh.
Grace benevolently says, “Supposedly, these custom mouth guards are amazing. You have to spit, like, significantly less. A dentist in town makes them for the varsity players every year, free of charge. His daughter got a full ride to play at Falk.” Grace swings her legs, childlike. “I’m Grace, by the way. I’m new too. I started JV last year as a freshman.”
The dental tech’s watch beeps and Luci’s mouth guard mold is popped out with more force than she was expecting. She runs her tongue across her teeth, makes sure her braces are still attached. “I’m Luci,” she says, massaging her jaw.
“So … do you know who’s taking you home yet?”
“My mom. Why?”
Grace holds up her hand to prevent the dental tech from inserting the tray into her mouth. “No, see. It’s kind of a Wildcat thing that the younger girls who can’t drive yet get adopted by the older girls with cars. You basically never have to worry about getting a ride home from practice or a game.” Grace discreetly points across the room. “Ali Park picked me,” she whispers, almost giddy, a strange show of emotion for someone projecting that much cool. “Ali was all-state goalie last year. Practically unstoppable for most of the season. Except … well. You know.”
Luci doesn’t. What happened? She’s too insecure to ask. Luckily, Grace keeps talking.
“Anyway, I bet Mel already called dibs on you. She made varsity as an incoming freshman too. Plus you’re both left forwards. Kinda makes sense she’d take you under her wing this season.”
Luci scans the classroom and finds Mel seated at a desk near the front, dutifully copying what appears to be some of Coach’s notes onto a strip of white stick tape. To Grace, she says quietly, “So I should tell my mom I’ll meet her at home? Even though Mel hasn’t said anything? I really don’t mind not getting a ride. I might be out of the way, and—”
Full of confidence, Grace explains, “That’s how it works on this team. The Wildcats look out for each other.”
“Right.” Luci digs in her bag and finds her phone is dead. She looks to the classroom clock—12:45. Her mother is likely already here. She’ll have to run outside. “Hey, thanks for clueing me in on this stuff, Grace.”
The dental tray has already been pushed into Grace’s mouth but it doesn’t stop her from answering, “That’s what teammates are for.”
Luci gingerly approaches the front of the classroom. Coach’s desk has a throne-like quality thanks to the two trophy cases glittering behind it. His baseball hat is off, his sandy hair lightened blond by summer. He’s on his laptop, typing, chewing a piece of gum fast and hard, almost compulsively. He could be a grad student cramming for an exam.
“Excuse me, Coach?”
He looks up, momentarily annoyed by the interruption. But then, in a flash, he’s smiling warmly. “Lucianna.”
“Oh. Ha. Only my grandmother calls me that.” Luci lifts her arms to fix her sagging ponytail but, realizing her armpits probably have sweat rings, lowers them. “Everyone calls me Luci.”
He leans back in his creaky teacher’s chair, old dark wood. “You’re Argentinean, am I right?”
Luci cocks an eyebrow. “Yes. My mom’s side.” She was pretty sure everyone at West Essex assumed she was white.
Coach stretches, pleased with himself. “Did you know that you share a name and a heritage with arguably the best female field hockey player of all time? Luciana Aymar.”
Luci laughs loudly. Practically a bark. “Um. No. And … in that case, for sure call me Luci. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
She has a hard time keeping eye contact with Coach. He sorta looks like a grown-up version of Mike Roy, a classmate who Luci secretly crushed on third quarter. “Sorry. I guess I’m just overwhelmed?” Her upspeak is like nails on a chalkboard. She hears now why her mother gets on her case about it. It makes her sound like a ditz. She forces a swallow. “I’d never even held a stick before the field hockey unit in Mr. Yancy’s gym class last spring. So it’s a little crazy to be standing here right now.”
Mr. Yancy is the West Essex Lower School’s gym teacher, and also, it turns out, the freshman field hockey coach. Over the summer, he mailed Luci info about a free skills camp for incoming freshmen. Luci decided to go, mainly because it would be a chance to see her classmates before high school started, have another crack at making friends with them. She’d been a midyear transfer during eighth grade, was still a little lost, and had spent most of her summer alone, guzzling Cheetos and Netflixing on her phone.
The skills camp had turned out to be good fun. They did drills, mostly, not the most exciting stuff, but Luci was a quick learner, and Mr. Yancy would often praise her good instincts. It was borderline embarrassing how good Luci felt to have something in her life clicking.
Coach leans forward on his elbows and laces his hands. “Luci, I know you’re green but you’ve got a hell of a lot of raw potential. Believe me, I don’t normally bother checking out the incoming freshman players. But Yancy called me and said, ‘Coach, you have to see this girl play. She’s a natural.’ And he’s right. You are.”
Luci had heard whispers during the first day of skills camp that the high school’s varsity coach was not like a typical teacher. He was hot. Also young and cool. In the abstract, Luci couldn’t picture it. But on the second day, someone pointed Coach out to Luci, standing with his arms folded at the chain-link fence, watching them play. He didn’t stay long—maybe ten minutes— but he spoke with Mr. Yancy before he left. His eyes were on Luci the entire time. And her cheeks flushed as brightly then as they probably are right now. The next day, before Luci even set down her gear, Mr. Yancy sent her to the upper field, where varsity tryouts were already in progress.
“I’ll admit, I threw you into the deep end this week. But you more than held your own. Sure, I could have left you on the freshman team, given you a season to get your bearings. Or bumped you to JV and let you be their star. But playing at the varsity level and, frankly, having me be the one to coach you will raise your game much, much faster.”
Luci feels herself stand taller. “I think it already has.”
Not to say that she hadn’t spent those three days of varsity tryouts expecting any minute to be pulled off the field by Coach. She was fast only because she was scared of getting a stick to the shins. She never stood in the right place, even if she did score. And the language everyone spoke on the field was completely foreign to her.
Pressure pressure pressure!
The girls would help Luci when they could, discreetly whispering tips, lifting their chins to show Luci where to stand. Little by little, the game began to feel more instinctual, the stiffness of drills smoothing during play. And when Luci completed one turn-and-shoot move, managing to sail the ball into the back of the net during a scrimmage, every girl, regardless of what color pinny they wore, swarmed her, slapping her back, mussing her hair. It was pure joy.
When she stood around the flagpole this afternoon, Luci desperately wanted to hear Coach say her name.
Coach nods, pleased with her validation. And perhaps, as a reward, his voice downshifts to something lower, more conspiratorial. “Tell you the complete truth, Luci, I’m being selfish. I haven’t been this excited to coach someone in … well, it’s been a while.” His eyes drift over her shoulder, focusing briefly behind her.
Mel, still sitting at that front-row desk, sets her pen down and begins to smooth the tape onto her stick handle, pressing the edges, careful, precise. Mel is definitely close enough to have heard their conversation, but if she’s been listening, Luci can’t tell.
“Anyway, Luci.” Coach’s voice is at a normal volume again, and Luci spins to attention. “I want you to start thinking about goals for this season. Lay out what you want to accomplish.”
“You mean like … learn a lot?”
Coach’s face crinkles with polite embarrassment. “I’m talking about setting some stat goals to get you on the college scouting radar. It wouldn’t hurt to make a list of top schools. D1 and D2. More and more high school players aren’t waiting to commit anymore. This summer, a sophomore at Ellis signed a letter of intent for DCU, full ride.”
Luci bites down on her smile. This conversation feels impossible—she hasn’t even played a single game yet—but if it were true, if there were even a remote chance at a scholarship, it would majorly help her mother, who was already drowning in med school debt.
“Now, you came over to ask me something, right?” He rolls his pencil through his fingers so fast, it’s a yellow blur.
Right. Her mother. Still outside waiting. Luci thinks of a quick excuse, instead of telling Coach the truth, because she doesn’t want to seem babyish. “May I please go to the bathroom?”
She winces. Smooth, Luci. Real smooth.
Coach laughs at her, but to his credit, attempts to disguise it by clearing his throat. “Just make it quick.”
Luci’s been in the upper school only once, for the holiday concert. She never walked the halls or peeked inside a classroom before this. It feels like high school here. Serious. Straightforward. Smart Boards. Meanwhile, at the lower school, her eighth grade locker had been directly above a kindergarten classroom, and once, as she searched for a tampon in her book bag, she’d heard children singing their ABCs. This memory only makes Luci happier to be here now, as if a paper-chain umbilical cord tethering her to childhood has at last been snipped.
She hurries past the bathroom and into the stairwell, quietly pushes on one of the metal doors leading outside, and then sprints toward her mother’s car idling in the parking lot. Every muscle feels sore.
Her mother is in the front seat, dabbing at her white lab coat with a Clorox bleach pen. The plan was to grab lunch together before her shift. When she was still in med school, Luci’s mother kept more of a normal schedule, but now that she’s begun her residency, she’s on two to eleven. Once school starts back up, they’ll be running on entirely opposite schedules.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mom. I thought I’d be dismissed by now.”
“No sweat. If we don’t have the time to sit down someplace, we’ll hit a drive-through.”
Lots of people comment that Luci and her mother look like sisters. Yes, her mother is young, and that’s part of it. Both have skin that will tan in the weakest sunshine, eyes the color of honey, brown hair streaked with copper and gold. Still, Luci knows it’s a generous compliment, because her mother is full-bloom beautiful while she’s a bud.
“Actually … there’s this thing about the older girls giving rides to the new girls on the team.” Luci shyly adds, as a way to not feel like such a jerk, “I made varsity. The only one from my grade.”
Her mother tosses her bleach pen aside and squeals. “I didn’t want to ask, just in case! Wow, Luci! This is a big deal, isn’t it?”
“Kinda. Coach is already talking to me about college scholarships and stuff.”
“For real?” Luci dodges as her mother tries swatting her through the open window. They both laugh giddily, because even after these last few days of tryouts, it still feels surreal—practically divine—to discover that Luci might be gifted at something she only just tried. Her mother kisses two of her fingers and presses them to the cross that dangles from the rearview mirror. “Okay, well, if you’re sleeping when I get home from the hospital, I’m waking you up. I want all the details.”
Luci bites her lip. “Actually, there’s a mandatory team sleepover tonight. They call it a Psych-Up. Our first scrimmage is tomorrow afternoon.” There’s a dip in her mother’s gorgeous smile—the one Luci hopes to have when, at last, her braces come off—because she’ll need to be back at the hospital. Luci leans half inside the car window and hugs her mother tightly, absolving her. “Don’t worry. I doubt I’ll even play. Anyway, the season doesn’t officially start for another two weeks.” Luci then jogs backward from the car, calling out, “Bye, Mom! Love you!” before she spins and runs full sprint back toward the high school. She’s been out here too long already.
Luci pulls on the same door she exited from and is aghast to find it has locked behind her. No no no no no. She races to another set of doors a few feet away and finds them locked too.
Her heart beats a second pulse in her ears. Luci might not know much about being a Wildcat, but something instinctual kicks in, the heightening of senses when you suspect you may be in danger. She bangs her fists against the small glass window, kicks the base of the door with her foot, feeling pain from neither, only the desperate hope that someone will hear her and let her back inside.
Mercifully, the door opens.
Mel has changed out of her practice gear and into pale blue denim cutoffs and a pretty floral tank. She looks like a girl from a movie about girls.
“What are you doing out here, Luci? Coach is waiting on you.”
“I, um, got lost looking for the girls’ bathroom.”
Mel tilts her head, as if contemplating this ridiculous possibility. “Well … you’re lucky I’m here to save you.”
It is said not unkindly. More like a gentle warning, which Luci gratefully heeds, lowering her head to slip under Mel’s arm. Once inside, Luci takes off down the hall as fast as her leaden legs will carry her.
“And hey!” Mel calls out. “Just so you know, I’m your ride home!”
Luci thinks she hears a hesitation in Mel’s voice. As if Mel extended this invitation despite some lingering reservations. Or perhaps Mel isn’t sure if Luci can even hear her now that Luci’s rounded the corner.
Whatever the reason, Luci doesn’t slow down.