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Sweet Sixteen by Brenda Rothert (1)

Chapter One

Gin

I don’t belong here.

The thought occurs to me for at least the thousandth time as I walk down a crowded hallway at Roper High School after my last class of the day. I’m behind a couple of sophomore girls who apparently just left geography class.

“I don’t get it,” one of them says to the other. “Why is it called South America if it’s not even, like, America? America is America.”

“Right?” The other one nods as she scrolls through her smartphone.

“It’s like toilet paper. Why do they call it that when it’s not really paper?”

“It’s really dumb,” her friend agrees.

And this is what I’m up against in my small-town high school—girls who think the word plutocracy somehow refers to their favorite Disney character.

Though I’ve lived in Roper my whole life, I’ve never felt completely at home. There are labels for everyone here—jock, slut, nerd, freak…and so many others. None of them really applies to me, though.

I do get called a freak sometimes since I started coloring my red hair black, and sometimes I’m labeled a lesbian for not batting my eyelashes at football players. I’m not gay, but I feel no urge to set the record straight. Who cares what the assholes at this school think anyway? I’m out of here in nine months.

And when I say out of here, I mean Roper High School will just be a distant memory for me. I’m going to NYU, and while I might come back home on occasion to visit my mom, I won’t be catching up with people I went to school with. No class reunions for this girl. Won’t be liking people’s drunken Facebook photos, either.

It’s going to be peace out, Roper High.

“Hey.” My friend Lauren falls into step beside me.

“Hey.”

“You going to play practice?” she asks me.

“Yeah.”

I’ll keep in touch with Lauren, and our friend Raj, after high school. Like me, they don’t agonize over which piece of Roper High spirit wear to put on every Friday for football game day. The rest of this place lives and breathes football, while the three of us live and breathe seeing the rest of the world as soon as we graduate.

I reach my locker, and Lauren leans up against the one next to it as I open mine and empty my books onto the shelf. She looks at the chipped blue nail polish on the stubby nails she bites when she’s bored.

“This was the longest day ever,” she says. “And I have to work from five to eight tonight. Woo-fucking-hoo.”

I smile at her deadpan tone. Lauren and I have been friends since she moved here in third grade. We bonded over both having unfortunate names. With dirty blond hair that hangs in her eyes, thick, black eyeliner, and a lip ring, she’s about as un-Lauren as it gets.

And my mom, though she has a very dark, creative mind she calls on to write horror novels, named her redheaded newborn Ginger. I started going by Gin as soon as possible, because it’s really not great having people ooh and aah over your matching name and hair.

“Hey, Lauren,” a male voice calls.

We both turn and see Sam Stockwell grinning at us. He’s a football player with more swagger than substance.

“You two gonna go munch some carpet?” He makes a V with two fingers and sticks his tongue between them. “Can I watch?”

“Fuck you,” Lauren says in a bored tone. “Go play with your balls.”

“You wish you could play with my balls, lesbo.”

He sneers, and Lauren rolls her eyes. I slip the straps of my backpack over my shoulders, and we start in the direction of the auditorium, where play practice will be.

“I’m parked in B lot,” she says when we’re almost to a set of side doors. “Text me later if you want.”

“Okay, have a good night at work.”

When I get to the auditorium, it’s still empty. I’m usually the first one here, which is fine by me. I like to put in my earbuds and start painting scenery before I have to talk to anyone.

I could have spared a few minutes to hang out with Lauren, but I know she’s going to smoke pot in her car before she leaves the parking lot, and I’m not into that. I sat in the car with her once when she did it and got a contact high and an ass-chewing from my mom when I got home that night. She said she could smell the pot on me from ten feet away.

The fall play is a modern retelling of Cinderella. Instead of a raggedy dress and bonnet, the heroine wears uncool clothes from a department store. She overcomes the scorn of her classmates and wins the heart of the prom king in her sparkly gown, which makes him finally see what he’s been missing in her.

Lame, I know, but I was outvoted on every objection I voiced. It pisses me off that a guy is always considered the ultimate win for a girl. I wanted Cinderella—or Ellie, as we call her in our version—to skip the prom, attend a great school on a full scholarship, and make the Forbes list by age thirty.

Instead, I’m painting an abstract fireplace hearth, which Ellie gives her monologues in front of. I’m digging all the shades of black and gray I get to work with.

“What the shit, Gin?” a dark voice booms so loud I can hear it over my music. “Did you spill black paint all over your head again?”

I pretend I can’t hear Jack Pearson, the biggest, loudest asshole on the football team. He’s got a comment for everything, and people are afraid not to laugh at his jokes because they don’t want to become the butt of them.

It’s not like I haven’t heard people talking about my hair all day anyway. Last night, I colored it the darkest color they carry at the local drugstore—a shade called Midnight. It’s darker than the black I usually color my hair. My mom even raised her brows when she saw me, and nothing fazes her.

“Hey, what’s up?” another male voice says.

My spine tingles with awareness at the sound, even though the question isn’t directed at me. Chase must have come by with Jack before football practice today. I casually turn down the sound on my phone so I can hear the conversation. My back is to them, but I’m pretty sure Chase is talking to Madison, who has the starring role in the play. Even in her costume of Kmart jeans and a frumpy top from the Salvation Army, she’s still gorgeous.

“I took notes if you need them,” Chase says to her.

She responds, and he laughs, the deep tone of it making me warm all over.

“I have to pay attention in that class,” he says. “Calc kicks my ass.”

I feel the dig of an elbow against my arm. “Hey, what am I supposed to do when I get here after practice?” Jack asks me.

Glaring at him, I pull the earbuds out of my ears. “I’ll still be here, so I’ll let you know then.”

“Oh, that’s right.” He grins. “You have no life.”

For some stupid reason, our football coach makes his players volunteer to help with extracurricular activities that aren’t as popular as football. And in Roper, that’s all of them. Working on scenery used to be my escape, but it’s only the second week of the school year, and I can already tell that won’t be the case this year. I’m stuck babysitting Jack, who just spends his time here running his mouth.

“What is this?” a shrill voice cries.

I’m all too happy to put down my paintbrush and walk away from Jack to see what Amanda is upset about. Like me, she doesn’t say much, so if she’s bothered about something, that’s unusual.

“Well, someone did it,” she’s saying sharply as I approach.

The two freshmen boys who work under her are both giving her frantic shoulder shrugs and head shakes.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Someone cut a hole in one of the lockers.” She points at her set, a row of lockers she’s been meticulously detailing since the first day of school.

Sure enough, there’s a golf-ball-sized hole in one of them, stage lights shining through it as they’re being tested behind us.

“You like it?” Jack asks from behind me.

The amused swagger in his tone grates on my nerves hard. I try not to engage with stupid, but right now, I can’t help myself.

“You did this?” I demand.

“Hells yeah.” He grins. “It’s a glory hole.”

“A…glory hole?” I’m taken aback by the bounds of his stupidity threshold.

“I wish I had one in my locker,” he says with a self-satisfied nod. “I’d just stay in there all day getting my rod sucked by girls walking by.”

“You’re such a fucking idiot!” Amanda’s tearful tone makes me turn back to her. “I’ve spent so many hours on that, and you just ruined it.”

“Whatever, fatty.” Jack rolls his eyes at her. “I wouldn’t want you to suck my dick, ’cause you’d probably put some ketchup on it and try to take a bite.”

Chase scowls in Jack’s direction as Amanda’s face morphs from pink to deep crimson. I turn to Jack, point my finger at his chest and prepare to unleash my fury, but I’m interrupted by Mr. Douglas, our school’s history teacher and theater advisor.

“Jack, get to practice,” he says sternly. “And clean up the language because next time, I’m telling your coach.”

Jack nods, his expression sober now. I give him a sullen glare as he turns to walk over to Chase and Madison.

“Gin, I need to pull some people off to work on posters,” Mr. Douglas says.

“I thought the cheerleaders were doing them.”

He smiles wryly. “Apparently, there were some issues with last week’s football game posters, so we’ve been asked to do them from now on.”

I roll my eyes. “They’re just giant rolls of paper you paint words on. How hard can it be?”

“I’ve been given a directive.” He shrugs. “They need to be neat, colorful, and say more than just ‘Roper Rocks.’”

“Perfect,” I deadpan. “So they send us football players who not only aren’t helpful, but damage our scenery, and we have to send our best painters to make rah-rah posters?”

“Do you want to head up the poster-making?” There’s amusement in his tone.

Mr. Douglas isn’t from Roper, and he understands my disdain for the obsession with all things football here.

“Pass,” I say, putting my earbuds back in and walking back to my set.

Chase is still talking to Madison, his blue eyes dancing with amusement. When he follows Jack out of the auditorium, I can’t help staring after his broad back, hoping he’ll glance over his shoulder and see me.

But after more than a decade of attending school together, that’s unlikely.

He’s the quarterback of the football team, but Chase isn’t like Jack. He doesn’t make fun of people. He looks out for his two younger sisters and gets good grades. Chase will have a football scholarship to the school of his choice when he graduates.

But Jack will end up living here his entire life, because guys like him can’t handle the realization that they aren’t a big deal outside of their hometown. He’ll be wearing his letterman jacket into his thirties, reliving the glory days at the local coffee shop.

And me? I’ll be far away from here in New York City. My mom can visit me there if she wants to keep living in Roper. In nine months, I’m leaving for good, because I don’t belong here, and I never will.

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