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A bowl of oatmeal.
At least on a cold November morning in Minnesota. And maybe a carton of orange juice on the side, but definitely not a girlfriend. Jack Paulson, mega basketball star and crush extraordinaire, did not date. Just ask any girl in the Prairie Stone High School junior class. The cheerleaders, the preps, the drama-queens, the band crew, the art-nerds, the skater chicks, the stoners, the loners, the freaks, the cool and the not-so cool, all of them had tried.
I was hoping to try again today, if only my best friend Moni would show up already. Ever since her parents divorced and her dad moved to Minneapolis, it was like he took Moni’s punctuality with him. She’d been totally unreliable. So I wondered, could I pull it off? Could a lone geek girl linger by the cafeteria door in a casual manner? Not likely.
You see, every school has a danger zone. At Prairie Stone, ours occupied the space in the lobby that was an equal distance between the cafeteria, the gym and the girls’ bathroom. It was the spot where all the popular kids hung out. A place the rest of us tried to avoid. Moni and I called it the gauntlet.
We discovered that term last year, in word origins class. In case you’re wondering, gauntlet (noun) = a form of punishment where the victim must endure suffering from many sources at the same time. It comes from the Swedish word gatlopp. In Sweden, apparently, they used to punish reprobates (n. those who are predestined to damnation) by making them strip to the waist and then run between rows of soldiers who were armed with sticks and knotted ropes.
That sounded about right.
And so I stood at the edge of Prairie Stone’s gauntlet, close enough to the gym to sniff the delicate aroma of sweaty socks, near enough to the cafeteria to catch a whiff of oatmeal – and the promise of Jack Paulson. One more step and I would officially enter gauntlet girl territory.
Chantal Simmons, the queen of cool and gatekeeper of popularity at PSHS, stood at the apex of it all. She turned her head in my direction, her blond hair flowing in a way rarely seen outside of shampoo commercials. Her glance made me consider climbing the stairs to the balcony and crossing over the top instead of pressing my way through – but only a coward would do that.
Which is to say, I’ve done it plenty.
Chantal had a radar for weakness. One wrong move and she’d find yours and use it against you. Forget those sticks and knotted ropes. Chantal could annihilate the hopes and dreams of your average high school junior with just a whisper. And once upon a time, back in the dark ages of childhood and middle school, Chantal Simmons was someone I had told all my secrets to. In retrospect, that was kind of like arming a rogue nation with a nuclear bomb.
No risk, no reward, I told myself. If I wanted an early-morning glimpse of Jack Paulson (and I did, I really, really did), then I needed to cross into enemy territory. Alone. But before I could step over that invisible boundary, someone called my name. Someone short, with a mass of yellow corkscrew curls poking out beneath a QT ? cap.
“Bethany!” My best friend, Moni Fredrickson, bounded up to me, still in her winter jacket, her cheeks pink from cold and her glasses fogged. “Brian just called me on my cell,” she said. “They’re in the Little Theater. They have Krispy Kremes. Brian said he’d save us one each, but you know how that works.”
Of course I did. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that high school nerds in possession of a great number of Krispy Kremes, must be in want of …
At least not until they shook out the last bit of sugary glaze from the box. Then it was total Lord of the Flies time while they searched for more. We had to get there before they tore Brian limb from limb. Moni pulled me along toward the Little Theater and away from the gauntlet. I glanced over my shoulder, sure Chantal was still glaring at me.
But she wasn’t. No one was. Not a single gauntlet girl or wannabe peered in my direction. Instead they’d all turned toward the cafeteria, eyes fixed on a tall, retreating figure-one with the dark spiky hair and a Prairie Stone High letter jacket. Jack Paulson. He didn’t look back at me – not that I expected him to. But then, he didn’t acknowledge Chantal either.
Jack Paulson = Totally Girlproof.
I stumbled along behind Moni and wondered, What would a girl have to do to get a boy like that to notice her?