Chapter 25

A cool wind brushed slips of hair over my eyes, and I shoved them away impatiently. My heart was pounding, my skin burning and my arms beginning to ache. I dodged around an imaginary opponent and sent the ball up towards the basket. It bounced off the rim with a thud and I flew forward to catch the rebound. Slipping the ball around my waist as I dodged once more, over and around, I spun the ball up again. Knowing it was sinking through the basket and moving quickly to catch it, I grinned happily. Feeling the ball spin in my hands once more, I dribbled slowly to the top of the key and turned to face the basket.

I took a deep breath and looked over my roof at the evening sky. Clear and cool and still boasting the warm colours of a sunset, I felt my pulse calm with the moment. Dribbling the ball slowly and admiring the sky, I breathed in again. Targeting the basket, I lifted my arms up and shot the ball, watching it arc perfectly. Looking away and hearing the ball swish through the net, I smiled and tilted my head back. The same cool breeze caressed my forehead, and I wished I could stay in this evening forever. Stay in this moment forever.

It was Friday evening, and the championship game was in less than an hour. I'd spent the last two hours after school dodging around imaginary opponents on my driveway – something I'd done every day for the last two weeks. I knew that right now my school would be packed full of students, parents, and teachers from Dallington and Drummer High.

The ball rolled back down the driveway and I stepped sideways to scoop it up. For a second I felt my thumbs brush over the rough surface and I stared down at the concrete. Smiling to myself, I tucked the ball into my side and sat down on the driveway. Feeling my pulse calm down and my ankle begin to throb slightly, I stretched out my legs and rested back on the concrete. Staring up at the darkening sky, I felt my hands twitch restlessly. I let out a deep breath and thought about the past two weeks.

For two weeks I had been dreading this day. But, at the same time, I almost couldn't wait to be out there on the court again. I couldn't wait to see Sarah Bright and show her that I wasn't a weakling. I would beat her. I'd practiced long and hard to strengthen my ankle and get back into shape. I'd spent hours drilling my three pointers and my layups and my bounce passes.

For two weeks I'd watched James and Mercedes make out in the hallways, in the cafeteria, in the parking lot, and even in class. People seemed to watch me every time I passed by them, just waiting for my reaction. There was no reaction. I hadn't given them the satisfaction. I was a winner and I didn't lose my feelings that easily. My friends had watched me carefully, as if I was about to break. I'd tried to explain to them that I didn't need to be taken care of. I was Taylor Hampton: best point guard in the state. Nothing else mattered.

For two weeks I'd avoided Ryan and all talk of the Winter Dance. I'd arrived late to English class every day and rushed out before anyone could stop me. I'd steered clear of all conversations that had mentioned James or Ryan or Mercedes and I'd spent my free time on the court or in the library. I'd ducked and dropped and hidden behind Christie every time James had walked past me, and I'd avoided those dark eyes. I had no idea if he'd seen me running away, but I did know that I didn't want to hear his voice or listen to what he had to say.

Deep down, I knew that I wasn't just avoiding James... I was avoiding my feelings. But it was so much easier this way. Not caring about James or Ryan or who was in love with who was so simple and saved me so many tears. Pouring my heart into basketball was the perfect cure.

Feeling that same cool wind blow across my face once again, I looked towards the horizon and saw dark clouds gathering. I couldn't help but laugh. There was a storm brewing over Dallington High? The timing couldn't have been more appropriate. Tonight would be the night. I would show everybody. I was tough and unbeatable and nobody, not Sarah Bright, not my father, and definitely not James Stirling, could take that away from me.

Ten minutes later I was forced to get up off of the driveway as my dad arrived home from work. Standing on the lawn, watching him park and hurriedly get out of the car, I could tell that he was angry.

"What the hell are you doing lying in the middle of the driveway on a night like tonight?" He glared at me. "You should be at school practicing and warming up already. Where were you thinking? Go and get changed, we have to be there soon."

I nodded and made my way to the front door. My dad had been especially hard on me ever since the Winter Dance, and it didn't seem like he would ever forgive me. My mum had long since forgotten about that night, but I knew my dad would never let it go.

Five minutes later I was in my tracksuit and rushing down the stairs. Grabbing my water bottle and shouting out to my mum, I headed towards the front door. My dad was already waiting, looking impatient.

"Taylor. Make sure you cover Drummer's point guard carefully. You need to be fast and don't let her dominate. I remember what she's like, and you haven't been up to par this season. You need to keep your head in the game and anticipate what she's going to do. And look out for her three pointers, she can shoot but she can't create space at all."

I nodded, looking down. "You're right. We were thinking of trying something new tonight. We were going to try to play court instead of players, we thought that maybe we could take advantage of –"

"You will not play court! What are you thinking? And what is Winston thinking? Tonight is not the night to be trying out 'new' strategies! You just need to play hard and tough and keep it up until they tire out."

I sighed, nodding and watching as my mum rushed up behind us and grabbed her coat. She looked excited, her cheeks flushed and her hair all over the place.

"This is so great!" She said. "We get to see Taylor win another championship! Okay so I've got popcorn... lemonade... these cute little basketball lollipops... Do you think we need anything else?"

I laughed. "Don't worry, Mum, I think you've got everything."

She looked relieved as we walked towards the car. Sitting in the backseat as my dad pulled out of the driveway, I felt my stomach lurch with nervousness. Spinning my basketball between my hands and closing my eyes, I felt butterflies in my stomach. Tonight would decide everything. I stared out of the window and tried to push the fear out of my mind. I wanted so badly to live up to everyone's expectations, to lead Dallington and my team to another victory. But at the same time all I felt like doing was running back home and hiding under my blankets.

"You're the top point guard in the state." I whispered to myself. "Stop being such a coward."

"What's that, Taylor?"

"Nothing, Mum."

Soon enough we were pulling into the parking lot at Dallington High, and I heard my mum gasp with disbelief. I looked out the front window and felt my stomach whirl in fear once again.

I had never seen so many people at my school before. The parking lot was packed full of cars and the night air was full with the sound of beeping horns. People were crowding around the outside of the school and the double doors were jammed full of people trying to get in. I swallowed heavily. My heart began to beat faster and I felt my throat become dry with nerves.

I had wanted to show everyone that I was okay, that I was the best, that I was unbeatable... but I hadn't counted on this many people turning up to watch.

My dad looked annoyed. "I knew we should have gotten here earlier! What are we going to do now? Nowhere to park... I guess you two should get out and I'll have to drive further down the street."

I nodded and grabbed my duffel bag, opening the side door.

"Taylor." My dad stopped me. "Make sure you warm up that ankle. I don't want to see any mistakes out there tonight."

My mum frowned at him. "Stop being so hard on her, Daniel! Tonight is Taylor's night, so just relax and enjoy it!"

My dad sighed, nodding and motioning for us to get out of the car as someone beeped from behind us.

Stepping out of the car, a gust of wind caught me full in the face. My hair scattered across my eyes, and I slipped my duffel bag over one shoulder. I felt the first small drops of rain fall silently from the sky, and I looked up towards the angry, dark clouds. Looking back across the parking lot, I swallowed as people began cheering and pointing at me.

"Good luck, Taylor!"

"Go Dallington!"

"You better beat them Tay!"

I grinned and waved at the people that I knew, and my mum looked ecstatic as she walked beside me.

"This is going to be the best night ever." She informed me with a smile.

People moved out of the way as we neared the entrance, cheering and patting me on the back. I swallowed and tried to calm my pounding heart. Stepping through the gym doors, I felt my jaw drop and my eyes widen.

"Oh my god." I whispered.

I had never seen the gymnasium this full. Or this colourful. Everywhere I looked the black and silver of Dallington clashed with the red and gold of Drummer. People were waving flags and banners and whoever it was that had decided to bring a trumpet along was currently blasting out some random tune. The air was hot with excitement and screaming and cheering and for a moment I felt as if I couldn't breathe.

I turned towards my mum and tried to shout over the hysteria. "Mum! There are benches over there reserved for family members."

I pointed towards the middle of the court and she nodded, giving me a brief hug before making her way through the crowd.

Hitching my bag higher over my shoulder, I took a step onto the court and began walking towards the locker rooms. The cheering and screaming increased as people noticed me, pointing and staring. My hands began to tremble as I felt every single set of eyes follow me across the court. I bit my lip and held my head high, trying to ignore the jeering coming from the Drummer High crowd.

Finally reaching the locker rooms, I sighed with relief as I ducked out of the bright lights and noise of the gymnasium. I saw Coach sitting in his office, pouring over plays and stat lists, and I waved a quick hello to him as I pushed into the girls' locker room.

"Took you long enough, Captain!"

I laughed as Dannie rushed towards me with a can of silver glitter.

"No decorations this time, Dannie!" I said, dodging a cloud of shiny sparkles. "I remember how long it took me to wash that glitter out of my hair last year!"

"Aw, c'mon, get some school spirit, Taylor!" Maya exclaimed as she skipped towards me with a silver ribbon.

I dumped my duffel bag onto the bench as I grinned at them. "Good to see you guys are ready."

"Ready?" Christie said as she walked towards me. Her bright blonde hair was decorated with silver ribbons and she had glitter streaked across her cheeks. "We are more than ready, Captain Hampton. We are going to smash Drummer High and win this game so hard."

"Sarah Bright is going to be crying into her cereal tomorrow morning." Julie agreed, sitting next to me on the bench.

I laughed, and look up to see Christie watching me carefully.

"I'm fine." I said before she could ask me. "Actually, I'm better than fine. I can't wait to be out there on that court. I'm going to sink a three pointer within the first minute and show that Sarah Bright that I am back. We're going to win tonight and keep that trophy where it belongs!"

Dannie whooped and sprayed a huge cloud of glitter over our heads.

"Damn right we're going to win!" Maya screamed her approval.

"So let's just get changed and get out there and warm up, shall we?" Julie offered.

Suddenly the door banged open and Josh jumped into the glitter spray, waving a silver banner around and screaming excitedly. I laughed happily as he jumped on top of the benches, waving his hands around extravagantly and performing a very feminine cheerleading move.

He threw himself down next to me and slung an arm around my shoulders. "Oh-em-gee, its game time girlies!"

"Josh!" Maya grabbed the silver banner. "What are you doing? You're not allowed in here, it's the girls' locker room."

Josh arched an eyebrow and stared at her for a moment. "Excusez-moi, Maya, but if you hadn't noticed I'm the wonderful gay guy that always appears at the right moment. I am everywhere in this teen drama."

Maya rolled her eyes. "Excusez-moi... my ass."

I grinned at her, and turned to see Josh collecting ribbons and glitter cans and looking at me excitedly.

"Okay, so, here's the plan," Josh said, shaking a glitter can and stretching a ribbon experimentally. "We make Taylor look all amazingly shiny and glowing with glitter so that James can't take his eyes off of her as she sinks ten amazing three pointers in five seconds flat. Good plan, yes?"

I laughed and jumped up off the bench as he whirled a ribbon towards me. "No, bad plan, very bad plan! I hate glitter!"

A couple of minutes later I was covered in glitter and had a silver ribbon wrapped around my ponytail. I shook my head in annoyance but couldn't help but grin at Josh. I looked around the locker room and saw that my teammates were dressed and decorated and ready to start. Standing up, I stretched in my uniform, glad to feel the silky material flow over my skin.

"Let's go." I said, and led my team out of the locker rooms.

We met up with Coach Winston as we walked towards the gymnasium, and I saw him smile grimly at me.

"Ready?" He asked.

"More than ready, Coach." I replied, and his smile widened.

He opened the door to the gymnasium and blast of noise and heat exploded through the entrance. I felt the wooden floorboards of the gym shake as the cheering increased and people began to stamp with excitement. Following Coach out onto the court, I saw the green digits of the score board and felt my heart lurch. This was real. This was the championship.

Across the court I could see the bright red uniforms of Drummer High. My eyes scanning the players, I stopped suddenly when I saw the blonde flash of Sarah Bright. I saw her dodge around the key and send the ball spinning towards the basket, and watched her turn around with a smirk as the shot sunk through the nets.

Sucking in a deep breath, I straightened my shoulders and walked over to our bench. I grabbed a basketball and looked to Coach expectantly.

"Five minutes of stretching and then five of shooting. Lead the warm up, Taylor."

I nodded and walked towards our basket. For ten minutes I tried to forget about the game and focused entirely on warming up. I hadn't played in a real basketball game for weeks, and I could feel my muscles shaking with excitement. I'd done this so many times... stretched and warmed up and played ball... my body knew what was coming.

A couple of moments later, I heard the crowd quiet suddenly and I looked up in surprise.

"Why the change in volume?" Dannie asked, also looking around.

"Three guesses." Christie said, pointing across the court.

I glanced over and saw Sarah Bright walking towards us. I stood up quickly.

"That bitch is going down." Maya muttered.

Her eyes were excited as she walked closer and I knew that she wanted to talk to me. I moved towards the centre of the court, and we met in between our two teams.

"Taylor Hampton." She said and flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder. "How's your ankle?"

She looked exactly the same. Confident and proud and far too sure of herself. I shrugged my shoulders. "Could be better."

She smirked. "Let's hope you're feeling a little bit better this time. It is the championship game after all... and, you know, your stats haven't been so great this year."

I watched her step closer and saw the glint of arrogance in her eyes. "I'm going to beat you this time, Hampton."

I smiled. "You can try."

She smirked again and took a step back. "This is your last game as a champion. As of tomorrow, I'll be top in the state. You and your cute little team can say goodbye to that trophy. Oh, and also, try to keep your teammates under control this time. Let's make this a clean game, okay?"

With that she spun around and walked away, leaving me standing in the centre of the court as the noise of the crowd increased again. I shook my head and turned back towards my team, looking towards Coach as he motioned us over to the sidelines.

The scoreboard clicked to five minutes and the crowd screamed as the countdown to game time begun.

"Okay, this is it, girls. This is the championship that we've been waiting for." Coach gathered us into a circle and he took a deep breath. "Taylor is back and for the last two weeks we've gone over every play in the book. I know Drummer beat us last time, but we've beaten them before. The next four quarters are going to be tough, but we can do this. We're going to keep control and play fast, clean basketball out there."

I looked around at my teammates. Across from me, Maya looked pale and scared. The silver lines drawn across her cheeks seemed to leave her colourless and I watched her eyes flit nervously across the crowd. Julie and Dannie were both staring at the ground, but I could see their hands shaking. Christie was staring at the crowd and muttering to herself.

I laughed, and they all turned to stare at me. "Come on, you guys! We've done this before! We know how to beat them."

"We didn't know how three weeks ago..." Christie murmured.

I shrugged. "Three weeks ago was different. Three weeks ago I couldn't remember why I loved basketball. But tonight I can remember. I can remember how great it feels to sink a lay-up, how invincible it feels to grab a steal, how amazing it feels when the crowd cheers for you. I know this season hasn't been our best... hasn't been my best... but tonight is different. Tonight I am so privileged to be your captain and tonight we are going to find glory out there. Look at this crowd... they're here to watch us play. Because we're the best. And we're going to keep it that way."

Christie laughed and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "What an inspiring speech, Captain Hampton."

Dannie grinned at me. "Agreed. I think that might be your best speech yet actually"

Maya nodded, saying, "Totally. You really brought out the big guns this time, huh?"

The scoreboard clicked to one minute and the gymnasium trembled under the pressure of the crowd. Anticipation and excitement exploded around the room and I found myself shaking with nerves. Allowing myself one brief glance up into the crowd, I saw so many familiar faces in a sea of strangers. I saw Josh and Summer, both wearing ridiculous amounts of silver eye makeup and hairspray and surrounded by overexcited cheerleaders. I saw my parents, and quickly looked away to avoid my dad. My eyes travelled across the stands, flicking across flowing banners and clashing flags, and then I saw him. I hadn't even realised that I was looking for him... but when I found him I couldn't look away.

I saw shadow dark eyes and messy hair and a grey hoodie. He was sitting at the very top of the bleachers, surrounded by his friends and leaning back against the rails. I could see him scanning the gymnasium, and I felt my throat tighten. My hands stopped shaking and I couldn't look away. I saw Mercedes wrap an arm around his shoulders and try to gain his attention. I saw his head turn and his eyes move towards my team.

My heart lurched as his gaze locked with mine. I swallowed and he didn't look away.

The scoreboard ticked to zero and the crowd screamed their excitement.

"Game time!" I heard the referee call out. "Jump ball."

My mind was panicking, my stomach fizzling with excitement, my legs telling me to move onto the court. But I couldn't look away from him.

"Taylor!" I heard Christie call out, and felt her grab my arm, whirling me around and pulling me towards the court.

"Sorry." I said, shaking my head and hastily walking towards centre court.

I saw the referee frowning at me and the Drummer team spreading out around the centre circle. The scoreboard cleared and I saw the heavy green digits flash zero. I tried to ignore my nerves and the overly noisy crowd as I walked towards Sarah Bright. Taking up my position next to her, I felt her jostle against me and shove me sideways.

I saw the referee bring the ball forward and position it between Dannie and her opponent. The crowd was screaming in anticipation. My hands were shaking and my mouth was dry.

The whistle blew, the ball flew, and my mind froze for an instant.

This was it. This was my moment.

The ball dropped, and Drummer High got there first. I felt Sarah Bright shove against me and call for the ball as her power-forward caught the slap.

"Defence!" I screamed out and raced down the court, dodging around players as I tried to get in front of Sarah. I saw a bright blonde flash and tried to clear my mind and catch up.

She was too fast.

Only a pace behind her, I saw her whip back just before the key and bring the ball up. I felt frustration grip my mind as the crowd screamed and I told myself to move faster. I brought my hands up to block the shot, but she'd already sent the ball up, spinning towards the basket. I knew without turning that the ball was looping around the hoop and that Sarah Bright had scored the first three-pointer.

I heard the groans of Dallington High as the scoreboard changed and the Drummer crowd screamed their approval.

I looked across at Sarah and she smirked as she met my gaze. "Too slow, Hampton."

Anger fizzled through my nerves and I turned away from her to see Dannie collecting the ball and heading to the base line. I ignored the jeers and calls of the crowd and moved forward to start our offence. Dannie passed me the ball and sent me a worried look as she ran past.

I ignored her look and felt the ball catch in my hands. I turned towards our basket and felt the full force of the crowd. My hands trembled for an instant and I felt the first urges of true panic rush through my mind. What was I thinking? I couldn't do this anymore... I wasn't good enough...

And then it hit me. All in the flash of a brief second as lights flashed and screams echoed away. My mind blurred and I remembered the strangest thing.

James was in front of me, pressing a hand to my side and pulling me close as he said, "You'll be fine, Hampton. Trust me. You're one of the most intimidating basketball players I've ever met. You've got this."

I looked up at him, and I couldn't stop myself from saying, "I don't think I can do this."

His eyebrows rose. "You're just nervous. Once you get out there, once you feel the ball in your hands, you'll be at home. You'll be fine."

Just as quickly as the memory had come I was lurched back into reality and heard the screams of the crowd grow around me. Shaking my head, I forced myself to move forward. Watching players fan out ahead of me as I dribbled the ball down to half court, I felt my thumbs brush over the rough, bumpy material of this basketball. It was new and clean and reacted to my every move. I began to slow down, wanting to feel the rough material move over my hands for just a moment longer.

My ankle began to ache.

I reached half court.

I saw Sarah Bright move forward, a smirk on her face as she waited to attack.

"Too slow, Bright." I whispered to myself, a moment before the clash.

This was my ball. My game. She couldn't have it. My life. My father couldn't control it. My heart. James couldn't break it.

I grinned and dodged right. I was going to beat her. This would be too easy. She moved left to cover my bluff and I zoomed through the opening. Over and around and through the key and so fast that no one even stopped me. Up and around and I moved in for the layup. The ball lifted and spun and sunk beautifully into the basket, the soft catching sound as loud as bells in my mind.

The walls were shaking and the screams of the crowd roared as high as they could reach. I skipped back on my heels and felt the joy of confidence pulse through my body. I closed my eyes for a moment and knew that I was back. This was where I wanted to be right now… on this court… winning this game.

"Fuck yeah! She's back!" Maya screamed as she ran past me, slapping me on the back.

Christie wrapped an arm around my shoulders and tugged me with her as she moved down the court.

"Fucking finally, Hampton." She said with a grin.

I grinned back.

"Let's go defense!" I heard Coach Winston call out from the sidelines. "Keep it tight and spread it out! No one gets through, you hear me?"

I positioned myself at the top of the court and glanced quickly over my shoulder to check our defense.

"Remember, we play court, keep your positions." I yelled quickly over my shoulder, and then the Drummer team was on us.

They zoomed through our defense and I looked up to see Sarah bringing the ball down. She looked slightly worried. I laughed quietly.

She passed half court and then I stepped forward to cover my area. She dodged left and I blocked her outlet. She dodged right and I followed her every move – but I kept my distance, only covering the court. When she maneuvered farther to the right I saw Christie move forward out of the corner of my eye to cover the edge of her area.

Sarah took a step back with the ball and I could see that she was reassessing the situation. She knew that we had changed strategy.

She moved quickly to the top of the court and I followed along. She kept the ball bouncing and swept her eyes across the game and I knew that she was looking for an outlet. I stayed back, feeling the sweat drip down my back and my ankle begin to pound. But I could wait. I would wait for my moment.

Her teammate flashed forward and Sarah quickly passed the ball across the court. I covered her as she dodged through my area and felt her shove against my shoulder as I kept her boxed in.

"Get off it, Hampton." She muttered angrily as I dodged with her.

For the next thirty seconds our defense held tight and Drummer couldn't get past. The crowd had quietened slightly and I could tell that they were confused by the change of pace.

And then I saw it. The perfect opening. The ball was back with Sarah and she was dribbling quickly and watching for an outlet. I saw her eyes flicker past my shoulder and then move quickly back to mine as she tried to hide a smile. I knew that she'd found an opening. She flicked her head slightly to the right and I knew that she was motioning to a teammate. I almost laughed.

It happened in a split second. She shifted left and then flashed back to the right, expecting that I'd be caught realizing my mistake just a moment too late. But I could see the bounce-pass forming and I scooped the ball up just as it left her hands, scooped it up and zoomed under her arm.

Ahead of me was the shining beauty of an empty court… an unguarded basket at the end. The crowd was screaming and I thrilled in the ease of the steal. Sprinting down the court and feeling the ball flow with me, I grinned as I heard Sarah Bright trying to catch up with me.

The basket came closer and closer and then I stopped quickly, outside of the three point line. Sarah Bright flew past me as she tried to catch up and I could see her flailing to put up a block. But my hands were already up, the ball already positioned, and with a quick jump I'd sent the ball flying towards the basket.

Up and up it flew and I wanted to cry with happiness. Straight towards the basket and then it dropped through the basket… the perfect swish.

I couldn't hear the crowd, although I knew that they were screaming and cheering and stamping their feet.

I couldn't hear my teammates, although I knew that they were yelling and slapping me on the back.

I couldn't look at my dad, although I knew that he would be glaring angrily at me from the bleachers because I'd ignored his advice and played court.

I couldn't look up into the crowd and find James, although I knew that he was sitting quietly, ignoring the screaming crowd, watching my every move.

All that I could do was cover my eyes and rejoice in the fact that all of the insecurities, all of the pressure, all of the worries… they were gone. I was back and life was great.

The quarter ended and we were ten points up. The next three quarters flew by and we dominated. By the time the siren was blaring and declaring the end of the game, we had already won. We'd known that we were winning from the end of the first quarter.

We'd played our best game yet. Everything had been in sync. Dannie had blocked shot after shot and Maya and Christie and Julie had defended and attacked faster and smarter than anything Drummer could put up. And I'd covered and dodged with Sarah Bright until her every move was as predictable as a cheap romance novel.

Dallington High was celebrating the victory like it was the end of a war. The gymnasium was trembling under the screaming crowds. The trumpet was blaring and the banners of black and silver swirled through the air and blocked out the lights. People had spilled out onto the court and my team and I had barely escaped into the locker rooms to clean up before the trophy ceremony.

Inside of the locker rooms… there wasn't much to say. We stood quietly in a circle, all five of us unable to say anything.

Julie took in a deep breath. "This might sound dramatic, but… this feels like the end of an era. We did it."

We all nodded, knowing that Julie had said all that needed saying.

Suddenly Maya grinned. "Fucking Taylor! That steal and that swish in the first quarter? Holy… like seriously.. just… fuck!"

I laughed happily and then we were all hugging and jumping down, finally allowing ourselves to celebrate.

"I don't even know what happened out there." I said, as I turned towards my duffel bag. "It just all hit me at once and I knew how to beat her."

Christie laughed, throwing an arm around my shoulders. "Gee, Tay, couldn't you have figured that out a while ago? Like three weeks ago? Would have made things so much easier!"

I laughed and shoved her off. "Whatever, you-"

There was a knock at the door and we all turned to look in surprise.

"Josh never knocks and Coach hardly ever comes in here…?" Dannie said with a confused look.

I shrugged and moved towards the door, grabbing the handle and opening it slowly.

"Taylor. Get out here."



Stepping through the opening and closing the door quickly behind me, avoiding the looks of my teammates, I glanced up quickly to see my dad looking at my angrily. I quailed on the inside. What did he have to be angry about now?

He gave me a cold, dissatisfied look. "You won this game, Taylor, but how many more games do you think you'll be able to win if you play so recklessly? After everything that I've taught you, all of the effort that I've put into your game, this is how you re-pay me? You change strategies even though I told you it was a stupid, dangerous thing to do? You shoot three pointers when you should be going in for the layup? I couldn't believe my eyes out there."

My mouth was open in disbelief. "What? Dad, that's not fair-"

He cut me off. "Not fair? I thought that I'd taught you well, Taylor. But if you plan on playing basketball as a career, or if you plan on being in any way successful in your life, you better start listening to me! You're screwing up, Taylor, you are screwing up so badly. I just cannot believe that you didn't listen to me. I have so many years of experience and I know what I'm talking about when I say something. And you just ignore me? I'm your father, and you just disregard what I tell you? You think you can play this reckless, dangerous way and keep on winning? You think you can just assume that you're better than everyone else out there on that court? You think you can just get drunk at school dances and chase after boys like it doesn't matter? What were you thinking, Taylor? When will you grow up, Taylor?"

I stared at him in disbelief and felt my mouth move wordlessly. I couldn't help it. I felt a tear spill from my eye and I gasped as something broke inside of me. I had tried so hard… I had wanted to win to show him that I was good enough. I'd practiced and trained and worked so hard for so many years. I looked down at the ground, the tiles swimming as I blinked away tears. My hands shook.

My dad shook his head sadly. "You are such a disappointment sometimes, Taylor."

My head snapped up. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt anger flash across my mind. I was a disappointment? I'd won a championship game today. I'd won against the leading team in the state. I'd captained the strongest varsity team in the state. I was the top point guard in the state. And it wasn't good enough?

I brought my hand up and slammed it against the wall. I could feel anger pulsing through my body and blood pounding in my ears.

"I am not a disappointment, Dad." I practically spat the words out. "I am not a disappointment. You are the disappointment. I work so hard, I train so hard, I do everything to make sure that I am good enough for you. And you come here now, right after I've won the championship for the third year in a row, and you tell me that I'm not good enough? That I need to grow up? You aren't even a father to me. You aren't even a friend to me. You're just this robot who commands, this monster who tells me that I'm not good enough. Well I have had enough."

My voice had risen until I found myself screaming at him, but I couldn't stop. I needed to say it.

"I am not a disappointment. I am the best fucking daughter anyone could ever ask for, okay? This is my life, and I'm sick of you ruining it for me. I'll play basketball how I want and I'll live my life how I want. I don't care what you say anymore, you can criticize me all you like, but I don't care anymore! I just don't care."

I spun around before my dad could respond and yanked the locker room door open, shoving it closed behind me and twisting the lock quickly. My breath was coming in sharp pants and my hands were still shaking as they held onto the door. My whole body was quivering and I couldn't hear anything except for a dull pounding in my head.

The minutes ticked by and I could feel my teammates watching me. After a couple of moments, I took a deep breath and forced myself to look over at them.

"Did you hear all of that…?"

They nodded, and I saw Maya trying to hide a grin. I looked at Christie and she sent me a watery smile.

"I can't believe I just did that." I whispered.

Christie rushed over to me, throwing her arms around my shoulders and hugging me tight.

"Fucking finally, Tay, fucking finally." She whispered to me.

Dannie danced her way over to us, joining in on the hug and saying, "This is the best day ever!"

I laughed and felt my pulse calming down. I felt strangely calm, despite what I had just done. I didn't think my dad would ever talk to me again… but at least I'd said what I needed to say. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I didn't care anymore about what my dad thought of me. It didn't matter if he was angry or upset with me… It didn't matter if I wasn't good enough anymore. Because I just didn't care.

I moved towards the bench and my duffel bag, shaking my head in disbelief.

"This is like the Bold and the Beautiful on speed." Maya noted as she tried unsuccessfully to wash glitter off of her face.

"No way," Dannie shook her head. "This is like Mean Girls… but with more basketball and a higher emphasis on parental influence, you know? And less Lindsay Lohan in short polka dot skirts…"

Christie snorted. "You're such a loser, Dannie."

Dannie sent her a hurt look. "How rude. I am never passing the ball to you ever again."

"Anyways," Julie interrupted them, "How about we head out for our trophy ceremony now? I am quite excited to see Sarah Bright choke as we lift Taylor up into the air."

I laughed, shaking my head. "No lifting me up! We all know how that ended last year. But, I agree, let's go! I can almost smell that trophy now…"

Dannie skipped towards the door, yanking it open and saying, "Trophy time!"

Outside in the gymnasium, the crowd had calmed down and had been directed back towards the bleachers. In the middle of the court the Dallington principal and the Drummer principal were standing together, holding the championship trophy. Coach Winston and the Drummer coach stood next to them, and the Drummer team were lined up to the left.

Holding my head high, smiling at the cheering crowd, I led my team to the middle of the court.

Our principal stepped forward to the microphone and began a long, boring speech about the importance of teamwork and education and funding programs. I glanced sideways and saw Sarah Bright glaring at the floor. Her face was bright red and I could tell that she was livid.

I stifled a laugh.

Looking up and scanning the bleachers, I realized that my parents had left the gymnasium. Knowing that my mum wouldn't have wanted to leave and that my dad had probably forced her to… I felt a dull sadness settle across my mind. Would I even be allowed back into the house? Probably not… I'd probably have to stay at Christie's house from now. Maybe my mum could visit me on weekends… We could sneak off to Baskin Robbins. She always really liked the cookie dough ice cream.

"And now, I am proud to present, to the reigning champions of varsity women's basketball…. the championship trophy!"

The screaming crowd jolted me out of my sad thoughts and I looked sideways to see Coach Winston accepting the trophy. I grinned happily.

"Come here, Taylor!" He yelled and pressed the trophy into my hands as I stepped forward.

Feeling the cold metal under my hands and laughing excitedly as my teammates cheered and stepped up to hold the trophy with me, I felt complete and utter happiness. It didn't matter that my dad would probably never talk to me again… I'd won the championship and proved to myself that I was strong and confident and a winner.

Unable to help myself, I looked up into the bleachers again, searching without thinking for James. I wanted to see him grinning at me, laughing with his friends, talking about how amazing my swish had been.

Scanning across faces and skipping over banners, I kept searching for messy dark hair and a grey jumper. A couple of seconds later, I felt my stomach drop as I found him.

Making out with Mercedes. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders and his hand on the back of her head.

I looked away quickly, hating the fact that he could bring me to tears so quickly. I'd fixed so much tonight… defeated Sarah Bright, won the championship, stood up to my dad. But I hadn't fixed things with James. I looked down at the ground, wiping a hand surreptitiously over my eyes. I'd expected him to be celebrating our victory… but he couldn't care less.

The trophy celebrations came to a slow end, and people began to leave the gymnasium.

"Party in the parking lot!" Maya sang happily, slipping an arm through mine and tugging me towards the exit.

I forced a smile and followed her and the rest of my team towards the party that was forming outside of the school. Just like after every victory… students were milling around their cars and parents and teachers were slowly leaving. Somebody turned their car stereo up loud and people were swigging vodka out of water bottles.

"Taylor! Maya! Christie! Dannie! Julie!" Josh came screaming towards us, waving his hands in the air and grinning ecstatically. "You won! I know you would! I totes knew you would!"

I smiled as he danced around us, and then Summer was running up as well, hugging us all one by one.

"Oh my god that was the most exciting game of my life!" She exclaimed. "Seriously me and Josh were like screaming the entire time. And that Sarah Bright… what a bitch! But so happy that you guys won!"

I spent the next ten minutes pretending to celebrate our victory with Summer and Josh even though I couldn't get the image of James and Mercedes out of my head.

Suddenly I felt Josh grabbing my arm and hauling me sideways behind a car.

I sent him an alarmed look, grabbing his shoulder and saying, "Josh, what are you doing?!"

He put his hands on his hips. "No, Taylor Hampton, what are you doing?"

I gaped at him. "Huh?"

He threw is hands up with an exaggerated sigh. "Pretending to be happy when I know you're crying on the inside. What's wrong!? You won, Taylor! And Christie told me that you finally stood up to your dad… I'm so proud of you! So why the sad face?"

I shook my head at him, shrugging my shoulders and saying, "Nothing! I'm fine. I guess I'm just a little tired…"

I trailed off as he sent me a knowing look.

"James?" He suggested.

I looked down and nodded.

He put a hand under my chin and tilted my head back up. "Life is worth living, Tay. It's worth fucking living, okay? So just... go live. Go after him if that's what you want. Go find him and tell him how you feel. Say you're sorry and that you made a mistake. He'll understand... he loves you. And if he doesn't understand, if he rejects you, then you've got me, okay? We'll fix this, but first you have to take a chance."

He gave me a small smile. "Go find him, Tay."

I felt my mouth curving up and responding to his smile. I felt my heart begin to pound. I had to try. I had to forget about the fear and the self-doubt.

I nodded and took a step back from Josh. "Okay."

I took another step back. "Wish me luck..."

I turned around and pushed though the crowd, keeping my head high as I searched the crowd.

Above me, the sky was growling and thundering grey and black. I'd almost forgotten about the storm brewing above our heads. Rain was about to threaten the parking lot party and the air was heavy with humidity. I pushed a strand of hair out of my eyes and took a deep breath. I had to find James.