Chapter 1

On a Friday afternoon in April, nine of my friends and I did something completely random and unlike anything we'd done before. We skipped our afternoon classes, piled into two extended cab pickup trucks, and drove two hours to the mall in Tulsa. That was every girl's sacred place, especially for the Lady Destroyers fastpitch softball team of Mud Creek High.

We'd made the journey to search for prom dresses. I wasn't planning on going to the dance or anything, but my friends were so excited about this trip that I just couldn't miss it. Besides, the Holdener Lady Tigers had forfeited that afternoon's game and Coach Crider cancelled practice because that meant we were the official champions of the small school spring softball league.

Any excuse to drive to Tulsa would work for us if it meant leaving our one stoplight town with its dried up creek and ratty old Main Diner. Those two places were pretty much landmarks to our townsfolk, though no one else knew we were even on the map except for the people we played in sports or the truck drivers who got lost looking for Tahlequah.

We drove down Main Street and there, tied up to the poster window of the Clip 'n' Curl was the tackiest thing. Jacqueline Little, Texas bound, it read in square white letters.

"Bow down to the Mud Creek Lady Destroyers, Tulsa-bound," Adrian Green, the team's second baseman, joked.

Mud Creek had been my home my entire life, but that was about to change. In two months' time, I'd pack up my things and move to Austin, Texas to go play ball for the Texas Longhorns. That town made Tulsa look like Mud Creek, too. The coach had given me a full scholarship to come play for her, and I was ready.

Leaving my best friend Liz behind was going to be the hardest thing to do. She'd talked to the coaches at a couple of schools in Texas and Oklahoma, but they'd already gotten catchers they liked and didn't have any scholarship money left for her. I'd miss the other girls that had played with me since I was five years-old, of course, but we'd ended things right. Our team had won three back-to-back state championships, the latest one that past October.

As we walked around the mall, we stopped in pretty much every store that caught our eyes. I watched as they held up little jean skirts and flimsy-looking shirts to their bodies, shook their heads, and pushed them to me.

"I bet all them folks in Austin has one of these," said my first baseman and backup pitcher Robin McNamara, talking about a cut-off blue jean jacket.

Shrugging, I handed it back to her, and looked to Liz for help.

"She has plenty 'a clothes, Robin," Liz said in her poor Oklahoma grammar. "She don't want her stomach hangin' outta that." Shopping with some of my friends was a terrible idea. That's why I had left my check card at home. Whatever I needed wouldn't cost more than the forty bucks crammed in the pocket of my hoodie.

We got to Dillard's and headed right to the sales rack. The girls spent some time arguing over the best prices and then they were ready. All nine of us crammed into a fitting room, elbowing each other and laughing loud enough that when we finally stopped, we could hear the salesladies whispering bad things about us.

Stephanie and Amy tried on these ridiculous, feathered dresses that didn't go really well with their softball player frames. Tyler seemed to find a green one she liked. We were proud; she was usually so picky. Robin and Sarah tried on a couple and threw them on the ground before any of us could get a good look at them. I picked up the rich glittery fabric from the floor. That was my job for the trip since I wasn't really looking.

The most attractive dress by far, in my mind, was a black dress with royal blue sequins on it. It had a simple shape that flowed out wider and shorter than most of the other dresses. Even the way it hung on the rack made it look beautiful.

"Someone try this on," I said, passing it to Robin. It hung off her tall, slender frame.

"If it don't look good on you, Rob, there ain't no way it's gonna look good on any of us," said Amy.

"I don't know about all that," replied Robin, pretending to be modest about the compliment. "Why don't you try it on, Miss City Girl?" She held the dress out to me, and I knew she just wanted everybody to see short little me looking silly in the pretty outfit.

"Told ya not to call me that," I said, folding my arms.

"Just try it on," Liz insisted, getting kind of moody. "You haven't tried anything on all day."

After pretending to be annoyed, I took off my hoodie and pulled the dress over my head.

"What you doin' tryin' it on with your clothes on for? You don't got anything we haven't seen," Beth joked.

I slipped off my tank top and shorts and smoothed the fabric of the dress.

The girls just stood there, looking me up and down.

"You should get it," Liz said, turning me around and zipping it up in the back. "Go out and look in the mirror."

It, well, it really looked good.

"Jackie-lynn Petunia Little," Robin said. "I'll be darned if you ain't the stunningest girl at our prom."

"Number one," I said, waving my finger in front of her face. "My middle name is not Petunia. And two, I'm not going to no dance."

"Oh you've just gotta," Amy said, pulling a spare piece of fabric down in the back. "This dress is perfect for you. It's simple just like you like. Since you're practically a midget, it works. It shows off your hot bod, hides the softball legsā€¦"

Everyone laughed. It was true. Our conditioning made us all have muscular legs but mine stuck out the most since the rest of me was small. I was proud of those legs, though.

I looked at it again in the mirror and checked out the back. "How much does this sucker cost, anyway?"

"It don't matter," Robin said. "It's on sale."

It was fifty dollars, more than fifty percent off the first price. "I need more money. I'll put it back and if it's here next time I'm in Tulsa then it's a sign."

"Deal." Liz smacked me on the back, leaving a pink imprint just above the X of the criss-cross straps. I punched her shoulder hard and unzipped the dress, taking one last look before I put it back on its hanger and got dressed.

None of the other stores had any good sales, and we sure weren't going to pay over a hundred dollars for a dress, so we headed back to Mud Creek early. The entire way back, the girls in my truck talked about Fundraiser, which was the next morning. It would be our last time to play together as a team, an annual charity game between the softball girls and the baseball boys.

"I'm glad there's finally gonna be a hospital closer than Tulsa," Beth said.

"Yeah, that means your mom won't pop out any more kids on their head like you 'cause she can't get to the hospital in time," Amy joked.

We all laughed as Beth elbowed Amy in the stomach and she doubled over, the wind knocked out of her. I smiled at them in the rearview mirror, reminded for the thousandth time that day how much I'd miss them.

This year was extra special because we were donating the entrance fees to the children's wing of the hospital they were building two towns away.

"Girls, we're gonna be gods tomorrow," Robin said. She closed her eyes, sniffed loudly, and shook her hair around like her own words were fresh air. It was true, though. We were seniors and it was our turn to have the whole tradition focused on us.

"The boys will be gods, too," Stephanie pointed out, turning around in the passenger seat.

"Just 'cause they finally won state don't mean they're gonna beat us at our own game." Robin rolled her eyes.

"You'll let Horse win, Rob," said Amy. "You just watch her tomorrow, ladies. She'll strike out everything he throws."

Robin then attacked Amy with her sharp words and sharper manicure. I tried to concentrate on the road as Robin pushed against my seat, and I ended up turning on the radio to drown them out. All it took was a good dose of country to make everything the way it should be. The girls forgot about their argument and sang along as my Chevy blasted a station that was just out of range back home in Mud Creek.

After I dropped the girls off at the high school and tried to avoid my last period teachers, I went to the Sonic for two cold drinks. I knew Jake would be working on his Mustang out in his driveway at the first house on my street. We'd been neighbors since we were three or four, which was kind of funny because of his last name: Neighbors.

I pulled up to the curb of his house and didn't bother turning off my truck. Sure enough, a pair of gray baseball pants was sticking out from underneath the shiny old thing.

"Jake!" I hollered. "I got Sonic!"

He rolled out, stood up, and wiped his hands on his bare stomach. "Thanks."

"She's lookin' real good," I said, tilting my chin toward the Mustang.

He nodded and gulped down his lemonade. "Thanks."

"You lookin' forward to the game tomorrow?"

"Yup." Jake played on the baseball team. He'd played with my older brothers Justin and Jordan and worked with my daddy up at the oil parts factory.

I walked back to the truck, waving without turning around. Jake Neighbors was a man of little words. We'd been around each other plenty the past fifteen years and he'd said maybe that many words the whole time, unless all the times he'd nodded my way or mumbled "mmhmm" to one of my questions counted. It was just Jake, the weird ole' boy.

He was a heck of a player, though. He played varsity his freshman year with my brothers and was probably the fastest, most accurate pitcher in the state. For some reason, that boy didn't want to leave Mud Creek even though he sure had a ticket out.

People talked about him around town, sometimes saying bad things. They were all jealous of him, his pure talent, and his chance to make something of himself. What they failed to realize, people like Jake and me knew: that as much as everyone felt sorry for the people stuck in Mud Creek, we didn't think their lives turned out half bad.