Ella dropped onto the gym bleachers and panted, her skin glowing and hair damp on her neck, slipping from its ponytail. Candis dropped beside her, her breathing fast also, and reached for a couple of water bottles from behind the seat.
"Thanks." Ella took the bottle offered her and squirted it into her mouth. "I'm not going to make it."
Candis swallowed her water and looked to her. "Sure you will. You led in spikes last season."
Ella tightened her auburn hair into a higher ponytail. "Not going to happen. "I start Driver's Ed next month, and it -"
"You're just nowtaking Driver's Ed?"
Ella gave Candis a burning look. "I'm the second to last to turn sixteen and all the courses were filled since we've had to suck up for Templeton."
"But you aresixteen. That's so wrong."
Ella nodded. The neighboring town's dismissal of their driving instruction had led to a glut in the surrounding schools as the parents sought the course for their young teens.
Candis' attention snapped to where the gym's double doors opened suddenly to the school's back parking lot. A gust of October air swept the large room. She stood up and straightened her blue shorts as the varsity football team trotted across the maple floor, whooping and hollering, their practice uniforms muddy and smelling. Some waved to the potential jayvee volleyball team girls sitting in groups on the floor near the bleachers. A few puffed up and swaggered, others grabbed themselves, a couple tripped over their cleats.
"No cleats on the court!" the assistant volleyball coach screamed, rising to her full height of five-foot four-inches.
Ella narrowed her eyes at her blonde friend. "Stop preening. Mark's not here today."
"Oh, I forgot," Candis mumbled, sitting down. They watched the team leave dirty prints across the floor on their way to the locker room.
"You know we're going to get blamed for that," Ella said, her eyes on the muddy trek to the locker room.
Ella leaned back, stretched her legs out in front of her. "Yup."
"Why don't you just take it in Albion?"
She looked to Candis. "Can't fit it into the schedule. You're so lucky you're parents are divorced. Guilt does wonders for the high school career. They just fall over themselves trying to make things up to you."
Candis rolled her eyes. "Not mine. Never any money."
Ella shrugged. "Never any time here. Of course, they've got time to take off for their twentieth anniversary next week. Now that's a priority."
"Twenty years? Geez, isn't that like three marriages worth or something?"
Ella giggled. "At least."
Ella and Candis rose to their feet at the coach's voice over the din of girls.
"Now, girls!" The burly coach pointed to the other end of the gymnasium. "Put the trampoline against the wall. You've got the worst times!"
Ella wanted to kick something. She looked to Candis. "Let's tell her we've got cramps."
"She won't care."
It wasn't until eight-thirty that night that Ella got to her homework. She settled with the foundational physics book on her bed and aimed the remote control at the small TV across the room. A stale horror movie flicked on the screen and she lent her attention to her notebook. She found her place in the textbook and rolled onto her back, angling the book over her head to read, as if the position would help explain displacement any better. Below she heard her mother come in the back door, probably lugging a bag of groceries.
No, probably take-out. She liked it better when her mother actually cooked. Way before the job that ate up all her time, half their resources for commuting, and all of her patience.
"Hey, sweetie." Mom's head poked into her doorway.
"How was school?"
Ella dropped the book beside her. "Demonstration of gravity."
Mom put her hands on her hips. "School?"
"I'm still the only sixteen year-old in the county who hasn't taken Driver's Ed yet." She sat up and pulled the tie from her pony tail, running a hand through the long tresses.
"No you're not; neither has Alan."
"He's your cousin. Be nice."
She'd been told she looked like her mother, which only scared her, but at times she decided it wasn't too bad. Not like Candis' mother, who had a definite look, like she was carved out of wood. Too much caffeine and nicotine. Most of the time she smelled like a burning log. Even Candis admitted her mother's appearance was enough to ensure she'd never take up smoking.
"He's so disgusting. They have nothing, and they don't care."
Mom crossed her arms. "They've had some tough times. Besides, Alan's seventeen; if he wants to drop out of school, that's his choice. But it's a bad choice."
Ella fidgeted with her hair as her mother continued to watch her. "Good grief, what?"
"Did you eat today?"
"Every morsel from all the plates at the lunch table. I had to arm wrestle the school's biggest jock for his chicken sandwich."
Mom shook her head. "Downstairs in ten minutes. It's Mediterranean tonight. I mean it."
"Of course you do."
Mom shot her a look, then headed down the hall.
Ella made a face too late, then lay back down, catching the aroma of couscous and lamb drifting up the stairs. It was times like these she wished she had a younger brother, so she could take out her frustrations on him. Not a sister; a brother. A middle school-aged one who would probably deserve a good thrashing.
Maybe she could put her portion in the blender and whiz it. That way it would be easier to come up.