“Come on, Amber! Show me what you’ve got!” Coach yelled from the side of the pool. Amber’s arms burned and stretched as she sliced through the heavy water.
I can do it! Almost there! Her thoughts rushed as swiftly as the water by her side. Come on. I can do this! She was going to beat her time.
Amber’s head stung instantly. Her hands flew to the aching spot as if they could somehow massage away the pain. What on earth? She felt like she’d hit the wall, but the wall was still ten feet away. She let her feet sink to the floor of the pool. Something bobbed in the water near her. A soccer ball?
“Alex, get that soccer ball out of here!” roared their coach. “This is swim team!” Coach Short stomped toward Alex. His ruddy complexion flushed. Amber doubted it was from the sauna-like heat of the pool.
Alex half laughed. “It got away from me,” she said. Coach’s face remained stern—even Alex knew when Coach meant business. She offered a, “Sorry,” across the echoing pool.
“Amber, you were really cooking on your time!” Coach called. “Too bad.”
Amber’s head throbbed from the smack of the ball. “Thanks,” she called back. She felt the anger rising inside her. Alex had messed up her best time yet. It didn’t really surprise her though.
She should probably be relieved Alex hadn’t tossed a bowling ball her way. An image of Alex in her swimsuit, wearing bowling shoes, and green-striped tube socks flew into Amber’s head.
She smiled and took a deep breath. She thought of the verse she had posted on the Web site that morning, Psalm 90:14. “Fill us with your love every morning.” Amber let out a deep sigh. Lord, fill me with your love, so I can get past this thing with Alex.
She pulled herself out of the water and scowled at Alex. “What’s with the soccer ball?” she asked.
Alex’s wavy hair, slicked down by the water, was already springing up. She was the newest member of the swim team. She was a good swimmer, but Amber thought she was kind of haughty. They hadn’t gotten along too well at first, but things seemed a little better between them—until Alex did something like bonk her in the head with a soccer ball.
“I’m going out for the soccer team,” said Alex. “So’s Morgan. What’s it to you?” She dribbled the ball on the wet tile. “My team in Texas made the state finals. I was even voted most valuable player. See, my dad holds the record for . . . ”
“Amber,” interrupted Coach from behind her. “Did you say you were going out for soccer?”
Amber turned to face him. “Soccer? No way!” she said. Because there was no way she’d join another team with Alex. Even if Morgan was on it. Morgan was Alex’s best friend, and the one person who seemed to bring out any good in Alex. OK, so that wasn’t so loving, she thought. Try again. “Soccer’s just not my sport, Coach.” How’s that, God? She’d been making a real effort lately to always say the right thing.
“You know, soccer would be really good to keep up your endurance until we start our season. Morgan’s going out for it.” Coach twirled his whistle. “My wife’s coaching the team and practice is right after school.”
“Not for me,” said Amber. “Thanks anyway,” she added, then headed to the locker room.
In first block, Amber sat down just as the morning video announcements began. A neatly wrapped donut lay on her desk.
Zack Huddleston leaned toward her. “Brought some sweets for the sweet,” he said, quickly running his hand across his hair. He had a small chunk of hair in front that never went the same direction as the rest of his hair. Amber thought it was adorable.
“Thanks!” smiled Amber. He’s such a sweetie and smells so good.
“Hey, I didn’t get to my Spanish last night,” said Zack. “Coach worked us pretty hard. I just went home and crashed. Can you . . . ?” Zack’s voice trailed off.
Who could resist that grin? “OK, time for a microwave-Spanish lesson. . . ” Amber filled Zack in on everything he never wanted to know about Spanish, quizzing him over their vocabulary list.
“Do you really think we’ll ever need to know ‘baboon’ in Espanol?” asked Zack.
“That’s not on the list,” giggled Amber. “But you might need it if you travel with the football team.”
Before Zack could reply, Samantha Moore nudged him and handed him a note. Samantha practically drooled when Zack looked her way. And then she grinned so big, Amber thought the freckles would pop off her face. Zack passed the note to Amber.
Sam arched her dark eyebrows and nodded at Amber. Amber opened the note.
Heard you’re going out for the soccer team! You’ll be great!
See you on the field tonight.
Amber shook her head “no”, but Samantha was too busy ogling Zack to notice.
What’s going on? First Coach, now Samantha?
Amber waved to get Samantha’s attention. “I don’t play soccer. Besides, tonight is my dad’s birthday.”
“That’s very nice, Amber,” said Senor Vasquez, perched on the orange stool he sat on during class. “Perhaps we could start today’s lesson now?”
Amber’s could feel her face burn. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been reprimanded in class.
“Triste, Senor Vasquez,” she said. And she was sorry. Sorry that she let stupid soccer get her in trouble.
“Now,” said Senor Vasquez said. “Don’t forget. You’ve got a test next Monday.”
Amber heard Zack groan with the rest of the class. She made note of the test in her day planner, then tried to concentrate on the lesson—not Zack’s smile or the curl that rested on his forehead.
When the end-of-class buzzer sounded, Amber scooped up her things and dashed for computer lab. She zipped down the crowding hallway, navigating past clumps of chatting students.
“Hey, Amber!” Sam called behind her. “Wait up!” Sam squeezed through the crowds to Amber’s side. Her freckles seemed locked in place again. “You really ought to go out for soccer. Everyone knows you’re a great athlete. Give it a shot?”
“No thanks.” said Amber. “I have bigger things on my mind than soccer . . . like a gift for my dad. So even if I wanted to play—and I don’t. I can’t come to practice.”
“Don’t sweat it.” Sam flipped her onyx hair. “We’re only doing conditioning tonight. Come tomorrow night.”
Amber couldn’t believe it. “Am I speaking Greek or something? I don’t play soccer.”
Samantha put up her hands. “Whoa. I just thought you might like to do something while swim team isn’t competing.”
“Sorry, Sam. I’m not myself today.” First the hit on the head, then all this in-your-face-soccer on top of worrying about the perfect gift for Dad.
Amber slipped into computer class, headed for her cube, and logged on to her
“Today’s the last day for Web master applications,” said Mr. Baldwin. He rubbed his head as if to polish it, even though it already shone like a computer screen. “All applications must be turned into the office by 3:00. Edgewood High’s Web site goes live September twenty-third.”
Samantha raised her hand. “When will we hear the results?”
“Well, the teachers on the committee have to meet and go over the ideas for site designs, and mapping, as well as review the applicants’ grades and class participation. We presently have five applications. I noticed you and Amber have both applied. Good luck to you both.”
That got Amber’s attention. Five applications. Samantha was in the running. Out of all the students Amber knew, Samantha could be real competition. She was a whiz on the keyboard, pretty artistic, and a good student.
Amber really wanted to be Web master. She had already designed plans for the band and the art students. She’d envisioned the swim team’s pages. She’d learned the swing of site construction when she set up the TodaysGirls.com site. Amber and her friends had wanted a private place where they could meet and chat without the worry and sometimes danger of public chat rooms.
Everyone contributed. Jamie created great graphics. Amber’s best friend, Maya, kept them and the site hip with her New York background. Maya’s little sister, Morgan, was all about writing. She kept them on their toes about the environment. Amber didn’t worry too much about the whales with Morgan fighting for them. And Bren was the group enthusiast, a cheerleader through and through. She supplied them with constant morale.
Building the school site wouldn’t be easy, but Amber was sure she could make the Edgewood pages rock. She’d spent weeks working on her Web master application.
Those busy weeks were the reason she still hadn’t figured out what to give her dad.
He’d barely noticed her since he got back from Chicago. They hadn’t even gone out for their usual Thursday morning breakfast together. Amber really wanted to blow him away with her birthday gift.
In the lunchroom, the clatter of dishes blended with the hum of conversation. Someone from Zack’s table launched a sub-roll into the air. It sailed past the gray walls on a straight coarse for target Lunch Dragon, getting tangled in her hairnet. The whole table wailed—till she crammed the tattered sub in a basket with the fresh bread.
Amber sat down, spilling her lunch sack out in front of her. The others—Maya, Bren, Morgan and Jamie were already flipping out over the new Brad Pitt movie playing at the mall. “Have you seen him since he cut his hair? He’s an absolute hottie!” Bren’s eyes twinkled almost as much as her earrings. She dipped another fry in mayonnaise and shoved it in her mouth.
Beside Amber, Jamie flicked a blob of potato salad off her Levi straight-leg jeans, then tugged her ball cap down over her eyes. “I’ve heard this movie is supposed to outsell Titanic,” she said.
“Get real, girl!” Maya pulled her wire-rimmed glasses off. “Nothing will ever touch Titanic. And don’t wear your hat so low. I can’t see your eyes.”
Jamie grinned, took the cap off, and put it back on backwards. “Is this better?” she asked. Maya shook her head.
Amber’s brother strolled toward their table. That soccer ball hit to the head must be causing her to see things. Ryan would rather grow a giant zit in the middle of his forehead than talk to her at school.
“Hey, sis,” Ryan called. “Heard you’re going to play a real sport. I’ll have you kicking goals in no time. Lucky for you, you have me to coach you.”
All conversation stopped. Ryan had a way of conjuring silence among groups of girls. Just then Alex showed up and scooched in by Morgan.
“Amber!” Maya whined. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going out for soccer?”
“What is it with everyone today?” Amber looked from Ryan to Maya to Alex.
“Well I’m helping Mrs. Short get you girls playing the game right,” said Ryan, pointing at Amber and her friends. “See you on the field.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Maya. “Since when do you do something as major as joining the soccer team and not tell me?”
“Honestly!” said Amber. She shook her head. “I am not going out for soccer. I don’t know how this thing got started, but it stops here.”
Riding her bike home, Amber worried over the gift for her dad. The cool wind rustled the leaves overhead and made her cheeks tingle. She had really searched for a common ground to build on with Dad. Since she was five, Dad had owned the trucking company. Owning your own business could be the pits—it meant a lot of time away from home.
Her father managed to make it to her swim meets. But she knew it was Ryan’s soccer games he really enjoyed. Dad had played soccer in college. If it hadn’t been for she and Ryan, he’d probably still be playing. That’s why she had bought him the book, Bicycles, Bananas, and Breakaway: A History of Soccer. Amber figured she could read it, too, and then they would have more to talk about. She needed an icebreaker big-time.
As Amber turned her bike into the park, she wondered if maybe she should have gotten him the Big Book Of Crossword Puzzles. Dad loved crossword puzzles. Amber was definitely more at home with words than soccer. And what if he didn’t read the soccer book? She’d be right where she was now with the routine:
“Hi, honey. How was your day?”
“Great. I got an A on my math test today.”
“How was your day, Dad?”
“Good. Busy, but that’s good.” He’d smile, nodding his head.
And then, that awkward silence . . .
Not that her father didn’t love her. Amber knew he did. Didn’t he come in her room every night, kiss her on the forehead, and say “Love you, pumpkin”? And hadn’t she overheard her mom and dad talking about what a great kid she was and how lucky they were that she had a good head on her shoulders?
Well, if worse came to worse, she could just buy the Big Book of Crossword Puzzles. Amber rolled into her driveway. Dad was home already. She put away her bike and ran inside. Her mother was running water over a head of lettuce, and her dad was on his cell phone. “No,” he said into the receiver, “the shipment has to go out Tuesday.” He glanced up at Amber, covered the mouthpiece, and mouthed, “Hi, honey!”
She blew him a kiss and whispered, “Happy Birthday, Daddy.”
He smiled. “Thank . . . ” But before he could finish, he was talking into the phone again, “This is one of our most important accounts.” Amber left the room to knock out her homework. She wanted to finish before dinner so she’d have time with her dad later.
She opened her Spanish book but couldn’t resist turning on her computer for a quick e-mail check. There were just a few short notes, one from Jamie about a sculptor she had met at an art show and a longer note from Bren, with a cc to the others about going to the mall.
Work first. Amber started going over her Spanish.
“Yo hablo. I speak.”
“Tu hablas. You speak.”
“Ella habla. She speaks.”
“Nostros hablamos. We speak.”
“Ustedes hablan. You speak, plural form.”
“Ellas hablan. They speak, feminine form.”
Screeeeeeeeeeeech! Car wheels slid to a halt outside. Ryan was home. Must be close to dinner, thought Amber. Ryan was never late for a meal. It’s like he could smell Mom’s cooking from miles away.
“Amber, time to eat!” her mother called.
Amber shook her head, “I knew it,” she said, then closed the book and grabbed her neatly wrapped present.
Downstairs, scattered confetti lay on the table, and a huge cluster of balloons fought to touch the ceiling. Mom walked to the phone and took the receiver off the hook. “Tonight’s all ours. No phone calls. No interruptions,” she said, daring anyone to protest.
Dad smiled and gave her a hug. “OK, honey,” he said, turning off his cell phone. “We’ll do it your way.”
Mom grinned back and winked. This was a real victory. Everyone sat down, then reached across the table to hold hands and pray. Dad bowed his head. For a moment there was silence.
Then Mom began the prayer. Amber knew her mother had hoped Dad would take the lead tonight. But as always, he left it up to Mom. He said Mom was just better at talking to the Lord than he was. Everyone has their talents, he’d say, and Mom had a direct line to heaven.
“Roast beef and mashed potatoes, my favorite,” said Dad.
After dinner Mom brought out the cake with a million candles. They flickered then relit, off and on each time Dad tried to blow them out. “You shouldn’t play tricks like that on an old man!” he laughed.
Amber handed Dad her gift and waited.
“Thanks,” said Dad as he ripped the paper off and thumbed through the pages. “I’ve always wondered how this game got started.” He smiled and set down the book.
“You’re welcome,” said Amber. She twisted a strand of blond hair around her index finger, hoping Dad hadn’t noticed her disappointment.
Next, Mom handed him an envelope with a dinner-for-two gift certificate to Mario’s and two passes to the movies inside. “This is from your secret admirer,” she said. “Looks like a special date.”
Dad kissed her. “Good idea, hon.”
“Hey, Dad. You’re gonna love this.” Ryan handed Dad a gift still inside a brown bag from the store.
Dad pulled Ryan’s gift out of the bag. “Great! A hand-held soccer game!” Right away Dad opened the box and started playing.
“Amber, give me a hand with the dishes,” Mom said, heading for the kitchen.
“OK, just a minute. Dad, I have another surprise coming for you later,” she said.
Ryan patted his hand over his mouth, pretending to yawn. “Are you gonna reenact a scene from your history book?” he asked.
Dad barely looked up long enough to smile, then went back to playing his new soccer game with Ryan cheering him on. Amber’s heart ached to be in Ryan’s shoes. Standing there, over Dad’s shoulder, connected by a game.
Mom took the serving dish from Amber then frowned. “Amber, what on earth happened to your head?” She pulled back Amber’s sandy hair and felt the bump.
“This? Well, Alex got carried away with her soccer ball during Coach’s last timing session this morning. She nailed me in the head.”
“What was she doing with a soccer ball at the pool?” asked Mom.
“Good question,” said Amber just as the doorbell rang.
“Ryan, can you get that?” Mom called.
There was a brief pause, then Ryan’s voice yelled back, “Hey, Amber! Alex is here!”
Amber and Mom glanced at each other. It was no secret that Alex and Amber weren’t exactly best friends. Mom’s green eyes flashed from the doorway to Amber—everyone said Amber had her mother’s eyes. “Be nice,” said Mom. “I’ll finish up in here.”
Amber dried her hands and went to the door just in time to hear Alex saying something to Ryan about his help at soccer practice. Dad barely looked up to smile a welcome, and then he was back into his game, absorbed in the zaps, buzzes, and flashing lights.
“Hey Amber,” said Alex with her slight Texas drawl.
“What’s up?” It had to be something big for Alex to show up at her door. Maybe she’d tried to call.
“Ryan tells me your dad was a soccer great too. Think you can cut it?” Amber stared at Alex.
“Amber?” interrupted her dad. “You’re playing soccer?” Dad jumped out of his seat, bounded across the room, and threw his arms around her. “This is the best birthday surprise ever! You’re gonna play soccer just like your old man!”
Amber nuzzled her face into Dad’s flannel shirt. The familiar scent of his cologne mixed with the scent of cedar logs burning in the fireplace. Amber remembered the family ski trip they’d taken a few years ago—the cabin and the snow. Dad had shown her how to build a fire. She really missed spending time with him.
“Yeah,” said Amber. “I’m going out for soccer. Practice starts tomorrow.”