PROLOGUE "If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up or Fight Like Hell."
You know how you always think there’s something . . . more?
Like there’s something else you can be doing? A way you can put yourself out there more. An effort that will plant you in the spotlight and make people finally recognize that, "Hey, you’re special."
Sure, your parents tell you that all the time. They’re supposed to. It’s, like, in the parents’ handbook they get when they take you home from the hospital. Still, it’s not the same as acceptance from the general public, and more specifically, your peers. Not that I’m narcissistic and need to be told this every hour of the day like Chloe Bradenton in my class does. But right there, who or what decided that Chloe Bradenton and others like her get to be
special while people like me . . . just exist?
Chloe’s a cheerleader; she dated the quarterback off and on; she’s been on the homecoming court all three years of high school and will probably be voted queen our senior year. Total cliché; then again clichés are clichés for a reason. She thinks everyone’s pea-green with envy of her and her lot in life. I’m not jealous of her—seriously, I’m not. I just want the same opportunities, you know? Is that too much to ask?
For my three years in high school, I’ve semi-anonymously played my trumpet in the Polk High School marching band. Not even my own trumpet, but one handed down from my big sister, Gretchen, who’s ten years older than me. She gave it up way back when she was in tenth grade and lost interest and started hanging with kids Mom called "the rogue element." I wanted to play something delicate and beautiful like the flute. However, my parents said I should take a shot at the trumpet since we already owned one. I made the best of it, took lessons, and excelled with my lipping and fingering. I’m pretty damn good, if I must say so myself. Got the "Best Brass" trophy two years in a row. (Please . . . no comments.) And band’s been fun. What can I say? I’ve got an itch, though. I want to expand my horizons and get the full high school experience however I can. Where’s the rule that says I can’t take my own stab at something . . . more?
Okay, I want to be popular. I’ll admit it. What teenager doesn’t?
I’m not a social leper at all . . . but again, I just feel like there’s something else I can be doing.
I want to be seen
and not just blend into the other hundred who are dressed in red and blue polyester uniforms. I don’t want to be part of one cohesive, marching unit.
I want to march to my own drum.
So, one Saturday afternoon while watching Bring It On
on DVD for like the kajillionth time, I thought of the craziest thing I could do, the one thing that no one in his or her right mind would expect out of me.
I tried out for varsity cheerleader.
And I made it.
Me. Hayley Matthews. A virtual no one to a well-known.
I got my wish.
I got popularity.
And that . . . desired more
In fact, I got a hell of a lot more
than I ever bargained for—something that stopped me in my tracks.
A diagnosis that would change my present and bring into question my future.
A challenge of epic proportions to overcome.
The need to find hope when everything seemed hopeless.
This is a story of how cheerleading saved my life.
CHAPTER ONE "Everyone has inside him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!"
I nailed it!
That was the best damn round-off back handspring I’ve ever done!
Beads of sweat roll down my back as I pump my fists in the air in time with the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. Nothing can stop me. Across the gym, at the long table ahead of me, I can see that the judges are impressed with my efforts, as well. Pencils move furiously over score sheets, and I beam from ear to ear as I quickly move into a perfectly executed herkie. It should be perfect . . . I’ve been practicing for weeks on end. I stretch my fingers out to meet up with my pointed right toe before landing back on the gym’s shiny parquet. My Nikes hit the floor with a firm thwack
, and I move into my next jump.
With the agility of a jaguar leaping through the jungle, I wind up and hurdle myself into the air, elongating my legs in front of me in the pike position. My arms parallel in the air with my legs until the tips of my fingers again touch my outstretched sneakered toes.
My tryout partner, Shelly Kingsford, slips behind me and plants her Reebok in the middle of my back as she climbs up onto my shoulders. I grip her calves and adjust into a tall, straight position, balancing her hundred and eighteen pounds just so. Looking up, I watch as she pulls her left foot to her right knee to strike the star pose. I don’t swerve or teeter as all of her weight goes to my right side. I just smile that eye-squinting grin of mine and yell out along with Shelly, "Go, Polk, Go!"
She jumps forward to dismount and lands flawlessly with me catching her around the waist for stability. Again, the judges nod their approval and continue to make notes on the score sheets.
I stand at attention with my hands fisted on my hips while Shelly does her tumbling run. Cartwheel. Cartwheel. Cartwheel. Ugh . . . what is she doing?
She was supposed to do a cartwheel into two back handsprings. We’d practiced it for weeks. What is she thinking? You totally have to show the judges more agility than just a cartwheel, which you learn, like, in kindergarten.
Poor Shelly. I hope they won’t deduct points because of her lackluster tumbling. She didn’t even do them that well, hesitating between each one. Can’t think about it, though. I have to finish our routine. I have to make sure I
do everything right.
The music begins and blares out a Techno beat. We snap into performing the dance we’ve both spent hours rehearsing. I pop. I snap. I crunk. Moves I’ve honed in front of my bedroom mirror in the late-evening hours, much to Mom’s chagrin—especially when the chandelier in the dining room started shaking. I laugh. I smile. I wink. But most of all, I have fun. The groove of the music pumps through my veins, fueling me on.
After our dance routine, we barely have time to catch our breath before Shelly and I line up together to execute a formal school cheer. This part is about the precision of our moves, our silent clapping with cupped hands, and the ability to project our voices throughout the gym.
I have no problem with the latter. My dad has always called me "the Mouth of the South." He took me to an Alabama vs. Auburn game once (Roll Tide!), and he said I was the loudest out of more than a hundred thousand people. Today, it’s going to play to my favor.
I clap my hands together. "Our team. Ready?"
"Okay," Shelly says with me.
Pop. "Our team . . . is great"—arms tight; fingers straight—"and, we just can’t wait"—legs locked—"to show"—left hand fisted on hip; right arm forward, pointing—you . . . just how"—spin;