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For Mary Sofia, The Penultimate writing competition is more than a chance at a free college education; she wants to show her younger siblings that they can all rise above their violent family history. For Raiden, the pressure to succeed comes from within, although he knows that family traditions play a part in his determination. For Camara, writing fiction is almost compulsive, but her own dark secret may be the best story she can ever tell. For Michael, swimming and writing fit his introverted personality perfectly, but meeting a smart and beautiful girl at The Penultimate makes stepping outside of his comfort zone easy. All four will compete against each other along with 96 other high school juniors for the chance of a lifetime: a full scholarship to a prestigious private college. Some students will do anything to win, but others may pay the price.
Matias had warned her to be careful what she wished for.
When Mary Sofia was a little girl, she wanted to ride a school bus. There were plenty that traveled up and down her street in the morning, and she saw them on the television she watched with the other children at the shelter while the older kids and parents readied themselves for school and work. They clattered and clunked over and through the potholes in the street, but she could see the red and blue hats of the passengers flopping around, the bright colors visible through the smudgy windows. Now, she shook her head at the memory of her earnest and innocent desire, just as she tried to stop herself from tipping sideways, holding onto the seat in front of her as the bus turned a corner sharply.
“How did these kids survive this torture all these years?”
The girl beside her had never actually been Mary Sofia’s friend, not in the twelve years they had spent together at the same small Catholic school, but the two of them were now bound by their allegiance to their school, as well as the feeling that they were vastly outnumbered, but not outsmarted. Jada had bullied Mary Sofia about her brother once, long ago, and after years of silence in response, the two began to speak when they found each other accepting an invitation to compete for a spot on the Penultimate team. Mary Sofia had acted as if she didn’t remember the long ago slight, but Jada apologized for it, and in such a small school, it was always better to have more options when it came to companions.
“I used to cry when I watched the neighbors step into their bus every morning, wishing I could go with them instead of walking to school with my mother.”
Mary Sofia shook her head as she spoke, her voice quiet and clear. Jada looked ahead, but Mary Sofia could tell that she was listening to her as she continued.
“Now I know what I was missing, it makes me even more grateful for the opportunity to stay at St. Cat’s.”
Jada wrinkled her nose.
“What in the world is that smell?”
A boy two seats ahead and across the aisle from them must have heard her, because he leaned over and barked out a laugh as his gaze drank the girls in. His seatmate, most likely his teammate as well, bumped shoulders with him but didn’t look at the girls. Jada rolled her eyes as she looked back at Mary Sofia.
“The next time Emma, Syd, or Livia complains about the lack of boys at school . . .”
St. Cat’s had a certain reputation, one that was not actually earned. It was said that because it was an all girls school, the students must be nymphomaniacs or lesbians, and while Mary Sofia knew of one classmate who had a girlfriend, the others were no more boy crazy than the girls at church or the neighborhood. Still, at least the three girls Jada mentioned would have been distracted by the sight of boys in class, or worried about what to wear or how to act in order to compete for their attention. As if school wasn’t difficult enough without all that romantic drama.
“Did they expect us to prepare during the ride, or rest, or something besides hold on for dear life?”
Jada’s hands gripped the space on the seat in front of them beside Mary Sofia’s and sighed. It wasn’t going to be too long of a drive, but it would certainly feel longer with the way the bus driver was speeding and perhaps the need for new shocks, not to mention the annoying boys they hadn’t officially met. At St. Cat’s, there were a few athletic teams, but of course they all played against girls’ teams from other schools, and the boys who came to audition for school plays or attend open dances were usually from other private schools. Not that it made them saints, or even anything close, but still, Mary Sofia hadn’t ever had one of them look at her the way that boy had just now.
Five schools in the public school district, St. Cat’s along with three of the public high schools and one other private school, Advance, had gone in together to use one bus to take them to the state tournament, which was in a small college town almost directly in the center of the state. A two-hour drive, an overnight spent in the campus dorm, then back home, one of them returning to his or her home and school with a guaranteed future. One hundred high school juniors, the top writers of their age in the state after district and regional tournaments, writing for a full-scholarship to the highest ranking small private college in the Midwest. For some of them, including Jada, it was a matter of prestige. Her father could afford to send her anywhere, but she was smart and would earn plenty of merit scholarships wherever she applied. For Mary Sofia, as well as, she imagined, many of the other competitors, this would make a huge difference in options, and not just for the winner. Making it to the state-level Penultimate tournament looked spectacular on any college or scholarship application, but Mary Sofia knew that each and every one of the one hundred that weekend wanted to win, because none of them would be there if they weren’t in it for the trophy. She didn’t like the attention any more than she liked attention for anything: her grades, her appearance, her family situation – but she had always stood out, had always been different, no matter how quiet or reserved she tried to be.
Tried to be?
“Don’t give him the satisfaction, Sofi,” Jada nudged her with her shoulder as Mary Sofia shrunk in on herself, just as she had her entire life. She fought her battles on paper, with the written word, and was generally successful. Time, patience, or at least the semblance of it, worked in her favor. Physical or verbal confrontation, though, was not in her skill set. She wasn’t sure if she wanted it to be, but a part of her knew that she needed to cultivate something, even just a more intimidating stare. The idea was laughable.
“When they say girls mature faster than boys, they aren’t kidding.”
Jada always had a smart comeback, but also knew when to keep her mouth shut. She was beautiful, and everyone assumed that whatever she had, it was because her father was an investment banker, and her mother, an English professor who left her husband and only child for a colleague when Mary Sofia and Jada were in seventh grade, gave it to her. Mary Sofia knew better, although, to be honest with herself, she did envy the ease with which Jada obtained anything she needed for school. While Mary Sofia used whatever leftovers the shelter had from previous girls or donations from the convent, whether it was notecards or pens, or the occasional foam trifold for a presentation, she knew that Jada ordered her materials online or in a pinch, drove herself in her SUV (seventeenth, not sixteenth birthday present) to the corner drugstore. It was those day to day, smaller things that Mary Sofia wished were just a little easier, a little less worrisome, although perhaps it was those that kept her focus, and emotions, far from her larger and more important problems, the ones she could do so little about.
“He’s probably one of kids who writes about his dying pet, or terminally ill sister.”
She felt bad saying it, because sometimes those stories were true. She had her own sad stories to tell, but she had never written anything so personal for competition. Their coach, Ms. Dacha, said that the judges could usually tell when it was a lie, but sometimes, if the writer was good enough, he or she could get away with it. Not only get away with it, but excel. Fiction was fiction, after all, but if the judges were carried away by their emotions and believed that the story was a reflection on reality regardless of how the writer presented it, those entries were successful. Dacha had smiled wryly.
“Those aren’t my favorites, to be honest. Call me jaded – sorry, Jada – but they feel so Nicholas Sparks sometimes that I assume they have to be lies, and I am sure they are true just as often.”
Their coach, a teacher at St. Cat’s who was known for reality checks on the girls’ romantic notions of life, love, and everything else that might matter, had sighed.
“Those stories aren’t the worst ones I’ve seen, or the hardest to judge. The loss of virginity ones are tricky, and usually not pretty.”
Mary Sofia had looked away, unsure how to respond, but Jada, the only other one on the team who was going to State with her, had nodded. What did that mean, Mary Sofia still wondered. Had Jada been with a boy, without everyone else at school knowing? The way gossip ran through the halls at St. Cat’s, with fewer than 200 girls in the building and eyes and ears open to anything scandalous, she wondered how Jada had managed it. If she had managed it.
“Yeah, but I bet plenty of judges eat that up. Still, you’re the best writer I know, Sof, and a boy like that, the way he acts, must feel like he has to be intimidating in some other way if he knows his writing doesn’t measure up.”
Mary Sofia looked at Jada then, their eyes meeting for a long moment before Mary Sofia looked away. She always looked away first, no matter who the other person was.
“And I don’t know anyplace else where we are required to go to a party, even if it is with a bunch of writing dorks.”
Mary Sofia smiled.
“A party with dorks like that.”
“Dorks like us.”
They laughed loudly, for the first time during the trip making as much noise as the others on the bus, but they didn’t notice the boy two seats ahead of the one who had sneered at Mary Sofia, who was noticing them for the first time that morning.
Michael had been awake long before his alarm went off, even though it was a hour earlier than usual. He had to get some practice in before leaving for the tournament, and the bus was scheduled to leave for that at six. Two hours there, three rounds of writing, and then, dinner, a dance party, and most likely, a late bedtime. There would be no practice for him tomorrow morning, although he asked, as soon as he found out that he had qualified for State, if he could use the college’s indoor pool while he was there. No, his writing coach had explained, as there was no lifeguard and really, he should just be resting after the eventful day before. His swim coach understood his need to practice, though, and was empathetic.
“One day isn’t going to put you off your times, but I know, believe me, I know, it would help offset the stress of the event. You could go for a run, maybe?”
Michael didn’t run as a habit, but sometimes he would just take off for a jog now and then, or if he needed to do something physical later in the day, long after swimming to clear his head. He was curious about the college, the campus, and the opportunities there, although winning The Penultimate was a long shot. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look around, especially early in the morning when it should be more quiet. Maybe there were other students who would be interested in an early run. There had to be.
He was the only student in his school, on his large Penultimate team, to make it to State, and while the pressure was on, the school wasn’t that focused on the tournament. It was a small event in a larger pool of athletic and academic opportunities, most of which were of greater interest to the other students, faculty, and parents. Still, he had loved to write since he was in elementary school, and his English teacher had singled him out right away for the team. It had taken the teacher, also the team coach, a bit longer to choose other participants, all of whom were interested but not as focused, perhaps, as Michael was. He loved swimming as much as writing, and for now, at least, no one was pressuring him to choose one over the other. He hoped that he would never have to make such a decision.
The book on swimming anatomy that his father had given him yesterday sat open in his lap, but now his head was turned just enough to see the source of laughter that came from the back of the bus. He hadn’t heard any noise from that direction, although he had been focusing on the words on the pages against the conversations around him for over an hour now. The two girls were looking out the window as they laughed, and the one with long dark hair was pointing at something. She was, he thought, Latina, definitely, with delicate feminine features, and her friend, her shorter hair dark as well, looked like she might be Middle Eastern, with a wide smile that showed perfect white teeth. Both of them had light brown skin that shone in the morning sunlight, and he found himself smiling at the beautiful picture the two of them made. He wondered what they wrote about that earned them placement at State, and wondered even more if he would find the courage to ask them
About the Author
Cecily Wolfe writes whatever her characters tell her to write, including YA, contemporary family drama and romance, and Christian historical romance. She was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She graduated from Kent State University with degrees in English and library science, and enjoys her career as a librarian in Cleveland. She is the author of That Night, (longlisted for the 2018 In the Margins national book award), Reckless Treasure, A Harvest of Stars, and the Cliff Walk Courtships series.