The lobby of the Westminster Academy holds the aroma of stale cigars, popcorn, and a tingle of generously applied body spray. Its marble floors and stone walls capture all that transpire under the arched ceilings, so I can both hear and smell Charles Vanderbrooke long before he gives me a playful shove.
“Nice jacket, Finn.”
I’ve been yanking at the sleeves of my thrift store blazer since I put it on. It still doesn’t fit and now I’m looking to shed it. Mom wouldn’t notice. While she forced me into this Youth Leadership Initiative—among other things—she never gets to see me take my weekly beatings because of her shifts. It’s probably for the best, though, when I think of her tearing up and talking fast, her accent thick and incomprehensible in the auditorium.
Mrs. Mills, overlord of our debate improv club, hands out place cards. “Pay special attention to yours, Finn,” she says, before clicking off.
Charles reads his. “It’s the year 2967. You are delegates from the United Nations to the Intergalactic Committee for Planetary Relations…?” He looks up, the freckles on his forehead bunching together. “What kind of crap is this?”
I shrug, and pick up where he left off, “Everyone is on board. Except for the delegate from…Kryzlak?”
Charles smiles at me. “I think Mrs. Mills has been playing too much Alien Blasters.”
We group together backstage. My index card is not good. I’ve been assigned to represent Earth, who’s proposing an outer space treaty, or something. The only dissenter being Kryzlak—a smaller planet in the galaxy of Drazelion. Apparently, Earth has been drilling one of Kryzlak’s moons into dust.
“Who’s the Kryzlack delegate,” I say, looking up from my card.
I spin around to find Sylvia Barrett. “Oh,” I say, giving my sleeve a tug. Sylvia’s blue eyes crinkle with her smile, until Mrs. Mann taps her on the head and reminds her to remove her beanie. She rips off her beanie and the scent of her hair sends me running through clean sheets and honeysuckle.
She wastes no time with the head games. “So let me get this straight. You get to go all Exxon Mobil on our moon and expect the citizens of Kryzlak to go along with your little treaty?”
“I think we can work something out.”
Her eyes sharpen like ice. A wolf before dinner, Sylvia Barrett does not lose debates. One, she’s hot, and that’s distracting, but two, she’s brilliant…and feisty…and articulate…and to the point…and did I mention she’s hot?
I’m about to be shredded.
Charles nudges me, whispering. “No sweat. Kryzlack girls are easy.”
With a blink, Sylvia turns to my red headed friend, regarding him the way one would a splotch of mustard on a shirt. She leans close and his Adam’s apple climbs up his throat. “I’m out of your galaxy, Chuck.”
Onstage, I find maybe ten or fifteen people–parents and siblings–in attendance, because let’s face it, improve debate night doesn’t exactly appeal to the masses. Or anyone.
Mrs. Mann skims over the rules, and between sentences we can hear the boisterous crowd at the gym, cheering on the basketball team. Buzzers sound and whistles chirp but Sylvia Barrett has pulled her hair up into a loose bun held by a pencil. I’m already sweating, and it’s not because of this ugly jacket.
Charles and the others take their places with wide grins, thankful to be spared Sylvia’s wrath. I clear my throat, about to shed my second-hand coat and get annihilated when I spot someone waving in the third row.
I wave back. The dark theater hides the many lines of exhaustion in my mom’s face but I can tell she’s still in her uniform—meaning she has to return to work. She’s distinctly out of place among the soccer moms and business dads, but her smile, shooting across like a comet on her face, so full of pride. She’s cleaned and scrubbed and clawed to get me into Westminster Academy. And so I shake my head and nod and get back to business.
“…And welcome Sylvia and Finn. Our noble delegate from planets Kryzlack, and Earth….”
Before we set off for the stage, Sylvia sets her hand on my arm. Her eyes hold mine. Only now they’re soft and melting, wide enough to take me in. And when her lips part like she wants to say something, I know she knows what this means to me.
I can’t take pity from Sylvia, or anyone else. Besides, I want her best. So I give her my jerkiest smile.
“Ready to lose?”
The ice returns to her eyes. Her brow falls and that perfect smile curls into a challenge.
“Oh you’re so going down.”