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Chapter One

One more goal, that’s all they needed. Amber Robinson bounced on the balls of her feet while the referee placed the ball on center field. Her brown face glistened with sweat as she glanced at her companion forward and best friend, Jasmine Santos. She grinned and Jasmine threw up a peace sign. This was perfect, Amber thought. There were only her teammates and the game, a challenge she was more than up to. On the field she didn’t have to be pretty or charming or graceful. She didn’t have to care how her hair looked, if her nails were the right color or if she wore the right perfume. All she had to do was win. The other pressures of her life faded as soon as the referee blew the whistle starting the game. Her hand went absently to Grandma’s necklace, the namesake jewels cool against her slender neck, their touch calming her mind. She was ready. 
   “Okay ladies!” Coach Penny shouted. “Get focused! Let’s take this home!”
   For the first time since the girls’ soccer program began the Wayne Elementary Silverbacks were on the verge of their first championship. Cars, minivans and trucks packed the parking lot of Silverback Stadium, an anomaly for a girls’ middle school soccer game. The cloudless sky and crisp air day set the stage for what the Silverbacks hoped would be their victory to claim. Their sudden success was mainly due to Amber and Jasmine. Jasmine was a soccer prodigy, the daughter of two soccer standouts, her Brazilian father and Jamaican mother and a recent transfer. Amber, while not as good as Jasmine, was a skilled passer and a perfect judge of the opposing players. She had an instinct, Coach Penny said, to read a player’s mind. The team depended on her to size up their opponents and give advice on strategy. Together they were unstoppable. 
   The referee blew the whistle to begin the second half. Jasmine and the opposing forwards rushed the ball. Amber nodded at Jasmine as she trotted behind them. Jasmine let the Clearwater Jaguar forward take the ball. Amber waited until she attempted to pass the ball across the field then intercepted it. She kicked it forward in a looping arc, the ball falling right before Jasmine. Her friend quickly displayed the dribbling skills she was known and feared for, dancing her way through the opposing team. Amber ran as fast as she could, knowing Jasmine’s good fortune wouldn’t last. She watched Jasmine jump, avoiding a vicious sliding tackle then with the flip of her right foot send the ball streaking toward Amber. The ball was high as it was meant to be. Amber took a deep breath then executed a perfect bicycle kick, sending the ball back to Jasmine as the crowd gasped and roared. The goalie never stood a chance. Jasmine, her back turned to the goal, trapped the ball on her left foot then spun about. The ball left her foot like a pitcher’s fastball, speeding by the diving goalie then into the net.
   The rest of the match was a lesson of keep away. The Silverback defense turned back a couple of spirited attacks by the opposing team and Amber and Jasmine scored three more goals. Extra time was added because of penalties but the game was all but over. When the time ran out the score read 4 – 2, the Silverbacks fans leaping to their feet cheering and waving their silver and black pom-poms. The team rushed the field, for once ignoring Coach Penny’s advice of cool decorum after a victory. They’d won the championship; there was no reason for holding back.
   Jasmine ran at Amber then leaped into her arms. She shook her fist in the air as Amber struggled to hold her up.
   “You know you ain’t no petite girl,” Amber shouted.
   She let go and Jasmine dropped to her feet.
   “I know you didn’t just insult me,” Jasmine said in mock anger.
   “If I didn’t, who would?”
   Jasmine was about to fire back when their teammates overwhelmed them. The two of them were lifted in the air as the team chanted.
   “Silverbacks, we bad! Who bad? We bad!”
   The team set them down and they broke into a line dance they’d practiced in secret for weeks. Coach Penny walked up to them shaking her head while trying to suppress a grin.
   “Okay ladies that’s enough. You’re on the verge of unsportsmanlike conduct. Now line up so we can shake hands with our worthy opponents.”
   They did as they were told. Amber was the first in line. Her response to the opposing team members varied based on her feeling; some a simple high five, others a handshake, and a few a heartfelt hug. Some people just needed to be hugged.
   The last person in line was the opposing team’s coach. The red faced round man extended his hand.
   “Good game, 42,” he said. “You’re a fine player. Coach Peterson at Julian High will be happy to have you.”
   The coach’s words put a damper on her joy. She wouldn’t attend Julian High. Her parents had other plans.
   She blocked the bad feelings from her mind, following Coach Penny and the team to the podium. 
   “Amby! Amby!”
   Amber rolled her eyes. “Oh God!”
   Jasmine appeared beside her then gave her a gentle jab with her elbow.
   “Mommy’s calling you,” she chided.
   Amber looked to the visitor’s sideline and spotted Momma. She was fashionably dressed as always, jumping up and down waving silver and black pompoms, reliving her days as a cheerleader. Standing beside her, to Amber’s pleasant surprise, was her Daddy. He missed most of her games as he traveled, but he’d made it for the finals as he promised. He towered over Momma, waving his pompom that Momma forced in his hand with his dress shirt and slacks, his tie loosened. He’s obviously come straight from the airport, but that didn’t matter. He was here. He kept his promise. She ran to them, jumping into her father’s open arms.
   “You made it!” she squealed.
   “Of course I did. I couldn’t miss the best player in the best game.”
   He spun her around then placed her on her feet.
   Momma wrapped her in a tight hug then swayed with her from side to side.
   “Congratulations baby!” she squealed. “You were so great out there!”
   “Thank you, Momma,” she said, squeezing Momma tight.
   “Congratulations, baby girl,” Daddy said. He wrapped her and Momma in his thick arms.
   “Did you see that bicycle kick?” Amber asked.
   “Yes we did,” Daddy said with a smirk on his face.
   “It was nice, wasn’t it?”
   “That’s your child,” Momma said. “So modest.”
   “No reason to be modest when you’re good,” Daddy replied. “It was excellent.”
   They gathered around the podium as Coach Penny received the trophy. She gave a short speech then raised the trophy high. Amber, her teammates and the Silverback fans gave a rousing cheer and the hugs began again.
   Coach Penny accepted the award and the Silverbacks paraded to their cars. The coach led the procession to Partner Pies Pizza, the perfect place for a championship celebration.
   “Pizza is on me!” Daddy shouted.  A cheer rose over the usual cacophony of the popular pizzeria as the girls and their families took their reserve tables. Jasmine and Amber sat side by side, their parents flanking them. Amber was about to sip her sweet tea when Jasmine elbowed her.
   “Girl! You almost made me spill my drink!”
   Jasmine nodded her head. “Check it out. Somebody’s giving you the serious stink eye.”
   Amber looked in the direction of Jasmine’s nod. Apparently a few of Georgetown Middle School players chose Partners Pizza Pie for their defeat consolation meal. The girl giving Amber the stink eye was the defensive forward playing opposite her, the one she faked out with the spectacular bicycle kick. Amber looked directly at her then raised her glass.
   “Look at you trying to start something,” Jasmine whispered.
   “I’m just being gracious,” Amber replied.
   The pizzas arrived moments later. Amber shared a super supreme with Jasmine while the house band played a bad version of one of Neo’s recent hits. Amber wiped her mouth after her fifth slice.
   “Potty break!” she shouted.
   Her mother glared at her. 
   “Sorry. Excuse me,” she said properly.
   Amber made her way to the narrow hallway where the bathrooms were located. She was about to enter the woman’s room when the unfriendly faces of the Grovetown Middle School Panthers players appeared. Amber tried to ignore them, but the forward she embarrassed blocked her way. The girl was at least a foot taller than amber with straw blond hair and a boyish freckled face.
   “Okay 42, you trying to be all that on the field. What you got now?”
   Amber closed her eyes then took a deep breath.
   “Excuse me,” she said.
   The girls followed her into the restroom. The first girl was reaching for her when she kicked her feet from under her then grabbed the second girl by the wrist, forcing her down on top of the other girl. The goalie charged at Amber, her hand outstretched.    
“I don’t have time for this,” Amber hissed. She stuck out her hand; her necklace warmed around her neck then the goalie stopped, lifted off her feet then slammed into the bathroom door. The girl looked at Amber terrified. Amber looked at her hand the same way. 
   She was still staring at her hand when the other girls scrambled off the floor, gathered the goalie then ran. Amber went into the stall, trembling as she sat. Before Grandma taught her wrestling she made her promised never to use it unless she was in serious trouble. She’s even put up with some bullying just to keep Grandma’s promise. But this other thing? She had no idea where that came from.
   “Okay, Amber, what was that all about?” she whispered. She waited in the stall, listening as people came in and out before finally opening the stall door the peek out. To her relief the bathroom was empty. She hurried out then back to the table.
   “What took you so long?” Jasmine asked.
   Amber shrugged then focused on eating her pizza. The band went into a halfway decent rendition of ‘Ain’t no stopping us now and Amber looked up to see Coach Penny holding the microphone.
   “Okay Silverbacks, time to show your old coach that dance you were doing!”
   The table emptied immediately. Momma grabbed Amber’s hand.
   “Come on, baby. Let’s show these folks how to move.”
   She grabbed Daddy’s hand, too. Daddy smiled then stood.
   “Let’s do it,” he said
   Amber couldn’t keep feeling bad now. She led her parents to the floor then joined in with her teammates, the grownups laughing as they tried to keep pace. Amber scanned the dancers and smiled even though sadness rested on her chest. She was going to miss them so much. But just as soon another thought came to her. She had to talk to Grandma. Soon.

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