It was a game night in October, right around Halloween. We were playing our biggest rival, Central High, at home, and the crowd was huge. We'd been working on a big halftime number for a couple of weeks that involved not only a pyramid but some heavy-?duty dancing, a can-?can line, and a row of subsequent backflips. This was a Very Big Deal, at least for everyone else. We were up at the half, and the squad had gone back to the dressing rooms to change into our purple-?sequined tops, which my mother, of course, had helped to design and sew. Everyone was nervous as we stood waiting to run out onto the field from the opening under the bleachers. I was cold and convinced that I would blow my backflip as I'd done in practice just the day before, when I landed with a resounding whump on my back, knocking the wind out of myself. I just lay there, feeling oozy and strange as I stared up at the rows of retired basketball jerseys, fluttering from the ceiling overhead. “You'll be fine,” Rina said to me now, grasping my hand and squeezing it. Rina, of course, loved cheerleading. She was a natural. We had still been in pre-?season when she started dating the quarterback, and she was the clear crowd favorite, eliciting cheersmostly malejust for walking out onto the field. Eliza Drake hated her, too. The band started playing “My Girl,” the squad theme song, and I knew Boo was in the stands, her face twisting, disgusted. The girls in front of me began psyching up, jumping up and down and shaking their pom-?poms, as we all started running down the slope to pop out onto the field to the cheers of the crowd. There was a pack of people that was especially into the cheerleadersmostly guys, girls who hadn't made the squad, and parentswho were sitting right at the overhang where we came out, and as we ran forward they chanted each of our names. “Eliza!” they yelled, and Eliza Drake did an impromptu handspring, showing off. “Meredith!”
“Rina!” And the crowd went wild, screaming and cheering, as Rina turned around and waved one pom-?pom, smiling at her public. I was the last one out. The music was loud as the cold air hit me, and I was already thinking of my backflip when I heard someone over my head yell, “Cass!” I stopped dead in my tracks, causing Caroline Miter, the mascot, to crash right into me. I don't know if everyone was yelling my sister's name: The one voice was the only one I could hear. And for one fleeting, crazy second I thought she must be there, somewhere close, in the places I'd always searched for her in my dreams. “Cass!” the voice yelled again, and I looked up to see a man pumping his fist. He was talking to me. His breath was coming out in small white puffs. “Cass!”
“Come on,” Caroline said to me, her voice muffled under her tiger head as she yanked me by my sleeve out onto the field. “Hurry!” I scrambled behind her into formation, but I couldn't stop looking at that guy as he yelled my sister's name at me again and again. I was barely aware of the dance routine as I did it, everything in slow motion as the girls squatted and built the pyramid and I climbed up. When I stood, knees wobbling, the crowd was a blur of noise and color in front of me. It was so cold as I reached up to touch the scar over my eye, tracing its length and feeling my pulse there. I tilted my head back and looked up at the stars; I could still hear Cass's name in my head, and suddenly I felt wide awake. The world is speaking to you every day, she'd said to me so many times. You just don't always know how to listen. I was listening, then. I could hear everything. “Cass!” The guy was still shouting, or maybe he wasn't and I was only dreaming, really dreaming now. I closed my eyes. “Cass!” And that is the last thing I remember before falling.
It is nothing short of a miracle that Eliza Drake happened to look up and see me begin to fall backward. Regardless of her feelings for me, she jerked out from under Lindsay White, who fell and broke her nose, to stagger backward and catch me. Those new fifteen pounds in her butt and hips most likely saved my life. When I opened my eyes, my ears were ringing and the first thing I saw was a circle of cheerleaders standing around me in purple sequins, pom-?poms limp at their sides. I wondered for a second if I'd died and gone to hell. “Caitlin?” I turned my head to see a man in a paramedic outfit. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said, and sat up, slowly. I found out later I'd been lucky enough to fall square on Eliza, who suffered only a bad hip bruise and scraped elbows from catching me. I'd escaped pretty much unscathed, other than some scratches, a bad scrape on my arm, and a cut on my knee that didn't even require stitches. My mother, who herself had almost passed out after seeing me fall, kept telling everyone it was nothing short of a miracle. When Eliza, Lindsay, and I all finally stood up to walk to the ambulance to get bandaged up, the crowd stood and gave us a standing O. We went on to win the game big, but my topple made everything else anticlimactic. “It's a miracle,” my mother said to me again as we stood watching the ambulance drive off, a new white bandage wrapped around my knee. I'd already thanked Eliza Drake, who was now somewhat of a hero and suddenly popular, and apologized to Lindsay, who was forced to wear nose splints for two months and subsequently kiss her teen modeling career good-?bye. My temporary pyramid insanity, clearly, had serious and far-?flung ramifications. “Can you imagine how bad it could have been? What if you'd been seriously injured?”
“I know,” I said. “You're just so lucky,” she said again, squeezing my arm. “And next game, you'll be right back out there.” But something had changed in me, even if I didn't know what it was just yet. All I could think was that I felt alive for the first time since my birthday. From wherever she was, Cass had finally spoken to me, reaching out from dreamland to where I stood in this waking world, half-?asleep and wobbly, under those bright, bright stars.
My mother had wanted me to come right home, sure I had a concussion or at least some broken limb the paramedics had missed, but my father let me go to the team party over her objections. On the way, me, Rina, and another cheerleader named Kelly Brandt stopped at the car wash to vacuum out Kelly's Camaro. The car was trashed; the night before her boyfriend, a tailback named Chad, had gotten sick in the backseat. She'd done the best she could with towels and Lysol spray, but at the car wash we had to get down to business. “This is so disgusting,” Kelly said between clenched teeth, wiping the seat with the towel. As she did so she sprayed a cloud of Lysol around her head, to balance out the smell. Kelly was a nice girl, kind of a mother hen, and had taken me and Rina on to show us the ropes since she had a year over us and therefore some kind of squad seniority. She looked out at me and Rina where we were sitting by the vacuum station, smoking cigarettes. I didn't usually, but after the game everyone had been pressing around me, talking about my fall, and I needed something to calm me down. I still felt strange, as if everything was crackling and alive all around me. Kelly said, “I can't believe you're not even helping me.”