Ali and Heather walked home from cheerleading practice with an aura of sulkiness about them. The trees were just beginning to set fire above the suburban road, but the two fourteen year old girls were so chocked full of self-doubt that they couldn’t see the autumn delight. The yellow and orange leaves mingling with the green in the pleasant afternoon went unnoticed because lately, things had not been going Ali’s way.
When school first started in the fall it didn’t seem to matter that she was the new kid. Despite her original fears, freshman year had started alright. Ali had been chosen for the JV cheerleading squad, she had made some nice friends, and a boy even shared his sandwich with her at lunch. In girl world, things could not have been better. Then one day, out of the periwinkle sky, a shadowy cloud rolled in and settled itself just above Ali’s pretty, red-head.
First, her cheerleading coach decided Ali would be a sign holder in the half-time routine.
“Sign holding is an important job,” the lady explained, but Ali knew this translated as, “You’re new, so just hold this sign and be glad you’re here at all.”
Next, Ali found the boy sharing his tuna sandwich with another girl.
“Your mom makes terrible tuna, anyway,” Ali snapped upon finding him with the girl mid-bite. It was true, Ali was glad not to have to eat that tuna ever again. Still, it was their thing, and it stung.
Then, in art class Ali received a detention for chewing gum. It was her first detention, ever. When her threats, lack of evidence plea, and crocodile tears failed to get her out of it she looked up and could almost see the black cloud looming above her freckled nose. “Life isn’t fair,” she heard her dad’s voice in her head. This followed by her mother’s, “Don’t worry, everything will work out for the best.”
Ali walked from detention to cheerleading practice wondering how this was all going to work out for the best. She tried to shake it, but the dark cloud simply would not budge.
I have always done what I was supposed to, and well. Ok, she admitted, I wasn’t supposed to be chewing gum. Ali felt disheartened. That too pink piece of bubble gum had been the icing on a very stale cake.
When she rounded the racquetball courts towards the field she heard her squad laughing and looked up to see all their pony-tailed heads pointing in her direction. She looked behind her but there was no one; she looked down but everything seemed fine.
What’s so funny, she wondered.
When Ali was close enough to ask no one met her eyes and she wondered if it was about her detention, or if someone had found out she wet the bed until she was nine.
“What’s going on?” Ali asked Heather quietly. All the other girl’s eyes lingered on the response.
“Nothing,” Heather said with sorrowful eyes.
Ali was a willful girl. Outwardly, she shrugged and let it roll of her back. Too proud to let these silly girls affect her Ali spent the rest of practice acting as if nothing had happened. She laughed with them and was upbeat, and when the coach let them out early she walked straight off the field in the direction of her house. Inwardly, she stewed.
“Hey, Ali! Wait up!” Heather called.
Ali slowed but didn’t turn around.
“Want to hang out?” Heather asked shyly, after jogging to catch up.
“Sure,” Ali said, “If you tell me what that was about at practice.”
Heather sighed and apologized for her cowardly behavior.
“So?” Ali asked becoming impatient.
“Well,” Heather started.
“Well, what? Spit it out.”
“Jessica’s mom told everyone your mom was in a cult,” Heather said and then bit hard on her lip. “Jessica told us today at practice before you got there.”
“My mom isn’t in a cult,” Ali said calmly. Heather stared at her. “She meditates. Both my parents do. They learned it from an Indian guy they call a Guru, which just means teacher. They practice inner peace. Finding the light within, or whatever.”
“Oh,” Heather said looking at the side walk.
“My parents don’t go to church, and they don’t go to temple, but they aren’t cult members.”
“Yeah,” Ali said staring straight ahead.
They rounded the corner to her house in silence. Ali was furious. She had expected this, at some point. It was like a time bomb that she knew would go off one day, but she had no idea it would be this day, and that the people who were hit by the shrapnel would be her whole cheerleading squad. She wished they had found out that she wet the bed.
“Mom, I’m home.” Ali called as she opened her front door. “Heather’s here.”
The girls stepped inside the house. Ali walked straight through the family room to the kitchen and Heather followed along. It was a welcoming place, comfortable, very open. Heather lingered in the family room looking at the artwork and photographs. There were pictures of Ali’s brother in his football uniform, the family on a boat, Ali under water as a toddler with the exact same big eyes and big smile, and one of the family at the top of a ski slope.
“Mom,” Ali called. She was no where to be found. Ali looked outside briefly and then turned and checked the garage. “Mom?”
Heather followed Ali into her parent’s bedroom. It was empty. Ali walked around the bed towards the closet, moving more quickly now, with a worried edge to her.
“Mom?” she asked as she opened the closet door.
On the floor, in the dark, with a thin flowered blanket over her head Ali’s mom sat Indian style. Flinging the blanket back Ali’s mother revealed a calm, sympathetic face. Ali stood motionless, horrified.
“Hi, honey. You girls aren’t supposed to be home yet.”
“Practice let out early,” Ali said dryly and turned to Heather, “My mother is not in a cult.”