A Winner Is You

by Adam Cadre, 2002

        0:00.0 on the clock. Down by one. Two free throws to decide the title.
        One bounce. Two bounces. Three. A quick spin on the fingertips and, almost casually, the shot is away. Swish. Tie game.
        The ref holds the ball while the cheers and groans die down. Then, the second shot. Almost the same as the first. Bounce, bounce, bounce; spin; this time a pause for just the slightest moment; and then the ball is in the air. Net. Game over. Julie Young has just carried her team to the championship of the Yorba Linda Junior Basketball League, Spring Session, Girls 11-13 Division.
        And her teammates shriek and hug and jump into the air, and the girls in the purple jerseys sniffle and bury their faces in their hands, and Julie sighs and rolls her eyes and walks up into the stands. Dad is there, and Mark, and September, and August (leering at the celebrating girls, one or two of whom are almost pubescent). “Bailing already?” September asks.
        “Game’s over,” Julie says.
        “But your team won the championship!” September points out.
        Julie shrugs. “Enh,” she says. “C’mon, let’s go. I’m starving.”

        “Karma,” Julie says. “K-A-R-M-A. Karma.”
        “That’s correct,” booms the judge’s voice over the fuzzy speakers. Julie sits down. A tall, gangly boy, the only one on the stage that Julie at five-foot-six-and-a-half doesn’t tower over, steps up to the microphone and receives his word.
        “Medieval,” the boy says. “M-I-D-E-V-I-L. Medieval.” The judge shakes his head and the boy jumps backward like he’s been shot.
        Eventually there are only two kids left on stage, Julie Young of Yorba Linda and Gurudeva Swaminathan of Irvine. Julie gets her word. “Imperturbable,” she says. “I-M-P-E-R-T-U-R-B-A-B-L-E. Imperturbable.”
        “I can’t even say that,” August laments. “Forget about spelling it.”
        Now it’s the other kid’s turn. “Sacrilegious,” he says, grinning — this one’s in the bag. “S-A-C-R-E-L-I-G-I-O-U-S. Sacrilegious.”
        He turns to sit down, but the judge stops him. “Sorry, that’s incorrect,” the judge announces. And even six feet away from the microphone, the Irvine representative’s howl of “Nooooo!” resonates throughout the auditorium.
        Julie still has to spell one right to win. “Kiosk,” she says. “K-I-O-S-K. Kiosk.”
        “Yes! Ha!” cries someone at the far corner of the hall; the Youngs look around to see who it is, but from where they’re sitting it could have been anyone in the hall. Whoever it was, he was right: Julie Young is the Orange County middle school spelling bee champion. She throws the trophy in the back of the station wagon for the drive home from Santa Ana and then takes it up to her room and tosses it in her closet. It has plenty of company.

        Julie gets home from school, sends her backpack skidding across the foyer like her next goal is the curling championship, grabs the comics page out of the heap of newspaper on the coffee table and flops onto the loveseat to read it. August and September are sitting on the sofa watching TV but Julie doesn’t seem to notice. “And hello to you too,” September says.
        “C’mon,” Julie says from behind her newspaper. “I see you every day. At this point you can pretty much consider yourself permanently greeted.”
        “So what’s up?” September asks.
        “Enh,” Julie says. (It’s her favorite word.) “Not much. We had a sub in math. When he read the problems he kept changing the names so they went like ‘Jeremiah has x apples and gives five of his apples to Ezekiel’ and stuff. I think he was a plant.” She turns the page. “Oh yeah, and I got asked out today.”
        August does a monster spit-take, spraying grape juice over half the living room. He does this partly out of surprise and partly because he’s been practicing doing spit-takes in the bathroom mirror for the past month just in case he ever had the opportunity to let one fly. “You what?” he splutters.
        “That was pretty smooth,” Julie says.
        “So are you going?” September asks.
        “Dunno,” Julie says. “Depends on what Mom and Dad say.”
        “Mom and Dad are going to flip,” August predicts.

        Mom and Dad flip.
        “Oh, no,” Mom says. “Not again. We went through this with April not four months ago and look what happened there!” (April, listening at the door, makes the sort of face that would get her grounded if the door weren’t opaque.) “You’re not even thirteen years old yet!”
        “I’m also not April,” Julie points out.
        “Still,” Dad says. “I think it’d be a good house rule that you girls don’t date until you’re at least fourteen.”
        “Sixteen,” Mom counters.
        “Fifteen,” Dad says.
        “Sold!” Julie cheers.
        “This isn’t a joking matter,” Mom pouts. “Personally, I think even sixteen is too liberal. May didn’t date at all in high school — let alone in the seventh grade! — and she found a husband just fine once she was of the proper age.”
        “Except I’m not May either,” Julie points out. “Maybe when you look at me you see Daughter Version 4.0, but when I look in the mirror I don’t see anyone but me.”
        “That’s not how we—”
        “And besides,” Julie continues, “this isn’t a date date. We’d just be going out for dinner. You let me go to Archer Van Daan’s birthday dinner, right? Same thing.”
        “It’s not the same thing,” Dad says. “Archer isn’t a boy.”
        “So?” Julie says. “I could be a lesbian. Maybe I’m actually a lot safer with—”
        “That’s enough,” Dad says, drawing a line in the air with his hand. “The answer is no.”
        “Okay,” Julie says.
        Mom and Dad look at each other. “Okay?” Dad asks.
        “Well, yeah,” Julie says. “I mean, you’re the parents, I’m the kid. I don’t agree with your decision now but maybe when I’m thirty or whenever I’ll look back and say, wow, that would’ve been a big mistake, or whatever. Besides, what am I supposed to do, throw a fit? Yeah, that’s going to make a great case for being mature.”
        A long pause. “Well, um, good,” Dad finally says. “That’s... good. You always have been the mature one...”
        “Nah,” Julie says. “Can I go now?”
        “Uh, sure,” Dad says.

        It’s all of two hours later that Mom and Dad show up at Julie’s door to summon her back to their room and announce that they’ve changed their minds. “Okay, we’ve reconsidered,” Dad says. “You can go, on these conditions. One, we want to meet the boy. And not just a ‘hey, what’s up’ as you’re headed out the door, but enough of a conversation for us to get a sense of who he is.”
        “And you have to be back by nine o’clock sharp!” Mom interrupts.
        “Right, that’s rule number two,” Dad says. “But there’s more to it than just rules. Dating is a big step and there are things we haven’t talked about yet because we didn’t think you’d be—”
        “I already know all about Tab A and Slot B,” Julie says. Mom turns the color of her lipstick but Dad forges onward.
        “Well, yes, there’s that,” he says. “But that’s not really what I meant. There’s a whole list of new—”
        “—situations that I’ll be in and decisions I’ll have to make, right?” Julie says. “And I should know ahead of time what I’ll do if they come up? Is that the basic idea?”
        “More or less,” Dad says. “I—”
        “I don’t mean to cut you off, honest,” Julie said. “But we don’t have to spend all night making sure I’ve thought this through. First off, it’s just dinner. And second, you know, you don’t have to gasp in horror every time someone says ‘ass’ to have principles. You don’t have to dress up like you’re applying for a chapter in The Big Book of Martyrs, either. You just have to know who you are and what you stand for.”
        Mom and Dad look at each other like Julie has just said, “There, sewn into the lining of your jacket — is this your card?” and pulled out the queen of diamonds, complete with their initials. She’s done her research.
        “Well,” Dad finally says. “You realize that I’m now up to child number five and I still haven’t had a chance to deliver my dating speech.”
        “Sorry,” Julie says. “I promise that when I get married I’ll let you give whatever speech you have stashed away.”
        “And when do you expect that will be?” Mom asks.
        “Not for another couple of months at least,” Julie says.

        Julie tosses the thick stick of chalk into the grass and looks appraisingly at the arc she’s just drawn on the driveway. “Okay, that’s the three-point line,” she says. She wipes her fingers off on the bottom hem of her Yorba Linda JBL jersey and takes her position under the basket nailed over the garage. “Bring it on,” she says.
        Mark stands at the bottom of the driveway and considers his approach. Normally he’d just charge the basket, but this isn’t the usual playing around after school; his league starts up this weekend, his first year in the Boys 10-12 league, and yesterday Julie had asked him, “So, what are you going to do if one of the 12-year-olds actually tries to play defense?”
        “No problem,” Mark had said. “No one can defend me.”
        “Is that so?” Julie had said.
        So now he has to back up his words. He decides on a strategy, tugs at the neck of his John Stockton replica jersey, and charges the basket.
        Four seconds later he’s lying in a heap at the top of the driveway and the ball is bouncing out into the street. “That’s a foul!” he cries. “The ambulance is gonna be here any minute!”
        “Maybe it’d be a foul if we were playing at the Great Wuss-tern Forum,” Julie says. “Anywhere else it’s a blocked shot. Now go get the ball before it rolls into the sewer.”
        Half an hour later they’re both dripping with sweat and covered in scrapes and bruises. Mark still hasn’t scored. “C’mon, don’t just stand around taking threes,” Julie says. Mark grits his teeth and tries to get an angle on her, but Julie takes a step back and holds her position and the two of them go skidding across the cement. “Nice,” she says. “It was a charge, of course, but a nice charge. You see what I did there? You pick a spot you’ll get to before the attacker so you can hold the position for just a split-second and draw the—”
        “Hey, uh, Julie?” September calls from the front door. “Isn’t your date supposed to be here soon?”
        “Hunh,” Julie says, hopping to her feet and brushing herself off. “I guess so.”
        “You have a date?” Mark says.
        “Something like that,” Julie says. “Anyway, yeah, tomorrow we’ll switch and see if you can draw charges. ’Course, you’ll need to shoot better—”
        “I can shoot fine!” Mark protests. “It’s just that on a real court you don’t have to shoot uphill every time you try to take a three—”
        Julie picks up the ball, steps back behind the arc, and takes a shot. Swish. “3-0,” she says. “Good game.”
        “I should’ve bought the Malone jersey instead,” Mark mutters.

        August lunges for the bathroom and gets a faceful of door. “Aw, man!” he yells. “Who’s in there?”
        “Me,” Julie says.
        “Well hurry up!” August barks.
        “Okay,” Julie says. She turns on the water.
        “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” August wails. “Who takes a shower at five in the afternoon?”
        “IT’S HER DATE!” April yells from downstairs.
        Normally this sort of floor-to-floor shouting goes unheeded but this time there is a thud-thud-thud of someone bounding (or falling) down the staircase and a moment later August sticks his head into the TV room. “Really? Is that tonight?” he asks.
        “Yeah,” April says.
        “Just great!” August says. “I thought it was tomorrow!” He runs upstairs to his room.
        Julie emerges from the bathroom and crosses the hall into her bedroom to change. She puts on her most feminine article of clothing, the yellow dress she wears to church — but anyone expecting this to transform her from a tomboy into a supermodel is bound for a disappointment, for she’s still Julie, all arms and legs and no discernable curves. She’s just Julie in a dress. She blowdries and brushes her long lemonade-colored hair and then scowls into her sock drawer. “I’m out of socks,” she says. She looks up at December, glowering down at her balefully from the top bunk. “Can I borrow some of your socks?”
        “No you can not,” December hisses.
        Julie looks at her watch. “Why not?” she asks.
        “Because,” December says, venom dripping from her voice, “I have no use for boys.”
        “Huh?” Julie says. “What does that have to do with anyth—”
        “Oh, just take them,” December says, suddenly sitting upright — a dangerous move given how close she is to the ceiling. “Go ahead and take them. And you can keep them because I’d rather burn them than take them back after you’ve worn them on your date.”
        Julie rolls her eyes. “Look, if you’ve got a problem can we talk about it later? I don’t really have time right now.” She nabs a pair of socks, puts them on, pulls on her shoes and heads out into the hall.
        “HALT!” cries August.
        Julie halts. August is standing before her in a mask and cape (actually a fuzzy blanket) and helmet (which had been a salad bowl at some point), brandishing a yardstick. Behind him are most of their siblings: April right behind him, and then further down the hall, September and the little kids — Jan and Toby and the rest. “On your knees, varlet,” August commands.
        “Um, no,” Julie says. “Move.”
        “I think not!” August declares. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wadded-up piece of paper. “Or don’t you remember my birthday present from three years ago?”
        Julie looks at the paper. It says “Present this COUPON and Julie will go along with ONE (1) stupid thing August does wearing the salad bowl.” She sighs and kneels down on the carpet. “Fine,” she says. “But can you please make it quick this t—”
        “Quiet,” August says. He taps her on both shoulders with the yardstick. “Julius Wilhelmina Young, you must needs prove your fitness and answer me these questions three! Are you ready?”
        “‘Wilhelmina’?” Julie says.
        “I’ll take that as a yes,” August says. He clears his throat. “Question One. Are you, or are you not, in fact, ready for your Mystery Date?”
        “Sure,” she says.
        “Question Two!” August replies. “Will he be a dream? (Mmmmm!) Or a dud? (Mmmmm.)”
        “I have no idea,” Julie says. “I guess I’ll find out, huh?”
        “Fair enough,” August says. “Final question.” He scratches his chin. “Okay, there is no final question.”
        “Can I get up now?” Julie asks.
        “Not quite,” August says. He taps her on the shoulders again with the yardstick. “I dub thee Sir Galahad,” he says.
        “I thought September was Sir Galahad,” April interrupts.
        “Oh, fine,” August says. “Then I dub thee Sir Lancelot. And if this guy turns out to be a jerk, as a knight of the realm you are honor-bound to let me know and I’ll break all his fingers. Kay?”
        “I can break his fingers myself,” Julie says. “And where did you get ‘Wilhelmina’ from?”
        “I will brook no questions,” August says. “Arise and walk, my child.” Julie gets up. “I’m going to go use the bathroom now,” August announces.
        “Thanks for the bulletin,” Julie says. The doorbell rings. “That must be Alex,” she says.
        “Wow,” September says, hopping with giddiness. “Your first date. Aren’t you nervous?”
        “What’s to be nervous about?” Julie asks. “We’re just going out to dinner. I already know how to eat.” And with that she heads downstairs, taking them one at a time for once instead of her usual five.

        Dad opens the door expecting to find some burly linebacker or perhaps a skate punk in ripped jeans and a stained t-shirt waiting to take away his not quite teenaged daughter. Instead he finds a weird-looking kid in an impeccable gray suit. “Hi,” the kid says. “You must be Mr. Young. Alex Savaric. I’m here to take Julie to dinner.” He hands Dad a business card.
        “Right,” Dad says. He really is a weird-looking kid. His face is... smooth, sort of, with tiny eyes, a tiny nose and a tiny mouth, and his steel-wool hair seems like it’s already beginning to recede. “Come in. So, do you wear a suit on all your dates?”
        Alex steps over the threshold and surveys his surroundings. “I’ve never been on a date before,” he says. “This isn’t really a date date anyway. I just wanted to talk with Julie about some things.”
        “That’s what Julie keeps telling me,” Dad says.
        “In any case, the suit’s because I was at a city council meeting and didn’t have time to ch— Hey!” He spots Julie coming down the stairs. “You look nice.”
        “Um, thanks,” Julie says. And suddenly she is nervous, mastery of eating notwithstanding. Even finding a place to sit in the living room becomes a weighty decision: throw in her lot with this guy she barely knows? side with her parents and risk making her date feel like he’s being interrogated? In the end her parents sit on the sofa, Alex on the loveseat, and Julie takes up a position across from all of them alone in a high-backed chair.
        “So you were at a city council meeting, you say?” Dad says. “Why was that?”
        “I wanted to see how different it was from an ASB meeting,” Alex says. “I’m very interested in government.”
        “ASB?” Dad asks.
        “Associated Student Body,” Alex explains.
        “Alex is eighth grade class president,” Julie chimes in, her voice sounding to her ears like someone else’s. She brings a knee up to her chest to sit the way she normally does, then realizes this is somewhat unladylike and puts it back down.
        “Yes, it said so on his card,” Dad says. “Any interest in going into politics later on?”
        “Absolutely,” Alex says. “I’m going to be President of the United States.”
        “Are you now?” Dad says. “That’s quite a bold claim. I’m sure there are thousands of other kids your age thinking the same thing.”
        “Maybe,” Alex says. “But most of them don’t have a plan. I have a plan. First off, I’ll need some background in the military, because it’ll help in working with the Pentagon and also because that’s a big plus for a lot of voters. So after high school I’ll go into either the US Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy. Then when I return to the civilian sector I’ll start with a municipal position, just to get my feet wet — that’s why I’ve been going to the city council meetings, to see what sort of stuff I’ll be doing — and then spend maybe four years or so in the state legislature, whichever state I’m in, and then run for a House seat. And then — well, I used to think that the Senate was the next step, but more and more it’s looking like voters prefer governors, so—”
        “And what are your politics?” Mom interrupts.
        “Excuse me?” Alex says.
        “Well, are you a Republican or a Democrat or—”
        “Oh, got it,” Alex says. “Right now I’m an independent. I figure that by the time it becomes important for me to tell the public what policies I want to implement, the issues and how the parties feel about them will probably all be different, so it doesn’t make much sense to decide till then.”
        Dad snorts. “Sounds like you’ve got the makings of a pretty successful politician all right,” he says.
        “I didn’t get your name when you came in,” Mom says.
        “Oh, sorry,” Alex says. “Alex Savaric. Pleased to meet you.”
        “Savaric,” Mom repeats. “What kind of name is that?”
        “What kind?” Alex says. “I’m not sure I under—”
        “What nationality,” Mom says. “I don’t see why this is such a—”
        “Hey,” August calls from the kitchen, “y’know, if you hadn’t started down this road last time you might have been able to give September the dating speech by now.”
        Mom turns crimson again and Dad sighs. “Well, I see we’re going to have to have a talk with Julie’s brother about eavesdropping, so I guess we’ll let you two get going. Do you have a phone number for the place you’re going?”
        “Oh, you can call my cell,” Alex says. “Number’s on the card.”
        “Ah, so it is,” Dad says. “Very good. And how are you getting around...?”
        “I have a ride,” Alex says.

        Idling on the driveway is a black Mercedes. At the wheel is April, though she’s not the driver. She’s sitting on the driver’s lap. And the moment she sees the front door open she scrambles out and ducks back behind the house. “Is that your sister?” Alex asks. “April? I remember her from last year. When we pulled up she was smoking over by that side door there...”
        “That’s April,” Julie says.
        Alex opens one of the rear doors for Julie and then follows her in. At the wheel is a guy Julie recognizes from last year’s Ilium High School yearbook — he’s Greg Garner, who was student body president when September was a freshman. He looks rather pleased with himself. “Restaurant, please,” Alex says.
        “So you guys are friends?” Julie asks.
        Greg snorts. “Not exactly,” Alex says. “We have an arrangement. So how are you?”
        “Uh, I’m okay,” Julie says. “So, what was it that you wanted to talk about...?”
        “Oh, don’t worry about that now,” Alex says, cocking his head in Greg’s direction. “We can talk about that stuff later. Any particular music you like? There’s an uplink in this thing, we could pull in anything you want...”
        “I haven’t really gotten into music yet,” Julie says.
        “Fair enough,” Alex says. “Oh, before I forget— here. Don’t open it yet.” He hands her an envelope. “I’ll tell you when.”
        Julie takes it, but none too happily. That whole thing about looking back on this when she’s thirty and realizing this wasn’t a good idea seems to be about eighteen years off. Chauffeurs and secret envelopes — who is this guy? She didn’t know anything about him except that he was president of the eighth grade. What could he have to say to her that he couldn’t just tell her at lunch? Maybe she should tell him to turn the car around and take her home. This is weird.
        But... she hasn’t really given this a try yet. So she decides to stick it out, at least for now. The rest of the ride passes in silence.

        “Well, that was awkward enough,” Alex says, closing the door behind Julie as she gets out of the car. “Sorry about that. Greg can make people kind of uncomfortable.”
        “Right,” Julie says. “Greg.”
        “Anyway, here we are,” Alex says, holding open the door and following Julie in. “We have a reservation,” he announces. “Savaric.”
        The host escorts the two of them past the marble waterfall to a table off in the corner. “What do you think?” Alex asks.
        “It looks like we’re the only ones here without gray hair,” Julie says quietly.
        “Yeah, well, most people our age think TGI Friday’s is fine dining,” Alex says. “On TV the other day they had a thing about how there are classes for people in business school to teach them how to conduct themselves at fancy restaurants because that’s where a lot of deals happen and a lot of them have never been anywhere more upscale than an Olive Garden.”
        “We go to the Olive Garden for September’s birthday every year,” Julie murmurs.
        The waiter arrives with their menus. “Can I get you something to start out with?” he says. “Cokes?”
        Alex smiles at the condescension in the waiter’s voice. “Actually, make it two Torani lime sodas,” he says. The waiter departs with a muttered “very good” and Alex looks back at Julie. “Don’t worry, they’re not caffeinated,” he says. “I know about the whole Word of Wisdom thing.”
        “Uh-huh,” Julie says. “But don’t order for me, it’s sexist.” She opens her menu. “I don’t recognize a thing in here,” she says. “What’s ‘notchy’? Or ‘riss-ah-toh’?”
        “NYOH-ki and ree-ZOH-toh,” Alex says. “Risotto’s a creamy rice dish with different stuff mixed in, and gnocchi’s a sort of potato pasta—”
        “That one comes with ‘pesto,’” Julie says. “Is that good?”
        “Depends on if you like basil,” Alex says. “Do you?”
        “I have no idea,” Julie says. “That’s a spice, right? My mom doesn’t really use spices.”
        “It’s an herb,” Alex says. “What sort of things does she make?”
        “Jell-O salad,” Julie says. “And those casserole things with the mushroom soup. In the summer my dad makes hamburgers out on the grill sometimes. But I’m pretty sure none of that stuff has basil.”
        The waiter arrives with their sodas. Julie takes a sip and tries to steer the conversation back to the reason she’s here at all. “So did you actually have something you wanted to talk to me about or was this all—” She stops and takes another sip and then stares at the glass. “Okay, never mind. You can order for me.”

        Their plates are almost empty when Alex finally pops the question. “So — would you be interested in running for president of your class?”
        “Me?” Julie says. “I’ve never done anything like that before.”
        “You’d never had gnocchi al pesto before and that worked out pretty well,” Alex says. “Anyway, I just think you’re the best for the job. I mean, obviously in middle school the class president doesn’t actually do anything. It’s just a thing to say who’s the top kid in the class. And right now the only one running is Rick Dannon and he’s just some stoner who’s going to drop out before 11th grade. But you’ve got the best GPA in your class, you play a bunch of sports, when I asked around people seemed to like you okay... and you’re a winner.”
        “I am?” Julie says.
        “Come on,” Alex says. “From what I’ve been able to find out you’ve won at everything you’ve ever tried. I heard about the basketball playoffs from one of my sister’s friends... I was actually at the spelling bee... there was a PA announcement a few months ago about you winning the chess club tournament... heck, the first time I remember seeing your name was when I was at the Brea Mall and they had the winners of some art contest up and you’d won the middle school watercolor division. A seagull, right?”
        “Hey, yeah,” Julie says, a smile touching her lips. “I named him Fred. But that took a lot of practice. Same thing with the chess — I lost a lot of games before I got any good. I wouldn’t automatically win an election just ’cause I won some other stuff.”
        “Don’t be so sure,” Alex says. “I actually do think that winning is a skill — the mental part of most contests is the same, whether it’s hopscotch or a hot-dog-eating contest or running for president. But that’s not really the point. The point is, you have to have the aura of a winner. Like, last year this debate team guy ran against Greg Garner for ASB president. He was a lot smarter and had better ideas and made a better speech at the election assembly and all, but people looked at him and thought ‘loser’ and he didn’t have a chance. But people would look at you and remember all the different things you’ve won already and think ‘okay, well, obviously she’s going to win this too’ and then Dannon would be the one who didn’t have a chance. You’d win because a winner is who you are.”
        “Nah,” Julie says. “I know who I am. That’s not it.”
        “It’s funny you put it that way, though,” she continues. “If you know enough about me to know about the Word of Wisdom you should also know that we make a pretty big deal about knowing Who You Are and What You Stand For. For a long while I thought I was ‘the mature one,’ as in ‘May’s the prissy one, August’s the spastic one, September’s the earnest one, April’s the rebellious one, Julie’s the mature one’... except when you think about it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense as someone to be. Like, if your whole identity is ‘I’m less childish than most kids my age,’ then who are you when you’re fifty?”
        “Yeah, but you can still be a winner when you’re fifty,” Alex points out.
        “I guess, but be realistic,” Julie says. “Eventually you get to the point where you lose. Like, right now I always win at basketball because pretty much no one else in the league can shoot or has any moves or anything. But if I decide to play in high school then I’ll be playing against girls from other cities who were the best in their leagues. And even if it turns out that I’m one of the best in the county and get a scholarship somewhere, then I’ll be playing against girls who were the best in their state. So if my whole self-image is ‘I always win,’ who will I be when I’m losing two-thirds of my games? Same thing with the grades. Right now it looks like in high school I’ll win valedictorian and all those plaques they hand out at the end of senior year. Then I get to college. Should I go in thinking I’ll win valedictorian there? Not when everyone in all my classes will have all the same plaques—”
        “All right, all right, but we’re getting off track,” Alex says. “Maybe you’re just a big fish in a small pond or whatever. But right now you’re still in the small pond. So are you interested? The races are set on Monday so I need your decision ASAP.” (He pronounces it “ay-sap.”)
        “I’ll think about it,” Julie says.

        “JULIE FOR PRESIDENT” reads the butcher-paper banner that Julie hangs in the atrium of her middle school. The walls are already covered in flyers saying “SEX! Now that I got ur atention vote for Rick!!!” but these are taken down by the vice-principal before the end of first period.
        At lunch Alex finds Julie sitting at the top of a grassy hill scribbling in a spiral notebook. He’s dressed relatively casually, in khakis and a crisp polo shirt. “Hey, a bunch of us are headed out for some lunch,” he says. “Want to come?”
        “I can’t,” Julie says. “I have to work on my campaign speech. Election assembly’s on Wednesday.”
        “Hmmm?” Alex says. “Oh, don’t worry about that. You can ad lib something.”
        “And then lose to Rick Dannon,” Julie says.
        “Seriously, don’t worry,” Alex says. “I mean, think about it. It was my idea for you to run for eighth grade president. The votes for incoming eighth grade president are counted by the outgoing eighth grade president. That’s me. So...”
        Julie waits for him to finish, then realizes he’s done. “So what?” she says. “What difference does it make who counts them?”
        Alex blinks. “It makes a difference,” he says, “because I could, y’know, ‘lose’ a few Dannon votes here and there. As long as you’re a believable winner no one’s going to demand a recount or anything.”
        Julie stares at him for a moment. Then she closes her notebook and walks down the hill.
        “Hey!” Alex says, chasing after her. “Wait up. Are you mad?”
        “I’m not talking to you,” Julie says.
        “It was just a test,” Alex says. “I just wanted to see how strong your ethics were.”
        “Go away,” Julie says. She walks faster.
        “If you don’t believe me, open the envelope!” Alex yells after her.
        When Julie gets home she opens the envelope Alex had given her in the car. Inside is a piece of paper torn from a memo pad. Scrawled across it is a message: “YES IT REALLY WAS A TEST.”

        When dusk falls Julie is still out shooting baskets. From the lawn — swish. From behind the van — swish. From way past the end of the driveway, out on the cul-de-sac — one swish as the basket drops through the hoop and another as a car nearly runs her over. It is a familiar black Mercedes. The driver rolls down the passenger-side window. “April around?” asks Greg Garner.
        The ball bounces down the driveway and Julie grabs it before it hits the car. “Dunno,” Julie says. “I’ve been out here.”
        “Mmm,” he replies. “So, you running?”
        Julie brushes her hair out of her eyes. “He told you about—?”
        “Of course,” Greg says. “So, yes or no?”
        “I was,” Julie says, “but I’ll probably drop out tomorrow. I don’t think it’s my thing.”
        “Because it’s fixed?” Greg asks.
        “You know ab—?” Julie stops and shakes her head. “Alex said that part was just a test,” she says. “He wrote it down ahead of time.”
        Greg snorts. “Did he now?” he asks. “Must’ve changed his mind.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “This whole thing started when he was trying to figure out who might beat him out in high school,” Greg says. “Election-wise. Said you looked like the only one he might have trouble with if you ever decided to try student government. So he thought he’d try offering to rig the junior high election for you. You say yes, you owe him. Plus he has dirt on you. Or else you get disgusted by the whole idea of anything involving ASB and that’s one less rival he has to worry about.”
        “But... that’s crazy,” Julie points out.
        Greg shrugs. “That’s the game,” he says.
        “Nah,” Julie says. “That’s what you get when you suck at the real game.”
        “Whatever,” Greg says. “Can you go get April?”
        “Yeah, I’ll call her,” Julie says. She skips back into the house. “AY-PRUHL!” she yells. “THAT NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD GUY WHOSE LAP YOU WERE SITTING IN IS WAITING OUT FRONT FOR YOU!”
        Greg’s eyes light up when he sees the Youngs’ front door open. He’s not quite so pleased when it turns out to be not April Young but her dad who emerges. He drives away pretty quickly.

        “So, uh, yeah, I want to get every vote,” Rick Dannon concludes, “but I’d be pretty happy if I got 420...”
        About a third of the kids in the bleachers at the assembly either don’t get it or don’t think it’s funny, and don’t laugh. About a third of them get it and howl with laughter. And the other third don’t get it but don’t want to feel left out so they laugh too.
        “Yes, that’s fine,” says Principal Fossle, one of the oblivious ones. “And now, July Young.” There is a titter in the audience at what seems to be yet another one of the principal’s malapropisms, but he’s actually just reading her legal name off his printout.
        Julie walks up to the microphone. “Hi,” she says. “I decided to run for president because I thought it’d be interesting to see if I could write a speech that would convince people to vote for me. But it turns out that it’s all about schemes and favors. Even in middle school. Where the president doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t matter. So, whatever. I have no idea if how you vote has any effect on who actually wins. But just in case it does, I’ll tell you that if I become class president I’ll do whatever I can, which probably won’t be much, to make things fair and get rid of all the scheming. For all I know that’ll make fewer of you want to vote for me, but caring about winning is what makes you one of the scheming people. And I guess that’s it.”
        “Yes, that’s fine,” says Principal Fossle for the eighth time. “Voting will be tomorrow at lunch, everyone. Results Friday.”

        Julie is not one to leap to answer the door, not in a household of thirteen. But then September pokes her head into her bedroom. “Jules, it’s for you,” she says. “It’s your— boyfriend? You never did tell me how your date went...”
        “Um, it’s a long story,” Julie says. “I’ll tell you about it some other time.” She goes downstairs.
        Alex is waiting for her. “So I’m one of the scheming people?” he says.
        “Also one of the stalking people, looks like,” Julie says from the staircase.
        “So will you talk or should I just leave?” Alex asks.
        “Enh,” Julie says. “If you have something to talk about, talk.”
        “All right,” Alex says. “But let’s go outside.”
        Julie follows him out to the driveway. “You know,” Alex says, “I was never big on PE or even recess. But if I’m going to a military academy I have to be ready for the physical part too. So I’ve been lifting weights — and practicing my shot. I mean really practicing. Practicing so much I bet I could beat the legendary Julie Young at H-O-R-S-E.”
        “Yeah, maybe,” Julie says. “Is that it?”
        “Well, I thought we could play and talk about the whole situation here,” Alex says.
        “Enh, let’s just play,” Julie says. “You start.”
        Alex starts in the corner of the driveway. “Bank,” he says, and takes his shot. The ball hits smack in the middle of the square on the backboard and ricochets through the hoop. Julie picks up the ball and tries the same shot. Swish.
        “Nice shot,” Alex says. “But you didn’t bank it, so it looks like you already have an H.”
        “Hey, you know the rules,” Julie says, rolling her eyes. She takes the ball and dribbles it up to the top of the driveway, launching a shot parallel to the backboard that falls through the net. Alex’s attempt to duplicate the shot bounces off the far rim. One H apiece.
        They’re up to H-O-R-S apiece when Alex tries again. “So, seriously, I think you’ve got the wrong idea about me,” he says.
        “Do I,” Julie says, concentrating on her shot.
        “Yeah,” Alex says. “For one, it sounds like you don’t believe that the rigging thing was a test.”
        “No, I do believe it,” Julie says, sinking her shot and avoiding an E. “That’s where all that scheming stuff came from. I mean, you had envelopes set up ahead of time! Not only did you plan out the whole conversation, but you even made a fake plan to give to that driver guy... for all I know you made a plan for this conversation before coming here today! What do you do, rehearse?”
        “Well, sure,” Alex says. “Doesn’t everyone?”
        “I don’t,” Julie says.
        “I know,” Alex says. “I was just kidding. At least about everyone doing it. But look.” He misses a shot from the edge of the lawn. “All I want is to make a difference. Make the world a better place and stuff. And I’m never going to do it by curing cancer or writing the next Hamlet or anything. What I’m good at is, you know, deals. Working peop— working with people. And if you want to get anywhere in this country you have to be good at that stuff, behind-the-scenes stuff. The kind of people who won’t play the game never get anywhere. But...”
        He pauses to watch Julie make a lay-up. “But?” she says.
        “...but the thing is,” he says, making the same lay-up, “I was thinking, about my plan... and once I’m president, I’m going to need to know what to do. Like, what the right things are, not just what’ll get me to the next level, because there is no next level. So I’d need someone around who was good at everything but who was also, you know, ethical and all that—”
        “So the test wasn’t for class president?” Julie asks. “It was for, what, vice president? Forty years from now?”
        “Well, not exactly,” Alex says. “I mean, the vice president would have to be a politician too. I was just thinking, there’s one spot, really close to the president, where it wouldn’t have to be anyone elected, or confirmed, or anything... it could just be, you know, whatever you wanted to do...”
        Julie starts to take another shot, then stops and squints at him. “What are you— wait. Are you— you can’t be serious. This is a joke, right? I don’t even turn thirteen till next month!”
        “I’m not saying you have to make any promises now,” Alex says. “Just, you know, when you’re thinking about the future—”
        “—I should think about being First Lady?” Julie says. “This whole, this whole plan was to get me to marry you?”
        “No!” Alex says. “Just for you to keep it in mind as a possibility—”
        “You’re mental,” Julie says. “You don’t even know me!”
        “I’m working on that,” Alex says.
        “Not really,” Julie says. “I said I knew who I am and what I stand for and you didn’t even ask. Like it doesn’t count if you get the answer by just asking instead of some big plan.”
        “But— I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but that usually doesn’t help,” Alex says. “People usually aren’t who they think they are. There was a girl in my English class last year who wrote an essay about how people who have sex before marriage are going to hell. This year she wasn’t in my English class because she got pregnant at a party over the summer and is off living with her grandparents. And in sixth grade my friend’s house was robbed and his dad was going on and on about how thieves are the lowest of the low and stuff — and then last year he was fired for putting all these hours on his timesheet that he hadn’t actually worked. You learn a lot more about what people are really like by watching what they do than listening to what they say.”
        “But just because you see someone do something doesn’t mean you understand it,” Julie says. “You saw me win a couple of contests and decided that must be what I’m all about, the winning. But I don’t care about winning.”
        “Yeah, right,” Alex says. “So, what, it all happened by accident?”
        Julie brushes her hair out of her eyes. “No,” she says. “But it’s like a side effect. See— see—” She passes the ball to Alex. “Did you ever wonder why you’re here?”
        “Sure,” he says. “I’m here to be president.”
        “Then you’re not doing a very good job, since you’re not president,” Julie says.
        “I’m working on it,” Alex says.
        “And so are a lot of other people,” Julie says.
        “But I’m working on it harder,” Alex says. “And smarter. So I’ll win.”
        “That’s not how it works,” Julie says. “For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favor to the skilled, but time and chance happen to them all.”
        “What is that, Shakespeare?” Alex asks.
        “Ecclesiastes,” Julie says.
        “I don’t know who that is,” Alex says. “But I have seen Treasure Island a million times and I know that in this world you make your own ‘time and chance.’ Arrr, fortune rides the shoulders of them what schemes!” He spins around and sinks a shot from free-throw distance.
        “But that’s just not true,” Julie says. “All your schemes could work out perfectly and you could die of an a heart attack in the middle of your campaign. Or maybe you’re running against a general and two weeks before Election Day New York gets nuked. You can’t get too wrapped up in your goals because whether you reach them isn’t really under your control.”
        “Then why do anything?” Alex asks, tossing the ball back to Julie. “Sounds like you’re saying we should all just sit around all day. But you don’t.”
        “Right, that’s not what I’m saying,” Julie says. “But I don’t do stuff to accomplish any goal. I do stuff because doing stuff is why I was made.”
        “You lost me,” Alex says. “Is that part of your religion or something?”
        “It doesn’t have to be,” Julie says. “Like, my church teaches that before you’re born you’re a spirit in Pre-Existence, and then you get sent into a body... I mean, that’s why I have eleven brothers and sisters, because they say it’s your duty to bring as many of the spirits waiting to be born down to earth so that they can progress. Now, maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s all just molecules bouncing around. But it doesn’t matter. Whether I was put here by God or by the laws of the universe working themselves out, I’m here. And here, in life, is the only time and place you have to do stuff. Not before you’re born, not after you die, only here. So to not do stuff is just... wrong. And you can tell it’s wrong because when you’re not doing anything you get bored but when you’re really focused on something, you feel like... like you’re in tune with Creation.”
        “Even if you suck at it?” Alex asks.
        “Sure,” Julie says. “As long as you feel like you’re doing what you were meant to do. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you — results don’t matter. Like if I decide to play basketball, then I’m going to try to help my team score points and I’m going to try to stop the other team from scoring, because that’s what basketball is. And I’m going to do it as well as I can because that’s what I was made for. If it turns out that I’m better at doing it than the people on the other team then my team usually wins. But who cares? At first I didn’t even take the trophies but people were insulted.”
        “And how about if you win the election tomorrow?” Alex says. “Do you actually want to be class president or will you take it just so no one’s insulted?”
        “Well, part of the reason I ran was because the class president doesn’t actually do anything,” Julie says, walking over to the chalk free-throw line on the driveway. “So it wouldn’t matter if I won or lost. I just wanted to give it a try. Right now I’m trying a lot of different things... looking for my calling, I guess.”
        “Looks to me like your ‘calling’ is everything,” Alex says. “You’re gifted.”
        “Everyone is gifted,” Julie says. “Life is a gift.” She takes her shot, which rattles back and forth inside the hoop and then pops out. “Hunh,” she says.
        Alex watches the ball bounce onto the lawn and roll to a stop. “Wait a minute... that’s E!” he says. “YES! HA! I won!” He jumps around the driveway waving his fists in the air. “I can’t believe it! I actually— wait.” He puts his fists down. “That was on purpose, right? Because by losing the game you win the argument? Except, wait— you’d know I’d figure it out, so if you did that on purpose, then that means—”
        Julie sighs.

        At lunch the next day Julie lines up to cast her own votes. There are only two booths set up in the atrium so even with the usual meager turnout it’s a pretty long line. She feels a tap on her shoulder and is not remotely surprised when it turns out to be Alex Savaric.
        “Hey,” he says. “So just so you don’t think I’m a complete idiot, I now know that Ecclesiastes isn’t a guy. I looked it up after I got home. Well, actually I didn’t know how to spell ‘Ecclesiastes’ so I looked up ‘time and chance.’ And on the second page I found it — Ecclesiastes 9:11. From the Bible.”
        “Well, yeah,” Julie says, shrugging. “I didn’t want to embarrass—”
        “Hang on,” Alex says, taking his vibrating cell phone off his belt and flipping it open. “Hello?”
        Before he can say anything else, Julie hears a chorus of ringing and beeping and four other people in line pick up their phones. She looks back at Alex. His hands are shaking. “No way,” he whispers.
        “What?” Julie says.
        “ATTENTION!” announces the intercom overhead. “The election and afternoon classes have been canceled due to an emergency at the high school. Go straight to your fifth period class and you will be notified when your parents arrive.
        Alex flips his phone closed. “What’s going on?” Julie asks.
        “Shooting,” he says. “At the high school. Ilium. There— there’ve been some deaths...”
        The teacher running the election stands up. “Okay, we’re in lockdown,” she says. “Get to your classes. Don’t run! Walk. Walk to your classes...”
        Julie looks around as she walks to her English class, out of habit — but this is the one year she’s alone here. Last year, in sixth grade, she had three siblings attending the same elementary school; next year December will be here with her, and then the year after that she’ll be at the high school... August will have graduated by then, but April and September...
        She reaches her classroom and sinks into her seat. She would’ve been here anyway — lunch is almost over. There’s a phone next to the teacher’s desk, which rings. The teacher picks it up and puts it back down again a moment later. “Archer, your mother is here to pick you up,” she says. Archer Van Daan grabs her backpack and sprints for the exit. Julie looks at the clock — but the school just installed digital clocks in every classroom and this one is still blinking 12:00. She closes her eyes and prays.
        “Julie,” says the teacher.
        She looks up. Alex is standing next to the teacher’s desk. He leads her outside. “You know how I gave your dad my card with my cell number on it?” he says.
        “Yeah,” she says.
        He hands her his phone. “It’s for you.”