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So Not the Drama 63 hrs 10 minutes and 40 seconds to go...

here are approximately sixty-three hours, ten minutes and forty seconds left before we are officially Del Rio Bay High Freshman!" Mina Mooney shouted.

Mugginess saturated the air like a warm, wet, sloppy kiss gobbling up the stingy breeze floating by.

Children splashed off the shore, jet skis skimmed the water's top and the hazy curtain of smoke rings dancing off grills draped the beach, barely shifting in the Bay's scant breeze.

Mina dabbed sweat off her satiny brown face. In defiance of the heat, she scrunched deeper beneath the beach 'brella and tried the announcement on again for good measure. "Forty hours, eight minutes and three seconds!"

A few sun worshipers stirred. They glanced her way, mildly curious.

There wasn't a naked space for miles on the hot sand. But no one was interested in joining her strange celebration.

She grabbed a drink from the cooler. The hot beige sand prickled her knees and spilled into the body divots of her beach towel, stinging her butt as she pushed back into the shady retreat of the umbrella. Swiping dramatically at the piles of sand, she swept her towel clean until it was a sand-less island once again.

Mina—1, Sand—0.

The hollow victory inspired another Paul Revere whoop. "Did you hear me, Liz?!" "It's almost tiime!"

Roused by the constant wake-up call, Lizzie propped herself up on her elbows.

"Mina." She lifted her head reluctantly. "I hear you. Thanks to your declaration, every five minutes, evvveryone here has heard you! School starts in sixty-three hours, blah, blah, blah."

She plopped down in a huff. "Now, shut up."

Mina kicked sand at her, forgetting for a second about her battle with the pesky granules. "Look, girl, we're about to embark on the last and final leg of our academic careers together. Celebration is in order, like it or not!"

Lizzie popped her shades. Her green eyes, droopy with sleep, flashed with mild irritation. "First of all, stop using words like 'embark' without a teacher around." She frowned down at the sand stuck to her arm, wiping at it absently. "Second, only you could find joy in the first day of school, Miss JV Cheer Captain and All-Around Pop seeker."

School was the last thing Lizzie wanted to think about. She pushed her shades down and waited for the right moment to doze off on the conversation.

"You know what?" Mina asked in one of those bright-side-grass-is-always-greener tones. "Ya'll will be okay once it starts and we start hitting Friday night football, watching JZ get his game on and chowing down at the Ria afterwards."

Rio's Ria was a small pizza restaurant and the place to be if you were an under eighteen DRB 'burbanite, awake and not on the beach. Not that the pizza wasn't good, but Rio's Ria was the spot by sheer luck. It happened to be within walking distance of Cimarra Beach, Del Rio Bay's middle and high schools, and more than a dozen neighborhoods.

"We eat at the Ria every Thursday no matter what time of year it is," Lizzie said. "That's hardly a reason to get excited about going back to school. And who is ya'll?"

"Michael. I guess both of ya'll been drinking from the same bottle of hater-ade cause he's all bummed out about school starting too," Mina said, ramping up for a full-blown conversation.

She'd spent half the afternoon day-dreaming, waiting for someone to gab with. Now that Lizzie was awake, it was on. "Maybe class would be more interesting if you treated it like one of your productions."

Lizzie grabbed a spray bottle and pelted her belly and neck with lukewarm water. It still felt good on her steamy skin.

"Just act like a student," Mina reasoned.

"In case you can't tell, I'm rolling my eyes," Lizzie warned.

Mina tickled Lizzie's side with her toe. "Come on, you're excited about AP Lit. I know you are."

Lizzie giggled. "Only because we have it together."

"There ya go. I knew you could find something to get hyped about."

Having a class with Mina was one bright spot. But Lizzie refused to give Mina the satisfaction. School was not something to celebrate.

"I hate that we have Lit, last period. Who is awake enough for Austen and Faulkner during fourth period?" she grumbled.

"But I know you're excited about being able to audition for...dun-da-da-dahhhh, Bay Dra-da's production." Mina made her skeptical eyebrows daring Lizzie to say otherwise.

Lizzie didn't argue. The school's Drama and Dance Troupe was the one element of school she was down for.

Blonde hair spilled down her shoulders as she sat up. For the first time she looked alert. "Of course. And if I could do it without the whole class thing, all the better."

"Yeah, well it's a package deal. See, for me..."

"Yeah, yeah, the Uppers, the café, yada, yada, blasé, blah," Lizzie said, spritzing her arms.

"See, you brush it off like it's nothing. But I'm doing this for Us," Mina said.

Lizzie's eyebrow shot up.

Plotting to score a spot in the coveted café, the beautiful people's-only section of the cafeteria, had been Mina's obsession since summer started. It was all she talked about. Sitting in the café with the Uppers, the high school's social glitterati, was school to her. She didn't mind attending class to improve her social status. As she always said, if not there, where?

Lizzie didn't worry about being the It girl. Mina worried, planned and focused on stuff like that enough for both of them. If Mina didn't accomplish her goal—whatever the specific objective was—it would be something else she'd obsess over until she got it. So to avoid having to hear this every day until Christmas, Lizzie was rooting for her to earn whatever spot she thought she deserved among the potpourri of kids who ran the entire school from sports to debate team.

Uppers were the ruling class. They hailed from a variety of grades, backgrounds and neighborhoods and had one thing in common: somehow they had made it to the top of their species, athlete, rich kid, smart kid. It was the mother of all cliques—the clique that decided the cliques.

JZ once said the first semester of high school was like the NFL draft, where the cliques picked you and decided where you fit. Whether you cared, bought into it or not wasn't the point.

Mina was caught up in her favorite conversation. "Because you know once one of us has a solid in, it'll probably be all swazy for the rest of us." She parted her hair, putting it into two braids as she talked. Her fingers fought through the wavy roots, forcing it to behave. "I'm figuring I have an easy in because of cheerleading. But since the last two junior varsity squads were kind of sorry, I heard the cheerleaders fell off a bit. It's all about the Stomp Starz, now," Mina said, referring to the high school's hip hop step team.

She thought it over. "Maybe I should go out for step team."

"Ha! Yeah, right." Snorts honked from Lizzie's nose. "Are you serious?"

"Yeah. I could do step team in the winter and cheer only for football. Why are you tripping so hard?"

"Two words," Lizzie said, thrusting two fingers skyward. "Jessica. Johnson."

Mina groaned. She forgot all about Jessica, sophomore, newest step mistress of the Stomp Starz, and the only black, female rolling with the Uppers, specifically with the glam clique—the snotty, mostly rich kids.

Mostly, because Jessica wasn't. Mina still wondered how Jessica got in with the glams. She lived in The Great Melting Pot—or at least, that's what everybody called Woodberry Ridge, the neighborhood Jessica and Sarah lived, because a lot of the residents were immigrants.

One of DRB's oldest burbs and most diverse neighborhoods, The Great Melting Pot had the most inexpensive homes in the city and drew lots of workers who ran Del Rio Bay's restaurants and retail stores. Also, a handful of teachers lived there.

Yet, even coming from The Melting Pot, somehow Jessica had befriended Mari-Beth Linton, blonde hair, green-eyed head of the glams and all-around snot. Mari-Beth was the type of person who only made friends with people who could benefit her. All the more reason, Mina never understood how Jessica fit in. But the two were the best of friends. Mina had stayed as far away from Mari-Beth as was humanly possible in middle school. Jessica was bad enough and she, Mina couldn't avoid.

Mina had suffered through two years of recreational squad cheerleading with Jessica and Jess' fraternal twin sister, Sarah. The second year on the Raiders squad, when Jessica made captain, was the absolute worse season of Mina's life.

Everyone, except Sarah, called Jessica the Cheer Nazi behind her back because she wasn't just bossy, she was straight nasty. She took a special dislike to Mina and whenever the coach was out of earshot, all Mina heard was:

"God! Could your herkie be any lower? We're going to get points off if that's the best you can do."

"Mina lock your knees!"

Sarah and Jess were like night and day, right down to their personalities and even looks. Cool laid back Sarah was the cream, light cocoa-complexioned, thick curly hair to her ears, to Jessica's coffee bean skin, broad nose, thick lips and extremely straight weavealicious hair down past her shoulders.

It wasn't enough for Mina that she and Sarah got along. She couldn't stand the thought of being disliked and confronted Jessica during practice one day.

"Jess, did I do something wrong?" she asked, warding off the urge to run far away from Jessica's hostile vibes.

"You do everything wrong. Maybe cheerleading isn't your thing." Jessica pierced Mina with hazel eyes (contacts) that looked odd against her dark complexion.

"I meant, did I say or do something to make you hate on me so much?"

Jessica craned her neck checking on the whereabouts of the coach. "You're just the extra black token," she said through a phony, frozen grin. "Remember, everywhere you go, I'll have already been there, done that."

"Meaning?" Mina asked, not believing her ears.

"Meaning, there's not enough room for three of us on the squad. Take up soccer or something," Jessica said before gliding off, runway model style.

Mina was sick the rest of practice. As a matter-of-fact, being in the same room as Jess and her nasty cat-colored eyes made her nauseous.

Every practice after their little talk, Jessica made sure to point out some new cheerleading deficiency Mina had: high V's not high enough, low V's not low enough, and this one, whispered while the coach looked over her routine notes, Mina was sure Jessica had totally made up, "Your head bobble is throwing off the eight-count."

Mina never bothered trying to figure out how a small movement of her head, if she'd even made one, could throw off a whole segment of the routine. Instead, with Jessica's constant badgering ringing in her ears, "Mina, your motions suck. Tighten 'em up!", Mina turned to blogging after especially brutal practices.

Teen Pop Star, her blog all about life in the popularity bubble, became her favorite boredom killer and her lifeline when Lizzie, Michael or JZ weren't around for venting. That first year, Jessica, a proud, card carrying member of the I'm so hot and you, you're so not club, was the star of most of Mina's blog entries as The Bee.

To protect the innocent and the not so innocent, in Jessica's case, Mina kept the blog's URL private and made up names for everyone, including herself, the Pop Princess. She hadn't shared the blog with the clique until this summer.

Lizzie laughed out-loud at every entry and kept saying, "Mi, this would make a great book."

And just like that, Mina knew it would be one day, I Was A Teenage Pop Star, a secret behind-the-scenes look at life on the pop side, told by an insider. Who better to talk about the inner workings of the pop life than her?

And only Mina would know which parts of the book were real and which ones weren't. The blog/future novel was the only good thing that came out of two seasons with Hurricane Jess. Luckily, Jessica had lost interest in cheerleading as a freshman and picked up step squad.

Jessica would always be the one that "got" away; the only person to resist Mina's girl-next-door charm and now she was the ruling black chick of Del Rio Bay High. The thought of sucking up to her to get ahead made Mina woozy. Jessica's words echoed in Mina's brain, "Remember, everywhere you go, I'll have already been there, done that."

Yeah, no step squad for me, Mina thought.

"Still wanna do step team?" Lizzie asked, laughter glinting in her eyes.

"Not so much," Mina said. "But I'm not scared of Jess. Don't get it twisted."

"Yeah, but she's where you wanna be. You gotta at least play nice," Lizzie said.

"I'm more worried about impressing, Kim Vaughn, the varsity cheer captain," Mina said. She knew she couldn't totally discount Jessica. If Jessica wanted to make Mina's life hell again, it could be done. But there were other ways to navigate the waters of popularity.

Lizzie twisted her French braid into a fat bun at the back of her neck, then turned on to her stomach and said, "Okay, girl, change the channel." That was their code for you're getting on my nerves and I'm tired of talking about this. "I plan to hold onto my forty hours and whatever minutes with a death grip." Lizzie yawned, her words muffled as she turned her head. "Wake me on the first day of school!"

Alone again and too wired to nap, Mina plugged in her earpiece. Young Jeezy burst into her ear. She mouthed along, not bothering to censor his inappropriately irresistible lyrics and cracked open her Journal of Random Thoughts, the mobile version of Teen Pop. Stretched out on her stomach, pen in hand, she closed her eyes, pushing thoughts of Jessica far away, and let the words swimming in her head form coherent sentences that described the day's jaunt to the beach.

Even the clique wasn't safe from Mina's portrayal of their adventures. Michael's academy award-worthy performance, earlier, was shaping up quickly as a new chapter. The downside to being with her friends all the time had started to show that morning.

She squinted against the sun's glare until her eye found Michael, a dark drop of chocolate on a bright orange and yellow boogie board, skin and baldhead glistening. Mina half expected to see a rumbling thunder cloud over his head, the perfect symbol for his mood earlier.

She and Lizzie were all of ten minutes late and Michael had a fit. He chewed them out and vowed in a snit, this was the last time he would bother showing up on time to meet them somewhere.

Cue the symphony and everyone sing opera style, "Dra-maaa!"

But, also typical Michael. You knew what was on his mind, because he painted a picture for you. But even Mina hadn't been able to penetrate his moods on days like today when he was an equal opportunity bitcher.

Mina had never seen him so sensitive.

It's not like she got mad over things he said to her.

Well, she didn't stay mad...long.

Today, she hadn't bothered to press the issue, figuring he was just tired of always hanging with her and Liz while JZ got his swerve on, talking up new girlfriend prospects.

Now that she thought about it, it was JZ, anxious to scope out potential beach honeys, who had rolled out leaving Michael to set up the umbrella and gear by his lonely. There was no such thing as late to JZ—as far as he was concerned the party didn't start until he rolled through.

Michael should have fussed him out. She and Lizzie were just the easy targets. She rolled her eyes as she scribbled.

JZ could get away with murder. His mega-watt smile and willingness to strike up a conversation with anyone drew people to him, especially girls. She glanced up, head checking. She didn't want anyone to even see her admit this in writing. The truth was, JZ was fine. Nearly six feet of cinnamon handsomeness complete with a ripple of tight, smooth muscles thanks to a school year spent swearing off soda, sugar and fast food, fine. The problem was he knew it and so did a lot of girls in the DRB.

Her stomach churned, fluttering at the thought of him ditching the clique for one of his girls aplenty. But she pushed the thought far away. No one's breaking up the clique, she thought with smug satisfaction.

A fresh, almost cool breeze rustled the JORT's pages as she penned her last thoughts for the day.

* * *

August 28, 2006

In exactly thirty-nine hours, ten minutes and eighteen seconds I'll be a high school frosh. :::Dun, Dun, Dun, Dun, Dun, Dun DAH!!!::: My road to the "real word" and beyond begins!

Secret wishes:

The Del Rio Bay Clique (my peeps, Lizzie-O, Mike-Man and JZ "the lover" ha-ha) will make big things happen just like we did in middle school. That's what's up!

My high school experience will be as awesome as I keep dreaming it will be. Café here I come!

That I can squeeze cheerleading, track and writing for The Blue Devil Bugle newspaper all into one school year (w/o flunking!!!)

The "forever" in best friends forever doesn't just mean, "until we find something else more interesting to do."

Life (in general) is really a bowl of cherries and not the pits!

I'll always have my friends to help me through the tough!!!

Mina re-read the last sentence and added a fourth exclamation point, one for each of them. As a final act of re-affirming the clique's tightness, she replaced the punctuation's usual dot with oversized hearts then shut the book on summer's memories. She rummaged quietly through the cooler. Tip-toeing, as if her sandy footsteps could be heard over the loud beach sounds, Mina stood over Liz's tanning body and let the icy cold water slowly drip down her back. She sprinted towards the bay, as Lizzie leapt off the blanket, yelping and shivering from the sudden freeze.

Backpedaling into the water, Mina's voice carried back to the beach. "Hey, Liz!" She laughed maniacally, watching Lizzie shake off the cold shower. "Thirty-nine hours exactly and counting!"

© Paula Chase