So of course the rest of the week was always gonna be tinged with dance fever, the girls getting all excited, the boys trying to ignore it's approach. On Tuesday our excursion was pretty local, in fact I was surprised that we hadn't been earlier it was so close to town. You remember the other week we went to see some caves? Well Grand Caverns is something similar but not quite so commercialized.
We were the only people there it being closed season, which made the whole experience pretty weird. Our guide was the now standard overenthusiastic geek I now associate with anything in America, why do they have to be so happy? So anyway, we seemed to walk for miles to see such sights as Cathedral Hall, 280 feet long and over 70 feet high, Bridal Veil, Stonewall Jackson's Horse, and Dante's Inferno. I got a laugh when Sheryl, our guide, asked if we knew what the formations are called. My 'tights hang down' had everyone in hysterics - it's an oldie but it always makes me smile. Of course we had to explain to the 'Mericans what tights are which took away some of the humour .
Anyway we were back at school for lunch, which was a bummer, as we had to go to the afternoon classes. At least Mad was talking to me today, which in turn had me thinking about how to get back at Sam. The more I thought about it the more angry I got.
Wednesday has been pretty uneventful; I was a bit distracted I have to admit. Last night Mum seemed to be hiding something, you know like she wanted to tell a secret but managed to contain it. She was joking and laughing with Jules so it can't be anything serious but I sort of went to bed feeling like I was missing something.
"I won't call tomorrow Drew as you are off to the dance"
"Okay, I'll miss you on Friday too as we are driving to Atlanta"
"Well I'd best wish you luck now hadn't I?"
"And have a good time at the dance, and behave, I know what you lot are like"
"Yes Mum" I sighed.
"I'll catch up with you at the weekend then kiddo."
"Okay. Love you"
"Love you too Drew."
"Tell Dad I said hi"
"Take care Mum, bye"
"And you, bye for now"
The phone cut off and Mum was instantly thousands of miles away again, not at the other end of a phone.
I went to bed thinking about Mum but as it does my mind wandered to other things and the situation with Sam and Mad kept me conscious long after Jules started snoring. An idea did come to mind; hmm I wonder if Mad'll go for it, have to catch her in the morning.
Valentines isn't actually until Saturday but you'd have thought it really was today the way some of the kids were going on at Augusta High. For me Valentines is that time of year when you send a card to that cute girl in 5B (metaphorically of course), wait hopefully all day for a reciprocal offering, see cute girl with football jerk and then get home to a card from Mum. Oh yes I really love Valentines Day; at least we don't take it too seriously back home although it can be a bit depressing.
Here in Grottoes its almost war.
"How many Gab?" Brit asked as she craned over my shoulder.
"Seven" I sighed counting the envelopes that had been pushed into my locker.
"Seven! Who are they from then?"
"They're anonymous so how do I know? "
"Why would they be anonymous, get them opened" she cajoled.
"Dur, Valentines are always anonymous, what would be the point otherwise?"
"We always sign them" Brit replied with some reluctance.
"Well you open them, I'm not interested." I slapped the pink and perfumed envelopes into her hand.
I slammed my locker shut and left a stunned Brit picking up 'my' valentines that she had dropped in her shock. In truth it was just a bit disconcerting, back home I'd probably get cards from the girls - and that one from Mum but a quick glance at the writing only confirmed that the cards Brit was grasping were not from my friends. And they were not likely to be from cute girls either. That leaves, yep, boys, not just boys as if that isn't bad enough but boys that fancy Gaby. On one hand I didn't like it one bit but on the other I was curious just who fancied me. I spun on my heel, snatched the cards from Brits grasp and headed into homeroom.
The whole school seemed to've gone Valentines crazy even if it was two days early. Everywhere you went groups of tittering girls were comparing notes, groups of boys were doing the nonchalant thing and the school started sprouting a lot of hearts and ribbons. After lunch the cheerleaders, including the Foresters, were seconded to the decorations committee, which meant we got out of lessons and spent the afternoon hanging ribbon and bits of card around the school.
"Mad" I whispered as I held yet another pink heart up.
"I've got a plan"
"You know" I winked meaningfully at her.
"Higher please Gabrielle"
"Yes Miss, you know, Sam,” I hinted.
"Oh right" she didn't sound that enthusiastic.
"Well if you don't want to get him back…" I let it hang.
"I guess so"
"Meet me in the lav's after we finish this"
As there wasn't any way to avoid it I decided to go with the flow, which means wearing that flippin' frock I've had to make. I'd prefer jeans and maybe what Mum calls a 'smart' shirt but my options were never going to include attending as myself. No, for an assortment of reasons it was Gaby who would appear tonight, it's a bit late in the day to get all indignant and self-righteous.
I let the shower massage my neck for a minute longer; it would wind Jules up as well as being enjoyable.
"‘Bout time" Jules huffed as exited the cubicle.
"Sorree" I smiled inwardly, the wind up had worked.
Winding her up more would be a waste of time so I started to transform myself into a party girl. I looked at my dress - sheesh, I hope they have the heating on tonight; this thing wouldn't keep a firefly warm. By the time Jules was out of the shower I was dressed and feeling very exposed. I mean here I am wearing a short dress and no underwear, scratch that, I am wearing underwear but it was all part of the frock. So the top had a built in bra and there is a sort of swimsuit affair built into the rest including knickers. So if I need a wee, and I will, the whole shebang has to come off. The only good thing is that there can't be any unexpected exposure, apparently debagging has occurred at previous AHS events so built in panties are quite popular!
I grinned as I thought about our revenge on Sam; it will be sweet, oh so very sweet. I pulled a pair of lacy briefs over the built in knickers and fluffed my short crinoline out before slipping Jules' sandals on. Hmmm, not bad if I do say so myself.
"You got a licence ?"
"Sorry?" I flicked my hair over my shoulder.
"Well sister mine, there is probably a law about thirteen year olds looking like that."
"I'm nearly fourteen!"
Jules shook her head. ‘ ‘What happened to Drew? When did my little brother turn into this little vixen? All I can see is a beautiful girl, Mad's twin, there is just no sign of a boy there at all .' She sighed, 'I could be jealous, but how can I be jealous of my brother even if he is the best looking girl in school!'
Mrs. Walters insisted on some photographs before we all piled into the Subaru for the ride back to Augusta High. The place looked very different in the dark, somehow grander with the security lights casting sharp shadows and apparently altering the front of the building. I was keen to get inside, even with tights on the night air was cool on my legs, and we quickly joined the throng of students queuing in the foyer. For some reason couples weren't allowed, instead we all made our way to the sports hall which somehow looked half decent with all the decorations we'd helped install earlier.
"What's going on Brit?"
"Dates? Like green sticky things?"
"Gaby, sometimes! Dates for the dance, you know like boy girl?"
"Weren't you listening again? All the girls get a cloakroom ticket and your date for the night is the boy whose dance ticket has that number on it."
"Yeah it sucks but the idea is that on Valentines everyone has a date, well pretty much anyway."
Well the logic couldn't be faulted but I could've done without this extra complication. Although it was supposed to be random, it was clear there was some manipulation going on as everyone was being matched to someone in the same year. By the time I realised the implications and possibilities I was being accosted by a weedy kid with glasses and what looked like his Dad's suit.
What is his name? He's in our geography class.
"Marcus, Marcus Wright"
"Er Gaby Bond"
I knew that name, Wright, Wright, hmm… oh sugar! He sent one of those Valentines that I found in my locker earlier. Why me? Out of all the kids in school I get paired up with a lovesick nerd!
No one seemed too concerned with his or her blind dates other than me; I guess the local equivalent of Stinky Johnson wasn't in attendance! Anyway the gang still managed to get together albeit dragging a selection of bemused and bewitched teenage boys along. I've done this before so although it wasn't through choice, I knew the format. One dance with Romeo, send him off for a drink then beg off further dances until they give up. Except Marcus was clearly out to get his dollars worth!
I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of events as it was just like every one of these events I've attended as a girl. Except I was getting hit on more than usual, I blame the flippin' dress but maybe it was just being fresh flesh for the local Lotharios. I suppose overall I was having a good time, I can enjoy a bit of a jig like the next bloke, the fact that I was wearing a frock didn't impact my usual shuffling and if I ended up dancing with Marcus or some other hopeful, so what?
"You ready Mad?" I whispered after sending my 'date' on another trip to the refreshment table.
"I'm not sure about this."
"What can go wrong?"
"Lots," she murmured, "lets do it before I wimp out."
Our target was just returning from the gents when we homed in on him, thank god that men can take a pee on their own! It took about half an hour but we completed our task and returned to the festivities in good spirits. Mad had an evil grin on her face and I must admit to a smile myself. And the best thing is that there is no way he could point the finger without putting himself in deep doo doo.
"You are evil Gaby", Mad stated as we had a bit of a boogie.
"Moi? I might be wearing a frock but I'm still me inside it and I don't like braggers and liars."
"Ot oh, looks like we've been spotted, Marcus at nine o'clock"
"He's not so bad really, it's not like I have to kiss him or anything"
I actually sort of enjoyed the rest of the dance, there was a rumour about some boy being found in the girl's toilets wearing a dress but I'm sure that was made up. I mean what red bloodied male would do that? And at a school dance too.
"What time is it?" Jools enquired from under her pillow.
"Go back to bed Drew"
"Sorree. Why you up so early, s'no school today"
"I want to get a quick ride in before the drive to Atlanta"
"Later" she waved her fingers in my general direction and pulled the pillow back over her head.
I finished dressing and was soon out in the cold but bright Virginia countryside. I didn't want to hammer it, just a gentle twenty-mile leg stretch; after I got to a comfortable pace I let my mind wander. Sam. I smiled to myself, he was so gullible, I still can't believe he thought Mad was serious. The look on his face when we left him in the ladies, pink really isn't his colour!
It was a good night really, Marcus really thought he was in with a chance poor sod and he kisses like a Hoover. Well I was taken by surprise okay, I didn't exactly pucker up.
I snicked the lever to go up a sprocket and sprinted for a few mailboxes before easing back to a steady 15 miles an hour for the ride back home. Home, I guess I have come to see it as home with my bed in our room, it feels like home now, when we arrived I felt like a lodger.
"So we'll see you on Sunday then Gaby" Mrs. W stated.
"I'll ring if we are going to be late"
"Good luck Gab" Brit mentioned giving me a sisterly hug.
"Yeah, good luck Sis." Jules added.
I climbed into Erin's truck and we were off.
"So you looking forward to tomorrow?" Erin asked as we joined the Interstate to start our long drive south.
"Sort of. Well not nervous exactly"
"I think I know what you mean"
"Um tonight, where er who?"
"I've got it covered Drew, Diane is sharing with Patty and I've got you as we are the only girls."
"Er yeah, I thought we might be sharing with Diane, I didn't know Pat was coming."
"Well it was a bit last minute but with Derek coming to help out she insisted on coming but it's worked out well. So if you fancy some Drew time later you can."
"Why don't you catch a few zees, it's a damn long drive."
Drew yawned, the dance finished at ten last night and in the end it had been quite good fun. Some how he and Marcus had ended up in a dance off doing their version of rock and roll dancing, Drew pulling on his experience in Germany, cheering and watching his 'rents at various functions. Surprisingly Marcus could actually cut a rug pretty well and Drew was glad for the sewn in knickers! They hadn't won but they got a small prize for third, a pair of cufflinks for Marcus and some crystal drop earrings for 'Gaby'.
He stared out of the window at the featureless interstate as they followed the bus with the others in onto I-64. Erin was happily tapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the latest Chilli Peppers release which made him smile, it was what Mum did, does, occasionally singing along even though she is tone deaf! Mum. Back home next week and she'll be there, he smiled to himself, yes Mum'll be there when we get home.
Erin wasn't kidding about the long drive, he couldn't remember as long a trip before, they stopped every couple of hours for toilets and driver changes and some times Gaby rode in the bus but there was something cool about riding in Erin's pickup. The weather took a dive in southern Virginia, cooler and threatening rain but by the time they had crossed the Carolina's it was looking decidedly more spring like. They stopped for dinner about a hundred miles from Atlanta by which time it was gone seven and everyone had had enough of driving.
"Is it much further?" Drew asked Erin, once more driving her pickup for the last leg.
"About an hour hun, we're staying in a motel a bit up the coast from Atlanta, we'll drive down in the morning. A few other teams use the same place, they come from all along the eastern seaboard."
"The states along the coast, everyone calls it the Eastern seaboard because they are next to the sea."
"But the Atlantic is an ocean not a sea."
"But ocean board doesn't sound as good" Erin chuckled.
The last few miles were driven along unlit motorways, the lights of small communities passing by to either side. Frank signaled to take an exit and a few minutes later we were at our accommodation. There were several other buses and vans emblazoned with shop names and team logos and I was surprised when I got out and it wasn't that cold. After we got our billets the others went for coffee but I was dead on my feet so I went straight to bed.
My first taste of bike racing US style was when we arrived at the event headquarters at a sports complex just south of the city. It was a bit like a cross between when we went to see Mum in the Tour and a club ten. The more professional set ups had big campers and trucks, the plebs like us just had cars or vans, we did at least have one of those gazebo things to prepare the bikes and stuff under, although it was only nine o'clock it was already promising to be quite warm. Erin had my bike through the stand first so I had a ride around the park just as a leg stretch; we were going for a team warm up at half past, the start is at ten thirty.
These guys take their sport quite seriously although looking at some of the kit and riders a bit of training wouldn't go amiss. Well as Dad says, the bike doesn't win the race and some of these guys had spent a lot. I grinned remembering what I was pedalling myself, hark who's talking. Near the signing on control was an area with trade stands, all the big brands were there, Trek, Shimano, Colnago, Specialized, Giant, even Campag! It was like a miniature show but interspersed were some retailers doing good business with tyres and stuff. I was quickly back to the Grottoes Express HQ and the others were just about ready for the warm up.
Don, Hooch, Derek and Patty were already off to the first service area as we threaded our way through the throng of riders a few minutes before the start time. I was getting a bit nervous, the biggest field I've ridden in was at the champs and that was nothing to this lot, there must be two, three hundred riders here. There was a bang somewhere and riders in front started to move off, Erin had already mentioned the neutral zone, a ride through central Atlanta before the flag is actually dropped outside City Hall.
Somehow we all got away without mishap and the colourful , noisy field headed into 'downtown' Atlanta. I was a bit nervy, I wasn't the only one, there were clearly quite a few entrants in well over their heads and we haven't done two miles yet. It was only when we passed a huge video screen that it clicked, that Atlanta Classic, there are real pro squads up the front, I spotted jerseys that I know from the European peleton, Gerolsteiner, US Postal, ONCE - hang on, US Postal? We were past the screen so I couldn't check.
The huge field swept around the central district and on the second pass of City Hall the flag was dropped and the speed started to climb. The 'not really a race' certainly felt like one as we swept along in the morning sunshine, it was bright, warm enough for shorts but not yet hot - thankfully. The Grottoes Express held station mid way along the peleton, passing a rider here, another there as we left Atlanta and moved into the Georgia countryside.
I was comfortable with the pace; a steady 40kph according to my computer but the race was starting to stretch out.
"Erin" I motioned for her to come alongside.
"We need to move up, the pro's will make a move soon and if we are on the wrong side…"
"How do you - I won't ask, just say when and we'll do it"
"Warn the others then, it'll happen on that climb ahead of us"
Erin moved around our little team, Frank nodded to me in confirmation and I waved him forward. It was subtle, our little reposition, Frank and Aidan gently opened a way through the bunch that the rest of us slotted through. A helicopter hovered off to one side, we were on telly! By the time the front of the pack reached the rise, you could hardly call it a hill, we were at the back of a pack of around sixty pro's and by the looks, serious amateurs.
As if on cue there was a surge ahead of us and the pace climbed rapidly. Because we were expecting it, we managed to go with it, a few around us missed what was happening but I've watched enough top flight racing to spot the signs. The higher pace carried us over the summit and we steamed along at over 50kph for a couple of miles. Aidan was looking a bit breathy and Diane wasn't looking too good but we were all still there even if we were at the back of the pack. I risked a backward glance; we had a good half a mile of clear road between us and the next group with a couple of individual riders in between.
"I hope we slow down a bit soon" Aidan gasped.
"Soon, even the pro's prefer to ride slower most of the time"
"Sure" he gasped again.
The speed started to tail off a bit allowing me to check out the company we were in. apart from the three 'girls' in our team I could only see another two females in the group wearing strangely familiar strip - nah! The Euro jerseys were mingled with more local names, Jeep, Schwinn, Trek and a few lone riders in club strips. The USP riders were protecting someone, no, it can't be.
"We've never been up here before Gaby" Frank mentioned.
"Well it might not be for long"
"This split happens every year, we always manage to stay in the next group but I never realised how they did it"
"The pro's will try to shake us hangers on off in a few miles I think"
"I think so too" Erin opined from the other side, "tactics Gab?"
"If we can manage to move up a bit we might stand a chance but only if we go in one's and two's"
"Uh huh, makes sense." Frank agreed.
"Gab, if it comes to the crunch you do what you feel, we'll survive, so if you have a chance take it" Erin told me.
"It's a team event,” I mentioned.
"Do what Erin says, we stand a real good chance just being up here and a high placing by one rider won't harm our chances if the rest of us stick together." Frank told me.
We were back to a steady 40kph, which allowed our weaker riders to catch their breath. The feed at forty-three miles would be the danger zone, just five miles away now after an hour and a half of riding. The sky was clear blue and the temperature was climbing, the next cut would leave all of us in chase mode.
'How cool' I mused as we sped along, 'to be riding with Lance. No one will believe me, just wait till I tell Josh and Kirst.'
The helicopter sweeping across the road gave me an idea.
"You got a pen?"
"Writey thing, ink in it"
"I know what a pen is, what do you want one for?"
"You'll see, have you?"
I know its not normal race kit but I thought I saw her writing just before the start.
"‘Spose you want paper too?" she asked fishing in a pocket.
"No thanks, hey well cool." She passed me the pen that I in turn pocketed.
Aidan, Diane, Rob and Frank were already further up the field leaving just Er and me at the tail end.
"If you can, tell the others to watch out at the feed."
"I reckon, I have an idea but forewarned…"
"Leave it to me, go do your stuff."
The teams had to pre register service staff, most of the guys behind us just loaded up not having that sort of backup but the Grottoes Express were serious enough to join the big boys on this one. Mat and Derek would do the actual feed with Hooch and Patty collecting. Erin moved off up the right curb and I went for the more direct middle line.
I aimed for the familiar pale yellow jerseys and soon joined the two Apollinaris riders.
There was a brief delay.
"Gaby! Your Mu-vatter said you were riding" Tina stated.
"Hi Tina, Maria"
"How come you are here?"
"We had, how do you say, invite?"
"Just you two? It's a long way for one event"
"We haf the rest of the team also," Tina mentioned, "They missed the break."
"You are in good friends here." Maria nodded to the UPS jerseys a few metres ahead.
"That reminds me, sorry I'll see you later."
I eased away from the girls and took a swig from my bottle, hmm, I'll take a chance, I emptied the bottle and lobbed it Tdf style into the verge. If this works I won't need it, if it doesn't I can scrape by.
"Um excuse me"
"It's a school kid"
"Mr. Armstrong sir"
The Tour De France winner's head snapped round in surprise.
"Mum'll never believe me!"
"Where'd you come from?"
"Dang it's a girl Lan!"
"And who's your ma youngster?"
"Jenny Bond, oh this just so cool"
Lance actually seemed amused now. The feed station loomed closer and the helicopter was off to my left, well cool.
"Cradle snatching now Lance?"
"Just checking things out for you George" he grinned back at his teammate.
"Um, could I get your autograph please?"
"Now?" Lance queried.
"I have a pen." I produced the borrowed biro.
"Okay Gaby, where do I sign?"
"Hey Lan, isn't Jenny Bond the chick that won the Fem? Rides for the water girls?"
"I thought it rang a bell, that your ma Gaby?"
"Uh huh, on my number"
So there I am, riding along with Lance Armstrong signing my race number. The feed came and went; my distraction keeping all the pro's amused. But of course my ruse was not a final solution, just breathing space.
"Thanks Mr. Armstrong"
"Give your Mum my regards"
I slid out of the way to allow George Hincapie in to give Lance his mussette and with a "byeee!"
Checking on the others, all were still present, Erin waved a mussette at me with a grin. Half way, well just over and we are still up here. It couldn't last and even my delaying tactic in the end was just that, a delaying tactic.
We were swinging back towards Atlanta and the big boys were now itching to lose the locals. I was now lurking behind Maria and Tina when it happened, suddenly there was a shout and the pace lifted dramatically. I just acted on reflex, kicked hard and found a wheel, any wheel. We snaked across the tarmac and after a seeming eternity it slowed and as I looked up realised I was sat on Lance's wheel - well cool. Mind you I was in severe oxygen debt, dragging huge lung fulls of air in, heaving heavily.
"Hey well-done youngster" a voice I recognised as Lance stated.
"Uhhh thanks, uhhh"
"Just like her mama." Maria's voice noted.
I felt a hand on my back, "Thu thu thanks" I managed to gasp.
A glance about me revealed my predicament, I'm sat in a group of about thirty of Europe's, nay the Worlds top pro's and I'm fast losing energy.
"Here," Maria offered a bidon, "I told your mother I would look out for you, she has enough to worry about, we'll get you to the finish eh?"
My breathing was coming back and whatever was in the bottle seemed to work miracles. We were travelling at a good 50kph (I'm telling you speed in kilometres as that's what my computer is set at.) and the Atlanta skyline was growing quickly ahead of us.
Behind us the others were exceeding expectations too. Diane and Aidan were struggling a bit but Rob, Frank and Erin were driving the dozen or so riders in the second group, first five places count so it was important to keep everyone together. Erin was expecting to pick up a dropped Drew but as the miles ticked by she shook her head in amazement.
"She's some little rider eh?" Frank noted seeing Erin's expression.
"I thought she'd try but I never imagined she'd make it"
"A right little ringer eh?" Rob added.
"Darn persistent that's for sure" Erin grinned.
"Please, if we are finish together, stay from the sprint, it is very dangerous."
She was right of course, not that I'd have the energy.
"Okay, I'll stay out of the sprint."
Never said I would just sit and watch though. They all seemed content to ride piano until the one 'home' based pro left with us chanced it. It was too far out and not enough effort, these guys have seen it all and most of the time read things right. They let the Schwinn sponsored guy hang there, fifty metres in front, for two miles or so before he admitted defeat and spent, slipped back to us and then in short order out the back!
Somewhat recovered, even if tired, I devised my own plan, I only promised not to go for the sprint after all. Timing would be everything and I needed to factor in surprise too, escaping my guardians would require some guile on my part. I had to try, it's not in my nature to just sit back and watch even if my legs do feel like lead!
I needed to make my move early to have any chance of success, if my computer was right, the next corner. I trailed behind Maria into the approach then spotted my chance. Click click. I dived out to the opposite kerb hopefully unnoticed and put my head down.
So okay - it was never gonna work but you have to try don't you? I barely drew level with the leaders before I was spotted and I was soon swept up and as quickly spat out the back. One-day guys, one day. My legs were like jelly and I pretty much collapsed into someone's arms after I crossed the line.
"Drew, Drew, wake up son"
My mind is still playing tricks on me, it sounds like Dad.
"Come on Kiddo"
"Yes Drew, I'm here."
In the background I could hear the PA system blaring out, the commentator seemed pretty agitated.
"You okay now?"
"I told her to stay from the sprint,” Tina, out of sight was telling someone.
"You've caused quite a stir today young man, that was quite a stunt you pulled on Lance" Mum's voice noted, "what are we gonna do with you"
I still wasn't quite sure if this was real or just a dream.
"What are you doing here?" I asked the shape that seemed to be Mum.
"Tell you later, you feeling better? Seems there are a few people outside want to see you."
I managed to get my eyes properly open, which revealed that I was in some sort tent and sure enough both Mum and Dad were there.
"Come on kiddo" Dad encouraged.
Sitting up I found myself in a hug from Mum that I've been missing and yearning for for 5 weeks. Boy was that good.
Maddy Bell 06.06.06 © 2006
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