Over the past year, something had changed between them, and it had taken a good deal of time to realize what it was. There was no placing exactly when it began, or how, but to Ellen, the place that stuck out earliest in memory was the locker room. That was where, one day, this invisible elephant had walked into her life and hadn't left. That was over six months ago.
On an average September day, the Ace Gang finished their lunch and descended to the changing room to get ready for P. E. Normally Ellen, however modest she was in any regular setting, wasn't the kind of girl that became embarrassed and hid in a corner while changing. Today, though, something was off — literally and figuratively.
Ellen had recently tried out for the girls' field hockey team, a mark of a growing independence she'd surprised her friends and family with as of late. She had been accepted onto the team, and today was her first practice. Running ahead of the casually strolling Gang, Ellen made it to the locker room first and was half-ready before any of the rest arrived.
Appearing in the doorway, Georgia headed the group, and, seeing her, Ellen nearly fell over.
"You little spaz! Thought you'd be gone before the rest of us, eh?" Georgia's accusation came with a laughing voice and raised eyebrows. Walking over to a hook on the wall, she hung her knapsack up and proceeded to pull clothing out of it. Jas and Rosie followed suit, still giggling about something Peter Dyer had said to Rosie the other day.
Now finished dressing, Ellen grabbed her sneakers out of her bag and began to put them on. She met Georgia's face with raised eyebrows of her own.
"Today's first practice, remember? I can't be late!"
"I know that! Why d'you think we're here?" Georgia gestured to the rest of the Gang. "We want to support you." With this, she reached over and patted Ellen's shoulder for the space of a nanosecond. Ellen suddenly felt as if her stomach wasn't there.
"I can't imagine playing a sport," said Rosie from the corner. "And those girls are tough! I'd be all roughed up by the end it, I don't know how I'd keep up."
Ellen gave a noncommittal shrug and began putting on her knee guards. Facing the mirror, she caught sight of Georgia's reflected back as she changed shirts. She suddenly tensed and dropped the knee guard she'd been holding. Eyes wide, she was pulled away from what she saw in the mirror by the sudden clattering sound of plastic on tile. She looked over the floor for it and reached down to grab it. She saw a hand take it and barely had time to see whose it was before the item was pushed into her own.
"What's up, Ellen?" asked Georgia, now in a new shirt, as she handed Ellen the knee pad.
Suddenly without voice, Ellen did the best she could to mutter, "Just a bit nervous."
"You'll do fine. You're on the team, aren't you?" Georgia smiled encouragingly and went back to changing.
Jas added, "Yeah, you will. You were the best at tryouts. Well, besides the Bummer Twins." Her face now took on a slightly blank look. "They've played every year, haven't they?"
Georgia turned to glare mildly at Jas as Ellen gulped. "Yeah, that's really what she needs to be thinkin' of, Jas: the Bummer sisters." She rolled her eyes and pulled out a fresh pair of socks.
Ellen turned and pulled on her right knee guard, avoiding watching Georgia's further changing. Out of the corner of her eye, though, she noticed as Georgia, instead of sitting, propped her foot up onto a bench to put her shoe on. Georgia's skort moved up her leg slightly and Ellen looked away. She walked over to her knapsack and took her mouth guard out of a pocket, taking a deep breath before shoving it in.
"Nice! You really look the picture!" said Jas. Ellen smiled, a difficult thing to do with the mouth guard in place. Rosie snorted in laughter.
As she turned to leave, she stopped at the door and said, in a muffled voice, "Wish me luck!", met with a general cry of encouragement from the Gang. She turned and pushed through the doors, feeling more frightened than before, for more reasons than one.