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Authors: Gail Nall

Breaking the Ice

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For my Evie Pea, the reason for everything

Chapter One

I have my fingers crossed
for a gold medal.

Not where everyone can see them, of course, but hidden in the sleeve of my maroon-and-white Ridgeline Figure Skating Club jacket. If I win this competition, it'll show the judges I'm the skater to beat at Regionals in October.

My stomach rumbles. It's almost three o'clock, and the last thing I ate before I performed was a bowl of Toasted Oats cereal early this morning. And by morning, I mean even-the-birds-are-still-asleep morning. So by now, the concession-­stand popcorn smells like something gourmet. I try to ignore it and stand on the tiptoes of my plastic blade guards to look
for my friend Ellery. I can't spot her in the sea of girls in ­sparkling dresses crowding the hallway.

“Aren't you cold, Kaitlin?” Mom pulls her wool coat tighter around her.

I shake my head. I'm rolling back and forth on my blade guards. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. Mom and Dad got me new pink-and-white guards for my twelfth birthday, to match my competition dress. I glued some rhinestones to them, so they kind of twinkle in the lights when I walk. My coach, Hildy, always says you want every little detail to be perfect.

Mom checks the time on her phone. “Where are the results?”

Like magic, a competition volunteer threads her way through the anxious crowd in the hallway and tacks the results to the bulletin board. Everyone swarms forward. The volunteer has to elbow her way to safety.

A tingling feeling shoots through my body. This is it.

Dad squeezes my shoulder as we shuffle toward the board. Mom sips coffee and grips her phone, ready to post the good news online for friends and family.

Hildy keeps trying to guess who's placed. “It'll be a toss-up between you and that tiny blond girl from Detroit for first,” she whispers. “It depends on whether the judges dock your double flip for under-rotation. The girl in the green dress from
the Fallton Club was dreadful. She'll place last, for certain.”

I tune Hildy out and squint at the eight-by-ten white sheet of paper. Ellery's in the very front. She hugs her mom, which can only mean she's gotten good marks. She's clutching the bejeweled pink water bottle I made her. It took me all day last Tuesday, but I finished one for every girl in the club, with their names in silver and tons of glitter to make them really sparkly.

Another girl runs off, her eyes red and watery. I can't see the names or scores yet, so I concentrate on not stepping on anyone's toes with my skates.

I'm not going to think about how the results of the Praterville Open can determine the course of my entire season and whole skating career. If I win here, then it shouldn't be hard to do the same at Regionals, where I can qualify for Nationals. Ever since I've known what Nationals is, I've wanted to go. And if I make it this year, I'll be on track toward the biggest competition of all—the Olympics.

Olympics
. Just thinking the word gives me the shivers. Never mind that it's a few years away.

If I don't place well here, then . . . Right, not thinking about it.

“No matter what happens,” Mom says, “you skated beautifully. And you deserve first place.”

She has to say that. It's like a mom requirement.

“Can you see it?” Mom asks over my shoulder.

I look up, and there it is right in front of me.

Final Results—Juvenile Girls' Division.
I scan the list for my name. I'm not first. Not second or third. My heart falls into my stomach. Not even fourth, fifth, or sixth. Maybe the judges made a typo and accidentally left me off.

But then I see it.

Eleventh place. Out of thirteen girls. Third to last. Loser zone.

“What?” Hildy's practically glaring at the sheet of paper. She blinks a few times, takes a deep breath, and then ­rearranges her face into a Professional Coach expression. “Well, I didn't expect that. Don't worry, Kaitlin. It's just a little summer competition. Not Regionals. Now where can I get a copy of those protocols?” She looks around like she's going to find an explanation of the judges' decision just lying in the middle of the hallway.

And it's not just a little summer competition. Hildy definitely knows that. Everyone knows that.

I stare at the paper. The number eleven glares at me. I run my finger across the page to my scores. I got a 22.35 for technical elements—jumps and spins and stuff like that.
That's a good score, especially this early in the season. Most of the other girls didn't even break twenty points. But the next ­column . . . 9.65 for program components, all the in-between moves, artistry and style.

“Nine point six five?” I feel light-headed. At my last competition, I got almost ten points higher. When the top girls in my group are getting nineteen or twenty points for program components, 9.65 is kind of pathetic. It's like the judges are saying my program was robotic. That I have no artistic expression, nothing interesting at all. That I'm boring.

I am
not
boring.

I know what I should do. I should smile and congratulate the medalists. I should wait until I'm safely inside Mom's car before I cry or complain or show what I'm really feeling. I should say I'll try harder next time. This is what I usually do when things don't go my way.

Dad puts his hand on my shoulder again, but I throw it off as I spin around.

“These . . .” I point at the paper. “These scores are a total joke!” What am I saying? It's like I'm not even in charge of my own voice. It comes out loudly and echoes down the concrete-­walled hallway.

Right to the ears of the three judges walking past.

Mom's hand brushes my arm as my legs propel me toward the judges, who are stopped next to a table holding the competition medals. I stand right in front of them, hands on my hips. Words keep rolling out of my mouth before I can stop them, like they're coming from someplace deep down that I have zero control over.

“Did you even watch my program? I did a double axel! No one else did a jump that hard.” This is
so
not like me.
Stop talking, Kaitlin! Stop, stop, stop!
“And I wasn't a robot! I had all kinds of style—and—and stuff between my jumps.”

The judges blink at me.

It's like the words have a life of their own, and they're forcing me to speak them out loud. “My coach thought I'd get second, at least. But I guess double axels and choreography and . . . stuff are only good enough for eleventh place.” Why won't my mouth stop with the words already? “I hope there are different judges at Regionals. Ones who know what they're doing.”

For a few seconds, no one moves. I'm breathing so hard, it's like I just stepped off the ice after my program.

My mouth opens to say more.

No! I slap my hands over my face as if I can take it all back. But it's too late for that. I just broke one of the unwritten
rules of competitive figure skating. The one that says Never Complain About Your Scores in Public. It's sandwiched right between Keep Smiling! and Don't Yell at the Judges—which I also broke.

I turn away from the judges. I can't look at them after I said all those awful things. Something tugs at my right blade guard as I take in the crowd of skaters and parents gaping at me. Mom's dropped her phone and hasn't even bothered to pick it up. Dad blinks furiously, like he can bat away the words with his eyelashes. And Hildy starts muttering things about subjectivity and sportsmanship.

I take a step toward them. I just want to grab my skate bag and get out of here. Something pulls hard at my right skate. What
is
that? I lift it up and—

CRASH!

The navy-blue tablecloth that was covering the medals table is now covering the floor.

“Kaitlin!” Mom cries.

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no.

I reach down to unhook the teeny tiny, superhuman-­strength thread from the tablecloth that had wrapped itself around one of the springs of my blade guard. My face is so warm, it's probably starting to match the color of my jacket.
My fingers are shaking, but I finally get the thread loose. I take a step backward to catch my balance.

CRUNCH.

Like this couldn't get worse. A glass figure of a skater in a perfect arched layback spin lies in two sparkling pieces under my skate. I vaguely recognize it as the centerpiece from the awards table.

“Kaitlin, don't move!” Mom says. She darts toward me and begins picking up the gold, silver, and bronze medals that dot the floor all around me.

The judges. They're staring at me. I can't look away. The big judge with the handlebar mustache clears his throat. The redheaded woman adjusts her glasses, probably hoping to see something different. And the tall, skinny guy reaches down and pinches the blue ribbon holding a gold medal from the top of his shoe.

The big judge huffs and shakes his head before they all walk off in the opposite direction. My entire body feels too hot, and I wish I were anywhere but here.

Dad gives a little snort, which turns into a cough when Mom shushes him. She gives him a look, and he springs into action, picking up medals from the floor.

No one else moves. Except a girl in a green dress—the
one Hildy said would definitely get last place.

“At least these aren't breakable,” she says as she plucks a batch of silver medals from the floor around my feet. “Well, except for that glass skater. My mom would call it a dust ­collector.”

I close my eyes and wish for a do-over. Of everything—my program, the scores, and my reaction.

“Kaitlin,” Mom says in a cold voice as she rolls up the tablecloth. “Gather your things. We're leaving.” Then she glares at everyone standing around, like she's daring them to say something. But no one does, of course. Mom's kind of scary when she's mad.

“Thank you,” I whisper to the girl in the green dress. I can't look at anyone else.

While Dad fishes some cash from his wallet and slips it under the pieces of the broken glass skater, I grab my bag from the floor where I'd dropped it. Then I take off down the hallway, the skate guards snapping against my blades. Eyes ­follow me until I escape into the lobby.

Mom doesn't say anything else until we reach the parking lot. “We'll discuss this tomorrow.”

And I know for sure she's really angry. I pretend to sleep during the long drive home, just in case she changes her mind.

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