"Pull, Otters, pull!"
I squinted and puffed out my cheeks. Weighing only about ninety-eight pounds, I didn't have much to offer my team besides fierce facial expressions. Plus, my hands were sore by now, so maybe my squinting would fool people into thinking I was actually trying.
"Harder, Talia, harder!"
Busted. My best friend, Bridget, was at the front of our team's line (Bridget had been in front of every line I'd ever been in), but even with me standing behind her, she could tell my heart wasn't in it. Tug-of-war was totally pointless.
But not to Bridget. Bridget was so competitive, she could turn a spelling bee into a contact sport. And tug-of-war against a team that included Meredith and Brynne? The rope might as well have been a red cape flashing in front of a bull. Bridget would own that rope, even if she had to pull five times as hard to compensate for her scrawny teammates (me being the scrawniest and, let's face it, the least motivated). To Bridget, it was a matter of principle . . . of willpower . . . of sheer determination. That, and since she was at the front of the line, she'd be the one to tumble into the muddy creek if we lost.
Through my squint, I noticed Meredith and Brynne pulling on the opposite side of the creek bank. Even in the middle of tug-of-war, their ponytails looked bouncy and their lips glossy. What was it with those two? When had they morphed from scabby-kneed goofballs to dainty princesses? And why hadn't Bridget and I received the morph memo?
"Pull harder, Otters!" Bridget bellowed, clutching the rope with one hand while she quickly wiped the sweat from her brow with the other.
Which was all it took for Meredith and Brynne's team to give the final heave that knocked Bridget off balance and sent her tumbling into the creek. My fellow Otters and I groaned gamely but didn't exactly have rope burns on our hands.
The camp counselor blew a whistle. "Game, Sea Turtles," she said in a last-day-of-camp monotone before adjusting the score on a clipboard.
Meredith and Brynne pointed at Bridget thrashing in the ankle-deep creek water and giggled into their fingertips. They dropped the rope and gave each other high fives, then turned to their teammates for more palm slapping.
"Sea Turtles rule!" Meredith crowed, which, let's face it, was the understatement of the millennium. If there had been any doubt at the beginning of the week that the Sea Turtles ruled, by the last day of camp, we were all clear.
"Weaklings!" Bridget moaned as she staggered to her feet and splashed us with creek water. "We've lost almost every single competition this week!"
My fellow Otters and I nodded apologetically but couldn't help sucking in our own giggles. Bridget was covered in mud and looked like she might spin off into space, her head was shaking so indignantly.
"It's just a game, Bridge," I said.
"Just a game!" she roared. I might as well have said "just a nuclear war."
Meredith and Brynne nonchalantly inspected their nails and tightened their ponytails.
"So what's the damage for the week?" Meredith asked our counselor.
The counselor tapped items on the clipboard, counting as she went along. "Sea Turtles ten, Otters one."
"Well . . . our quilt is prettier!" I sputtered, then thought that might possibly be the lamest thing I'd ever said.
"Maybe you girls better stick to quilting," Brynne said, rubbing her hands on the back of her jean shorts. She and Meredith waved a fluttery goodbye, then headed back toward the mess hall for lunch.
The counselor and other campers scattered too, except for me. Bridget had crumpled in defeat back onto the creek bank, and I sat beside her for moral support, ignoring the mud creeping up my thighs.
"Don't utter a word about camp to my mom," I said, planting my chin in my hand. "I can see it now: she'll yak on her show about how hopeless we were in every competition except quilting, and the whole town will send me fabric patches to try to cheer me up."
Mom's TV fame had started innocently enough. After my dad died of cancer when I was seven, she got a job doing the morning news for WBJM. Sitting behind a shiny oak desk and reading off a TelePrompTer, she told viewers about local elections, courtroom verdicts, traffic snags and other items that fall under the category "Things I Don't Mind the World Knowing About."
But she was such a hit on the news that, pretty soon, her producer asked her to cohost WBJM's chatty midmorning show, Up and At 'Em, an hourlong hodgepodge of host chat, interviews and artsy-craftsy segments. Host chat usually covers items that fall under the category of "Things I Mind the World Knowing About." Things like how I threw up on my piano teacher while she played a duet with me during a recital. It was tough enough being a kid (and a half-orphan at that) without everybody in town knowing about my intestinal woes.
Viewers always raved about how funny and charming my mom was. Whatever. It never struck me as funny or charming that the whole town knew I had a first-grade crush on the paperboy and just happened to be "dusting the porch" every time he came by. Why did anyone else need to know about the time I trick-or-treated as a road map because I'd used a permanent marker to connect the dots of my chicken pox? And whose business was it that I glued antlers onto my head with bubble gum one Christmas?
Trying not to watch my mom's humiliating tell-alls was like trying not to think about a polka-dot elephant when somebody says "No matter what you do, don't think about a polka-dot elephant." Just knowing I was being talked about was excruciating enough. Knowing without knowing the specifics was even worse and drove my imagination into overdrive.
"Promise me," I said to Bridget, "if Mom asks how camp was, just say fine."
Bridget shrugged. "It's not the worst thing in the world to have a mom who's a celebrity," she said. "Being the kid of a teacher is worse." Bridget was so sure of herself that when she offered an opinion, she sounded like she was reading from a history book: "When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they encountered Native Americans, who introduced them to maize and explained to them that being the kid of a teacher is worse than being the kid of a celebrity."
"No way," I said.
"Prove it, Smarty Pants," I told her. "Compare and contrast."
Bridget smiled, like she'd studied the subject and had been waiting for someone to ask. "Your mom can tell the whole town about your rashes," she said, making me cringe with the reminder that, yes, Mom had recently gabbed about my rash. "But my mom," she continued slowly, raising her eyebrows, "is like a walking billboard: 'My kid is doomed.' "
Excerpted from Talia Talk by Christine Hurley Deriso. Copyright © 2008 by Christine Hurley Deriso. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.