CHEER: a short story by Megan Abbott
Read the brilliantly dark short story from Megan Abbott, that her extraordinary novel, Dare Me, is based on.
Megan Abbot’s gripping novel Dare Me, is a dark thriller, set in the highly-competitive, at times suffocating world of high school cheerleading. Now adapted into a TV series and streaming on Netflix, Dare Me was originally based on a short story, 'CHEER', which you can read in full, below.
by Megan Abbott
We were all in the car and by then Coach had a darty look in her eye and it was a little like when she talked Kim into doing that basket-toss move for the game against Western and then all the sudden Kim was about to do it and maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all once we saw the hard floor in the Mohawks’ gym but it was too late and Kim had gritted herself into it and she was going to do it and there was nothing Coach could do but watch, which she did. Kim ruled the school that night. Coach took her out to celebrate, even paid to get the tiny Stallions tattoo on Kim’s lower back. Everyone was jealous.
But now in the car that look was there and I wondered who would be risking landing hard that night, or if it was Coach this time.
Next to me, with her forever-wad of foamy gum in the side of her mouth, an acid shot of grape in the air every time she cracked it, Kim was itemizing with her fingers the times she’d made her little self sick with booze, the blackberry brandy from her parents’ kitchen cabinet, the Strohs’ metallic rind spun on the tongue, in Tony Marino’s basement, it went on like this.
Beth was in the front seat, next to Coach, and was wearing a tank top that tied in the back, the strings dangling with little beads on each end. Smoking one of Coach’s joints, she looked bored, but I knew she wasn’t. We couldn’t wait.
We all talked about Coach a lot, how she was kind of beautiful and had a righteous car and her husband bought her everything she wanted and worked all the time in a gleaming tower downtown and she had bright white teeth and a waist whittled down to nothing and things twisted in her eyes and you could see that too and it made her more interesting even than the tennis bracelet and perfect highlights in her butter-blonde hair.
She didn’t seem old at all. Most of all, she was young. She was maybe twenty-six, but she’d already taken the squad at St. Regina to state last year and we all wanted that, even the lazy girls or the ones like Beth, and so we would do whatever she said, even after things started getting funny with her and anyway it wasn’t like partying with Mr. Simmons, the science teacher, since Coach was almost one of us, only not at all.
Before she came, we’d had it pretty easy and we ran things as we felt. Beth was the squad captain and she did as she pleased. When Coach came on, she said there’d be no captains, she was the only captain and she was whipping us into shape. No more hours spent talking about the Master Cleanse and who had an abortion during summer break. She said we’d best get our act together and part of us liked it. If we looked sloppy we knew we’d be doing bleacher sprints, hammering up and down those bleachers to the pulse of her endless whistle. We could feel it in our shins the next day. We got a lot better and no injuries either because we were running a tight routine.
But Coach, she had a lot going on and you were always wondering about her. We talked about her at our lockers and jammed into our cars and on the phone at night, about what her husband might be like and what her house was like and if she cheered in college and where she went to college. It was hard to ask her because she was all business, at first. You had to try to sneak it in there when she had a moment, when she’d say something like, “I spent all weekend thinking through this routine,” and we’d say, “What did you do over the weekend, Coach, did you go to the movies with your husband?”
It was just as football season was ending that it changed and everything she kept tight just flung forward and we were ready, wouldn’t miss any of it. Coach and Sergeant Stud together, it was all we could talk about. We thought of them in her Audi, her legs up high and bright blondeness just coming off them both. We wondered about his muscly hardness and if she let him do anything he wanted—why wouldn’t she? He was Mr. Movie Star and Beth said she’d join the Guard just so she could roll around with him. A lot of the girls liked to hang around his recruiting table in front of the cafeteria and finger the brochures. Spread Your Wings, they said. Beth never talked about him before, but now she was saying how she wanted to press up against him and feel his weapon. She said once she passed him in the hall and twitched her cheer skirt up and he told her he liked what he saw.
It had happened like this: it was time for practice and we were waiting on Coach and she was late and the other girls were doing fortunes and French braids, taunting Steph’s pudgy thighs and chugging diet pop, and Kim and Beth and I went stalking halls.
After school the place always felt different, more than the cloggy bleach and disinfectant, but other things. There were kids, teachers, but strange lurking pockets of them in places other than the gym, you never knew when or where, a knot of physics grinds on the third-floor landing timing the velocity of falling superballs, the barking Forensics Clubbers snarking about capital punishment in the language lab, shaggy burnouts slouching at far ends of long hallways, the flash of nervous Mrs. Fowler, the art teacher, flitting out of the ceramics room.
We were walking toward the fourth-floor Teachers’ Lounge when we heard the growly sound, like when your dad reads you a bedtime story about a tiger and does all the voices himself.
Beth had a gleam in her eye and I figured that she was probably right and she pushed the door open, which I would not have, and we saw it all, right there. She had not a stitch on and he still wore his uniform, dress green, everything but the beret and his pants dropped to the floor. Most of seeing them was not the crazy, jerking movements, the sight of her, on hands and knees on the skidding area rug. It was the dreamy look on her pinkening face, all elation and mischief and wonder, like I never saw in her, like she’d never been with us, so strict and exacting and distant, like a cool machine. Her breasts were shuddering whitely and his hand was buried in her hair, blonde and triumphant.
In her office later, she pulled the blind down on the door and shook out a handful of cigarettes and lit up one for herself. We took ours and I remember she lit mine and when she did I looked in her eyes and there were jumping. She didn’t know what we would do. Beth was slouching in her seat, kicking her legs up and propping her feet against the front of the desk.
We all puffed away and she, flush-faced, a stray gold hair sticking to her forehead, explained how it was and how we had to understand that it was a love thing with her and the Sarge, only she called him Don, and that he gave her the only smiles in her life, stuck all day rousting chickens—not like us, she said, we were different, but like Carrie and Shannon and Jen and Kelly—rousting them on the shellacked floors of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Gym, their hapless ponytails flying, smarting off, being lazy, spitting gum on the floor, whining about periods and boys. She spent all day like this and then home to her kid—we knew she had one, had spotted her with her once at the parking lot at the ice-cream shop—tucker-mouthed and red-faced, a day of sugar and agitation in pre-school, and her husband at work until the nightly news some times, home filled with irritation and woe, his hair falling out at thirty-one. Who wouldn’t need the ministrations of the likes of Don, face as pretty as someone on TV, the kind of tanned, soft-lipped man you saw on commercials bringing grateful women flowers everywhere, light haloed behind his head, teeth gleaming with understanding and rescue?
Maybe this didn’t seem to have a lot to do with what Don was doing to Coach on the floor of the Teachers’ Lounge, but maybe it did. We decided it did. We took long understanding drags on our cigarettes and decided it did.
After that, we were all really close, even Beth. After practice, sometimes we’d go to the mall. We liked Coach’s jeans and she took us to where she got them and we spent hours there, leaving with shopping bags spilling over with curl-edged tank tops, stiff, fine-stitched jeans, pokey-heeled boots, the long glitz of dangling necklaces.
A few times we went to her house after and she threw steaks on the grill and opened bottles of wine and we sat on the deck as the sky grew dark and her husband came home around eleven and we were all pretty drunk by then, even Coach maybe, because when Kim took her top off and ran around the yard, shouting into the bushes for boys, Coach just laughed and said it was time we met some real men, and that’s when Brian, her husband, showed up and we all thought that was hysterical, except Brian, who looked tired and flipped open his laptop and asked us if we could be quiet, which we couldn’t possibly be.
Beth, who kept saying she wasn’t drunk at all but she would never admit being drunk, sidled up to him and kept asking him questions about his job, and if he liked it, and what his commute was like. He just looked at her and asked if her parents would be worried and he kept throwing these looks at Coach, who finally said she’d drive us home and on the way we decided to pick up a six-pack and go to the lake for one last hurrah but there were some guys standing around their trucks at the lake, rough-looking dudes.
They looked like they worked at the plant, wore those thick-soled boots like the auto workers did. They were cute, though, and Coach, she kept making comments to them, saying stuff like did they like her posse, that kind of thing. One of them had a moustache like some old TV star even though he was young and he liked Coach and kept trying to get her to come into his truck but she shook her head and smiled, said she had better things to do with her time. We knew she’d never get near a guy like that no matter how cute and no matter he said he had some great smokes and he could take her in his souped-up car for a drive to the casinos downtown. Like any of us would ever want to go to casinos, or downtown.
Kim and I were having a great time, but Beth was getting bored and kept rolling her eyes and she told the guy he was wasting his time and why not try the bowling alley or the 7-Eleven for someone in his league. Then the guy got red in the face and he threw a bottle down and Coach said let’s go and we tore off and Coach was laughing and so were we and Beth maybe a little too. It was a fun time.
The next day, Beth told us we should’ve known how it would go, that that was Coach’s type of guy, and that Sarge Don, without the uniform, was probably that type of guy too. She said she’d better enjoy it while she can because in a few years she’d probably pop out another kid and her hips’d spread like rising dough and before she knew it, she’d be coaching field hockey instead.
On Monday, Coach gave Beth a really hard time at practice, which is something the last coach, who was a hundred years old, had a teenage daughter of her own, never would’ve done. Beth usually did as she pleased but Coach was slanty-eyeing her and showed her she knew what she was up to and the dark settled in both their eyes and it was no joke for either of them.
“Hey, Coach,” she said. “I know someone who knows you.”
“Lanfield,” Coach said, “aren’t you supposed to be doing sprints up the bleachers.” Because she was. She was late for practice and that was what you did.
“My sister’s boyfriend. He says he knows you. Tom Kendall.”
“Well, I don’t know him,” Coach said, “and you can toss that gum, Lanfield. I’m tired of seeing your tongue lapping.” We all snickered a little.
“The thing is,” Beth said, cracking that gum regardless, “he knows you from high school.” She was grinning.
Coach had gone to our school, we all knew it, but was ten years past.
“Yeah, well, I don’t remember him,” Coach said, looking at Beth like she had three seconds to make this matter.
Beth was taking her time, though. “He showed me his yearbook. You’d never been on cheer, huh?”
“Lanfield,” Coach said, “stop wasting all our time.”
“Okay, Coach,” Beth said, with almost a smirk. It was in the locker room later that she showed us the yearbook of Coach, feathered hair and thick glasses with pink frames and a roll of pudge under her chin from one ear to the other. She didn’t have any activities listed under her name and Beth said that Tom said everybody called her Tubs, if they paid any attention to her at all.
We said we didn’t care much. We liked Coach and who even knew what the story was. Beth kept talking about how lame the picture was and how Coach was a big loser and wasn’t that a riot and why should we listen to someone who hadn’t even made cheer in high school. That’s how Beth was.
It’s like Beth thought the yearbook was worse somehow, worse than catching her with Sergeant Don, a hundred times worse. And she talked about it so much and it just seeped in a little and when we looked at Coach, it was like we could almost start to see the dumpy girl she’d been, even as she looked so tight, so sleek, so blonde and cool and perfect. It was like all her clothes and everything, those French-manicured nails and creamy tan and hard lines, were just a disguise, and could all fall away in an instant. Maybe we started to feel that way even if we couldn’t explain it. It was just there.
The next practice, things felt different. It was like we were waiting for Coach to mention it, even though it didn’t seem like she would, or for Beth to start up with it again. But no one said anything and Beth said she had to leave early to go shopping with her mom for a new bikini for their Christmas trip to Captiva and Coach acted like she didn’t even hear and Beth just shrugged her shoulders and smiled sweetly and left at 4:30. And she pulled some of that kind of stuff for a while and it seemed like Coach was going to have to lay the hammer on, like she’d done with Kelly once for giving a girl on the opposing squad the finger during a game. But she never did, and it all started to fade away.
It was right before Christmas when Coach kept us all late after practice. We all smoked in her office and Kim sat on top of her desk, swinging her legs and waving her cigarette around like on some soap opera.
Coach said she had to make a call and we could tell from her voice, sticky as honey, that she was talking to Don. After she got off the phone she wondered if we’d all like to go to a party that night with some other Guardsmen and we all said hell, yeah, and Beth said she’d wear her new top and steal Don away and Coach said, good luck, broom stick, and we all laughed.
In the car, the nerves were shooting. We couldn’t believe it. Solider boys, Kim kept shouting.
The hotel was on the eastern ridge of town and it wasn’t very nice, but Don had gotten a two-room suite with a little kitchen and connecting doors and there were four other Guardsmen and they were just wearing jeans, which was kind of disappointing. But they had a big bar laid out, with bottles of rum and mixers and everything. They looked really glad to see us and Coach said, boy, don’t you boys owe me.
Maybe it was an hour or two later, Kim and I had been playing quarters with two of them, Sheppy and Prine, who kept pounding his fist on the table, and I knew I had to stop because the room was spinning.
I went to get some water and that was when I saw Beth and Coach talking in the kitchenette and Coach had cocaine on her fingers, I’d seen it before, once, twice, the football players had some, but we didn’t do it, it was the kind of thing you get thrown out of school for. But Beth was itching for it. Lemme, Coach, she was saying and Coach kept shaking her head but finally she said she could have some if she just put it on her teeth, which Beth did. Beth was so drunk I knew we couldn’t take her home. We’d have to call her mom and say she was sick and was staying at my place, or Kim’s.
“Well, I’ll keep her away from Prine,” Don said, rubbing Coach’s back. “Prine’d have a bite out of her. He can’t control himself. He’d gnaw at her leg like a wishbone.”
Then Coach and Don were crawling all over each other on the couch and finally they went into one of the bedrooms and I thought, there goes our ride. Beth seemed like she was about to pass out, even though she kept shouting things at the boys and asking where were their weapons and what kind of solders were they, really.
Prine, he was weaving as he stood, and he was eyeing Beth, whose top was nearly slipping off her tan shoulders. “Maybe you’d like some of this,” he said to Beth and Beth’s face grew white and it seemed like it was time to leave.
I didn’t like the way things were going, but Kim was dancing with Shep and she didn’t seem to care and they tried to get me to dance with them, so I did, and before I knew it Beth was gone and so was Prine.
I stood at the door of the bedroom, knocking, asking for Coach but she wouldn’t come out of the bedroom and I even thought I heard her giggle, tinkling like a girl. She wouldn’t come out at all. I knocked and knocked and knocked.
Over by the bathroom, I could hear Beth starting to get sick and I thought that might make him stop, but it didn’t sound like he was stopping.
Shep kept saying everything was okay but suddenly he started to realize it wasn’t and he said Prine was such a loser and he came over and started pounding on the door. Prine opened it and he was pulling on his pants and Beth was lying on the floor and you could see she’d been sick everywhere.
Prine’s face was red and he’d turned on the water and was trying to clean his shirt, which was covered in vomit. He was shouting that she was such a dumb kid and that she was lucky he hadn’t taught her a real lesson. But her jeans were curled around her ankles and her underwear too and I couldn’t figure out what other lesson he might have to teach her.
Kim tried to help Beth with her clothes and Beth’s eyes fluttered open and she looked like I’d never seen her, like I’d never seen anyone. Shep said Sarge was going to kick their asses and Prine said, fuck that, he brought ’em here. When Don came out of the bedroom, he was mad and he told Shep and Prine they were real fuckups and he would talk to them outside.
He’d left the door open and I looked in the bedroom and saw Coach on the bed, lying under a sheet and stretching her arms in the air like a princess.
I asked her why she hadn’t opened the door when I knocked and she looked at me, shook off the hot haze glazing her eyes and looked at me.
I said Prine had done something to Beth in the bathroom. I could feel my teeth chattering like it was cold. It felt so cold in the bedroom, like the air was on high and my chest hurt with it.
“He did something to her?” Coach said. “Well, what did he do?”
And I didn’t know what to say, I thought, isn’t my face saying it. I thought, how do you say what he’s done?
There was a glint on her mouth, her lip, like she might almost smile. That’s when I knew, and it was like she was standing in the gym, whistle hanging from her neck, so serene as we pounded up and down those bleachers, pounded them until she said stop and it seemed like she never would.
“Coach,” I started, but I didn’t finish.
Copyright © Megan Abbott 2008
“Cheer,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, originally appeared in Storyglossia (Crime/Noir Issue, May 2008), edited by Anthony Neil Smith.