-RT Book Reviews
"A satisfying and sweet story." -Publishers Weekly
"A modern mashup of classic teen movies...Stokes does a good job with the sports subplots as well as the familial relationships. Lainey is a driven athlete who focuses on her passion, which is a refreshing change of pace." -School Library Journal
"Romantic, witty, and unexpectedly deep. For anyone who has ever had their heart broken, life-plan turned on its head, and future suddenly in question, this book is for you."
-Rachel Harris, NYT bestselling author of Seven Day Fiance and A Tale of Two Centuries
To win back the one she loves, she’ll have to go to “war” . . .
Soccer star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back.
And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work! But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game.
What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with, if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be?
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READ THE BEGINNING:
“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Maybe if I’d paid more attention to my mom and her tea leaves, I would have seen it coming. Instead, all I see is coming is Jason, my boyfriend of two and a half years. His dark uniform shirt clings to his muscular back and shoulders as he turns to shut the passenger door of the ambulance. He’s been doing ride-alongs with local medics this summer because he’s thinking about becoming an EMT after we graduate.
I stop right in the middle of taking an order to watch as he saunters across the street. Pulling a chunk of strawberry blonde hair down over my forehead, I try to hide where an ill-advised visit to the tanning salon resulted in a big glom of overlapping freckles shaped like New Jersey. Next time I will be strong when one of my friends tells me my fair, freckly skin will turn all bronze and glowy if I ‘take it slow.’ Lies. All lies. Some people are simply destined for spray-tanning.
The door to my parents’ coffee shop plays a weird wooden tune as Jason opens it, courtesy of the coconut wind chimes Mom got on one of her hippie sabbaticals. Tahiti? Tuvalu? Who can keep track?
“I said I’d like a skinny iced chai and a death-by-chocolate-moose brownie. Did you get that?” The girl on the other side of the register waves a hand in front of my face. She’s one of our regulars but I can never remember her name. She’s majoring in something artsy and likes to dress monochromatically. Today she’s wearing a long sky-blue skirt with a navy tunic and head wrap.
“Got it,” I tell her, sliding a brownie onto one of our colored ceramic plates and plunking it down in front of her. I fill a cup halfway with ice, slosh some chai concentrate and milk over the top, and finish by giving the drink a half-hearted stir. “Here you go.” I quickly run her credit card through the machine and then slip out from behind the counter.
“Hey, is this skim milk?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, and then mumble “I think so,” as I head across the shop to the long wooden bar where Jason is now sitting with his back to me, tapping one of his black leather shoes to the music blaring from the speaker above his head. Weird—he never sits at the bar.
“So, what can I get for you, hotness?” I lean in close to stroke one of the blond curls sticking out from the bottom of his cap.
He looks up at me and flashes his trademark dimpled smile, only today I don’t see any dimples. A little voice inside my head whispers a warning. Something’s not right.
I tell it to shush. Everything is better than right. I finished my junior year with decent grades so my parents are only making me work a couple of days a week at Denali, our family coffee shop. My older brother, Steve, is doing a summer study abroad program in Ireland and left me the keys to his small but reliable Honda Civic. And my boyfriend—the smoking hot slice of savory goodness in front of me—just scored his own place. Well, technically his dad owns the condo, but he travels a lot for work so it might as well belong to Jason.
“I’ll have water,” Jason says.
I frown. “You sure? Yesterday we got in this awesome Madagascar spice—”
“Just water, Lainey,” he says. “Alex is waiting out in the ambo for me.”
I glance through the big glass window in front of us, but the ambulance is parked across the street and I can’t really see him. “Well you didn’t have to leave him outside like a dog. Did you at least crack the window?” I smile at my own joke.
But Jason doesn’t smile. Crap. Something is wrong. Or I’m being paranoid. I go get a glass of water and a mug of Madagascar tea for me and then rest my elbows on the bar next to him. Behind me, I hear my best friend Bianca picking up my slack at the counter. I shouldn’t have left her up there by herself, but I need to make sure everything is fine--a few minutes with Jason to make that little voice in my head be quiet. It’s not like anyone will die if they have to wait for their ultra-mocha-blended-frappe with extra whipped cream.
“You okay?” I rub one of my hands across his shoulders, being careful not to snag my freshly manicured nails on his nubby polo shirt. Jason thought his ride-alongs would be all glamour, non-stop excitement. Maybe the reality that EMTs spend a lot of time waiting around for work has started to set in. Then again, a job doing nothing doesn’t sound like something Jason would mind.
He turns away from the window to look at me. No dimples. No smile. “I need a break,” he says.
“Are they working you too hard?” Maybe I was way off about what EMTs do.
“No.” He laces his fingers together in front of his body. “It’s just--I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
Tea sloshes over the edge of my mug as I start to shake. “I’m sorry…what?” My brain barely registers Bianca’s voice telling the customers to hang on a second. She hurries over with a rag and swipes at the floor while I continue to stare at my Jason. “Are you breaking up with me?”
I’m not slow. I’m just stunned. Jason and I have been together since the middle of freshman year. Less than a week ago we christened every room in his dad’s new condo, if you know what I mean. He talked about all the ways we were going to kick it this summer. Pool parties. House parties. We’re even supposed to be playing on a co-ed soccer team with some of our friends from varsity. It sure didn’t seem like he was unhappy with me.
“Sorry, dude.” Jason stands up, leaving his untouched glass of water on the bar.
Dude? Years of being practically inseparable and I am now reduced to the status of ‘dude?’ Like we weren’t ever anything but drinking buddies? Bullshit. I put my hand on his arm to stop him. “You can’t just show up at my job and break up with me. Who does that?”
What I mean is, things like this are not supposed to happen when everything else is perfect. In April, I got picked out of over a hundred girls to star in a commercial for Hazelton Forest University. In May, I scored the winning goal at the state soccer championships. And the summer was shaping up to be truly epic.
What the hell happened?
Jason looks everywhere but at me. “Please don’t make this any harder.”
I told you I told you I told you, the little voice says. I want to strangle it. This can’t be real. The coffee shop blurs in front of my eyes and I wobble slightly in my platform sandals. I tighten my grasp on Jason’s arm to keep from falling over, but he pulls free so we’re no longer touching. For a second, I think about my mom’s face as she studied the bottom of her teacup yesterday. “Separation,” she warned. “Sadness.”
Crap. This is real. All I can do is clutch the edge of the nearest stool and stare at the metal sign on the wall above Jason’s head: Dogsled parking only. Violators will be peed on. “I-I don’t understand,” I say.
He gives me a pitiful look. “I just need to be on my own for awhile.” He heads for the door. “Sorry, Lainey.”
The dining area of Denali is dead quiet, except for the music, which has faded away to a dull hum. It’s so quiet I’d be able to hear myself breathing if I wasn’t holding my breath. I can’t help but stare at Jason’s muscular back as he disappears out into the heat.
The wind chimes clunk together like thunder as the door swings closed. I turn around slowly, praying no one in the shop heard our conversation. Bianca is holding a rag saturated with Madagascar spice tea. Her eyes are dark and her face is heavy. She looks like she’s the one who got dumped. Behind her, two tables of college kids and Micah, the prep cook, are staring at me.
“Enjoy the show?” I ask, plastering a tight-lipped smile on my face. “I was getting tired of him anyway.” A couple of the college kids clap. Monochrome Girl looks at me with the same sad eyes as Bianca. Micah fiddles with the hem of his black T-shirt as he helps himself to a cup of Colombian drip.
“I’m going to take a short break, Ebony.” I turn toward the back without waiting for my manager’s response.
Ebony is sitting in a corner booth working on next month’s schedule. She looks up with a bored expression. “Have you actually done anything today?” she asks.
Bianca jumps in. “I can cover the front.”
“Thanks Bee,” I say, my voice starting to waver.
I keep the fake smile cemented on my face as I make my way around the counter, but it breaks apart right as I hit the door to the kitchen. I need to hide, and quick, but the only bathrooms are out front which means there’s no place I can safely be alone.
I turn and find the door to the manager’s office cracked open. Ebony doesn’t like us loitering back there, but she won’t know. Besides, my parents own the place. What is she going to do? Fire me? Dare to dream.
I barely make it through the door before the tears come, hot and fast. I collapse into the rolling chair in front of Dad’s dinosaur of a computer. Sobs force their way out of my throat. I feel like I’m trapped in a disaster movie where everything is shriveling into darkness and ash. Sunflowers are being uprooted. Puppies are being trampled. Whole cities are crumbling to dust.
Pushing the keyboard to the side, I rest my head on the desktop, wishing I could turn off all the lights and sounds, and maybe the air too. I can still see the customers staring at me, snickering behind their eco-mugs. And Monochrome Girl with her sad eyes.
I haven’t felt like this since I got cut from my junior high select soccer team. I warmed the bench as a seventh grader and hoped to get moved up to the starting line in eighth grade. Instead, I had the worst tryouts ever and was the only player not invited back. I felt like such a loser walking away from the list of who had made it, my former teammates either avoiding me completely or patting me awkwardly on the back. I swore I would do whatever it takes to never feel like that again.
Someone knocks softly on the door.
“Go away,” I say, hoping whoever it is will take the hint and come back later.
No such luck. I look up as the door squeaks open. Micah is peeking through a one-inch crack, looking like he’d rather be in a dentist’s office awaiting several root canals than anywhere near me.
“What do you want?” I mumble through my tears.
He slides into the little room and shuts the door behind him. “Sorry. Just need to get the recipe for caribou cookies.” He reaches above me to the binder where Dad keeps the dessert recipes. The scent of smoke lingers on his clothes, like maybe he just came back from a cigarette break. Flipping through the binder, he pulls out one of the laminated pages.
But then he doesn’t leave.
“Are you some kind of weirdo who gets off on girls crying?” I wipe my eyes on the collar of my shirt. The teal fabric comes away dark with eye makeup.
Micah laughs softly to himself as he slides the binder back onto the shelf. “I hope you don’t really think of me like that.”
Something in his expression stings like lemon juice poured directly on my broken heart. Pity. I hate pity.
“I don’t think of you at all,” I say.
Micah nods. “That figures.”
I know I’m being a bitch, but I can’t help it. Jason didn’t hang out long enough for me to tell him exactly what I thought of his breakup strategy, so the rage is seeping out of me bits at a time, targeting anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. Better Micah than Bianca. He can take it. He’s got a tattoos and a mohawk. Clearly, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
“Hey,” I mutter, the closest I can manage to an apology. “Be cool and don’t tell my dad about this, okay?”
Micah runs a hand through his spiky hair. Dark brown roots are showing beneath the black dye. “Your dad doesn’t really talk to the kitchen people. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “I think he’s afraid of us.”
I pinch my lips together. It’s a little funny because it’s totally true. Dad thinks the cooks snort coke in the walk-in coolers and worship Satan in the parking lot. Sometimes I make up stories just to freak him out. That’s what he gets for letting a bald chick in a band do the majority of the hiring. Talk about unfair. I had to beg and plead to get Bianca hired on as a barista for the summer but Ebony gets to staff the whole kitchen with dregs she fishes out of the gutter in front of The Devil’s Doorstep, Hazelton’s premier (and only) live music venue.
“I could have him killed if you want,” Micah says with exaggerated seriousness. “Jason, not your dad. I bet C-4 knows people who would make it look like an accident.”
C-4, also known as Cal. Another member of Denali’s crack team kitchen staff. He’s always going on about his collection of homemade weapons and telling everyone his locker is booby-trapped with explosives. Now there’s a guy who makes Micah seem almost normal.
“I’ll pass,” I say, wondering why he’s being so nice to me. Eager to change the subject, I zero in on Micah’s hands as he brushes some loose flour from the bottom of his T-shirt. “Why don’t you wear an apron?”
“Because aprons are for losers?” He swipes at his shirt again. He’s got what looks like a coil of barbed wire wound around his left wrist. It’s also caked with flour.
“Apparently gloves are too.”
“Nobody wears gloves unless the customers can see them,” he says, heading toward the door. He pauses, looks back at me for a second. “My girlfriend and I broke up a few weeks ago. I know how bad it sucks.”
I bristle again. More pity. “Why are you trying to make me feel better? You haven’t said five words to me since grade school.”
He shrugs. “Bee asked me to check on you. Also, Ebony said I have to work the counter if you can’t go back up there.” Micah inches toward the door. “You know how we kitchen people tend to scare away the customers.”
My breathing has finally returned to normal. I dry my eyes again and try to pretend nothing happened, that Jason didn’t just dump me like I was a total loser. I hate that a coworker saw me break down, but it could be worse. Micah and I knew each other when we were kids but we’ve never rolled in the same circles. He’s hangs out mostly with other guys at work and I’m not overly concerned about what the Denali kitchen weirdos think of me. “I don’t see why Bald Beauty couldn’t man the counter,” I grumble. “That schedule isn’t going anywhere.”
“Why are you such a bitch to her?” Micah asks.
“Because she’s lazy? And bald?”
Not to mention, she’s been a bitch to me since the day we met. Pretty sure she sees me as a threat to her management position, like I’m going to graduate high school and immediately use my family connections to steal her Denali power.
Micah rolls his eyes. “It’s just a style, Lainey.”
“It’s a lack of style.” I run the tips of my pinky fingers along my lower lash lines in an attempt to remove some of my smudged mascara. “You’d think she could help out for five minutes. It’s not like my whole world ends every day.”
Micah glances back at me as he slides out of the office. His face twists into a mixture of sympathy and disgust. “That douchebag was your whole world? I feel sorry for you.”
“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me,” I snap, a little too loudly. But I mean it. I’m Lainey Mitchell, varsity soccer star. I have my own freaking commercial. I’m not a loser. I rock--I know it. And underneath whatever is going on with Jason, I’m sure he knows it too. All I have to do is figure out a way to make him remember.
“Ponder and deliberate, before you make a move.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Bianca and I head to my house immediately after work. We both flop down on my zebra-print comforter and I lean my head against her shoulder. “Mom knew this was going to happen,” I wail. “She said the leaves showed big changes, separation. I thought she meant Kendall!” Jason’s twin sister, my other best friend, just left town for the summer.
Bianca puts an arm around me and squeezes. “But you’ve never believed your mom’s tea reading stuff. Why start now?”
I’ve actually always kind of believed in my mom’s tea leaves. I only pretend not to because—and this might be an understatement—tea leaves are not cool. But according to Mom, when she got pregnant, her doctor told her I was going to be a boy and she kept disagreeing because she dreamed I was a girl. Then her doula, AKA the world’s biggest hippie, saw something feminine when she was reading Mom’s leaves and that clinched it—Mom asked for all pink baby clothes. Of course Dad and her friends thought she was having a breakdown so they bought lots of green and yellow stuff to be safe. And then I popped out looking all girly and perfect and Mom got to go around shrieking ‘in your face’ at everyone. Well, maybe it didn’t go down exactly like that, but she’s been reading tea leaves herself ever since. And sometimes I listen.
But it’s not an exact science. She can look at a cupful of glop and pretty much see what she wants to see. And since she and the rest of the world knew Kendall had recently jetted off to New York after being selected for the special teen edition of So You Think You Can Model, I wasn’t too worried about the separation reading.
“I don’t know. Look how right she was. What are we going to do?” I ask. Okay, so it’s technically my problem, not Bianca’s, but any crisis of mine is a crisis of hers, and vice versa. That’s just how we roll.
She pulls a pair of wooden chopsticks out of her bun and shakes out her thick Latina hair. “Maybe you should try to call Kendall and see if she’s got any inside information.”
“Ooh, good idea.” Not only is Kendall closer to Jay than anyone else, she also knows how to “handle situations,” as she likes to say.
I send her a quick 911 text, but she doesn’t respond right away like usual. I tell myself it’s no biggie, that she’s probably off somewhere posing in body paint or getting an über-chic pixie haircut. Still, nothing stings quite like an unanswered text message.
I wait five whole minutes and check my phone again. “I think she’s forgotten about me,” I say, only half-kidding
“She’s probably not allowed to use her cell phone,” Bianca says. “Didn’t you say they wouldn’t even let her email anyone during filming?”
“Yeah, I guess.” It’s nice of Bee to make excuses for Kendall, considering that they don’t like each other very much, which sucks because the three of us all play varsity soccer now and I wish we could hang out together. Bianca’s been my best friend forever, but being around Kendall is like getting swept away by a tornado, in a good way. She and Jason lived in Los Angeles until eighth grade when their mom got transferred here for work, and there’s just something glamorous and unpredictable about everything she does. When we go out, I never know where we’ll end up.
Kendall makes me better, too. If it weren’t for her excellent assist, I wouldn’t have scored the winning goal at the championships. I probably wouldn’t have gotten together with Jason, either. She pushes me to do things I’d be too scared to try on my own. Bianca finds her ‘a bit overbearing.’
“You’re probably right,” I tell Bee. “Maybe she’s getting ready for a shoot, being draped in some glamorous dress while a team of designers revolve around her, brows furrowed, mouths full of pins.” Kendall’s mom is the district manager of a chain of fashion boutiques and she’s always making her daughter try on outfits before she lets the buyers order them. Kendall bitches about being a human Barbie Doll, but she gets to keep all the samples. Talk about having the best wardrobe in school.
As for me, my mom’s an anthropology professor, which means all I have is the best collection of creepy tribal masks. They used to hang on the wall of my room, but last year I finally said enough and put them up in the coffee shop. You have no idea what it’s like to be fooling around with your boyfriend and look up to see a bunch of painted-up African warriors glaring at you. Major mood killer.
Now my walls are full of pictures and posters. My lower lip gets quivery as my eyes land on a framed photo of Jay and me from last year’s junior prom. Him in his tux and me in a long pale blue gown. Both of us tall, tan, blinding smiles. We look like the little people on top of a wedding cake.
“I can’t figure out what happened.” My voice wavers. “Everything was fine last week.”
“No warning at all?” Bee asks.
I shake my head violently and my brain is assaulted by thoughts of Jason from all sides, from the pictures on the wall, to the DVDs he loaned me scattered across my desk, to the three bottles of perfume—one for each Valentine’s day--arranged in a line on my dresser. An old soccer jersey of his that I sometimes sleep in lies crumpled on the floor. As I pick it up and toss it toward the hamper, I catch sight of my jewelry box on the highest shelf of my dresser. There are only a couple of necklaces inside it—one of which is the golden soccer ball pendant Jay gave me when I turned sixteen.
He and Kendall threw me a pool party that night. It was epic—I bet at least a hundred people came. Then, after everyone left, Kendall distracted their mom while Jay snuck me into his room. I lost my virginity that night, and while it was everything people said that it would be—awkward and nerve-wracking and a little painful—Jason was so amazingly sweet that I wasn’t afraid. I just…trusted him. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. I never thought he would hurt me.
I bite back tears. That was also the night he told me he loved me for the first time. It took him almost six months to say it, but I didn’t mind because to me that showed he really meant it, you know?
Sniffling, I turn to Bianca. “I mean, did I do something wrong?”
Bianca hands me a tissue. “This isn’t about you.”
I want to believe her, but it’s hard. I guess it sounds stupid, but a little part of me thought Jason might be ‘the one.’ My parents met when Mom was twenty and Dad was twenty-two, which isn’t much different from meeting in high school. Even though I’m hoping to go to college on a soccer scholarship, I never planned on going far enough away to risk my relationship with Jay.
“He’s just confused,” Bee continues, as I wipe my eyes. “Maybe it has to do with meeting his father for the first time.”
“I guess that’s possible.” But he didn’t seem too traumatized when his dad showed up in town last month. Especially when the first thing he did was toss Jay the keys to a sweet condo. But his parents have been estranged since before he and Kendall were born and Kendall still refuses to speak to her dad. When all you know about your father is that he’s a professional photographer who lives out of a suitcase and never wanted kids, having him suddenly arrive and buy a place in town is probably a big deal. I don’t know. Maybe it messed with Jason’s head more than he let on.
“You know what? I’m going to text him.” Before Bianca can stop me, I’ve got my phone out and I’m rattling off an Is this about your dad? text.
Bee chews on her naturally plump lower lip. “I’m not sure if—”
I wave her quiet with the back of my hand. Thirty seconds. Forty-five seconds. A minute. There is no way Jason is not going to answer me. He always answers me.
Another minute passes. Bianca sees me teetering on the edge of pathetic and tries to pull me back. “We need a plan,” she announces, grabbing my laptop from my desk. I’ve got about eight windows open—most of them to soccer or gossip websites, one of them to CalebWaters.com. “Oooh, Caleb,” she says, immediately distracted. She enlarges a picture of him at a red carpet premier and turns the laptop toward me. “This will cheer you up.”
I give her a half-hearted smile. Caleb Waters is a former pro soccer player and the star of Victory Dance and Only One Shot. He’s currently shooting a movie called Flyboys in cities all across the Midwest. I’ve been checking his page a lot for updates in case they shoot some scenes in nearby St. Louis. Meeting Caleb Waters is one of my major life goals.
“Do you think Flyboys will be as good as the other movies?” Bee asks. “You know, since he doesn’t get to play soccer in it?”
“I’m sure it’ll be awesome.” I blot my eyes with the tissue again. “Maybe he’s reinventing himself as a serious actor.”
“Hopefully not.” She peers at the screen. “What good is a Caleb Waters movie if he doesn’t get sweaty and take his shirt off?”
As wrecked as I am right now, I have to giggle a little at that. Bianca may act all prim and proper most of the time, but when it comes to Caleb Waters she’s every bit as obsessed as me. I force my face back into a serious expression. “Enough celebrity stalking. We have a different soccer star to focus on, remember? I thought you were coming up with a plan to fix my life.”
“Right. Sorry. A life-fixing plan.” Bee opens another window to a search engine. “I don’t think I’ve fixed your life since that time in seventh grade when you tried to give yourself highlights and ended up looking like a crooked skunk.”
I shudder. “Thank God that color fixer stuff worked.” I lean over Bianca’s shoulder while she types in various permutations of “how to win back your ex-boyfriend.” Hundreds of thousands of hits come up. “Wow. A lot of people get dumped.” I feel a tiny twinge of relief. Somehow, it’s better knowing I’m not the only one.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure if we’ll find anything useful.” She scrolls through a bunch of websites that are trying to sell thirty dollar e-books with ‘secret psychological techniques.’ Some are written by people whose grasp of the English language is debatable.
Undaunted, Bee keeps clicking. A pink and gray page pops up. “This one looks good.” She nibbles at a pinky nail. “Tips from Maverick the Master Dater, MD in Loveology.”
“Clever. Probably some thirty-year-old virgin living in his mommy’s basement, but what do I have to lose?” I read over her shoulder. Maverick has a basic list of Dos and Don’ts.
Do keep on living. Even though you’re sad, you need to keep going to school or work.
Don’t wallow. It’s pathetic, and you don’t want him to realize how much the breakup has affected you.
“I can do those,” I say. “I’m pretty sure my parents wouldn’t even give me the option of bailing on my shifts at Denali, and I definitely don’t want to seem pathetic.”
Don’t contact him. At all. No emails, text messages, phone calls, letters, unannounced drive-bys, etc. for at least three weeks. Men inherently crave what isn’t readily available. If you stay away, he’ll wonder why. And he’ll come sniffing around to find out.
A strangled sound works its way out of my throat. “Three weeks without any contact from Jason would seem like several lifetimes. No way,” I tell Bianca. “Find something else.”
A rattling sound from the floor makes me flinch. Bee’s backpack is vibrating. While she digs around for her phone, I click desperately through links from so-called relationship experts, but they all seem to say the same thing: the best way to win back a guy is to avoid him…for weeks!
“There has to be a better way,” I say.
Bianca peeks quickly at the text message and puts her phone away without replying. She holds up a tattered red and black paperback.
“Maybe there is,” she says.
“All warfare is based on deception.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War
“The Art of War?” I raise an eyebrow. It sounds vaguely familiar, like I heard it referenced in a movie or something. It also sounds as old as dirt. “Why do you have that?”
“Seriously? It’s on our summer reading list. Don’t you ever do your school work?” Bee slaps me in the leg with the book. “It’s by a Chinese military strategist named Sun Tzu. It’s mostly about war, but people have applied it to all kinds of scenarios—business, law, college, sports, relationships.”
I squint at the cover. It figures brilliant Bianca would turn to some dusty school book for advice. “You think a dead Chinese guy can help me get Jason back?”
“A dead Chinese warlord,” Bianca corrects.
My eyebrow creeps up even further. “My world is ending and you’re channeling your inner warlord?”
Bee smiles. “Hear me out.” She flips the book over and starts reading the back cover. “Master Sun Tzu’s military treatise is required reading on battlefields and in board rooms. Countless people of all ages have benefited from his wisdom.” She tosses the book to me.
I snatch it out of the air. “This is never going to help.” The cover is decorated with a bunch of symbols that look like tic-tac-toe boards on crack. I flip past the introduction and start skimming from the top of a page. “The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.” I roll my eyes. “Whatever that means.”
Read them,” Bianca says. “The five factors.”
“Moral law, heaven, earth, the commander, method and discipline.” I clear my throat. “Which is six things, not five. I’m supposed to take advice from some dead guy who can’t count?”
Bee ignores me. “So you can think of those as loyalty, timing, natural resources, leadership, and organization. These are the things you need going your way to be successful.”
“Super. All I have to do to win Jason back is become my mother.”
“ No, really, Lainey. Give it a chance. Millions of readers can’t be wrong.”
“That’s like saying millions of boy band fans can’t be wrong,” I mutter, but I flip through a few more pages. They’re full of words I’ve never heard of, like ‘ramparts’ and ‘bulwark.’ Even the words I do understand don’t make much sense. My eyes start to glaze over. “Is there a translation?”
“This is a translation.”
“Is there maybe a translation to the translation? The Art of War for Dummies?”
“You can do this.” Bee reads over my shoulder. “All warfare is based on deception.” She points at the next page. “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
I stare down at the text. “So how do I use that to win back Jason? Sneak up on him when he’s at the gym and offer him a protein smoothie?”
“You have to read the book first,” Bee says. “Then we’ll make a plan.”
“You’re giving me a homework assignment?” I ask. “Because honestly, I don’t feel like reading a book right now. I feel like hunting Jason down and forcing him to tell me what I did.” I sigh dramatically. “Which was nothing. So if I can make him see that, show him we’re fine and he’s just being mental, then he has to take me back, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” Bee says. “About the assignment. Sorry, no about everything else. And you need to stay away from him at least for a few days, give him space, don’t be clingy.”
“I am not clingy,” I snap. At least I don’t think I am. Crap, now I’m having doubts about everything. “Fine. You’re right. I’ll stay away.” I pause. “But maybe I should call him just to see if he still wants me to play on his coed summer team. He was talking about it last time we hung out and signups are really soon.”
She shakes her head. “How would that conversation go? ‘Hey, I know you just crushed me publicly, but I’m wondering if we’re still going to play soccer together?’ Sun Tzu would not approve.”
“Okay. Stupid idea,” I admit. “But I have his varsity jacket, and his jersey, and some DVDs. I shouldn’t keep that stuff…” I trail off hopefully.
Bianca’s too nice to laugh at me but the look on her face says exactly what she’s thinking—that I am the lamest person alive. “Keep it temporarily. Like Sun Tzu says, attack when the enemy isn’t expecting it. Right now Jason is probably expecting you to be all over him.”
“Fine.” I wrinkle my nose at the paperback. “And I’ll read this book, if you really think it’ll help.” My general reading consists of soccer and gossip magazines, so struggling through The Art of War is going to feel like self-mandated summer school. But hey, at least it’s short. And if it works for armies and athletes, maybe it can work for me. I’m a girl who believes in fighting for what she wants.
Kendall calls me the next day. “ Laineykins!” She half-screams into the phone when I answer. “I miss you so much.”
“ I miss you too.” There’s a lot of chatter in the background. I hold the earpiece slightly away from my head. “How is everything going?”
“I swear.” She huffs. “I have to share a room with three other girls and they are all treating me like I’m a farmer because I live in the Midwest.”
“ That sucks.” Kendall is super-sensitive to being treated like a hick since she and Jason grew up in LA.
“You have no idea,” she continues. “And the people running this place have so many rules. Eleven pm curfew. Seven am group breakfast. It’s like military school.”
“That sucks too,” I say. “Why don’t you just quit?”
“Because quitting means I lose, and losing is for…losers,” she says. “If I win this thing I get a hundred grand. If I leave, my mom will be all pissed and I’ll also get to deal with that waste of space who likes to call himself my dad.”
I suspected that Kendall mostly tried out for So You Think You Can Model to get away from her parents for the summer, but this is the first time she’s basically confirmed it. Don’t get me wrong, she loves the idea of being on TV, but I know she has no desire to actually work in the fashion industry. Her mom was a high-fashion model before she got pregnant—that’s how she and Kendall’s dad met—and she seems determined to make Kendall to take over where she left off. She’s forced her to do lots of catalog stuff for the boutique, and Kendall says it all sucks. Apparently the designers and photographers poke and prod at her like she’s an alien and act like it’s her fault if she gets a freckle or--God forbid--a zit.
I’m pretty sure the only reason she even made it on the show is because her mom called in some favors from people she used to work with. Then again, Kendall is gorgeous and she does have the perfect confrontational attitude for reality TV.
“Um, hello? Lainey? Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I was just think—”
“Oh, great. One of my roomies is talking about me.” Kendall swears under her breath. “She’s tattling about something to one of the production assistants.”
“So…” I start. “Not sure if you’ve heard about this or not…”
“Hang on.” I hear muffled voices, a stern-sounding man, and then Kendall sounding extra-indignant. “Apparently I have to go in two minutes,” she says. “Heard about what?”
My eyes flick to the picture of Jay and me at prom again. “It’s not important. I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
“For sure. Give my brother a hug for me.”
The phone clicks softly as she hangs up. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell her. It doesn’t take two minutes to say ‘Jason dumped me.’ Maybe it’s because there wouldn’t have been time left for her to give me advice. Maybe I didn’t want to dump my problems on her when she already sounded so stressed.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to start crying again.
“Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War
A few days later, I have a dream about Jason lying in a ditch, calling out to me for help. It’s four o’clock in the morning when I sit up suddenly in my bed, positive he’s in some kind of trouble. I should call him. I mean, what if he’s really hurt somewhere?
I debate it for about five minutes but then decide to call Bianca instead. She went through a phase in fifth grade where she had night terrors and she used to call me at crazy hours when she woke up and couldn’t fall back to sleep. We would end up talking movies and the cute boys in our class until Bee felt better and then we’d both doze off in class the next day. She hasn’t made a late-night call in years, but she won’t mind if I wake her up just this once.
She picks up on the third ring. “Are you okay?” she asks.
“Sort of.” I explain the situation.
“Don’t do it, Lainey.” Bee yawns. “Nothing says pathetic like a middle of the night text message.”
“But what if he was in a terrible accident?” I ask. “What if he really is lying in a ditch somewhere and I’m, like, psychically connected to him?”
Bianca mutters something in Spanish under her breath, but she stays on the phone with me while I do an internet search for recent crimes and car accidents. The Hazelton Police Department has logged exactly two incidents in the past twelve hours: a car break-in and a vandalized doghouse.
“Who would vandalize a doghouse?” I ask.
“Cats?” Bee suggests. She yawns again. I laugh. I love her. She lets me keep her on the phone for another half hour, talking about soccer strategies and Undead Academy, our favorite TV show. We trade opinions on which of this season’s vampires have the best hair, and then discuss which of the JV girls might make varsity soccer in the fall. It feels almost like fifth grade all over again. For a minute, I miss how simple things used to be.
Finally Bianca says, “You should get some sleep, Lainey.”
I sigh. “There’s no chance I’ll be able to fall back asleep. But I shouldn’t keep you awake just because I’m all freaked out.”
“There’s nothing to freak out about,” Bee says. “Did you read The Art of War yet?”
“I skimmed it a little,” I say. “I mean, I did look at it a couple of times.” In between reading and rereading every single email Jason ever sent me and moping around the house.
“Why don’t you go read it for real,” Bee suggests. “Think of me and you as one army, Jason as the opposing army, and your relationship as the country being fought over. I’ll come by around eight and we can go for a run and start strategizing.”
“Okay. Thanks Bee.”
“See you soon,” she says.
I hang up and dig The Art of War out from beneath a stack of magazines on my dresser. Using the light on my phone, I open the book and start to read. The first part makes sense—the five factors, planning, all warfare being based on deception. But then Part II starts talking about chariots and how much it costs to raise an army. How the hell can that be relevant? I skim forward until I find something that makes sense to me: In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.
I keep reading. Part III is about when to attack and when to retreat. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. That’s sounds promising. Obviously I know myself, and after almost three years, I know Jason pretty well too. I’m starting to feel like Bee’s idea isn’t so crazy. I flip forward a few pages. Part V talks about combining direct and indirect strategies. The quality of your decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon. I hold out my hand and imagined my manicured fingernails as talons. I see myself swooping in and snatching back Jason’s love. Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset and prompt in his decision. I flip to the next part. March swiftly to places where you are not expected. That sounds like I’m supposed to attack quickly, an idea I like a whole lot better than sitting around doing nothing.
I’m only about halfway through the book, but I’m already feeling a lot better. Later today, I’ll talk things over with Bee. Then, I’ll officially start my battle.
Bianca arrives promptly at eight while I’m in the process of putting my hair in a ponytail. She follows me from the front door back to my room.
“Did you stay strong?” she asks. “Resist the urge to text?”
“Yeah,” I say. “And I even read part of The Art of War.”
She flops down on my bed. “Won’t your English teacher be pleasantly surprised.”
I start pinning back my flyaways. “Don’t talk about school.” For a second, I imagine going back as someone other than Jason Chase’s girlfriend. My heart starts to race. Who would that girl even be? I don’t want to find out.
Bianca spends a few minutes admiring the newest poster of Caleb Waters tacked to the wall behind my bed. “Come on,” she says finally.
“Almost done.” I peer at my freckle tumor. “You don’t get it. You’re one of those people who can just roll out of bed and look good.”
She snorts. “No I’m not.”
“I’ve only been to about fifty sleepovers with you. I know what I’m talking about.” I turn around and give Bee’s thick braid a squeeze. “I, unfortunately, require a little more polish.”
“How much polish do you need to run?” She gestures at my posters. “Are you expecting to bump into Caleb?”
“Dude, I hope so. That’d be enough to make me forget about Jason for at least a day.” I drop the remaining bobby pins back onto my dresser. “Fine, I’m ready.”
“So how much did you read?” Bee asks, as we head outside and start our usual three mile loop through the main streets of Hazelton.
“I only got about halfway through,” I admit. “I feel like it kept saying to strike fast and be decisive. I think it’s time for me to do something.”
“All right. But remember it also says something about stupid haste being a bad idea.” Bianca turns the corner, her feet pounding the pavement in an even stride. “As long as you’re not just acting out of emotion.”
“Who? Me?” I’m pretty much always acting out of emotion, so I see what she means. “I’m not going to break down crying and beg Jason to take me back. Maybe that first text I sent was too quick, but now I’m ready.”
I pull even with her as we pass The Devil’s Doorstep. It’s a bar during the week and a live music venue on weekends—mostly for local punk and hard rock bands. The main windows are papered over with flyers announcing an upcoming concert for an all-girl hard rock band called Hannah in Handcuffs. I’ve never heard of them. The girls on the poster look like a cross between circus clowns and dominatrixes.
Two guys sit cross-legged in front of the covered window, smoking cigarettes and flipping through the latest issue of the Riverfront Times, St Louis’s alternative newspaper. They either didn’t make it home last night or have showed up extra early hoping to meet whoever is playing tonight when they roll in for sound check. Between the two of them, they have an eyebrow ring, two lip rings, and at least eight visible tattoos.
“They’ll probably end up as our coworkers someday,” I say nodding toward the guys. “If Ebony wasn’t gay I’d totally think she was hiring herself a harem of rocker boys to seduce.”
Bee laughs. I lengthen my stride and concentrate on the way it feels when each shoe hits the pavement, on the way the wind flares my ponytail out behind me like a flag. I don’t usually get up before nine, and running feels different this early in the morning. Quieter. Less humid. Kind of nice.
Halfway through our usual loop, Bee veers off into an alley.
“Where we heading?” I ask, trying to keep up.
She flashes me a mysterious grin over one shoulder. “It’s a surprise.”
“You hate surprises,” I say, but I let her lead.
The alley runs behind a strip of small businesses and ends at an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds. Bianca jogs from the pavement up onto the uneven ground, tromping down the high grass as she disappears back into a thick grove of trees. I should have known. Bee is such a nature bunny. She’s always going camping and hiking and stuff with her family.
I skid to a stop. I’m not a big fan of the woods, or the bugs living there. “Bianca, where are we going?”
She ignores me and I have no choice but to follow her into the trees. We twist our way through the branches until we come out on a path that seems to spiral around the large hill that forms the northern boundary of Hazelton. I watch Bee’s thick braid flap like a horse’s tail. Somewhere in the trees, a bird shrills. A butterfly flits past me, its pale wings beating furiously. Suddenly I hear the whoosh of cars. Bee slows to a stop at the edge of a sheer cliff cut into the side of the hill.
I catch up to her, my blood accelerating in my veins as I look down. We’re higher up than I thought we were. Below us, an eighteen-wheeler whizzes by on the highway, the driver oblivious to the fact he’s being watched. “This must be where the thugs come to drop rocks on windshields,” I say.
Bee exhales hard, winded from the steep climb. “You always focus on the negative. I think it’s great. It’s like looking down on the whole world.”
“I guess, if your whole world consists of an interstate, a strip mall, and a graffiti-covered airport terminal,” I mumble. A patch of forest stands beyond the airport’s high fence. The view sums up how I feel about Hazelton. A little bit of nature. A little bit of business. Not enough of anything.
“Hazelton isn’t that bad,” Bee says.
“Then why are you leaving?” I ask.
“Mizzou has the most affordable med school in the state,” she reminds me. “And they’ll accept all of my college and AP credit. I can have my MD in seven years, maybe six and a half if I go to summer school. Besides, Columbia is only two hours away.”
She’s told me all this before, but it’s still weird to think of her not being around all the time. “Maybe I’ll get to come with you. Mizzou’s got a great Division I schedule.” My ultimate dream would be to play soccer for Northwestern like Caleb Waters did. Both their men’s and women’s soccer teams are national contenders most years. Plus, Chicago! I could live in a big city and still be just a weekend train ride away from Jason. But I have about as much chance getting into Northwestern as I would have getting into Harvard—about zero.
“Mizzou might still offer you a scholarship.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t really get scouted by anyone last year. And Mizzou only gives out a couple of soccer scholarships to entering freshmen each year.”
“So then you can get loans if you need to,” she says.
“It seems stupid to go into debt when I can take classes where my mom teaches for free.” I stare off into the distance. “I just don’t think I’m good enough to play for a Division I school.”
“You’re totally good enough.” Bee sits at the edge of the cliff, dangling her legs over the side. And for some people that would just be them telling me what I want to hear, but I know Bianca means it. My eyes start to water.
“Thanks.” I turn and wipe away a stray tear before she sees it. “How’d you even find this place?” I ask, changing the subject.
She pats the ground next to her. Reluctantly, I take a seat. I’m a little afraid of heights.
“The new guy at work said he likes to jog this route,” she says.
“What new guy?”
“Leo. You’ve seen him. He goes to school with us. Kind of preppy?”
“Oh, right.” I do remember my dad giving the standard Denali tour to some kid dressed like a golfer. “Did Ebony hire him? He seems too normal to have attracted her attention.” I raise an eyebrow suggestively. “Maybe his tattoos and piercings are in more discreet places.”
“You’re bad.” Bee giggles. “I think Micah recommended him.”
I snicker. “He seems too normal to have attracted Micah’s attention.”
“They live in the same apartment building. Your dad had me training him on the register yesterday and we got to talking.” Bianca, pauses, looking down at the cars. “I’m glad you’re making jokes, Lainey. I was starting to worry about you.”
I wrap an arm around her shoulders. “Sorry about getting all dramatic and keeping you on the phone. That was pretty lame.”
“You’re not lame,” Bee says. “With or without Jason, your life is still amazing, you know?”
“I guess.” But ever since the day Jason dumped me, I’ve felt less and less sure about that. Almost anyone can be successful at sports if they work hard. Even popularity is more about who you know than who you are. Being Jason’s girlfriend was different. A guy who could date almost anyone picked me. With him I felt part of something bigger. Just like with Kendall, he made me feel invincible, like things would work out for me no matter what. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s kind of hard to give it up.
Bianca and I finish our run at the park across the street from my house. We guzzle water from a fountain shaped like a lion’s head and then Bee jogs over to the curb and pulls a soccer ball out of her trunk. I groan.
“What? Are you tired?” she asks. “You were the one ready to beg to play on Jason’s coed team. How about you practice with me?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m kind of exhausted just from the drama of the past few days.”
“I get it,” Bee says. “But I know how much you want a scholarship. This thing with Jason is out of your control at the moment. But soccer—no one can take that from you unless you let them.”
“How’d you get so smart?” I snatch the ball out of her hands and twirl it between my fingers.
“I watch people. I see things.”
And that’s Bee. A watcher. A ‘think first and leap later’ girl.
“I just figure instead of obsessing about what is out of your hands, why not control the things you can?” she adds.
“Okay.” I toss her the ball and mop the sweat from my forehead. “But prepare to be dominated.”
For the next thirty minutes, we play one-on-one, chasing each other up and down the full-length field. I score the first goal and impulsively turn cartwheels all the way back to midfield.
“That’s the Lainey I know,” Bee says, as I collapse in a heap of giggles.
She fights back and ties the score, pulling a couple of nice moves to pass me on her way to the goal.
“Somebody’s been practicing without me.” I chase her down the field.
“Two brothers,” she hollers back.
“No fair. My brother never played soccer.” I put my game face back on and manage to score twice more. When we finally decide we’ve had enough, I’m still ahead, three goals to one, but both Bianca and I are smiling. I realize our ‘game’ is the first time in days that I’ve thought about something other than Jason.
After a break, Bee practices throw-ins and then plays goalie so I can take a few penalty shots. I’m feeling giddy, so good I could probably practice all day, when I notice my arms are looking a little pink. The sun seems to be centered exactly over the field where we’re practicing and I only put sunscreen on my face.
“I’m turning into a lobster,” I say, passing the ball to Bianca and heading for the nearest shade. We both collapse onto the ground beneath an ancient oak tree. I feel my stomach rise and fall with each breath.
“So,” Bee says, blotting her forehead on the sleeve of her T-shirt. “You’re sure you’re ready to see him?”
“Ready,” I confirm. “And thanks for the workout. It felt good.”
“Maybe we can still get on a rec team somewhere.” She tosses the ball up into the sky and then catches it on her fingertips.
Bianca wanted to sign us up to play for her church’s team on Saturday nights. I told her no because I figured I’d be playing on Jason’s team and hanging out with him on the weekends.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “Like you said, we can work out together. Besides, August practices for the Archers will be here before I know it.” The St. Louis Archers is the select team I play for during the offseason. “You should try out too.”
“Nah. I get enough soccer in the spring,” Bee says. “My fall schedule is full of AP classes. I’m going to need my free time for studying.”
“Sounds boring.” I nudge her in the ribs. “Think about it. I bet you would totally make it.”
“All right. I’ll think about it.” She hops to her feet and lifts one of her legs behind her, pressing the heel of her shoe against her butt. She does the same thing with the other side, and then pulls the foot almost all the way up to her head. I watch with envy. I’m not even close to that flexible. “So what’s the plan for Jason?” she asks.
“I’m thinking maybe I should wait until Monday,” I say. “That’ll be a whole week since we’ve talked, and I know he has a ride-along shift so I can catch him if I go by his dad’s place in the morning.”
Bee leans against a tree and starts stretching her hamstrings. “You don’t think that’s a little stalkerish?”
“I think he shouldn’t have given me his schedule for all of June if he was going to break up with me at the beginning of the month,” I say. “Besides, if I call him, he’ll just ignore me. I need to swoop in like a falcon or something, right? Be unexpected. Be bold. Whatever.”
“Good point. You want me to spend the night Sunday so I can help you get ready?”
“That would be all kinds of epic.” I look up at her. “You can keep me from chickening out.”
“I’ve known you for what, ten years? I’ve never seen you chicken out,” Bee says. “If anyone can make this work, it’s you.” She reaches down and pulls me to my feet.
“With your help,” I remind her.
“With my help.” She smiles.“All right. I need to take off. My mom wants me to watch my brothers so she can sleep.” Bee’s mom is a nurse who works night shifts and her dad travels a lot for work. Her little brothers, Elias and Miguelito, are cute, but rowdy.
“Doesn’t your grandma ever watch them?”
“Hah.” Bee snorts. “I think someone needs to watch her too. I caught her making flan at three o’clock in the morning once. When I asked her what she was doing she said she was hungry.”
I smile. “Go give your mom a much-deserved break,” I say. “I’m good.” Working out calmed my mind. and thinking strategically makes me feel like I’ve regained some control over my life. Maybe Bianca’s right. Maybe The Art of War can fix things.
It’s time to put my plan into action.
Want to find out what happens next? Request The Art of Lainey at your local library or order the book from any of these retailers:
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