Even though the bus smelled like Pringles and gym socks, it was the single greatest ride of Maya’s life. Sure, she was the pillow for an old woman for most of the last twenty-three hours (Maya had swoon she was dead around Richmond), but she was finally here. She was here! And as she stepped off the bus and stood at the gates that opened to her final destination, the feeling that nearly knocked her out of her sneaks could be summed up in a single word: run.
Run? Was she insane? Everything she’d ever wantedâ€”everything she’d worked so hard forâ€”was on the other side of these gates. Maya couldn’t count the number of birthday candles, wishing-well coins, and wishbones that we sacrificed so that she could be standing on this very spot at this very moment. Nerves is all this was. And who would blame her? Beyond these gates, her life was about to change forever.
Maya had arrived at the Academy.
The Academy was, without question, the greatest sports training facility in the world. It was responsible for more Olympic gold medalists, Hall of Farmers, and number-one-ranked professional athletes than anywhere else on earth. The place was a factory, and its lone product was champions. Maya’s dream was to be one of them.
Even with all the competing Maya had done in her life, her hardest fight had been getting into the Academy. There were only two ways in: an obscene amount of talent or an obscene amount of cash. And even then, admission wasn’t a guarantee. There was a waiting list to get on the waiting list. Because Maya’s family was more or less broke, her only hope had been to earn a scholarship.
The first year she tried out for one, the rejection was a disappointment. The second year, she cried in front of the recruiter. The third year, she didn’t come out of her room for a week. On the fourth try, she was so used to the official rejection that she started mouthing the words as the recruiter spoke. Maya was blone away when he’d actually started saying something different. Finally she had done it. This sixteen-year-old have-not from central New York with absolutely no connections whatsoever had somehow made it into the most exclusive club. To this moment she still thought it might be a giant practical joke.
As tough as it was to get in, it had been almost as tough for Maya to leave home. She wasn’t one of those kids who hated their parents. Her mother and father didn’t know the first thing about tennis, but they supported her 100 percent. They didn’t have much money, but whatever they had they invested in her. In her dream. She never felt the need to rebel. What was there to rebel against? So the scene at the station, when she’d loaded her last suitcase under the bus, had been a hot mess.
There were tears, hugs, and fistfuls of cash and coins shoved into her pockets like she was a Thanksgiving turkey. Her mother made her promise to call her every day, any time she got injured, and the second she even thought she might be coming down with something. Her father warned her about guys and threatened to beat up anyone who hurt his baby, which was ludicrous since (a) Maya had never so much as brought a guy home and (b) the only thing her father fought was the battle of the bulge.
“Name?” The guard stared down at her from his post at the gates.
“Hart, Maya Hart.” Was she screaming? She felt like she was screaming. She watched the guard enter her name into the system. With his pencil-thin mustache and his uniform starched to tortured perfection, he resembled a cop more than campus security. After what felt like an eternity, his printer started to whir. It wasn’t a practical joke after allâ€”she was in the system. He handed her a pass.
“Take this to Admissions. Welcome to the Academy, Maya Hart.” He opened the gates. Maya swallowed hard. She grabbed her bags, took a deep breathâ€¦and walked inside.
Maya stood in the main office with a welcome packet that practically weighed more than she did. The sheer number of things she had to sign off on receiving before getting her dorm key was staggering. Maps, class schedules, rules, regulations, safety precautions, emergency contact numbers, codes of conduct, nondisclosure agreementsâ€¦(Maya didn’t even know what a nondisclosure agreement was, but she’d sign anything to get that key.) Finally, it was placed in her hand. As she looked down at it, this key she had dreamed about since she was in single digits, she knew she wouldn’t hesitate to bite the fingers off anyone who tried to take it from her.
But she wasn’t fast enough.
“Hey!” Maya turned, ready to take action. Her eyes went wide. Staring her dead in the face was none other than three-time Super Bowl MVP Nails Reed. Nails was a quarterback and a living legendâ€”six foot four, square-jawed, and an idol to millions (including Maya’s father). But he was most important to her as the owner of the Academy. He made the final decisions on who came. And who went.
“Watson, twenty-six, huh?” he said, reading her key. “You’re the new girl. Persistent, from what I hear.”
“Maya Hart,” she said. Was she supposed to gush over him? Act nonchalant? Compliment his hair? The most famous person she’d met before him was the guy who played the grapes in the Fruit of the Loom commercials. Truth be told, that was probably the great day of her life until now.
“Your folks parking the car?” By his tone it was clear that most kids didn’t arrive solo.
“They couldn’t get off work.” For the first time, Maya was relieved about that. Her dad would’ve been riding Nails piggy-back up and down the hallway and regurgitating stats even Nails himself didn’t know.
Nails looked around her. “Where’s the rest of your stuff?”
“This is it,” she replied. She had two suitcases and a tennis bag, which she’d felt fully confident with until this very moment. She waited for him to say something that would make her feel better about it.
“Follow me.” Okay, maybe not. He walked on. Maya didn’t hesitate. She grabbed her stuff and, like a shot, took off after him.
He held the rear door of the Admissions building open. Sunlight flooded in. If Maya’s mind wasn’t blown before, it was definitely blown now. Like Dorothy Gale from Kansas, she stepped out from black and white into color. She was in Oz.
And by the looks of it, Oz didn’t come cheap.
The Academy wasn’t a sweat-stained training ground; it was a resort. Office buildings were bungalows, and dorms were million-dollar villas with Mercedes and BMWs lined up out front, pristine and sparkling clean as if driven here directly off the lot. The pool to her right came complete with cabanas and an attendant. Up ahead, there were a cluster of stones, from Hermes and Versace to Prada and Manolo Blahnik, with an Aveda spa sandwiched in between.
Trees and lanterns lined every pathway. Fountains and flowers dotted every lawn. It made the Garden of Eden look like a weed- infested parking lot, which, coincidentally, was
the view from Maya’s bedroom window back home. Throughout was the most impressive sight of all: half- dressed, hard-bodied guys and girls soaking up the sun, modeling their six-hundred-dollar Chanel shades and designer swimsuits, and strutting around like the glorious, God- gifted peacocks they were. All Maya could think was, Sports happen here?
“We want the Academy to be your world,” Nails said. “So we’ve made sure everything you could possibly want or need is right here on this campus.”
“How about a trust fund?” Maya said with a laugh.
Nails didn’t offer so much as a smile. “When you’re good, that’s not a problem for long.” She couldn’t tell if it was an endorsement or a warning. She didn’t remember Nails being this serious in his Slim Jim commercial.
They continued their tour. He told her about the amenities, the on- campus high school, the facilities, the famous athletes whose sweat was soaked into every square inch of the place. The fifty- two tennis courts, the two golf courses, the Olympic- sized swimming pool, the basketball courts . . .Around every corner was something new to take her breath away. A 24- karat baseball diamond, a state- of- the- art track field. Even the building used for classes made Maya actually want to go. They approached a football field that was so meticulously manicured that it looked fake. On it was one serious pickup game. Maya spotted someone watching the game from the stands. Someone familiar.
“Wait,” Maya said, looking at him. “Isn’t that . . . ?” She sharpened her focus. “It is! That’s what’s-his- name from that disaster movie, the one where the guy has twenty-four hours to stop the moon from crashing into the earth! Does he have a kid who goes here?”
“Celebrities come here all the time,” Nails said, unimpressed. “Hollywood is where people go to gawk at stars. The Academy is where stars come to do their gawking. They’re
either here to see our alums who keep this place as their home base or they’re coming to see what superstars are around the corner. You better get used to it, fast.”
Maya nodded emphatically. But she had no idea how anyone could ever get used to that. Why would you even want to?
Nails flagged down one of the guys on the field. The quarterback. Everyone stopped midplay so the kid could run over to them. As he got closer, Maya froze. Broad- shouldered, clean-cut, dimples for days. He was without a doubt the most beautiful specimen of man she’d ever seen.
“My son Travis,” Nails said as he was nearly to them. Of course, Maya thought. In addition to being physically flawless,he had to be filthy rich, too. Maya suddenly became acutely aware that she’d spent the last day on a bus marinating in other people’s funk.
“Travis, you’re not stepping into your throw enough,” Nails told him when he’d reached them. “You should be sixty percent on your front foot when you’re releasing the ball.”
“Like this?” Travis asked. He tried to work out the motion, but his father had to step in and adjust his weight for him. Travis was more than happy for the correction. It was clear by the reverence he had for his father that Travis wasn’t an unwilling Mini- Me. As they continued to perfect the motion, Maya couldn’t help but think she would’ve ventured off the tennis court more often if she knew guys like Travis Reed roamed the earth. As it was, she had no idea what to say or how to react if he ever looked her way.
Suddenly, he was looking her way.
God, he was beautiful. And she was frozen. She had no idea how long it was before he ran back to his game. A moment? An hour? It was just a brief, polite smile, but it was enough to make Maya swoon out of her socks. If only . . .
“You coming or not?” Nails was waiting for her to continue their walk. Oh, God, she thought, how long had she been staring? Did he notice? She bolted from her spot to catch up.
After a few more sights that Maya couldn’t even concentrate on, they wound up at a strange place. It was almost like they’d crossed some imaginary border. The buildings were
somewhat less impressive, the surroundings not quite as pretty as a postcard.
“Watson Hall, this is your stop.” Nails motioned to her new home.
“Where’s the HermÃ¨s store?” Maya asked. She always joked when she was nervous. By the blank expression looking back at her, she knew Nails was not one to be joked with.
“Thank you so much,” she said, eager to move on. “My father will flip when I tell him I got my tour of the campus from the Nails Reed.”
“Tour?” Nails asked. “I don’t give tours. This was just on the way to a meeting. Ms. Hart, this campus is six hundred acres. It’s up to you to figure it out.”
“Oh,” she said. Her VIP tour suddenly felt a lot less VIP.
“Um, before you go, I just wanted to say . . . being here is . . .being here is an absolute dream come true. People say that, but . . . for me, it is. And I won’t take a second of itâ€” not a single secondâ€” for granted. And I am per sis tent. I want to be the number- one player in the world, and I’m going to get there.” She wasn’t usually so direct, but she was being genuine. It felt right. And she felt powerful saying it.
Nails was as unmoved by her statement as he was by the movie star they’d passed earlier. “Everyone wants to be number one here,” he said. “Everyone’s a phenom. That’s why our scholarships are provisional. You have six months to prove you not only want to be a star, but also that you have the goods to pull it off. Six months, or you’re out. Have a nice day.” With that, he was gone.
As Maya stood there alone, the fear that overwhelmed her outside the gates returned. It pounded her like a wave. But this time, she understood it. After fighting like a dog to get in, after busing down the entire eastern seaboard to get here, that urge to run was really the intense and all- too- familiar feeling that she didn’t belong. That Maya might quite possibly be in way over her head.