by Kim Hoover
A lazy small town summer in 1970s Texas turns treacherous when Cal Long’s mother goes missing. Cal and her best friend Rachel, along with sophisticated new friend Jane, use every trick in their teenage arsenal to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Along the way, Cal is drawn to Jane in ways she’s never felt before while Rachel struggles to understand her best friend’s new attraction. From Amarillo to Palo Duro Canyon to Ft. Worth and back, the girls puzzle through the connections surrounding the mystery of Cal’s mother’s disappearance.
But their shocking discoveries are soon eclipsed by the explosive consequences of Cal’s surrender to her feelings for Jane.
Girl Squad is a story of friendship, of betrayal, of passion, of awakening. And ultimately, a story of transformation.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Girl Squad was born out of my desire to recreate the landscapes of my childhood in 1970s Texas, including the geography, but also the confines of religious beliefs, gender conformity and heterosexual norms. Taking a look at the special bonds of teenaged girl friendship set against this background is the story I wanted to tell."
Intrigue, romance, and girl power: Hoover's debut novel delivers that and more with small-town Texas charm. In this story set during the 1970s in Dumas, Texas, readers meet Cal on the day she learns to her great distress that her parents are getting separated. But distraction arrives in the form of the new girl, Jane, who recently relocated to the area with her wealthy family after living in big cities. When 15-year-old Cal and her best friend, freckle-faced Rachel, get to know Jane at church camp, Cal develops feelings for Jane, and they soon pursue a romantic relationship. However, Cal is worried about her mother's relationship with a strange man. When her mom goes missing, the trio's amateur sleuthing leads them into trouble. Worried that her mom's involvement with an organized crime leader may have led to her being kidnapped, the girls continue to snoop until they are caught in the center of the action. The drama unfolds at an even pace between the new couple struggling to come to terms with their feelings and social expectations while solving the mysterious affair between Cal's mom and the criminal mastermind. Ultimately Cal comes to understand the complexities both of her mother's situation and her own identity. Major characters are assumed white; Native American characters are referred to generically without recognition of their nations. A mystery/thriller wrapped in a hopeful coming-of-age and coming-out tale.
“For Pete’s sake, Carrie Ann, can you sit like a lady for once? You’re too old to be acting like a contortionist at the Texas State Fair.”
My mother had pulled me out of bed after midnight, throwing a robe at me and saying nothing more than “come to the living room.” I obeyed, taking my usual place in the family circle—a swiveling velvet chair. I slumped down, my legs slung over the right arm, and my hands exploring the split-ended strands of hair that fell to my shoulders.
My dad sat nearby, his elbows on his thighs, his hands cradling his head. The television set, a heavy wooden console that sat next to the couch, flickered blankly, the fuzzy screen bathing him in light. I saw that he was crying. I looked at my mother, trying to read her expression. She was not crying. In fact, she looked happier than I had seen her in a long time.
“I said, sit up straight.” She pointed a finger at me.
When she spoke, in that drawly voice of hers, my dad raised his head, glanced at me and straightened his back. “Leave her alone, Joyce, why don’t you? She’ll have enough to deal with after tonight.”
I sat up at that, looking from one to the other. My mother pulled an upholstered wing-backed chair from the dining room and sat, perched on the edge like a blue jay assessing her prey. My dad let his head fall into his hands again while she primly folded hers in her lap, like a lady in church. When she spoke, I no longer recognized her voice. She was someone different, someone cold, emotionless, saying something that made no sense.
“Your father and I, we have decided to…to try a…to separate.”
What? I jerked my head quickly in his direction. He stared straight ahead, not looking at her or at me, and giving no indication he had anything to add to her pronouncement. What is happening? My face burned hot with outrage, and suddenly, feeling as if everything I had ever known or understood about myself was all wrong, I jumped to my feet.
“Are you crazy?”
I stood toe-to-toe with my mother, towering over her with every scrap of energy I could muster, demanding a response. She sat perfectly still and remained silent. I fumed, my anger boiling to the point that I had to use all my willpower to resist slapping her in the face.
“You can’t do this to me.” By now I was panicked. “You can’t get a divorce. How will we live? What will my friends say? What will your friends say?”
All I could think of was a long list of terrible things that would happen to me, like facing people at church as that girl from a broken home, or shopping at Goodwill because we couldn’t afford clothes. The fear gurgled in my gut and I thought I might vomit.
“Calm down,” she said.
I ignored her, and, recovering a little, bounded over to my father’s crouched and cowering frame.
“Do something!” I demanded, my voice cracking and tears overtaking my face like a gushing fire hydrant. “Please, Dad.”
He looked up and the desperation darkening his eyes crushed my hope of a solution. He was defeated. Whatever had happened between them had killed his spirit.
“Are you moving out?”
My tears had dried with the realization I had no option but to accept my mother’s will. Hers was the strongest force that intersected with my life and I had long ago learned not to waste energy once her decision was clear.
“He’s looking for an apartment,” she said.
My attention snapped back to her. “Apartment? Where? I didn’t know there were any apartments in this town.”
“Yes. Even in this godforsaken town, there are apartments. There’s a complex over by the Coronado shopping center. They have a pool.”
I had never known anyone who lived in an apartment. Dumas was a small Texas town lined with rows of three bedroom/two bathroom, brick, one-story houses. I had a momentary vision of inviting my friends to a pool party over the summer. Then I banished that thought as I considered what my friends’ parents would say behind our backs about that pitiable divorced man living like a bachelor. I slumped to my chair, gloom and dread covering me like a damp smelly blanket.
“Get to bed,” she said, standing and signaling the end of this farcical family meeting.
“Where’s Dad sleeping?”
“Mind your own business.”
“In the guest room,” he said, saying something at last.
He brushed past me, and I thought of saying something encouraging like “hang in there,” or “you’ll be fine,” but I guessed he probably didn’t want to hear anything like that right now.
As I stepped into my room, I saw a bright light shining onto my curtains from outside. I peeked from the side window and caught a glimpse of a man in a fancy car pulling away from our curb. But the distraction didn’t last and I fell into bed with the weight of the world coming down on me.
Under the covers the tears came back, along with deep, hard sobs. I buried my face in the softness of my pillow, feeling sure no one in the world had it as hard as I did. No one had a mom as mean as I did or a dad as pathetic.
Two months later…
I caught a glimpse of my mother standing on the front porch of our ranch-style house, looking up and down the block, squinting against the hot July sun. The summer was in full swing and I was enjoying the freedom of lazy days and keeping my own schedule. She waved me in as I came around the corner on my prized possession—a no-name-brand bike that I had tricked out to look like a Schwinn Stingray. My friend Rachel had the real thing, since her parents were willing to spend money they didn’t have, but I had to save every penny for a whole summer to have enough to buy the banana seat and chopper handlebars fitted onto mine. The bike frame was not short and sleek like a Stingray, so it looked like a town car trying to be a sports car, but I didn’t care.
I sped toward the house as fast as I could go. My long, dark hair slapped my face as it whipped in the high winds. I was late. I parked the bike in the garage and stepped over the grease spot left on the concrete floor by my dad’s Chevy. A pang of guilt hit me because I rarely thought about him between our scheduled visits. Not having him around wasn’t that different from when he lived with us. His work schedule meant he worked evenings and nights two thirds of the time. He had never made an effort to pay attention to me on the evenings he was home. And if he did say something to me, it was usually a complaint, a criticism, or an order. The only thing I can remember we ever really did together was watch the Dallas Cowboys on TV after church and maybe play a game of pickup football during halftime. That was fun.
Mom and I had fallen into a rhythm without him, not having to say too much to each other, knowing what our jobs were, almost like roommates. But I had crossed a line by being late for dinner.
I went straight for the silverware drawer, avoiding eye contact with her, hoping I could slide by without a tongue-lashing. I laid out the utensils on the table without saying a word. I held my breath, waiting for the bite.
“How many times have I told you—”
“I know! We had a team meeting after softball practice.”
“It’s no excuse,” she said, putting a plate of chicken fried steak in front of me. “Supper is at five thirty and you know it. And anyway, why do you have to play that stupid game? You’re a girl.”
“It’s girls’ softball.”
“It’s not proper for girls to run around in the dirt hitting balls and yelling like hyenas.”
There was no point in arguing. She sat across from me, her shoulder-length auburn hair pulled back and clipped at the nape of the neck. People had always said my mother was beautiful and now that I was fifteen, I could see it for myself. She dressed carefully, outfitted with earrings, necklace, bracelets, and scarves—just to sit down to dinner with me. She always wore lipstick and full makeup. She made her own clothes and mine too. She’d say, “Why buy from the store when I can make something better and cheaper?”
I glanced over at the empty chair where my father used to sit. Sure, I missed him, but, for the most part, I was fine with the way things were and my routine with Mom. This night, like most nights, we ate without speaking to each other. When I finished, I got up to go to my room.
“You clean up,” she said.
“But I thought we were taking turns—”
“I said, you clean up.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Poor little Cal. So put upon.”
She gave me the look that I called the hairy eyeball. I complied, even though we had a clear agreement that we would trade off cleaning up after supper and I had done it the night before. I slammed the pans around in the sink. I hated it when she used that “put upon” thing with me.
“Dang!” I screamed, smashing my finger accidentally as I brought the frying pan down with a thud.
When I had dried everything and put it all away, I picked up the telephone receiver that hung on the wall next to the sink and called Rachel.
“I’m coming over.”
Rachel’s mom opened the door. She was so different from mine. She didn’t care that her house was a mess with piles of clothes all over the floor, even in the entryway. And she let Rachel get away with murder as far as cleaning up or doing her homework or going to church. Our moms had one thing in common, their looks. Rachel’s mom had her hair piled on her head in a fancy do and she wore full makeup on her already gorgeous face. Her outfit was something she could have worn on a fancy date, but she always dressed that way.
“Oh, hi, Cal. Come on in. Rachel’s in the living room.” She stepped back to let me by, the ash of her cigarette firing as she sucked on the plastic tip.
Rachel waved my way without taking her eyes off the TV or removing the fork from her mouth. A frozen dinner teetered precariously on her knees. She was spoiled. She looked up at me and grinned like she knew what I was thinking, her bangs falling into her eyes, her freckled face framed by a pixie haircut.
“You think you’re so cute,” I said.
“Can I make some ice tea?”
“Use the pan that’s on the stove,” she said, waving toward the kitchen.
I boiled water and poured it into a plastic pitcher over three Lipton tea bags. As the tea bags steeped, I felt the anger and frustration slip away. Rachel’s house had always been my refuge. The place with no rules. The place I could run to when my house felt too heavy. Iced tea in hand, I flopped onto the couch next to Rachel, letting out a sigh.
“Have you been paying attention to this?” She pointed to the television and I saw it was a special news report on Watergate.
“Of course. I wrote our congressman a letter about it for an assignment in our typing class last spring.”
“Did he write you back?”
“He did, but he didn’t say much really. Said he didn’t want to comment on something that was an ongoing investigation or something like that.”
“I think he’s a crook,” Rachel said, pointing her fork at the TV.
“Adults really know how to mess up the world,” I said, crossing my arms in disgust.
“What’s your deal? Your mom again?”
“It’s nothing really. You know her. We just get on each other’s nerves sometimes.”
“What’s it about now?”
“Well, you’re the only one to take it out on now.”
“I’m just glad we’re leaving tomorrow for camp.”
“I’m already packed!” Rachel said.
“Yeah, me too.”
We stayed up until midnight watching reruns of Perry Mason while Rachel practiced making origami butterflies.
“What are you going to do with all those?” I asked, pointing to the messy pile of butterflies on the floor.
“I’m not sure,” she said, giving them a loving look. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
“If you say so.”
“I’ve been thinking about getting a butterfly bush for the yard. I read about it in a magazine. I think they’d like that.”
“You know they’re not alive, dingbat. They don’t have feelings.”
“You say that, but how do you know? Why isn’t it just as likely that a soul enters their body once they’re finished and then they transform,” she said with a flourish, her arms opening in a swoop to the ceiling while she gazed into the space above her head.
I looked at her blankly. I had no answer to that. Sometimes even I couldn’t quite understand what went on in Rachel’s head. I slept over and the next morning we drained glasses of Carnation Instant Breakfast before crossing the street to my house.
Mom drove us to the church to pick up the bus to camp. I slid the window down and felt the dry, hot air on my skin. Not many people had automatic controls on their cars and I was proud we did. I hung my arm out the window and closed my eyes.
“Don’t wear that out,” Mom said, frowning and pointing to the control button.
“Why? Does it run down the battery?”
“I’m sure it could.”
I made a face at Rachel in the backseat like, “Oh boy, the battery could run down.” She pretended to push her window button up. I laughed so hard I got the hiccups.
“Stop it, Cal,” Mom said. “That’s so unladylike.”
She could kill my good mood faster than a lightning strike. I turned away from Rachel and stared out the window at the flat, treeless horizon. Just on the other side of the road, the wheat fields shimmered in the sun, giving the illusion of a watery wave undulating as far as I could see. I stared a little too long and it made me dizzy. We turned on Second Street and cut through block after block of brick, ranch-style houses on identical lots that made up that side of town.
A few minutes later we hit Main Street. We rolled past a row of one-story shops—a bakery, a drycleaner, a plumbing supply store, a food market, all places I’d grown up with. I had never lived anywhere else. The church rose on the corner at the far end of Main, its heavy façade dominating the block. Mom pulled the Buick into the church parking lot and went to the spot closest to the main door.
“Privilege of being Volunteer of the Month,” she winked.
She taught Sunday school to fourth graders. Her regular job was part-time at an accountant’s office where she did bookkeeping.
“Okay, girls,” she said, giving us both a hug. “Be good.”
“She’s all happy chappy all of a sudden,” Rachel said as we boarded the bus and got settled in back.
“That’s how it is these days. One minute she’s mad as hell. The next she can’t stop smiling.”
I glanced out the window to see if she was going to wave goodbye to us and caught a glimpse of her in the parking lot with a man I hadn’t seen before.
“I wonder who that is?”
“Who?” Rachel said, looking over her shoulder.
“The guy talking to my mom.”
He was tall and well-built with a shock of red hair.
“I don’t recognize him,” I said.
“Who knows?” Rachel said, turning her attention back to the group.
As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, I gazed at Mom and him for as long as I could. I lost sight of her just as, I could have sworn, it looked like she got into a car with him. And not just any car. It looked the same as the one I’d seen the night she dragged me out of bed to tell me about the divorce. I thought about it for a few miles, but before long, the gossip from school took over and I let it go.
The hottest story going around was about this new family who had just moved in over the summer. They were all the talk because they bought the biggest house in town. There were two kids—one boy our age and one girl older than us. The boys were all bug-eyed over the girl, Jane. They talked about her like she was some kind of beauty queen. All of us girls were getting worked up about hating her before we’d even seen her. Word was she was coming to camp, but her mom was driving her because she didn’t believe the church bus was safe. How weird, we all thought. Who would want their parents dropping them off like that? She sounded like a horrible spoiled brat.
That first morning, I tiptoed out of the girls’ dorm and into the great room of the church’s cabin. No one else was up yet. I had unsuccessfully tried to drag Rachel out of bed. I walked by the fireplace that dominated the room and out into the New Mexico summer. It was still cool before the sun came up. This was my favorite part of the day. I loved to see the sunrise.
“Look at that,” I said out loud to myself as I sat on a rock ledge watching it come up that first morning.
“Hey,” Rachel said, climbing up to sit next to me. “I’m really mad at you.”
“What did I do?”
“You ruined my dream. I couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“What was the dream?”
“I was an astronaut. I was in Houston and I was about to be the first girl in space.”
“Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t mean to.”
“It was so real,” she said, staring out at the desert.
“Come on, we’ll be late for roll call.”
As we walked back to the cabin for breakfast, we passed the outdoor amphitheater, the wooden benches rising up against a backdrop chiseled out of the red rocks and red dirt. We walked by buildings with classrooms for study sessions. And there was a canteen where, if you had some spending money, you could buy candy bars and Cokes.
“How do you get to be an astronaut anyway?” Rachel asked.
“Hmm. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing you probably need to be good at science.”
“Shoot. I got a C last year.”
“That’s because you don’t try. You didn’t turn in your project on time.”
“Right. But how did I know it was gonna ruin my chance to be an astronaut?”
“Yep. That was it. The only thing standing between you and a moon shot.”
It took her a second to realize I was kidding. “You are evil, Carrie Ann.”
“Don’t call me that!”
As we walked through the prayer garden, I heard someone coming up from behind and turned to see who it was. I caught my breath. Oh my god. That’s her. Jane. My stomach felt like I’d swallowed one of the nearby cacti. Why was I so nervous all of a sudden? My throat tightened up. I was dying for water.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi.” My voice sounded strange and I just stood there, staring at her like an idiot.
“You must be Jane,” Rachel said.
“And you are?”
“I’m Rachel. She’s Cal.”
I noticed her clothes right away. They looked expensive and not like anything you could get in Dumas. I understood why the boys had been so loopy over her. She was different from the rest of us, that’s for sure. She was almost too perfect, even the way she stood there with her purse over her shoulder, her outfit put together just so, like someone you would see on the cover of a magazine.
“Where are you off to?” she asked.
“It’s time for roll call. Aren’t you coming?”
“Is that a Bible?” she asked, ignoring my question and pointing to my clutched hand.
Before I could stop myself, I said, “Good News for Modern Man.” I could see she had no idea what I was talking about. “You know, The New Testament. In modern language?”
She stepped closer and held my eyes so long I had to look away. “Do you buy all that?”
I paused, backing up, thinking, maybe for the first time, about whether there was any choice. “Are you asking if I believe in the Bible?”
She sat down on a stucco bench and motioned for us to join her. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and lit one. I gasped and exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Rachel, shocked at how bold she was.
“Want one?” she asked.
I shook my head, looking around to see if anyone else was coming, my heart beating rapidly. Rachel just sat there with her mouth hanging open. We sat silently, me worried about her getting caught smoking.
“I’ve never been to a Bible camp before,” she said.
“Do you like it?” Why do I care? Don’t be such a geek.
She raised her eyebrows and leaned back against the bench, crossing her legs. Her thighs flexed at the hem of her skirt and I noticed how muscular her legs were. I must have stared a little too long.
“Soccer,” she said.
“I play soccer. That’s why I have these quads.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”
How stuck up.
“My father thought this camp would be a good way for me to meet some kids before school starts again since we got here so late.”
“I see,” I said, now just wondering how we could get away from her without being rude.
“He says these churches are the center of social life in a small town, especially in Texas. And hey, don’t be disappointed.”
“I’m…what? What do you mean?”
“I can tell this stuff means a lot to you.” She waved her cigarette hand in a circle.
I turned red. I could feel it. Is she making fun of me? I wanted to change the subject. It was as though Rachel read my mind when she jumped in.
“You’re not from Texas, then,” she said, more of a statement than a question.
“I was born in California. We lived in LA until I was in fifth grade. Then we moved to Houston, now here. My dad’s in the oil business. He’s a petroleum engineer.”
She said it so matter-of-factly, like it was normal to have an engineer for a father.
“Wow,” I said, wondering what California was like, or even Houston. “But why here?”
“He got hired to run some big project. Something about a petroleum reserve. I’m not really sure what it’s about, but it’s a big deal. I guess I’ll be stuck here through high school. Unless I decide on boarding school.”
She blew a plume of smoke into the air above her head. Boarding school—one more thing I couldn’t imagine. I wasn’t even sure what it was, exactly. But I wasn’t going to show it.
“Boarding school. That would be cool,” I said, trying hard to sound like I knew what I was talking about.
“It’s in upstate New York. My mother went there.”
“What’s it like? Have you ever been there?”
“I visited last year on spring break. I have to decide soon if I’m going to go there.”
We sat in silence for a minute or two as she finished her cigarette.
“So,” she said, “are you doing this Santa Fe thing?”
“Yeah, we always do. It’s great. You get to bargain with the Native Americans. They have all their stuff laid out on blankets around the square. You should go.”
“It’s a date,” Jane said, touching my knee as she stood up to leave. “See you later.”
Don’t go! I watched her walk, her sandals clicking on the stone walkway. Her blouse lifted in the wind and I saw her bare back. A rush went through me, like a flock of birds just took off from the middle of my stomach.
That night after dinner and cleanup, we all got together in the great room in front of the fireplace. The Youth Minister wanted to do a music talent show and encouraged anyone who could sing or play an instrument to come up to the front. Several kids came forward who could play piano, acoustic guitar, and conga drums.
I played the clarinet, but this was no place for that. I had taken guitar lessons for a while, until Mom decided she didn’t want to spend the money or time driving to the teacher’s house. I still practiced on an old one I picked up from a pawn shop, but I was too shy to play in front of a crowd. The Youth Minister knew I had been working on it, though, and he called me up.
“No!” I panicked. “Not by myself.”
“I’ll play with you,” someone said.
It was Jane, who was making her way to the guitar stands and looking over the options. My heart was beating so fast and hard that I thought I was going to pass out. I was lightheaded as I walked toward the front of the group.
“Here,” Jane said, handing me one of the guitars, “you play rhythm.”
I fumbled with the strap, my hands jittery as I sat in a chair next to her.
“Just follow my lead,” she whispered into my ear as we set up.
We played folk songs while the singers, and there were lots of them, took turns leading or going solo. I managed to keep up with Jane, strumming chords and feeling more confident with each song. She would look at me every so often, nodding and smiling like she approved.
“That was so cool,” I said, stealing glances at her as we put everything away for the night. “How did you learn to play so well?”
“My mom,” Jane said. “She plays.”
“Wow. She taught you herself?”
“She stuck a guitar in my hand when it was bigger than I was.”
“I could teach you…if you want.”
“Really? But you don’t have to.”
“I want to. You’ve got potential,” she laughed.
“Oh, yeah, right,” I laughed. “We could go on the road and sell out shows.”
“You never know…” She tweaked my nose, sending stars swimming in front of my eyes.
“Hey,” Rachel said, joining us. “Do you want to do s’mores out by the firepit?”
“You go ahead,” Jane said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Hey!” I called.
She turned to look at me.
“Thanks. Thanks again.”
She winked and walked away.
“Cal,” Rachel said as we sat roasting marshmallows by the fire. “What’s going on?”
“With that girl. Jane.”
I might have paused for half a second before I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re acting all…googly or something.”
“Just because I’m being nice to a new girl doesn’t mean I’m googly.”
She gave me a look that said you’re full of it.
“Stop,” I said.
Rachel didn’t say anything else, but I knew she was right. Something about Jane made me feel…shaky, off balance. Not like my normal self. I’d only known her for a day, but I got a weird hollow feeling when I thought about her. I didn’t want to talk to Rachel about it. I didn’t understand it. I wanted to push it away and pull it back at the same time.