When I placed my order, I had no idea it would be my last medium curly fry and regular Coke for the next two months. If I’d known, I would have asked for a large.

I carried my tray to the condiments station for a glob of ketchup, extra salt, napkins, and a straw. Where to sit? My friend Tammy usually met me here on Thursdays for dinner after track practice, but she’d been out sick this week. I bit my lip for a moment before choosing an empty table by the window.

A bunch of guys from our school’s baseball team sat in a booth along the wall. Brody Tipton, who I recognized from cross country, was sitting with them. Tall and wiry, he looked uncomfortably crowded in the molded plastic, especially with three other big guys. During the fall season, Brody and I had acted like goofballs together at practice, sometimes playing pranks and always goading one another as the top male and female runners on the team—but that only happened in cross country. Our paths rarely intersected inside the school. I hadn’t talked to him since before Christmas, and now it was the first week of March.

Ravenous and with no one to talk to, I stared through the glass and devoured my fries. My favorites were the ones that formed tight, spiraling ringlets, and I searched through the pack to eat those first.

Cross country was the social misfit in the hierarchy of our high school’s sports, but I enjoyed it much more than track and field. The longest event in track was only 3200m (two miles). I ran that and the 1600m (one mile), but I preferred the three miles of trails we ran in cross country, the cool fall air, the crunch of leaves under my tennis shoes, the rocky hills, and the muddy streams.

I started running 5K and 10K races with my big brother, Julian, when I was ten, and we hit every event in three counties. People probably became sick of calling our names and handing us trophies in our respective age groups. In middle school I joined the junior varsity cross country team. That had been Julian’s senior year, so we only ran together for one year before he left for college, but the wooded trails around the high school still reminded me of him. Since entering graduate school, he didn’t come home to visit very often.

Brody Tipton pulled out the chair across from me and plopped down, breaking my reverie. “Where’s your sidekick?”

I swallowed before answering. “Tammy has bronchitis.”

“I’m glad I ran into you here.” His voice sounded serious. “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

I nodded like we ran into each other all the time and this conversation was no big deal.

“Go to the prom with me,” he said.

“Um,” I said, confused and sure he was playing some kind of trick on me. I glanced over at the table of other boys to see if they were laughing. “That wasn’t really a question.”

“Just say yes, Olivia.” He offered me that lopsided grin with dimples, and his blue eyes pleaded with me from beneath a long swag of honey blonde bangs.

“Yes…?”

“Awesome!” He looked ready to slap me with a high five.

I still couldn’t believe what had just happened.

“Is this a joke or something?” The words flew out of my mouth before I thought better of them.

“No! Why would you think that?”

The puzzled expression on his face told me that I shouldn’t have asked. “Nothing,” I said, “it’s just a weird surprise, that’s all.”

“If you don’t want to go with me…”

“No, I do! Really, I just wasn’t expecting you to ask.” Fear went through me at the thought that he might withdraw his invitation. What kind of idiot was I? When Prince Charming asked you to the ball, you didn’t stop and ask him, “Are you really sure you want to take me?”

Around us, the noise in the dining area was a roar. Nervously, I picked up another seasoned curly fry and swabbed it through the ketchup before popping it into my mouth.

“I know the prom’s not until May,” he said. “But you have to ask early to get a really good prom date.” He winked at me, as if he thought I fell into that category. He flashed a smile of straight white teeth and cute dimples again. “And,” he added, looking down at my tray, “that gives you a couple of months to lose a little weight.”

My eyes popped open. “Lose weight?”

“For the dress.” He laughed. “Oh come on, don’t look at me like that! I know how all you girls like to slim down to fit into that perfect prom dress that’s at least two sizes smaller than you usually wear and then spend at least a thousand dollars on pictures of yourselves in it.”

“Not me. I’m a tomboy, remember?”

He nodded, not even listening. “For last year’s prom, Erica lost something like twenty pounds. She looked amazing.”

I felt suddenly conscious of the fact that my grungy hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and I was still wearing dirty sweats from practice.

“I know how competitive the two of you always were,” he continued. “You’re going to be beautiful. I know it.”

The half-eaten burger and nearly empty package of fries cooled in front of me. I didn’t want them anymore. Was going to be beautiful? Did he think I was fat?

The other guys on the baseball team dumped their trays and shuffled loudly over to our table. “Hey, Brody, we’re heading out. You ready?”

“Yeah.” He stood. “See you around,” he said. He gave me another dazzling smile.

He loped away with that distinctive long runner’s stride of his. Watching him go, I thought about the time last fall when he saved me from the team hazing at the creek. Some of the boys had already thrown Tammy into the mud, and they had me in a full swing, arms and legs stretched long, while they shouted, “One, two, three…”

“No!” I squealed. “Don’t do it!”

Brody appeared on the trail. I didn’t know why he’d lagged behind the group, but suddenly he yelled, “Stop it! Put her down… on the bank!”

“Aw, come on, Brody!”

“We don’t haze the girls,” he said. “Not that way. Put her down.”

Tammy stood there, dripping water and mud. “Where were you five minutes ago, Mr. Chivalrous?”

I felt myself being lowered to the ground. Girls weren’t hazed, since when? And wasn’t that sexist? Well, I wasn’t going to argue this point at the moment—at least not while I was three feet from being thrown into a pit of mud and cold water.

I jumped up, and Tammy and I hurried up the trail, away from the boys, before they changed their minds. Plus, it looked like someone was going into the creek today, even if not one of us. They continued to argue among themselves.

“Are you okay?” I asked Tammy as we jogged. I worried because she was rubbing her arm.

Her tennis shoes sloshed with every step. “I hit my elbow on a stump or a rock or something, but other than that, yeah.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m ticked off more than anything.”

I looked over my shoulder. Only their red shirts were visible through the leaves and underbrush now, but we could still hear raised voices.

“I think they’re going to throw Brody into the creek,” I said.

“They wouldn’t dare.”

And they didn’t. Brody had everyone’s respect. He was the top runner on the team this year, the senior, and the captain, and that meant that he sat where he wanted on the bus, took first place in line at our fast food pit stops, and got whatever else he wanted. Despite his royal status among us, he was nice. Sometimes when we walked a competitor’s course before the race at an away meet, Brody strolled beside me and talked strategy—or just friend stuff. He flirted with all the girls, and he was so gorgeous that it was easy to fall in love with him.

Now, I had a prom date with him in two months. It was a dream come true. I looked down at my tray of remaining food and felt sick to my stomach.

----------

At home later that night, I took a shower and got ready for bed. Wearing nothing but my underwear, I stood in front of the full-length bathroom mirror to take inventory. Wavy brown hair, plain brown eyes, average nose, flat lips, oblong face, and high cheekbones. With a critical eye, I also noticed that my thighs looked huge compared to the thin stilts that so many other girls in school called legs. And my hips and butt seemed too wide, like a big bubble back there. I’d always called my body “athletic.” Words like “stocky” and “muscular” described my figure. I was the fastest girl on the track and cross country teams.

Muscular, stocky girls weren’t beautiful, though. Skinny girls were. Girls like Erica Miller.

Last year in cross country, she and Brody had a thing, and they’d gone to the prom together in the spring before her graduation. In cross country, she hadn’t been much of a competitor; she sprinted well but couldn’t go the distance. In track, though, she beat me in the 1600m on multiple occasions because she could run a mile much faster than me. I hated losing to her.

Now that he’d reminded me, she had lost a lot of weight during track season, right before the prom.

Brody thought she’d looked amazing. But I could look amazing too. More amazing than her.

I stepped on the scale. After eating all that food and drinking that big soda, it said I weighed one hundred and twenty-eight pounds. I was five foot, four inches tall.

I combed my damp hair, turned off the bathroom light, and went to my bedroom. Losing weight fast was a problem because I didn’t have an anorexic or bulimic bone in my body. Neither of those dieting solutions would work for me. I needed to lose weight before the prom and still be able to run in track meets. Running was my life. I didn’t want to become a loser the way Erica had—just because of a stupid diet.

While my hair dried, I logged on my computer and did some quick searches for weight loss programs. Several familiar big names came up immediately; they ran commercials on TV every year around Christmas and New Year’s with celebrity sponsors.

I spotted a name of one I’d never heard before: Blubber Busters.

According to the FAQ, Blubber Busters was an online-only group founded by a woman named Ana Marie. To fight the battle of the bulge, Ana Marie devised a simple Boot Camp program that advocated daily activity and online groups for support, charting progress, and renewing commitment.

It sounded like something I could do—and it was free. That whole “Boot Camp” thing scared me. What did they make you do? I clicked on the link and read the description. The first week of Boot Camp instructions didn’t sound that unbearable:

1.      Log your weight every day.

2.      Log everything you eat.

3.      Week one: eat only lite brands of chicken soup or chicken broth, hard-boiled eggs, watermelon, and bananas. Drink plenty of water or diet drinks.

Weight loss was guaranteed, at least two pounds the first week, unless I somehow managed to gorge myself on something like five dozen eggs every day for breakfast.

Next, I went to the Groups section. There were lots of forums to choose from. I chose the Teens list and lurked for awhile. Everyone’s profile included their stats in the same format, like Bethany: 5’2”, 143.5 / 101. This meant her height, current weight and goal weight.

Bethany: 5’2”, 143.5 / 101: Down two more pounds this week. I’m always cold, but that means I’m burning calories, right? Ha, ha! I hope to reach my goal by summer bathing suit weather. I’m so tired of being fat.

Jane: 5’4”, 113 / 100: You’re doing great, Bethany. Keep up the good work, and you’ll be beautiful for the beach.

Jane was as tall as I was, and her goal weight was one hundred pounds. I was thinking that my goal weight should be one hundred and ten, but should I adjust mine down to one hundred too? Would I still be too fat, even at one hundred and ten?

Dana: 5’7”, 152.5 / 125: Is anyone else hungry? I’m starving all the time. I hate eggs, and chicken soup isn’t cutting it for me. Help!

Molly: 5’0”, 120 / 90: You need protein. Warm up a few extra grilled chicken chunks (low calorie) and add them to your soup. Don’t go overboard. Carbs only make you hungry.

Dana: 5’7”, 152.5 / 125: Thanks, I’ll try that. I’m exercising twice a day, too. That’s probably contributing to the hunger. I need to drink more water.

Exercising twice a day? I hadn’t thought about that. I could run before school and then again at practice. I’d burn twice as many calories, improve my running, and easily reach my goal weight before the prom.

Two months. That’s how much time I had to show Brody that I could lose more weight than Erica Miller and look stunning in the gown that I would need to save money to buy. I had some cash stashed away but wanted something really special. I wanted to transform myself from the tomboy in a ponytail into a total knockout.

It was the end of high school. My whole life was changing. Why not give myself a complete makeover in preparation for college? Just because I’d always been a tomboy and an athlete didn’t mean I had to stay that way.

I pressed my hands against the slight curve of my belly and ran them along the outward slope of my hips and thighs. Maybe I wanted to become thinner for myself, not just because Brody had thrown down the gauntlet. Maybe I wanted to see if I could.

I read the Blubber Buster boards for an hour or so, but then I had to sign off. It was after midnight, and I had school tomorrow, then the Friday evening shift at work. I needed sleep.