GEMMA MUST HAVE BEEN THE only overweight sixteen-year-old girl in the entire history of the United States who actually wished she could participate in gym. It would be one thing if she were excused to go to study hall or free period. But due either to “scheduling limitations” (the stated reason)—or, as Gemma suspected, the innate sadism of Ms. Vicke, the vice principal—instead Gemma was forced to go to gym and sit in the bleachers, pretend- ing to work, while the rest of her classmates zigzagged across the gym, their sneakers squeaking, or flew across the mulchy wet soccer fields, running drills.
In the bleachers, there was nowhere to hide. She might as well be a blinking Does Not Belong sign. Even worse: Mrs. Coralee, the gym teacher (also a sadist—the school was full of them), insisted that Gemma change into the puckered nylon shorts and matching tank tops the whole class was forced to wear, which on Gemma only served to further underscore how little she belonged—like wearing full-on ski gear to the beach.
“You are so lucky.” April Ruiz, Gemma’s best friend, swiped a lock of dark hair out of her eyes, as the girls filed back into the locker room. “I’m pretty sure dodgeball was invented by the same people who thought up rectal ther- mometers and wool tights.”
“Move it, Frankenstein.” Chloe DeWitt jabbed an elbow, hard, in the space where Gemma’s waist should have been, if she had a waist instead of a roll of flab where her waist should have been. Gemma probably had forty pounds on Chloe, but the girl was all sharp corners and she knew how to use them to her advantage. Her elbows felt like whittled blades. “Not all of us get to spend the whole period snacking.”
Gemma blushed. She had never, ever eaten in class. She had hardly ever eaten in the cafeteria, precisely so that Chloe, and girls like her, would never get the opportu- nity to make fun of her for it. But it didn’t matter. From the time Gemma was little, Chloe had made it her mis- sion to ensure that Gemma never forgot that she was a freak. In third grade, she’d hit on the name Frankenstein, after Gemma’s second heart surgery had left her with a thick scar from her chest to her navel. After that, Gemma had never changed except in a bathroom stall—and no one at school besides April and her teachers ever called her anything else.
What Gemma couldn’t understand was why—if she were so delicate, like her parents were saying (you’re del- icate, Gemma; that’s why we have to be so careful; no roller coasters, Gemma, your heart is delicate)—she couldn’t look delicate, like one of the small crystal animal figurines that
her mom collected and kept enclosed in the corner cabinet, with legs as thin as toothpicks. Like Chloe, with a tan that appeared permanently shellacked to the contours of her body, as finely chiseled and well-tuned as an instru- ment. Like she had been formed by a god with an eye for detail, whereas Gemma had been slapped together hap- hazardly by a drunk.
“Yeah,” she muttered, as Chloe and her friends con- verged on the sinks, laughing. “Lucky.”
“Don’t let Cruella get to you,” April said, in a low voice. April always took Gemma’s side. Years ago, they had decided that either they were two aliens in a school of humans or possibly the only two humans in a school of aliens. “Someone forgot to shoot her with her morning dose of tranquilizer.”
April and Gemma waited until Chloe and the pack wolves—a fitting nickname for more than metaphoric reasons, since Gemma was fairly sure that Aubrey Con- nelly had had her incisors filed into points, and wouldn’t have been surprised at all to learn that she liked the taste of human flesh—had changed before they stripped. They would both be late for study hall and would have to endure another lecture from Mr. Rotem. But anything was better than showering with the pack wolves.
“Good news,” April said, when the rest of the locker room had cleared out. “Mom finally caved on the Green Giant. I told her it wasn’t safe to drive sixty miles in that beast, much less six hundred. How’s that for strategy? I used her own psychology against her.”
“And so the hunted becomes the hunter,” Gemma said, in her best movie-announcer voice. Sometimes she thought her favorite part of the week was sitting on the
18 wooden bench just outside the shower stalls, which hadn’t been used in twenty years, talking with April while she washed her face and reapplied her makeup painstakingly, even though the end result always made it look like she wasn’t wearing any. Like they were in their own pro- tected world. But not a world her parents had made for her. A world she’d chosen.
“Something like that. Anyway, we’ll be cruising down to Florida in our very own Lexus. Can you believe it? My brother’s so pissed.”
Apart from Gemma’s, April’s parents were the most protective people Gemma knew. Neither Gemma nor April was allowed to date—not that it mattered, since nobody wanted to date them. The list of other things they weren’t allowed to do included, but was not limited to: (1) stay up past ten o’clock; (2) attend any school events or dances unless they were in a large group of females- only, which precluded them from going, since they had no other friends; (3) go to Raleigh unless April’s brother, a senior, chaperoned; (4) be on Instagram.
Gemma was sure that even if she were five-eleven and a supermodel look-alike, her parents’ absurd beliefs about social media (It rots the brain! It’s bad for self-esteem!) would have ensured she stayed on the bottom of the social food chain. She was also sure that when her mom and April’s got together, all they did was brainstorm elaborate and ever more absurd ways to make sure that both April and 19 Gemma stayed safe, friendless except for each other, and totally miserable.
When half the junior girls decided to spend spring break in Miami, Gemma hadn’t even bothered petition- ing her parents to be allowed to go. She knew she had just about as much chance of being named the first female president of the United States . . . at age sixteen. Besides, she had no desire to spend her vacation bumping into the same predators she spent all her time deliberately avoiding at school.
But April—who was not only prettier, smarter, and far more optimistic than Gemma, so much so that had they not been absolute, sworn lifelong best friends, co-aliens, outcasts together, Gemma would have despised her— hadn’t given in so easily. She’d begged her parents. She’d cried. She had thrown a tantrum—a risky proposition, since her mother, Angela Ruiz, a renowned prosecutor for the state, had been known to frighten grown men into confessions at first their meeting. (And her other mother, Diana, was a computer programmer who had won several kickboxing competitions in her early twenties.)
Then the miraculous had happened. April hit on the magic word: sexism.
It was sexism, April claimed, that her older brother, Ryan, got to go on spring break with his friends. It was 20 sexism that he got to drive a Lexus while she was stuck with the Green Giant, an ancient chartreuse station wagon. And even though Ryan was two years older, and the Lexus had been a congratulations gift for getting into Harvard early action, suddenly April’s moms had gener- ated a counteroffer: April and Gemma could take the car and drive down to Bowling Springs, Florida, for a week, where April’s grandparents lived.
Even better, they had convinced Gemma’s parents that it was a good idea.
And, yeah, sure, maybe hanging out in a community known for its 65+ dating scene and competitive weekly badminton tournament wasn’t exactly the spring break of every girl’s dream. But it was better than nothing. They could stay for a whole nine days, paddle around the pool, walk down to the community tennis courts and take their car to the beach. They could drink virgin piña coladas and sample fried gator at the local restaurants. Still better, they would have the house to themselves for three full days while April’s grandparents were off attending some weird Positive Visualization Health Retreat that involved a lot of yoga and deep breathing—a minor detail Gemma had managed to avoid in all of her conversations with her parents.
Discussing spring break plans with her best friend made Gemma feel all-American, beauty-magazine, country-song normal. So much so that she wasn’t sure 21 she actually wanted to go, just so she could keep talking about it.
April had to hop, haul, and wiggle to get into her jeans. Her preferred fit, she always said, was human sushi roll. Gemma’s was airy trash bag. “I’ll pick you up Saturday at eight a.m., got it?”
“Got it,” Gemma said. They’d agreed on Saturday, March 19, eight a.m. weeks ago, but reconfirmed almost every day. Why not? This was the first adventurous thing either of them had ever done in their lives, unless you counted microwaving Peeps at Easter to watch them explode.
Gemma wished she only felt excited. She wished, more than anything, that her parents’ words and warnings hadn’t over time worked their way like a virus into her cells, replicating there.
She wished she wasn’t also just the littlest, tiniest bit scared.
But she told herself nothing would happen. After all, nothing ever did.