Chapter One Chapter One
Endless stippling spread across my bedroom ceiling, tiny bumps of white pushing back at me like thousands of stubby, pointing fingers.
Fuck you, stubby bumps.
Lying faceup on my bed, I glared hard at the ceiling for a few moments before extending my left arm above me and bringing my hand down—hard—against my headboard. The ritual, started a year and a half ago, sent a familiar sting through my palm, a kind of shield against the day ahead. I’d feel the bruising every time I held a mug or grabbed my backpack strap, whenever I pushed open a door, clutched an apple. The pain was something to focus on—like a messed-up stress ball to squeeze whenever I needed it.
I wasn’t proud of this thing I’d come to depend on—far from it—but the need to do it was so overwhelming sometimes that knowing I’d feel shitty about it afterward wasn’t enough to stop me from doing it. It was protection against other people discovering all the rot in my gut. It was punishment. It was proof I could handle everything on my own.
I forced myself out from the covers and placed my feet on the carpet. Fall air slipped through my open window, crisp and biting.
For a moment, I let the chill lift my skin into goose bumps and stared at my bare thighs spreading across the edge of the mattress. Two quarter-size bruises decorated the middle of my left thigh, and a larger one curved around the outside of my right. I lifted my feet into the air and admired a shin bruise from a week ago. The bruise was barely visible now, its darkness lightening and almost hidden against my brown skin. But I knew it was still there from the painful tenderness when I pressed my fingers into it, which I did now, closing my eyes to let the pain sink in.
“Daya Doo Wop! It’s almost eight and you can’t be late again! It’s still September and you’ve been in detention once already… remember?”
My uncle’s singsongy voice surged through both my bedroom door and my quiet moment, each sentence rising into a high note. He knew better than to come in, but he still thought these cheerful reminders would help get me going faster.
“I’m up!” I called back, swallowing back the other words constantly threatening to escape from my mouth: Leave. Me. Alone.
Handling my uncle and aunt demanded a balancing act: Keep our interactions light and consistent so they didn’t worry about me, but discourage excessive interaction in case they mistook it for intimacy. Keep my head above water at school, but not so far above that they got excited about my prospects. Date boys like a “normal teenage girl,” but not for too long and not the type my aunt and uncle would approve of. Go to counseling, but only to make them feel better. Get involved, but not too involved.
I listened as Uncle Priam’s footsteps receded down the hallway, practically skipping across the hardwood. He and Aunt Vicki were now my official guardians. The paperwork had been finalized recently, after a painful, slow process following my parents’ deaths. Priam was my dad’s brother, but I’m sure when my parents named him and my aunt my godparents, Priam and Vicki never thought they’d actually have to take me into their home and look after me.
That’s just what they’ve been doing these past many months, though. And they must have learned their version of parenting in theater school, where they met, because I felt like I was in an epic musical most of the time.
P.S. I hate musicals.
If my uncle and aunt weren’t singing duets at the dinner table, they were playing dress-up. They were forever trying to get me to watch all these old-timey musicals on TV with them, and a while ago they’d tried to give me singing lessons for my birthday. I pretended to go for six weeks, but in reality I was at the skateboard park.
It was clear we didn’t get each other. So my balancing act was as much for them as it was for me—aim for coexistence and not much more. Don’t waste their time or mine.
I stood up and stretched, my body aching from an extra-long skateboarding session the day before. Skateboarding kept me muscular, and having more muscle meant experiencing more soreness, which was perfect for me. I lived for that ache. And I liked seeing my body stay thick and strong too. My muscles made me feel like I could defend myself—but also invite pain when I needed to. I pulled on my jeans and hoodie, both protecting and preparing myself for the day ahead.