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When I was eight, the social workers finally made Gram send me to school. Until then, she told the authorities she was homeschooling me, but after years of her never turning in her paperwork or showing up for the mandatory meetings, they finally got fed up and told her I had to go to regular school. Gram gave in; she knew when she was beat.
The first thing I noticed about the other kids was that they all looked like they could be on TV. I called them Cleans. Their clothes were new and ironed smooth. Their hair was shiny and combed. Their nails were trimmed and free of the black grime that I’d had under mine as long as I could remember. No one had to tell me that, compared with these other kids, I was dirty.
That didn’t stop the kids on the bus from reminding me. By the end of my first humiliating ride to school, I’d been called a bunch of names and accused of having cooties and lice and a witch for a grandmother. It was the same thing on the ride home, even though Mr. Francheski pulled the bus over, stood up and hollered, “Was all you kids raised in barns? Where’s your manners? Be nice to this new girl.”
When I got home that first day I was crying. This was long before Chub came to live with us, and even though I knew better than to hope for anything from Gram, I dropped my book bag on the floor and ran to her favorite chair, in front of the television, where she was smoking and watching Montel. I blubbered out what had happened, how the kids had said I was dirty and called me trash. Gram barely shrugged, craning her neck to see over me to the television.
“I guess you know where the soap is at,” she snapped. “And you can drag a brush through that hair, you want. Now git.”
Now, eight years later, I had washed my hair the night before and blown it out with a hair dryer I’d saved up for. I was wearing mascara and lip gloss that I’d bought with the money I’d made working for Gram.
But everything else I had was secondhand, a fact I was always conscious of as I walked the halls at Gypsum High. My clothes were never right. My backpack was never right. My shoes, my notebooks, my haircut, wrong, wrong, wrong—and everyone knew it. Gypsum might be a two-stoplight town in the middle of nowhere, Missouri, but there was a structure like anywhere else: popular kids and in-between kids and losers. And people like me, so far down there wasn’t any point in bothering to classify us.
I had gym second period. My locker was next to Claire Hewitt’s. Claire always smelled faintly of baby powder and motor oil, and her hair frizzed in a cloud around her shoulders. But as I spun my lock, even she flinched away from me.
When you’re near the bottom of the school social ladder, like Claire, the only thing that can really hurt you is to be associated with someone even lower. And there was no one lower than me. Not Claire. Not Emily Engstrom, with her limp and her lazy eye. Not even the Morries. No one at all.
I started changing into my gym clothes, not bothering to say anything to her. What would be the point?
“Hey, Hailey,” Shawna Rosen said, appearing at my side without warning. “Are those nurses’ shoes you’re wearing?”
The girls trailing her pressed in closer to me and stared down at my feet as Claire slammed her locker door shut and slipped hastily away. I could practically feel their excitement. They were never happier than when they could remind some poor girl of the enormous distance between her pathetic existence and life at the top of the heap.
Sometimes, when Shawna and her crew came after me, I stood my ground. I stared into their overly made-up eyes and telegraphed disdain. But this wasn’t one of those days. I shuffled backward, away from Shawna and into the wide aisle between locker rows, bumping into someone behind me, tripping and nearly falling. My hand shot out to steady myself against the wall of lockers, and I was dismayed to see I’d run into a group of Morries.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, but they were gone before I finished speaking, melting down another aisle without a word.
You almost never saw one of the Morries alone. They stuck together at the edge of the halls and the back of the classrooms and the cafeteria tables farthest from the food line in silent clumps of three or four. Like me, they didn’t participate in any sports or clubs or extracurricular activities. The girls wore their hair long, hanging in their faces. The boys were so skinny their dirty, frayed jeans hung off their hips.
They never volunteered in class. If they were called on, the girls would mumble so quietly that teachers soon gave up on them. The boys were bolder, surly and argumentative and sullen. They didn’t care at all about their grades.
They were called Morries after Morrin Street, the main road that ran through Trashtown, which is what everyone called the run-down neighborhood outside of Gypsum half a mile past our house. I don’t know who started calling them that, but if there had ever been a time when the Trashtown kids mixed with the Cleans at school, that time was long gone.
Shawna and her friends got bored with me and wandered off, but I still had to hustle to finish getting dressed, and I was late to gym class. Ms. Turnbull and Mr. Coughlin didn’t notice, since they were busy dragging the vaulting horses and balance beam and parallel bars out of the closet. We counted off and lined up behind the equipment. No one looked very happy about it, but my reasons were probably different from everyone else’s. It wasn’t that I was bad at this stuff. The problem was that I was good—too good.
I used to wonder if God had compensated for making me such a freak, for my lack of friends and horrible home life, with natural athletic ability. If so, I’d love to give it back. I was fast and I was strong, I could balance and throw and catch with amazing accuracy, but instead of helping me fit in with the other kids, it brought me—what else?—more trouble.
In sixth grade my PE teacher noticed I had the third-highest mile time in the school. He had me run sprints and then another mile, eight times around the track, clocking me with his stopwatch. Each time I passed him I could see his expression growing tighter and more excited. When I finished he jogged over to where I was stretching out—they were constantly harping on us about stretching after exercise—and told me he wanted me to start training with the middle-school track team.
I was so surprised I couldn’t come up with a response quick enough. It had never occurred to me that anyone would ask me to join a club or a sport. But of course I couldn’t do it. Gram would never have allowed it. She didn’t even want me attending school. If the social workers hadn’t forced her to send me, she never would have let me out of the house except to do errands.
Once, in grade school, I received an invitation to a birthday party. I ran home, my heart pounding with excitement. I knew that the girl didn’t really want me there, that her mother had made her invite every girl in the class, but I didn’t care. I had never been to a birthday party—Gram didn’t believe in celebrating birthdays, so mine passed every year with no cake, no presents, no singing—and I desperately wanted to go.
Gram read the invitation, her cracked lips moving as she sounded out the words, and then she frowned and tore it into pieces. “No need for you to mix with them kids,” she said.
Years later, when my gym teacher insisted on sending home a permission slip for track, Gram wrote in big block letters across the section of the form where she was supposed to fill in my medical information: HAILEY DOES NOT HAVE MY PERMISHION TO DO ANY SPORT.
Ever since then I’d been careful not to let anyone see me excel at anything.
But today would be tough. I was in the vault line. I stared at the old leather-covered thing, wondering how I could feign clumsiness. It would be hard; if I just hit it head-on, it would hurt plenty. But I wasn’t sure I could stop myself from hurtling over it neatly. How was it possible to act clumsy when you were sailing through the air, your instincts taking over?
I managed, but it took all my concentration. I also forced myself to stumble off the balance beam and pretended to be too weak to support myself on the parallel bars. When Mr. C. glared at me and shook his head with disgust, I felt a flash of pride.
If he only knew.