Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.
But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.
Determined to save the rest of her friends at the center, Tabitha joins forces with her rescuers, led by moody and mysterious Gavin Stiles. As they race to uncover the rest of PharmPerfect’s secrets, though, Tabitha finds herself with more questions than answers. Will trusting the enigmatic group of rebels lead her back to the slaughterhouse?
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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By Jessica Kapp
Diversion Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2017 Jessica Kapp
All rights reserved.
Ten seconds. That's how much air I have left.
I peek at Paige, her body submerged next to me. Stray hairs float around her face. She looks peaceful like she found a way to sleep underwater. The chlorine stings my eyes so I shut them, letting my mind fill with fuzz until all I hear is the cadence of my heart — the sluggish beat coursing all the way to my fingertips.
My chest burns.
A tap on my head tells me it's over.
I break the surface and take in shallow, painful gulps of air. The edges of my vision swim with black and someone grips my arm to keep me from slipping back under. Parker's blurry face comes into focus as he anchors my limp body on the side of the pool. "You did it. You won."
When I manage a smile through my fit of coughs he hoists me out and places me next to Paige so our legs are dangling in the water.
She kicks me playfully. "Show-off."
"You almost had me."
"Almost." Her eyes flit across the gymnasium to the exit door and her smile fades. "Almost isn't good enough for them."
A shiver creeps through me, shaking some of the strength out of my voice. "If a family can't see how great you are, they don't deserve you."
She nods as if she's trying to convince herself. I'm not sure I believe me either. If we were good enough, why hasn't a family fostered us by now?
There's laughter behind us, producing boisterous energy that drowns out the thoughts in my head.
Paige's slightly purple lips curl. "You have a point, I am pretty great." She extends her hand. "But, so are you. Nice job." Our grip is weak and our handshake is soft like the bones have been removed from our fingers. We let go and I lean into her, content to sit here doing nothing. Days are so scheduled at the Center of Excellence, relaxing is a luxury.
Parker squats down next to me and holds out the stopwatch our trainer left on his chair — the one we're not supposed to touch. "Two minutes, thirteen seconds. That's your best time yet, Tabitha."
A personal best. I should be proud. I am proud. But without a trainer to witness it, to record it on my chart, it might as well read zero. My only hope is that I can do it again. Prove to potential parents that I take my health as seriously as my studies — that I'd be a productive and responsible addition to their family.
That I'm worth taking a chance on.
Paige's self-doubt is contagious. I don't know why we do this to ourselves, why we feel the need to compete when our trainers are on a break. They put enough pressure on us already. Tears prick my eyes and I push the stopwatch out of my face. "All right. Who's next?"
"Me!" exclaims Paige's identical twin. Her hand shoots into the air as she struts toward Parker. Meghan likes to claim she's older, but none of our trainers can confirm it. She's so different than Paige, I wouldn't even believe they shared DNA if it weren't for their looks: olive skin, high cheekbones, and plenty of curves. Their presence commands attention.
Meghan pokes Parker in the chest when he stands. "What d'ya say? We can swim laps if you don't want to hold your breath." She cocks her head to the side until her thick brown hair kisses her shoulders. Unlike Paige, she never wears it up. She says it makes her feel more girly, but I think she just wants to be normal, like girls on the television shows we get to watch — our only connection to the outside.
"You're the fish, not me." He waves Meghan away then helps Paige to her feet. He pulls me up next and our eyes lock long enough for me to see his dread. Parker struggles in the pool. He blames his muscle density, but I know it's really just fear. When he was younger, a trainer held him underwater because he wouldn't get in the pool. Parker thought he was going to die. If I had enough energy, I'd take his place against Meghan. I know he'd do the same for me. His confidence may dissolve in the water, but at the Center, he's my rock.
He points a thumb at the wall kitty-corner to us. "Rope climb?"
"Not a chance." Meghan dives in with a splash. She is just as motivated as the rest of us to prove she can be the best. Drive and discipline are two of the things the Center teaches us. It's why families agree to open their homes to us instead of kids at a traditional state facility.
I glance at the mantra above the rock wall. The letters are partially hidden behind three ropes connected to a metal beam in the ceiling, but I can still make out the words: "It's what's on the inside that counts." The phrase gives me hope that our hard work will pay off someday.
Before Parker and Meghan can decide on a new challenge, the exit door buzzes. Parker tucks the stopwatch behind his back. My breath catches when I notice it's not a trainer — it's Ms. Preen. And, she's holding a red file, which can only mean one thing.
One of us is getting out.
Her heels make quick, light clicks as she crosses the floor past the weight equipment and yoga mats. She crinkles her nose as she moves through the thick cloud of sweat. By the time she reaches us, Meghan's out of the pool. We stand, two-dozen bodies huddled together, anxious to hear the news. I scan my friends' faces, wondering whose turn it is to go. Parker wraps his free arm around me. I imagine this is how a gymnast feels after a routine, waiting for her scores. Did I perform well enough? Could I have done more?
Will I win the ultimate prize: a family?
Ms. Preen presses through to the pool area, but stands far from our group, as if she thinks we'll throw her in.
It's crossed our minds before.
The light shines off her blonde bob and her face is flawless. Freezedried, we like to say.
"Where is she?" Ms. Preen looks at our group as if she can't tell us apart, which is probably true. Even though she pops in at least once a month to check on our vitals, she isn't interested in getting to know us. She's the one in charge of pairing us with families, but all she knows is what we're good at. Meghan is the fast one; Paige climbs like she's part monkey; Parker's built like a brick house; and me, I have the lungs.
"The redhead, where is she?"
All eyes turn to me.
"We have names, you know," Paige says, her voice curt. "Hers is Tabitha. T-A-B ..."
Ms. Preen pulls a piece of paper out of the file, holding it up toward the row of skylights to read it. "Yes. She's the one."
Parker tightens his hold on me and I clasp my hands together to stop them from shaking. Ms. Preen doesn't need to know I'm nervous. I'm supposed to be elated, ready to go. Maybe I've been fooling myself.
I wriggle out of Parker's grip to step forward. "That's me." Ms. Preen looks at me, then to the pool, with a trace of disgust. "We were getting in some extra laps."
Paige laughs and I dip my head to hide my smile.
Ms. Preen shoves the paper back into the file. "Get dressed. I'm taking you for your final screening. If you pass, you'll be out tomorrow." Her voice is hard and she turns to walk away.
I glance back at the group, at the faces I've known since childhood. They're excited for me, but I can see the disappointment in their eyes. I know the look, because up until today I've watched friends leave, waiting for my turn.
Now that it is, I can't move.
Paige gives me a weak smile and, for a moment, I think she's going to lean in for a hug. Instead she crosses her arms, squeezing herself tight. "If you're not back by dinner, we'll save you some broccoli."
I wonder if I'll be able to eat at all. Paige has always been good at masking the pain with humor. It makes me sad to know she's doing it for my sake. I don't want to be mourned. I keep my tone light as I march toward the sleeping quarters on the opposite end of the gym. "Don't do me any favors."
As I slip through the girls' door, it feels like the walls and low ceiling immediately box me in. When I first transferred here, I missed the bright colors and patterns. Brain noise. The facility for younger kids felt more alive. Freer. Here, it's like being in a cage; except right now it's almost comforting. I'm not sure I want to leave. But isn't this what I wanted, the chance to have a family? I curse myself for being such a coward and swallow my fear, pretending Ms. Preen's news doesn't affect me.
Water drips off me while I rummage through my dresser. I pull out a sweatshirt that smells like sweat and perseverance. It's cold where we sleep, but it feels especially uncomfortable today — like the room has already forgotten me. Soon my bed will be occupied, filled by someone else, someone still waiting to be fostered. I'll be a record on the wall, a memory in the minds of those who trained with me until they're gone too.
The crisp air fills my lungs as I peel off my bathing suit. I change quickly because Ms. Preen has as much patience as she does wrinkles. I can almost hear her call my name when I step back out into the gymnasium. I know I'm imagining things though — Ms. Preen wouldn't waste the energy to yell.
My heart speeds up when I see the train of people waiting by the exit. On a normal day, everyone would be lining up to eat lunch in the room that divides the boys' and girls' sleeping quarters. It's also where we feed our brains with books and homework. But today is different. Everyone's waiting to wish me luck.
Paige has her face pressed against the mirror near the exit, trying to look through it. We know visiting parents can see us because the last person that was fostered caught a glimpse of the one-way window when he came back from his screening. Ever since we learned that's how they watch us, like fish in an aquarium, our training has improved.
I've worked extra hard. I should be excited I've reached the end. Only, I'm not.
Parker hangs his head as I walk by, his black hair falls past his eyes. I want to push the locks back, tell him everything will be fine, but I resist the temptation. I don't have to see his eyes to know my leaving will be hardest on him.
The door opens as I reach for the handle. Ms. Preen is already on the other side and waves her hand for me to step through and it shuts behind me with a thud before I can look back.
I know I'll get to see them one last time, but my eyes well up. It already feels like goodbye.
* * *
The drive to the clinic took less than fifteen minutes, but we've been waiting to see the doctor for over an hour. Ms. Preen digs a fingernail into my back and I sit up straight.
"Did you take your medicine today?" She checks her manicure for any flaws before placing her hand back in her lap. I nod and squint at the clock on the wall to make sure it's moving. It is. Finally, a nurse at the reception area waves us over.
We walk toward the door that leads out of the waiting room. A woman with tight black curls is sitting at the door punching buttons on a keypad. When she notices I'm watching her, she shifts her body until the numbers are out of my line of sight.
"Is it going to hurt?" I ask her. I already know the answer is yes, but I want her to say something soothing, to ease my fear. Like a mother would.
Instead, she replies, "You'll get over it." There's a loud buzz and the door clicks open.
It's brighter in the hallway — white, but not a clean white. The walls look aged, like teeth that haven't been brushed for weeks. My nose burns from the mixture of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant in the air.
The nurse unlocks a six-paneled door with the name Doctor Morgan on the front. "Have a seat," she says to Ms. Preen.
I decide to stand until the offer is extended to me, but Ms. Preen grabs the side of my sweatshirt and yanks. "Tabitha. Sit." A thread snaps when she tugs again and I take a seat. It's an old sweatshirt anyway, more for warm-ups than meeting my new family. I wonder if Ms. Preen will give me something nicer to wear. If I pass the health screening.
"Fill this out. The doctor will be here shortly." The nurse hands Ms. Preen a clipboard with a pen dangling from a rubber band that's been made into a string.
When she leaves, Ms. Preen begins to fill out the form, repeating every question and answer while I gaze over.
NAME: Tabitha Rhodes
EYE COLOR: Green
HAIR COLOR: Red
"I'd say strawberry blonde," I correct her.
"You're a redhead."
"But in the summer my hair gets lighter."
"Well it's spring, so I picked red."
She fills out the last question in silence.
UNIQUE CHARACTERISTIC(S): Excellent vision and premium lung capacity. Check for 31 Processing.
She tilts the paper away from me when I point. I'm not sure what 31 means — maybe how many tests they'll run on me? I hope it's not the number of shots I'm going to get.
When she's finished, she slides the pen underneath the metal clip that holds the paper.
"That's it?" The questionnaire is so short it seems pointless. "Don't they want to know a little about me? Maybe you can write about foods I like or my favorite movies?"
"Why all the questions? Don't you want to be fostered?"
"Of course I do. It's just ... what if they change their mind? Don't tell them I have freckles."
She lets out an exasperated sigh. "I'm sure they'll assume a redhead has freckles."
"You're right." I rub the back of my neck. I'm anxious about the skin sample and gigantic needle I've been told about.
Folding her hands on top of the clipboard in her lap, she adds, "They've reviewed your profile and you're a perfect match. That's how it works. End of story."
Her words do little to reassure me.
I grab one of the magazines in a wooden rack hanging on the wall. It's the Gladstone Community Review, and on the cover is a picture of a family sitting under a tree having a picnic. The mom is wearing a white dress with red polka dots while she feeds the dad a strawberry. Their kids are laughing and holding sandwiches that overflow with layers of meat and cheese. I feel a pang of jealousy, even though I know it's not real because the people in the picture probably don't even know each other. They most likely just have to sit there for a few clicks of the camera before going back to their real lives. Maybe they even get to keep the sandwiches. But I still want what they're portraying: a happy family.
I lean my head against the wall and close my eyes. Maybe I'll have a family like the ones on the movies and shows we get to watch. My personal favorite is a forty-year-old sitcom called Growing Pains. The Seavers adopted Luke, included him in every activity, and treated him like he belonged there the entire time.
Maybe that will happen for me. Maybe my family will sit around on a lazy Sunday playing board games. We could go on camping trips where my dad can teach me how to fish. It'll be perfect.
My dream fades when the door opens.
A man with hair like a Ken doll walks toward me. "Sorry to keep you waiting," he says with a wink.
Ms. Preen's bright red lips widen into a grin, exposing her veneers. I try to copy her, but when I smile, I feel like I'm just showing the doctor that my teeth are straight. It's hard to get excited when I know nothing about the family willing to foster me.
He reaches for the clipboard and pulls a tiny round stool out from under the desk. "I was just reviewing your file," he says as he sits down. His eyes shuttle from me to Ms. Preen and then back to my chart. "I noticed you're taking medication ..."
"Just one, sir."
"For her heart condition," Ms. Preen says. "She takes Propannalean once a day."
"Ah yes, I remember the note now." The doctor scribbles something on the form. "How long has she been taking that?"
"We discovered the condition when we took her in."
"I understand." He gives her a sharp nod and turns to me. "Have you had any major injuries?"
"Not that I know of."
He looks at Ms. Preen and she shakes her head. "We've cared for her since she was six. She was transferred to the Center for Excellence when she turned twelve."
"How many hours a day does she train?"
"Eight." Ms. Preen leans forward. "Even though she missed six years with us, I can assure you, Dr. Morgan, her physical condition is excellent." She pauses. "And since she's sixteen and her body has — how should I put it — matured, you can do all the tests, correct?"
I cringe as the doctor gives a knowing smile and jots down some notes on the paper. He should just use a marker and write it on my forehead: Tabitha is a woman now. Apparently, that means I qualify for the full range of tests. Lucky me.
When he's done, he puts the clipboard down and his eyes fix on mine. "I'm sure Ms. Preen has explained to you that we'll be drawing blood and running a series of tests to ensure you're in optimal health."
"Then let's get to work."
Excerpted from Body Parts by Jessica Kapp. Copyright © 2017 Jessica Kapp. Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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