"She's like . . . terminally uncoordinated," Ainsley Williams said, loud enough to reach the whole class. I pretended not to hear, but tears stung my eyes as Ainsley's clique giggled. My crashes to the floor hurt less than their constant ridicule.
"You're all right, Lily. Walk it off," Ms. Carlson called, but even she sounded disgusted. Next to forward rolls and cartwheels, roundoffs were the easiest move we did, yet three weeks into summer gymnastics class, I still hadn't landed one. The only landing I'd mastered was on my butt.
Struggling to my feet, I limped off the rubbery blue mat and tried to blend into the wall. Jayce Mason tumbled next, turning in a perfect roundoff and adding a back handspring to make me look even worse. The class was Beginning Gymnastics, but I was the only girl there who hadn't taken any gymnastics before. Worse, Ainsley, Jayce, and their group were all in ballet, too, so they knew how to move gracefully. I couldn't have fit in less.
"Nice leotard, you bug-eyed freak," Jayce taunted through her smile as she ran back past me to her friends.
Tears clogged my throat and I was afraid they might spill over. I didn't care what those girls thoughtat least, I knew I shouldn'tbut having no one on my side hurt. I never even had a good comeback. I cast a sideways glance at Martina Gregory, leaning against the wall a few feet away, but Marti's answering smile was slight and vague. She wasn't about to cross Team Ainsley by offering me any sympathy.
The rest of the girls threw their roundoffs without problems. The next tumbling pass was front walkovers. When my turn came, I stayed glued to the wall and waved Heather Giannini on past me. Another teacher might have called me out, but Ms. Carlson let it slide. I think we had both had enough.
"Okay," she said, clapping. "Split into apparatus groups for beam, bars, and vault. Except for anyone who would rather continue practicing on the floor." She looked in my direction. I hung my head and stayed where I was while all the other girls matched up with friends and ran off to use the equipment.
I had been on the outside all year here in Providence, ever since Mom had moved us again to take another promotion and transfer. We had already moved for her bank once before. I still didn't understand why she couldn't just get a better job where we already lived, but according to her, that attitude showed how little I knew about being a single working mother with only a high school education. What was obvious was that work was more important to her than whether I had any friends.
I dared to peek at the uneven bars. The bars were the most popular piece of equipment, so of course Ainsley's clique had claimed them. They all wore glossy pastel leotards. Mine was from the local dance store, long-sleeved, nonshiny, and kelly green. I'd liked it when I picked it out, before I'd learned only losers wore leotards that weren't slick and emblazoned with cool logos. Wearing the same one every day made me even more of a reject. My mom would have bought me another one if I'd asked, but those girls would only have abused me more for trying to fit in. I hated them, but they weren't wrong. I was a bug-eyed freak.
"Rotate!" Ms. Carlson called. People started changing equipment stations. My failure to move from the wall was now conspicuous even to me. Reluctantly, I stepped onto the mat and began practicing cartwheels.
My mom had begged me to take this class so that I wouldn't be home by myself all summer. "Are you crazy?" I'd protested. "Girls start taking gymnastics when they're three. They're in the Olympics by my age."
"It'll be good exercise and a fun chance to try something new," she'd insisted. "Besides, you know you'll be lonely with me gone all day."
Like I wasn't lonely here.
I turned cartwheels until I was dizzy, my extra-long ponytail alternately dragging on the floor and slapping me in the face. Then I practiced forward rolls along a line on the mat. According to Ms. Carlson, when a person could roll straight along the line, she was ready to roll on the balance beam, but considering that the beam was four inches wide and four feet off the ground, I wasn't planning on trying that. Ever. There was another beam, a practice one, only a few inches off the floor. Maybe, if I was feeling exceptionally lucky, I'd try a roll down that on the last day of class.
After half an eternity, we were dismissed. Pulling shorts on over my leotard, I ran gratefully out of the gym.
I breathed easier outside despite the hot weather. Walking alone down the sidewalk, I felt free in a way I never did at school. Better still, I had five dollars in my pocket. My mom had insisted on working even though I'd begged her to take my birthday off, but she'd felt bad enough about it to come up with ice cream money and lots of promises for later.
I had to cross a parking lot to get to Baskin-Robbins. Heat seeped up through my sneakers and radiated off the parked cars. Not surprisingly, the store's cool interior was packed.
Kendall Karas was at the head of the line. "Lily!" she called, waving me forward.
I hurried up to join her, happy to see a friendly face. "Hi, Kendall. What are you doing here?"
Duh. But Kendall only smiled.
"I'm thinking of doing a double," she said. "Bubble gum and . . . yeah. Two scoops of bubble gum. Why mess with perfection?"