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Greenby Laura Peyto Roberts
"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 thought--at least, I knew I shouldn't--but 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?"
The girl behind the counter aimed her dripping scooper at me.
"I'll have a double strawberry," I blurted out. "In a waffle cone, please."
Kendall and I walked outside with our cones, stuffing change into our shorts. "Are you headed home?" I asked hopefully. "We could walk together."
"Okay, but don't tell my mom I was eating ice cream. She'll freak. Especially since we'll be eating it again tonight." Kendall winked. "We will be eating it tonight?"
"Definitely. We'll pick you up as soon as my mom gets home from work. Unless . . ." I had an impulsive idea I was almost afraid to say out loud. "Would you want to hang out at my house this afternoon?"
"Can't. I already told Lola I'd be over after lunch." Kendall licked her dripping cone. "Boy drama."
"Right. I mean . . . no biggie," I mumbled, nodding as if that might dislodge the sudden lump in my throat.
You're lucky she's even available tonight, I reminded myself. But my ice cream had become a wobbly pink blur, and I had to blink fast to keep a tear from slipping out.
Kendall Karas was the only friend I'd made in Providence, but Kendall had lots of friends, including a best friend, Lola. They went to the same private school and had known each other forever, which meant that Kendall and I mostly did stuff on our block during the few hours she wasn't busy with Lola. We had tried hanging out as a group once, but Lola didn't like me. I think she probably guessed how badly I wanted to replace her.
"But we'll have fun tonight," Kendall reminded me. "Lucky thirteen! Aren't you excited? My birthday's still two whole months away."
"Yeah. Thirteen. Pretty big." Although so far it hadn't felt that way.
"Are we still having dinner at La Casa Rosa?"
"Why? Would you rather go somewhere else?"
"What? No! I love that place." Kendall transferred a gumball from her cone to her napkin with her front teeth. "It's so hot out today. I wish I hadn't told Lola I'd go over. We could have set up my Slip 'N Slide."
"We still could! Tell her to come over here," I urged. "We can use my yard." Sharing Kendall wasn't nearly as good as having her to myself, but it was way better than being alone.
"She'd never go for it. Too babyish." Kendall sighed. "Lola doesn't get that it's fun sometimes, you know? Just doing stuff like we used to and not talking about her and Jason every second."
"You could tell her."
"That would only hurt her feelings. Besides, you and I'll have fun later. What movie did you choose?"
"I still haven't decided," I lied. I had totally decided, but I'd change my mind in a second if Kendall preferred something else. "There's Broke and Aimless, about those slacker treasure hunters. Or Island Love--that's supposed to be funny too."
"Yeah." Kendall shrugged. "Either one."
"Or," I said, "we could . . . it's only G-rated, but--"
"Samurai Princess?" Kendall jumped in. "Would you want to see that, Lily? Because I'm dying to and Lola won't go with me. She says animated movies are lame."
She's lame, I thought, keeping my face carefully blank.
"No, wait!" Kendall reversed herself in the next breath. "It's your birthday. You should pick what you want to see."
"That is what I want to see."
"Really? You're not just saying that to make me happy?"
"I'm the one who brought it up."
"True." Kendall swallowed her last bite of ice cream and funneled a rainbow of gumballs into her mouth. "Tonight's going to be so fun. I can't wait!"
But her anticipation was nothing compared to mine. With Kendall I felt like a regular girl, someone actually worth liking. If only she weren't friends with Lola.
Our tomb-silent living room released a blast of desert air when I unlocked the front door. I tiptoed nervously through the house, peeking around every corner, then opened a few windows. We'd been renting the place for six months, but the way its floors creaked for no reason still creeped me out. Finally convinced I was alone, I went into the kitchen to microwave a pizza.
The squeaky microwave turntable spun around and around. I checked the clock--12:31. Five hours until my mother got home. I ate my pizza one speck at a time--12:49. Dropping my plate in the sink, I stood and gazed out the kitchen window at the morning glories on our neighbors' fence.
Thirteen years old, I thought. I wish Gigi were here. Tears welled up again. My grandmother on my father's side had always promised my thirteenth birthday would be special in ways I couldn't imagine. The last thing I could have imagined was that she wouldn't be here to see it.
The gaping void that was missing Gigi opened wide inside my chest. She'd been gone over a year, and I still couldn't believe she had died, without any warning, without even saying good-bye. My father was killed in an accident before I was two, and Grandma Green had filled in for his side of the family with so much love and attention it was as if she had taken his place. I'd adored her. I still did.
The tears I'd held back all day spilled at last.
Grandma Green had shortened her name to G.G. when I started talking. G.G. eventually became Gigi and stuck. She was the type of grandmother who thought oatmeal cookies were as healthy as the cereal, who let a disaster-prone kid paint pictures in her carpeted living room, and who considered the contents of her walk-in closet one big dress-up wardrobe for her "favorite" (only) grandchild. She collected buttons and pins shaped like clovers in every shade of green, and she wore green most days too. My stays at her house were both frequent and never long enough, always ending with kisses, hugs, and promises of more mischief the next time we got together.
How could a heart so big just give out?
Wiping my tears with both hands, I looked down at my wet palms. A perfect linear scar marked the left one. A week after Gigi's death, my mom and I had gone to her memorial service, then driven home alone for a dinner I couldn't eat. I'd helped wash up, though, and when I dried the knife Mom had used to cut the tomatoes, I accidentally put the sharp edge down instead of up, slicing straight through the dish towel and into my hand. Eight stitches later, Mom was asking the nurse if I needed counseling. She thought I might have cut myself on purpose, but I hadn't; I was just clumsy and sad and not paying attention. I didn't mind the scar, though. It reminded me of Gigi.
Pushing off from the sink, I shuffled down the hall to my bedroom, glad my mom wasn't there to see me crying again. She had never been as fond of Gigi as I was. The knife incident hadn't helped, and when it turned out Gigi hadn't left me any money for college, Mom had turned downright hostile.
"What was the woman thinking?" she'd griped. "She always had plenty of money, so where did it all go? And how does anyone her age die without a will?"
It burned my mother up, not getting help with my education when she had such a hard time saving on her salary. But Mom never knew where Gigi's money had come from or even how much she'd really had. Having divorced my father nearly as quickly as she'd married him, she was out of the loop on that stuff.
"I'll tell you this, though," Mom said the day she'd learned no college fund would be coming. "Your grandmother and her son were two of a kind: selfish, impractical dreamers!"
Which was why we didn't talk about Gigi anymore--or about my father either.
My bedroom was at the back of the house, out of view from the street and absolutely silent. My pajamas lay the way I'd left them that morning, tossed across my rumpled quilt. The usual assortment of shoes and dirty laundry cluttered the hardwood floor. Passing my desk, I walked into the attached bathroom--the best thing about that house--to take a shower.
Cool water sluiced through my hair and washed away my last tears. Wrapping myself in a towel, I plopped down at my desk and switched on the computer.
No mail--1:03 p.m.
Four and a half more hours until Mom came home and my birthday finally started. I wondered what Kendall would wear to dinner. She always dressed cuter than I did.
I could text her, I thought, reaching for my cell. But she's probably already with Lola.
The last thing I needed was Lola saying I couldn't dress myself. I'd just have to figure out my birthday look on my own.
At least I had plenty of time.
I opened my closet. I owned more jeans and tops than dresses, and hardly any dressy shoes. Peering all the way into the back, hunting for the heels I'd worn at Christmas, I spotted my tap shoes. They looked like pumps with ankle straps, and I'd loved wearing them for PE at my old school, even though learning shuffle-ball-change had taken me all semester. Dusting them off, I strapped them onto my bare feet--the way the cool girls had worn theirs. If not for the silver taps on their soles, they could have passed for regular shoes.
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