Some might say a cocktail dress is too much for the first day of school. Not Cynthia. The floral brocade was luscious, and she’d spent all those hours getting it to drape just so. And if she’d learned anything from her experiences with new schools, it was best to start strong. So, why not a drop of Coco for good measure? Let these girls know she meant business.
Cynthia could always pick out the popular girls by the boys lingering, pretending not to care. And when a curly blond in knockoff Frye boots gave her a look, what was Cynthia to do but step forward and make herself known?
“Who are you?” the blonde asked. She wrinkled her nose like Cynthia’d peed herself. “And what are you wearing?”
Don’t be mean, Cynthia told herself. That skirt was cute last year. “I’m—”
“Why are you dressed like a grandma?”
The blonde’s friends twittered
“And why do you smell like a whore?” Then she actually turned her back. And before Cynthia could reply, they were gone.
Cynthia’s ribcage tingled, and her hand scratched reflexively. “Cynthia,” she said to nobody.
First period was gym class.
Of course they wouldn’t have hangers, Cynthia thought as she folded her dress. She pulled out her gym uniform and grimaced.
“Ew,” said a girl beside her.
“Seriously.” Cynthia said. “No woman should be forced to wear olive drab.”
“Your skin,” the girl said, backing away.
Cynthia gasped at her own midriff: mottled blotches of moist sores, bulging blisters and pustules the color of rotted eggplant. Cynthia touched one, and a gelatinous blob oozed down her stomach.
The school nurse donned gloves and a mask. “Your mother’s on the way.” She said. “Don’t touch anything.”
In the hospital, the doctors sampled and tested and hypothesized, but the lesions spread. Overnight, her sores congealed over most of her body. By the following afternoon they’d scabbed over to form a rough crust. At least the itching had stopped.
“Non-responsive,” a doctor explained, “but not contagious. And no adverse effects,” he said, “other than the obvious.” The consensus: wait and see. And in the meantime, carry on as normal.
Cynthia clunked around the house with her slabs of rough, flaking bark. After a few days, her hide loosened and cracked along her joints. Bits crumbled away from the folds of her knees and shoulders and elbows, allowing for a somewhat normal range of motion. The remaining crust wore smooth, giving the impression of armored plates adhered to her body.
Cynthia begged to stay home a few more days, but her parents insisted. “You’re just going to have to adjust,” Mom said.
How does a girl adjust to shoulders that are six inches broader, thighs and arms that had doubled in circumference? “Nothing fits!” she cried.
“Good thing you’re handy with the Singer.”
Cynthia tailored some clothes to cover as much of her grotesquery as possible, and she returned to school.
But, in the locker room, there was no hiding. Her hideous skinplates protruded well beyond the grim polyester of her gym suit.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” That came from Penelope Weathervane, the curly blonde who’d welcomed Cynthia that first day.
Penelope’s minions chimed in. “It’s like a rhino mated with a tree.”
“And got the plague.”
“They better not let it in the cafeteria.”
Their laugher splattered around her.
Cynthia lurked on the sidelines while the others lined up for flag football. She was studying her crusty knees when she heard the dull thud of a shoe against leather.
Someone shouted, “Duck!”
Cynthia looked up as the ball slammed into her face.
She bolted for the locker room. Whether it was the laughter or the smack in the nose that made Cynthia tear up, she could hardly be blamed for not seeing the stocky boy and his pimply, barn-sized friend until she ploughed over them.
* * *
There’s a feeling that hits you when you see people talking, and even though you can’t hear what they’re saying, you know they’re talking about you. That feeling came to Cynthia on her way to biology.
It was the boys she’d run over in gym class, talking to a man in a cap. “That’s her,” the giant, pimply boy pointed at Cynthia. He waved her over. “This is Coach.”
“So,” Coach sized her up. “What do you say?”
“It was an accident,” she said.
“Tryouts are over,” Coach said. “But we’ll make an exception.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“The football team,” said the pimply giant. “We want you to join.”
“Jerks.” She turned to leave.
“Wait up.” The giant thudded up behind her and grabbed her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me.”
His smile melted when he saw her tears.
“Oh, man, are you crying?” he asked.
“Oh, man, do you think you’re funny?” Sobs leaked out between the words.
The giant seemed bewildered. “We want you on the team.”
Cynthia was certain she was the butt of some joke. “Leave me alone.”
“We need you,” the giant said.
“I don’t know anything about football,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter.” His laugh was the kind that makes it impossible to stay angry. “We’re terrible.”
“We haven’t won a game in years,” he said. “We could use the help.”
Cynthia’s heart was almost back to normal.
“I’ll think about it,” she said and turned away.
“Say yes,” he called behind her. “We need you.”
Her shoulder banged a locker as she turned to look back at him. “Thanks … ”
“Manny,” the boy said.
“See you at practice, Cynthia.”
* * *
Someone had marked a locker with a strip of tape that read “Peal”. Her jersey, size XXL, was tight across her shoulders but hung like a tent around her waist. You could’ve projected a movie across her torso.
Cynthia wobbled onto the field. Coach clapped the squad to attention, “Ladies, meet the newest Cabot Cardinal.”
They replied with chuckles and groans.
“Isn’t she a girl?” asked quarterback Chip Larsen.
“She’s a straight-up freak,” said another boy.
The grumbling crescendoed. Manny’s eyes darted from Cynthia to Coach.
“Enough!” Coach said. “Do I need to remind you pussbags that none of you has demonstrated the slightest ability to block, tackle, catch, tie your cleats or distinguish your anal sphincters from holes in the ground? Now quit your bitching and let’s play football.”
Coach put Cynthia on the offensive line next to Manny. “Your armor might give Chip a few seconds to actually complete a pass.”
“What do I do?” she whispered to Manny.
Any notion that Cynthia knew what she was doing was jarred loose by a shot from Mr. Straight-up-freak himself, Jerome Jefferson. On the second play, a kid called Kowalksi trampled her on his way to sack the quarterback.
After the third consecutive bone-jarring blow, Cynthia was slow to rise. Her lungs wouldn’t inflate. Her teeth ached.
“Let’s try something else.” Coach moved Cynthia to the backfield.
The defense snarled through their facemasks. Chip Larsen took the snap and punched the ball against Cynthia’s armored ribs. She gripped it with both hands and lumbered forward. Tacklers slid off her. Jerome Jefferson finally pulled her to the turf a dozen yards downfield.
On the next play, Chip Larsen pitched to her for an end run. She swatted a tackler aside and scuttled for fifteen yards.
“Good,” Coach said. “Now let’s see what you can do on defense.”
Cynthia looked to Manny.
“Get the guy with the ball,” Manny said.
“And stay out of my way,” Jerome added.
Marcus Pence shoved her to a spot on the defensive line. The first play was a run directly toward Cynthia. A blocker bashed her backwards. The running back pummeled her as he pounded past.
The whistle blew. No one helped her up.
“Try to do what he does,” Manny nodded toward Jerome Jefferson. Cynthia got into her stance, and the center snapped the ball.
Linemen surged. A blocker charged into Cynthia, stood her up straight and slammed her onto her back. Cynthia wheezed at the sky.
“Few more shots like that,” Jerome Jefferson slapped the blocker’s helmet. “We won’t have to worry about Freak no more.”
“Shut up, J.J.,” Manny said, pulling Cynthia to her feet. “Keep low,” he said, demonstrating a crouch. “Use your arms.” He mimed swimming past imaginary blockers.
Cynthia took her position. The ball moved, and she sprang. She chiseled past Billy Bunker and lunged for Chip Larsen. As he turned to hand the ball off, she swiped his feet from under him. The ball flew loose. Cynthia pounced on the fumble.
Coach whistled practice to an end, and the team dragged themselves to the locker rooms.
Manny slapped her on the back. “They’re always hard on the new guys.”
“Was I okay?” Cynthia asked.
“Yeah,” Manny said. “Now we just gotta get you a uniform that fits.” He laughed. “These things ain’t made for people like … ”
“For people with shapes like … ”
“I get it.” She walked away.
“Come on, man,” he called. “That ain’t what I meant.”
Cynthia knew what Manny meant, and he was right. Cynthia was a freak. She could tailor her jersey to fit her unearthly contours, and she could create pretty clothes to hide as much of her abnormalities as possible, but underneath, she was as ugly as they come.
But after a few more practices, she began to find her place on the team. Two places in fact, as Coach had her playing offense and defense. And a few of the guys softened, and even though they still called her Freak, the term became almost friendly.
During school, she still tried to make herself as small as possible, always sitting in the back, avoiding eye contact, keeping as low a profile as possible. But when the final bell rang, tension melted as Cynthia made her way to practice. And when it came time to suit up for the first game, she floated down the hall to the locker room, where her joy shattered against the iceberg of Penelope Weathervane.
Jerome Jefferson was draped around her like a stole. A pair of girls in matching sweaters flanked the beautiful couple.
“Jesus, Mary and holy gross,” said one of the sweaters. “She’s really playing football?”
“Maybe she’ll scare the other team off the field,” said the other sweater.
“Oh, baby,” Penelope stroked Jerome’s arm. “Don’t let it rub off on you.”
Cynthia pushed into the locker room, hating her shell, hating herself for feeling their insults, hating her tears.
In her first football game, Cynthia ran for a touchdown, and Sebastian J. Cabot won its first game in three seasons. Chip Larsen leapt into the air for a spectacular high-five with Marcus Pence. Jerome and Manny doused Coach with something cold and orange. The guys cackled and punched each other. Cynthia smiled behind her facemask, waiting for the accolades that never came. In the midst of the team’s celebration, she found herself completely ignored.
The boys charged en masse into their locker room, and Cynthia walked to the ladies’ lockers alone.
“Party at my house!” Bunker’s voice boomed through the vents. Their whooping was joyful and frantic. But on her side of the wall, Cynthia dressed in silence.
No one had invited Cynthia, but that was just an oversight. She was on the team after all, a valuable player. So Cynthia drove herself to Bunker’s. Alone in her car, she watched the party from the street, looking for Chip or Manny or someone else she might talk to. But, ugh, those girls, tarting around, luring her teammates with their fawning giggles and their mascara and their flawless skin laid out in abundance.
And up the road came Jerome and Penelope with her entourage of idiots. “Do you think she’ll come?” One asked as they passed Cynthia’s car.
“I hope not,” Penelope said.
“Don’t worry,” Jerome assured her. “She’s no threat to you.”
“She’s a threat to me not puking,” Penelope found her own joke hilarious.
As Jerome and the girls climbed the front steps they were met by Manny, heading the other direction.
“What’s up, big man?” Jerome said as they passed.
Manny ignored Jerome and his outstretched hand and lumbered across the yard, shoulders slumped, head low.
“Manny?” Cynthia called. She opened the car door and started after him. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” he said.
He gave no indication that he wanted company, but that didn’t stop Cynthia.
“Good game tonight.”
“Too bad it’s my last one.” Manny handed her a wad of paper. Cynthia uncrumpled the principal’s stationery. The heading read, “Academic Probation.”
“What happened?” she said.
“Algebra and English.”
“Does Coach know?”
“Said I shoulda got my butt to study hall.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Maybe work at the gas station?”
“You’re dropping out?”
“If I ain’t playing football, what do I need school for? State’s dangling that scholarship, but if I can’t play, that’s that.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
Manny snatched the letter from her hand. “You got a better one?”
“Study with me,” Cynthia said. “Pick me up tomorrow. Bring your books.”
Manny wrinkled his face. “I left them at school.”
“I don’t know what chapter we’re on.”
“Call someone who does.”
“Any more excuses?” she said.
“I don’t know where you live.”
She wrote her address on his palm. “Ten a.m.,” she said.
Cynthia climbed into bed that night with a sense of accomplishment. She had scored a touchdown, the team had won, and she had a date. True, that it was a study date with a boy who was borderline repulsive, but it was something.
Manny’s car rattled up to Cynthia’s house at ten-fifteen, and she hopped in.
“First though,” Manny said, “I need some fuel.” He wheeled into the parking lot of the Burger Hop.
Upon the entrance of the blotchy behemoth and, what, a talking crustacean, the collective gasp of the other patrons was predictable but rude. Cynthia was getting used to it, and it helped to be sharing the stares with Manny.
Manny was unwrapping his third burger when Cynthia asked why he hadn’t asked for help sooner.
“Coach hooked me up with a tutor, but the dang poindexter kid just read to me real slow like I was stupid or something.”
“You’re not stupid,” Cynthia said.
“’Stupid fat kid.’ That’s what he called me.”
Cynthia resisted her urge to list all the things she’d been called recently.
Manny shoved an entire burger into his mouth and said, “I wanted to break his face.” Flecks of bun spewed onto the table.
“That is seriously gross.”
“Sorry,” Manny blushed. He swallowed and flashed a smile. “Forgot you’re a girl.”
“Thanks,” Cynthia said. “I forgot you were an asshole.”
“Naw, man.” Manny tried to laugh it off. “I just meant … you’re like … ”
“I know you’re a girl. But you’re just one of us. Guys aren’t trying to, like, get with you or something.”
Cynthia’s chair shrieked as she pushed back. “Good luck at the gas station.” She snatched her bag and turned to go.
“Hold up,” Manny said. “I didn’t mean it like that.” He chased her. “Come on, man.” he forced another laugh.
Cynthia whirled on him. “Not funny.” Her chin quivered. “You look at me and you think ‘freak,’ ‘weirdo,’ ‘grotesque.’ You think you get off the hook by saying I’m one of the guys?”
The other patrons gaped at the insectoid girl bawling out the pustular giant. She pulled Manny outside. “You think I don’t know what I look like? Do you have any idea how much it sucks to be stared at and insulted every time I step outside? I should be schooling those girls in fashion. Instead I’m wasting my Saturday helping a stupid, fat loser who can’t even chew with his mouth closed.”
“Cut it out!” Manny looked at his shoes. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I know how you feel.”
Cynthia snorted and started down the sidewalk.
“Wait up,” Manny said.
“‘Cause I hear it, too,” he said. “Everybody gives me shit. Like just ‘cause I’m big I can’t get hurt, like I’m too dumb to have feelings. They call me P-zitty and Jabba the Gut and I just take it ‘cause if I let them know it hurts, they just do it more.”
“And besides,” he said. “It’s like five miles to your house.”
Cynthia looked up at his wet eyes. She couldn’t stay angry at that smile.
“Let me give you a ride home.”
“No,” Cynthia said.
“Come on. I’m sorry, alright?”
“The library,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”
* * *
Spring always surprised Cynthia. One day the world was shivering gray, and the next day the air shimmered with sun-warmed color. It was a particularly glorious afternoon when Cynthia and Manny walked to the library. Football season was long gone, but Manny still needed to graduate if he wanted that scholarship to State. The sun buttered the grass with a smooth, sweet glow.
“It’s gonna be weird,” Manny said, “graduating, leaving this place.”
“As much as I hate it here,” Cynthia said, “at least everyone’s pretty much done making fun of me.” Fluffy clouds speckled the sky. “I’m afraid that when I get to college, it’ll start all over.”
“You’ll be alright.” Manny’s arm brushed Cynthia’s. “And we still got the summer.”
Minnie Nordstrom jogged toward them, her Great Dane taut on his leash. Cynthia contrasted the girl’s spandexed curves with her own comic bulk.
Manny stopped, turned serious. “Can I ask you a question?” Cynthia stopped to face him.
She couldn’t read his face. Fear, perhaps, or concern? “Will you … ” he paused. “I mean, can I … ” He looked over her shoulder.
She exhaled a puzzled laugh and turned to see what caught his eye: Minnie’s dog was after a squirrel, with Minnie straining to hang on to the leash, barely keeping her feet.
The dog lunged between Cynthia and Manny. The leash swept Cynthia’s legs out from under her.
Cynthia screamed. Her books scattered as she flew into the air. She braced for impact. But Manny’s squashy arms scooped under her knees and back. She came to rest against his chest.
“Will you go to prom with me?” he said.
Cynthia settled against him. Something bloomed in Cynthia’s stomach, and warmth spread inside her with every racing beat of her heart. “Say that again.”
“Will you go to prom with me?”
Cynthia narrowed her eyes; her lips curled into a confused smile.
Manny lowered her feet to the ground. “I just thought … ”
She batted her lashes. She hadn’t thought of Manny as a boyfriend before. But seeing him blush, shifting from foot to foot, made her feel foolish for missing it.
“Never mind, I guess,” Manny said.
“No,” Cynthia blinked. “I mean, yes. I’d love to go to prom with you.”
Cynthia started working on her dress that night, determined to create something stunning and clever. Her first designs contemplated maximum coverage, but, screw that. She didn’t have to hide. Let those catty brats say what they would. Cynthia would bare her arms. Hell, she’d bare her shoulders, go full open-back, glamorous and daring.
When Manny and Cynthia arrived at the dance, him, a mountain of tuxedo, her, science-fiction-sexy in clingy satin, heads turned. They crossed to the dance floor. Boys stared; girls snickered. Penelope and her toadies launched an opening barrage.
“Cover it up before the dogs get a whiff.”
“Get it back in the swamp before it suffocates.”
Cynthia squeezed Manny’s hand. “Ignore them.”
“Fuck y’all,” came the familiar voice of Jerome Jefferson.
Manny bristled. Cynthia imagined Manny pummeling Jerome until she looked up to see Penelope and her girls stomping away. Jerome shooed them away with a sneer, then turned to Manny. “Gonna let me cut in, big man?”
“Nope,” Manny smiled. “She’s all mine.”
Wrapped in his arms, turning slow circles in time with nothing but her swirling thoughts, Cynthia imagined kissing Manny. She imagined him kissing her as they rode home and as he walked her to her porch. She thought about it as she drifted to sleep.
Cynthia woke the next morning to an itching sensation across her legs. The bony plate on her thigh caught the edge of her sheet, and as she rolled over, the plate peeled away, revealing fresh, pink skin. She pried off another plate, and soon her entire carapace had fallen away.
* * *
In August, Cynthia arrived at City University shell-less and poised. She found friends everywhere, and she sought out those classmates who seemed awkward or out-of-place. The other girls admired her fashion sense and her friendship. The boys were intrigued with her confident grace and her knowledge of football. And, although she was flattered by their interest, she declined their advances. “Be careful,” she warned, “my boyfriend plays for State.”