It doesn't matter that I've had straight A's since the seventh grade, a nearly full-time job at the bookstore, or the fact that I've been actively building an art portfolio to help me get into Prism. I'm never doing enough to keep Mom happy. She never notices how hard I try, how much I care, or that maybe I just need to be noticed every now and then. And not just when it's convenient for her.
"I'm going upstairs. I've got work in an hour." I mutter the last part under my breath.
"Do you want a piece of cake before you go? I bought a pound cake from the grocery store. Isn't that your favorite?" Mom's voice drips with something sickly sweet.
I flinch, pausing before I reach the first step. Something tugs inside my chest, like there's a hook pierced into my heart and Mom's words are reeling me back to her. "I'm not hungry. But thanks."
"Okay. Well, I'll save a slice for you and you can have it when you get home." She smiles so naturally, as if she's like this all the time.
She's not, but sometimes she makes it so hard to remember.
• • •
I paint a girl with white hair, blending into a forest of white trees, with stars exploding in the sky above them like shattering glass. If you don't know where to look for her, you might not see her at all.
The yearbook cover is half velvet and half textured. It feels soft and scratchy beneath my fingertips. The inside is filled with glossy pictures of after-school classes, smiling faces, and sports events. Pictures of all the people I've known since kindergarten, who look so obviously different from me that sometimes I feel like I'm a pencil in a box of crayons.
Because I'm the thing that doesn't belong.
I find the only picture of me—my senior picture—and wish it weren't there at all.
But even if I had the ability to erase it, I wouldn't, because Mom would kill me. She loves school yearbooks in a way that I don't understand. Her favorite thing to do when I bring them home is to look at every student in the entire school and decide who is the prettiest girl and the best-looking guy. Then she likes to look at
who the school voted "Best-Looking" on the award pages and see if she's right.
Sometimes it feels like she belongs in high school more than I do.
Mr. Miller lets our ceramics class pass around yearbooks to sign because it's Friday and there's only one more week until graduation. I feel too weird asking anyone to sign mine, so I flip through the pages by myself and play my mother's game. Not because I enjoy it, but because if I can imagine who she will pick, I can stop imagining that she'll ever think to pick me.
But I don't need to play the game, really. I already know Lauren Finch and Henry Hawkins are the best-looking people in our class. I don't think anybody in the entire school would disagree.
In the fifth grade I thought I was in love with Henry. Later I realized I was just emotionally rebounding because Jamie Merrick had moved to California. Jamie and I were best friends, and although we never even held hands, I think we had a mutual unspoken agreement that one day we'd get married.
Except long-distance relationships are doomed to fail, especially when you're in elementary school.
Beyond being occasionally paired up for class projects, Henry and I had very little interaction. But I liked him anyway because he was cute and because I missed Jamie.
On Valentine's Day in elementary school, everyone was supposed to pass out cards to every other student in their class, to make sure nobody was left out. I gave Henry Hawkins a different card than I gave all the other kids—it was bigger than the others, and it had a drawing of a character from his favorite cartoon. Inside it I wrote, To Henry Hawkins, From Kiko Himura.
By the end of the day, everyone was talking about my stupid drawing and how Henry was going to have to get a restraining order before I started showing up outside his window in the middle of the night.
It was embarrassing. I wanted to melt into the floor just to stop people from looking at me.
I guess Henry was embarrassed too, because he made his friend Anthony pull me aside to tell me that Henry wasn't into girls who looked like me.
I remember not understanding it. Girls who looked like me. Did he mean girls with dark hair? Girls who wore jeans instead of skirts? Girls who didn't have their ears pierced? Or did he mean something else?