I haven’t showered in ten days. My scalp fosters a family of bacteria, but the table of party food — chunks of chicken, weenies slathered in mystery sauce, and eyeballs — has been sitting there for two days. Its smell leaves mine in the dust.
“Nance, we’ve practiced this.” Mom yanks on her matted clumps of hair. Her graying bangs are still flecked with blood from last night’s meal, which we’d picked up in the drive-thru lane at Rimpley’s Butcher. “Just remember that everybody’s watching. There can be no mistakes.”
Her tone is gentle, but she means it’s now or never. One chance to convince my new classmates.
The lights dim. The disco ball flickers to life, then bursts into flames of purple, green, magenta. Beside me, a girl dances the lurch. Nobody will ever send her away. With her jutting collarbone and discolored cheeks, she’s the prettiest girl in the room.
“Go make friends.” Mom points at a boy who holds a glass of punch and a slab of dripping meat. “Ask him to dance.”
Blood pools behind my lower lip. My tongue delves inside the hole in my gums from the incisor Mom pulled this morning.
“Do I look okay?”
“Killer. Don’t forget to shuffle.”
I obediently drag one foot after the other, although it puts a strain on my right hip. Around me, awkward hands join or rest on slanted shoulders and lumpy waists.
The boy doesn’t look up. I sneak in a quick breath — for courage — and because I still need to breathe.
He lifts his head, peering at me through wet, tousled hair. “Marco.” Crimson veins streak the whites of his eyes. I’ll never get my eyelids to droop that way, not unless I have surgery. Mom has already agreed to an underground procedure to lighten my skin when I am sixteen.
I try not to twitch with nervousness. “Are you new here, too?”
“Yeah. My mom made me come to this stupid dance so I would meet people.” He slouches against the wall. I wonder if he’s noticed the stains on my ragged skirt, applied carefully with blood appliqués. Does he think I’m pretty at all? He’s really nice to look at, with his sagging skin, and disjointed fingers.
“I heard the punch is good,” I offer. “They even put real blood in it, since there’s lots of adults here.”
“I don’t like it,” he says immediately, and presses his lips together, as if he didn’t mean to say that.
I look down at his untouched glass. Everyone likes the punch. Everyone but me, and even I’d chugged a glass, because that’s how this works.
I step closer. His odor reminds me of Rimpley’s Butcher, where the hot scent of blood covers the antiseptics they use to rub counters and floor. Only, Marco smells like the antiseptic part.
A wave of light washes over us. Marco turns away, but not before I see the beads of red grease caked in the corners of his mouth. Not the smooth wet stain of newly sated appetites, or the layer of day-long lipstick I’d applied since I was old enough to realize I was different, but the smear of common house paint.
“You’re not a — ”
His head whips around, far quicker than any head in the room could. “What? I don’t know what you mean.”
Sudden movements draw unwanted attention. I want to shuffle away, because he could blow my cover. His own cover. But I have so many questions.
“What about your eyes?” I blurt out.
“My dad used to be a plastic surgeon.” Marco leans in, and really looks at me for the first time. I feel an odd jerking sensation in my belly, one I’ve never felt before. “Let’s get out of here. Go some place where we can talk.”
He wants to be my friend. I’ve never met someone else like me before, someone who’s made it this far without getting caught. But Mom has warned me about spies, the kids specially trained to spot the rejects. Rejects like me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He rubs his nose on his sleeve. His eyes become green pools.
“Careful. Don’t cry,” I whisper.
“I’m not crying, I have aller — ” He stifles a sneeze, a harsh, almost-unfamiliar bark.
Our new classmates turn, dangly eyed, lumbering. I drop my right shoulder. I lumber, too. Marco straightens. He’s going to turn me in, after he proves how easy it is to fake normality.
In two seconds, we’re surrounded. I cling to my composure like it’s the only skincake left in the vending machine. My traitorous pulse thuds.
The tallest boy looks at Marco. “You’re new here,” he says. “What’s different about you?”
Marco drops the piece of meat on the floor. It lands with a splat. “I’m not d-different.”
My palms grow damp. What does Marco mean? Is he not a spy? Maybe they’re all in on it together, testing me, waiting for me to cave. I nonchalantly wipe my hands on my skirt.
The tall boy turns to me. “What do you think?”
Words fly from my mouth. “A good imitation, but not enough to fool me.” I run my tongue over my upper teeth to spread the film of blood. “I’m Nance.”
“Trevor.” The boy’s smile reveals splintered teeth. He reaches for my hand; his rotting skin dimples against mine. Mom gives me a big smile and a thumbs-up from the back of the room.
We move onto the floor. Some of the adults shuffle past us. There’s a thudding sound, and scuffling. I rest my head on Trevor’s shoulder and try to ignore the other adults dragging Marco away. He starts to scream, but I’m sure it’s part of the test. They’re waiting for me to react.
His screams sound so real.
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