Chapter 1 1
Zoey stared at the rows and rows of makeup in front of her. Glittery lip glosses to her left. At least a dozen different kinds of mascara to her right—all promising lush, full lashes. Above, rows of foundation compacts for a wide range of skin tones. And beneath, rainbows of shimmering eye shadow and bright nail polish, just begging to be browsed. But Zoey’s hands stayed in the front pockets of her jeans. She’d watched so many tutorials online, and yet she always chickened out when it came to actually buying the stuff. It didn’t help that Dad would say it was a waste of money, either. She knew Mami would probably say the same thing if she were here. From what Zoey could remember, Mami had rarely worn more than a touch of blush, a dab of lipstick.
But of course, her mami had been beautiful—she didn’t need anything extra. Still, Zoey couldn’t help craving a dramatic transformation for herself. And it was more than just makeup she wanted—all the other girls at school magically knew what patterned tops and colored bottoms paired well, and how to coordinate outfits with fun shoes and costume jewelry. Zoey looked down at her own T-shirt, denim shorts, and beat-up, faded flip-flops. She wouldn’t even know where to start—and not knowing was embarrassing.
It reminded her of when she was little and Poppy had expected her to answer his questions in Spanish about school or the new toys he and Abuela had bought her. A language she should have spoken better—Mami had spoken almost exclusively to Zoey in Spanish before she’d started preschool years ago—but that left her feeling like a phony in her own skin.
She wished her mother were still alive so she could talk to her. But even if Mami were here, Zoey wasn’t sure she could find the right words to describe this uneasy mess of feelings that sank along with all her other problems into the pit of her stomach.
“Zoey! Where are you?” A deep, urgent voice cut through Zoey’s thoughts.
“Aisle nine!” Zoey called back.
A head of curly, dark hair poked around the aisle.
“Stop wandering off,” José scolded, deftly maneuvering a cart between a baby stroller and a delicate display of perfumes.
“I’m twelve,” Zoey said. “I don’t need to hold your hand like a little kid.”
“No, you need to help me find all the stuff on my list,” José said. He glanced at the endless tubes of concealer and foundation. “I don’t need anything from here. Vamos. Come on.”
Sighing and rolling her eyes, Zoey grabbed the cart from him and turned it around.
“Hey there. Don’t help me con mala cara,” José chided. “Leave the attitude in the aisle.”
“Sorry,” Zoey said, meaning it. Con mala cara had been one of their mother’s favorite phrases. It meant literally “with a bad face” and hearing it always made Zoey imagine evil fairy tale queens or cackling cartoon villains.
José looked down at his phone. “Okay, we’ve got the pillow, laundry bag, detergent, trash bags.… I still need bed sheets. I think they’re that way.”
Linens turned out to be on the other side of the store. Zoey’s stomach hurt as they walked. A few days ago, a dull ache had started just below her belly button. It was right around the time she’d done the math and realized she had only six weeks left before José went away to college. It totally sucked. José wouldn’t be here in August, helping Zoey buy supplies for her first day at yet another new school. Having José around always made settling into a new place easier. And this time was extra hard because they’d just moved in with their grandfather Poppy on the Jersey Shore, and Dad didn’t exactly get along with him.
“Navy or green?” José asked, plucking the last boxes left under the cheapest price for twin XL jersey cotton.
“What’s wrong? You’re so quiet.”
Zoey said nothing. She didn’t want to make José feel guilty about leaving. But she didn’t want to lie to him either.
“Tell me,” José insisted.
“I don’t want you to leave me,” Zoey finally said in a small voice. To avoid José’s gaze, she busied herself reorganizing the items in their shopping cart, making space for the set of sheets in José’s hands. He tossed them in.
“Aw, Zo. It’s going to be okay.”
The dull ache suddenly turned into a sharp pain and Zoey bit her lip to keep from crying. She hoped José didn’t notice and think she was being too emotional. But thankfully, he seemed oblivious.
“I have to go to college,” José said, spreading his hands matter-of-factly. “I’m not doing it to leave you. If I want to become an engineer, I have to learn how. College has always been my dream. You know this.”
He playfully elbowed her ribs. Zoey nodded reluctantly, still fighting down the lump at the back of her throat. She tried sucking in her stomach, which seemed to help—but only slightly. Of course she knew her brother’s dream was to be an engineer. He liked science and building solid things and math. Every decision was carefully weighed and measured in José’s world. But Zoey suspected José hadn’t assigned homesickness or missing family much weight when he’d decided to go to the University of Florida. After all, Dad made them move so much that they didn’t really have a permanent home.
“I know. It’s your dream. Like how Dad dreams of owning a food truck on the Jersey Shore.”
“Ugh. Don’t compare me to Dad,” José groaned, pushing the cart toward the shower caddies. “I’ve wanted to be an engineer since third grade. Dad’s constantly changing his mind.”
“Dreams need time and freedom to grow and change,” Zoey said automatically. It was what their father always said. And at least Dad took them with him when his dreams led him halfway across the country, unlike José. For a second, she wished she could stow away in one of José’s duffel bags and go live in his dorm.
José’s jaw twitched. He rolled his eyes. “Don’t quote him, Zo.”
“Why not?” Zoey demanded. The pain had gotten worse again and now there was pressure beneath her belly button too. It felt like her stomach was the dumpster at the end of a trash chute, filling up with gross, heavy garbage bags, except she hadn’t even eaten much today. Why did she feel so awful?
“You have to know the way Dad does stuff isn’t normal. Burning through Mami’s life insurance money every time we move? Switching jobs five times a year? Quitting every single one of his business ideas because he’s not a millionaire by the end of the week? Dad’s so-called ‘dreams’?”—José made air quotes—“are unrealistic, and he gives up on them too easily.”
“He just likes to have new things to look forward to. What’s so wrong with trying to make life interesting?”
José crossed his arms over his chest, exasperated. “Dad could mix it up once in a while, not every two seconds. He’s a loser—”
“He’s not a loser!” Zoey cut José off. “He’s doing his best. And he’s all we have. His dreams make him happy. And we can’t afford for him to get so unhappy that he gets sick and dies too,” she said, her voice shaking slightly.
“¡Cálmate! Don’t get all dramatic. You have me, too,” José said, sighing and pulling Zoey in for a side hug. “I just don’t want you to think bouncing around like Dad is okay. Someday you’ll have to choose one thing and work hard for it, like me. I studied. I tutored seventh grade math on the weekends to save up. I earned scholarships.…”
Zoey pulled away. “At least I’m not going to miss you putting down Dad all the time,” she muttered under her breath. José didn’t seem to hear though. He was deep into his lecture and sounded like he was reading one of his college essays about perseverance in the face of adversity.
Zoey tuned him out. She’d heard this spiel from her brother before. And she hated it when José called her “dramatic,” like she was blowing some silly thing out of proportion. Her concerns about Dad were real, and with good reason. Zoey remembered how pale and dull Dad’s bright blue eyes had gone after their mother suddenly passed away five years ago. Sometimes he still got that look—randomly at the mall when they walked by one of Mami’s favorite stores or after coming home from an awful day at work, grunting about an evil coworker or a new boss who knew less about customer service than he did. And it wasn’t just Dad’s eyes that went sad. His face and shoulders would droop too. Then he’d lock himself in his room to watch a sports channel, barely talking to Zoey or José. Sometimes for hours. Sometimes for weeks.
When he got into his funks, Zoey was always terrified that Dad might have a heart attack out of the blue, like Mami, or maybe just slowly waste away in front of his basketball game. And then what would she and José do? They’d be orphans. Would they have to go to foster care? Would a new family adopt them? Were they too old to be adopted? Zoey had heard once that babies got adopted more often than bigger kids.
So Zoey was always relieved when a shiny new dream put the twinkle back in Dad’s eyes. Dad needed his dreams, and they needed Dad, so Zoey and José had to support Dad’s dreams. Why was that so hard for José to understand? It seemed like the straightforward logic that was usually right up his alley.
Suddenly, all the muscles below Zoey’s belly button seemed to tighten, the way her calf muscles cramped sometimes after she ran a mile in gym class. Zoey winced, doubling over the cart in pain.
José abruptly stopped mid-rant. “Zoey? Are you okay? What’s wrong?” he asked, clearly alarmed.
“Ow, ow, ow,” Zoey whimpered, resting her head on the green twin XL sheet set. “My stomach is killing me, and…” She trailed off as, all at once, the pressure and pain eased. Except Zoey was suddenly aware of a wet sensation between her legs, as if she’d peed her pants. Oh no!
“Zo? What is it?” José asked again.
“It feels wet down there,” she whispered miserably.
“You probably just got your period,” José said. He pulled out his phone. “I’ll wait here while you go to the bathroom.”
Zoey’s eyes widened as her heartbeat sped up. She’d given up on experiencing this rite of passage. Already five-foot-four, she’d been filling out sports bras for a while. But since no period ever came she figured her body had just decided not to menstruate. The same way some people just couldn’t roll their Rs. But now that La Tia Rojita (Mami had always cheerily rolled the R when referring to her own period as “The Little Red Aunt”) had finally decided to visit, Zoey felt anything but relieved.
What should she do? Was there time to run back to Poppy’s house? Had she already bled through her shorts? Zoey spun in a circle in the middle of the aisle like a dog chasing its tail, trying to see if there were any dark stains on her butt.
José raised his eyebrows. “What are you doing?”
Zoey didn’t answer right away, but she stopped moving and hugged her arms to her chest.
“It’s. My. First. Period,” she said, panic seeping into her voice. Her whole body suddenly felt too warm and she looked down at her flip-flops, on the verge of tears. “And. I. Don’t. Know. What. To. Do.”
“What? I thought we talked about this, like, two years ago,” José said. He sounded annoyed, like he’d crossed Zoey’s first period off some mental list a while back and preferred not to revisit the subject.
It was true they had talked about her period almost two years ago—after watching this awful cartoon in fifth grade that made puberty sound like the zombie apocalypse, Zoey had come home with Questions. And, for lack of better options, asked José and Dad to explain the logistics the video had left out. What a mistake that turned out to be! Dad had awkwardly compared La Tia Rojita to a “really private paper cut that bleeds like heck once a month,” while José read her the Wikipedia summary on menstruation. And then one about elephant shrews, because, apparently, they menstruate too. But none of that seemed to have prepared Zoey because she was freaking out right now.
“Just because we talked about getting my period doesn’t mean I actually got my period then!” Zoey gawked at her brother and began to hyperventilate.
José’s expression softened. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“Okay, breathe,” he said. “I’ll go get you the, ah, the supplies you need, and then you’ll go to the bathroom. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Zoey nodded, swallowing hard.
She forced herself to take deep breaths until she spotted José walking briskly back from the feminine hygiene aisle with a package cradled under his arm like a football.
“Got it,” José said, tossing the package to her.
She took one look at it before staring back at him in horror.
She batted the package back at him like a volleyball. José caught it easily.
“What’s wrong? Aren’t these the same brand Mami used?” José looked confused.
“Yeah, but Mami’s not here to show me how to put one in,” Zoey hissed, missing her mother more than ever. She took another deep breath. “And they look like they’re the size of crayons. What if it doesn’t absorb enough? Or what if it gets, you know, stuck? Can’t you just get me pads instead?”
José squinted at the lettering on the box, searching for instructions.
“They’re specially designed to be absorbent enough to do the job and small enough to be comfortable. I really don’t think these are that hard to use. You just put—”
“José!” Zoey shouted, then quickly lowered her volume when she saw a few people in the aisle glancing their way. Ugh. The last thing Zoey wanted was for strangers to hear her talking about her period. “I don’t want you to explain this. Especially in public! Just please get me the pads, okay?” she asked, feeling wretched.
“Yeah, okay,” José agreed, glancing around the crowded aisle. “I get what you mean.”
He returned with the pads, and, feeling slightly calmer, Zoey headed to the women’s restroom alone.
Inside the bathroom stall, she saw that a bright scarlet mark the size of a credit card stained her underwear, and there were red dime-shaped spots on her shorts, too. Should she take them off and wash them and her underwear before she put on the pad? But then she’d be standing in front of the sink naked from the waist down in a public bathroom.
That seemed like a really bad idea.
And she wasn’t sure what to do with the pad, either. She’d unwrapped it, but did it matter which end went in the front? And there were flaps on the side that had already gotten stuck to the underside of the pad. Zoey didn’t think that was supposed to happen. She wished desperately that she could ask Mami what to do, or even her abuela, but Abuela was gone too. And knowing she didn’t have any female relatives to call hurt worse than cramps. Zoey was about to dissolve into a big, sobbing mess when the door creaked open.
Zoey heard footsteps. A splinter of hope cut through her misery. Maybe the lady who’d just walked in was a store employee, or even a mom with kids around Zoey’s age who wouldn’t mind reviewing a few basics woman-to-woman.
“Um, excuse me,” Zoey called from inside her stall, pulling up her underwear and shorts. “I, uh, I just got my first period, and I don’t know what to do. Could you please help me?”
Zoey unlocked the stall door. But the person staring curiously back at her in the mirror over the sinks was no friendly mom or cashier. She was a girl around Zoey’s age. And she was rocking the best cosmetics aisle nine had to offer. Sparkly blue nail polish. Matching sky blue eye shadow. False eyelashes or killer mascara. Purple highlights in her hair. Indigo fit-and-flare dress patterned in daisies. Zoey’s cheeks flushed in humiliation.
“It’s okay. I know what to do,” Fashion Girl said confidently. “Do you need a tampon?”
“No, uh,” Zoey mumbled, glancing down at the pad in her hand. “I have a pad. But um, there’s blood on my underwear and shorts. And I was just wondering if I should clean it off first. But then, like, if I do that, my clothes will be wet and gross.…” She trailed off as Fashion Girl looked Zoey carefully up and down. Zoey felt even more self-conscious in her old, faded outfit.
“That shirt is pretty long,” Fashion Girl said finally, still staring at Zoey’s midsection. “It goes almost all the way down to your knees, so I don’t think you need to worry about anyone seeing the stains on your shorts.”
Phew. Zoey felt better—until Fashion Girl pursed her lips, appraising Zoey again in a way that made her glance down to make sure a river of blood hadn’t just gushed down her leg.
“Actually, can you turn around for a second? Just do a quick spin?”
Zoey turned in a slow circle.
“Okay good, the blood didn’t get on your shirt.” Fashion Girl grinned. “So, if I was you, I’d just wipe my shorts and underwear in the stall with a dry paper towel or some toilet paper, put on the pad, and then wait to throw everything in the washing machine at home.”
Fashion Girl waved a hand under the automatic paper towel dispenser and held out a couple of sheets. Zoey felt like an idiot for not thinking of this obvious solution on her own, but she gratefully accepted the paper towels. Fashion Girl smiled again. The purple and blue rubber bands on her braces matched her outfit.
“Do you know how to put that on?” she asked.
Zoey looked down at the unwrapped pad in her hand.
“I mean, like, I know the sticky side is the one that goes on the underwear. But does it matter which part goes in the front?”
“I don’t think so. If you fold it in half, the pad is pretty symmetrical,” Fashion Girl said, sounding pensive.
“When I took off the adhesive strip the wings got stuck to the bottom. Does that matter?” asked Zoey.
“Nah,” Fashion Girl said. “Not unless you have such a heavy flow that you really need the wings to hold the pad exactly in place to prevent a leak. But I didn’t need the wings the first time I got mine.” She shrugged.
“Okay,” said Zoey, feeling slightly better.
“Go put it on and I’ll wait out here in case you have other questions.”
Zoey went back in the stall and stuck the pad to her underwear. It wasn’t that complicated, really, she thought as she pulled up her pants. But then a new fear struck. Would everyone be able to see the outline of her pad through the denim of her shorts? Did she look like she was wearing a bulky diaper? You could always tell babies were wearing puffy diapers beneath their onesies. Zoey stepped out of the stall.
“Better?” Fashion Girl asked. Zoey avoided eye contact in the mirror.
“Sort of.…” Zoey hesitated, then figured if she’d asked this many awkward questions already, she may as well ask a few more. “Can you tell I’m wearing a pad? I feel like it’s showing through my clothes, and everyone will be able to tell I have my period.”
“I know! I felt that way too when I first got my period,” Fashion Girl said sympathetically. “But no one can tell. Believe me. I used pads the first six months before switching to tampons, and no one could ever tell I was wearing one. But if you want, lift up your long shirt a little and spin around again, and I’ll tell you if I can see anything on your shorts.”
Holding her breath, Zoey did as directed under Fashion Girl’s appraising stare.
“Didn’t see anything,” she said finally, with the same authority as a doctor delivering a favorable diagnosis.
Zoey exhaled and stretched her shirt down as far as it would go.
“Do you have any other questions?” Fashion Girl asked gently.
“No, I’m good. Thank you though. For everything,” Zoey said, quickly washing her hands and drying them on the hem of her shirt.
“Happy I could help,” Fashion Girl chirped, flashing Zoey one last grin before stepping past her into the empty stall. “Sorry, I really need to pee.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry to make you hold it so long. Thanks again for explaining everything!” Zoey said. She wished again that Mami was still alive and had been the one to walk her through La Tia Rojita’s first visit.
Faster than she’d ever hustled down a soccer field, Zoey sped out of the bathroom. She nearly knocked over José, who stood leaning against the wall, playing a game on his phone and whistling along to the game’s cheesy theme song. The opened box of pads sat at the top of the pile in the cart in front of him, pointedly waiting for them to pay.
“Are you okay, Zo?” José asked. “You were in there for twenty minutes. I was starting to wonder if you needed me to go in there to help—”
“I’m okay,” Zoey said quickly, brushing past him, heading toward the opposite side of the store. She wanted to put as much distance between herself and Fashion Girl as possible. She had been nice, but she probably secretly thought Zoey was a total freak.
“Chocolate helps with cramps, right?” José asked.
Zoey paused long enough to look over her shoulder. “I think so, but my cramps aren’t that bad.”
“I have sympathy cramps. You’re going to have to share some candy with me.” José grinned, turning down the snack foods aisle.
Zoey laughed, feeling a hundred times better than she had all day. She followed him and waited while he grabbed a humongous bag of miniature assorted chocolates that included Snickers, her favorite. The bag was so big it could have fed at least three hours worth of trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
“All right,” José said, glancing inside the cart. “Pads? Check. Chocolate? Check. You’re all set, Zo. Now let’s go get a dry erase board to put on my door so people in my dorm can leave me notes,” José said, sounding excited.
The pain in Zoey’s stomach returned. Only this time, she knew, it wasn’t a period cramp.