An old woman watched them from her perch on a stool behind the front counter. She was round and flabby. Parts of her oozed over the side of the stool. Her face was red and rough. Above her scowl, her hair stuck up like wires.
Alison remembered what it felt like to be overweight, not that she’d ever been as big as the old woman. She wondered for a moment if that’s what she would have eventually looked like if she hadn’t started eating better and exercising more. If Olivia hadn’t helped her. Alison felt kind of sorry for the old woman who had no Olivia in her life. Maybe she didn’t have anyone in her life. Alison smiled at her, but the old woman just kept scowling. This annoyed Alison. This is why I never bother to be nice to people.
Even this far up the highway, there were Cape November postcards and magnets, picture frames and ashtrays. Some showed the beach or the ocean, but they could have been of any beach as far as Alison could tell. There were a few old-fashioned sepia pictures of old cars and men in suits with derby hats and women in long hoop skirts. A few faded postcards showed a lighthouse that looked like it was made of blue stone blocks.
But the place was more like an antiques store than a gift shop. There were sets of old dishes, racks of men’s neckties, a whole row of used coffeemakers, all shoved next to each other with no order, just chaos.
As Alison moved farther in, the shelves became more cluttered and dusty. A black mug caught her eye. Examining it, she saw a dark sky over a stormy ocean. Huge octopus tentacles reached up out of the waves. Blue, dripping letters spelled, Beware of Cappy. Alison shivered slightly and set down the mug. The whole place was giving her the creeps, and she was sorry she’d come in. Alison glanced back at the old woman. Still scowling.
Alison found Olivia, moving from shelf to shelf, picking up a ratty old pocketbook and then a huge desktop lighter. She was fascinated by stuff like that. Olivia was curious about everything, like a little kid in some ways. Each new thing she would pick up and show Alison. They laughed together. It felt good.
They laughed like that the night before when they were packing. Alison had spent an hour giving Olivia a killer pedicure, and then she hid her toes inside her stupid running shoes. She had probably destroyed the pedicure, but Alison had learned a long time ago that it wasn’t worth getting annoyed at Olivia for things like that. That was just Olivia. She was proud to be clueless about fashion.
The crazy part was, even standing in some dirty gift shop wearing a pair of boring khaki shorts and a plain blue tank top, Olivia still looked ridiculously, hopelessly beautiful. Everybody said she looked exotic, which drove Olivia completely insane. Olivia’s mom was tall, blonde and fair-skinned. Her dad was also tall with dark skin. When he was younger, he had been a soccer star in Senegal. Olivia’s parents were both workout nuts. They ran marathons and stuff. Not together. They had been divorced before Alison even met Olivia.
Olivia was tall like her parents, and she had gorgeous caramel skin. Her long, coppery hair had blonde streaks that got lighter in the summer. On rare occasions when she didn’t pull it into a ponytail it fell in thick curls to her shoulders. If Alison didn’t love Olivia so much, she would hate her for looking like that. A lot of girls did.
Alison watched Olivia examine things from the shelves. This place is so weird. There were mounds of souvenir key chains piled inside antique ashtrays that were jammed in next to old picture frames, some metal, some wood, some made of shells. And those were next to more old ashtrays and sets of wine and beer glasses and bottle openers. Some of the bottle openers had handles shaped like lobster claws or octopus arms. There was a row of small ceramic saints and angels and other figures that Alison could not even identify. They were sort of like white squids, but they were standing up like people. Looking at the little squid statues made Alison’s skin slither under her hair at the back of her neck.
Alison picked up a corkscrew. It was white and shaped like a squid, or a possibly a jellyfish. It was hard to say. The two arms that pulled out the cork were made to look like long tentacles coming off a bulgy head. There were no eyes, but the opening at the top looked like a mouth full of teeth. The teeth could open a bottle cap. Just looking at the corkscrew made Alison feel a deep, creeping fear. Who would buy this?
Olivia suddenly giggled right beside her. It startled Alison, and she dropped the corkscrew noisily into a pile of assorted snow globes.
Up front, the woman gave a wet-sounding grunt.
“Liv, you gave me a heart attack.” She breathed a sigh of relief that nothing had broken.
Olivia held up a wooden sign with a picture of a huge man standing over a toilet. He was missing completely. The large letters under the picture read: We aim to please, so you aim too, please.
Alison laughed and the slithery feeling went away.
Olivia grinned and showed Alison a second sign. “We should get this one for Doctor Farwen’s math class.” The ceramic plaque read: Today’s not your day and tomorrow ain’t looking so good either.
Alison picked up a round mirror with a magnetic backing. It had the words You look awful! across the top. Alison laughed, “This is perfect for my locker.”
“Not funny.” Olivia’s mouth was an irritated slit.
One of the things Alison always found amazing, but kind of annoying, was the way Olivia rarely said anything bad about anyone, even about the jerks who were mean to her. Olivia certainly never let Alison say anything mean about herself. She was like the self-esteem police.
She’s a nationally ranked swimmer, in a hundred times better shape than me, but she never, ever, makes me feel bad about myself.
Alison continued to look at her reflection in the mirror. “God, do I really have a double chin?” Alison worked hard to stay in shape. She tried to eat the healthy foods Dr. Pam told her to eat. She watched her portions. She avoided sugar and starch. She ran, rode her bike and tried to get to the gym at least four times a week. Alison had come a long way since her childhood as the class fat kid, but she felt like her body still clung stubbornly to her chubby childhood.
“Don’t be stupid,” Olivia snapped. “You don’t have a double chin. It’s just the way you’re holding the mirror. Here.” Olivia took Alison’s hand and brought the mirror up so that it was level with Alison’s face. “See? You look great.”
Alison didn’t think so, but she had to admit her chin looked okay once Olivia moved the mirror. Dad and Mom were both kind of short and loved cooking and wine way more than exercise. Alison knew she was never going to look like Olivia. That used to bother her, but she was becoming okay with it. She was becoming okay with herself.
Dr. Pam, the nutritionist her mother had been taking her to, looked like she never ate anything but kale, and it seemed like that was her plan for Alison, too. She had lost count of how many parties she went to and didn’t eat any cake or ice cream or chips. All her friends ate whatever they wanted and no stupid nutritionist had to weigh them once a month to see how they were doing.
The thing that really helped Alison was Aristotle. Yes, that Aristotle. The Greek dude with the beard. Student of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great. He gave Alison the first piece of useful diet advice anybody had ever given her—and he’d been dead for twenty-three hundred years.
Alison and Olivia had first met in the gifted and talented program at school where Mr. W. had them do a unit on philosophy and taught them that, for Aristotle, the right thing was always the middle ground between two extremes. Aristotle called this the Golden Mean. Like to really be successful at school, you can’t be just a total nerd who never does anything fun and who just studies twenty-four-seven because you will eventually have a total mental breakdown from the pressure. Alison hoped Olivia wasn’t heading that way, but if anybody would…
On the other hand, you can’t be a total loser who never does any work and who cuts class all the time because you will keep failing everything and eventually you will just drop out of school and live in your parents’ basement complaining about the government. Alison was pretty sure that if she were going to flame out, that would be her way to go. Just flop on the couch with Netflix and Cool-Ranch Doritos and never come up for air until her parents took down a wall and rolled her out of the house on a gurney.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean was a balance. So Alison tried to eat healthy, but splurged once in a while. She ate chips in the car, so she didn’t eat that many of her fries. Whatever. The place we’re staying at the Cape has bikes we can ride.
Alison put down the mirror and sighed. “What am I going to do next year when I won’t have you at school to talk me down?”
“I won’t have you either,” Olivia protested.
“Hey, I’m not the one that got recruited by some whoop-de-do academy.”
“You think I want to spend my junior year getting bullied by a bunch of rich, stuck-up mean-girls? I begged my parents to let me stay at the high school with you.”
“Yeah, but our team sucks and Ashton Academy is basically a feeder to Team USA. You’ll be fine.” Alison laughed sarcastically. “Anyway, you’re too beautiful to get bullied.”
“Yeah.” Olivia smirked. “That’s how it works.”
Olivia was amazingly, stunningly, drop-dead-in-the-street-with-a-smile-on-your-face beautiful. Alison kept waiting for birds and bunnies to flock onto Olivia’s shoulders. Alison was pretty sure that if she looked like Olivia, she would be able to take over the world. But Olivia carried her looks like a disease.
Olivia once told Alison that the reason she loved swimming was because the whole race was underwater and nobody could see her. But it was hard to be a recluse and look like, or be as talented, as Olivia. All she ever wanted to do was to fit in, but people treated her like a statue in a museum. Teachers assumed she was dumb. Coaches just wanted her to win. Boys never heard a word she said—and she wasn’t even into boys. And forget the girls. The girls were always so jealous, all they ever did was compare Olivia to each other and to celebrities. Olivia had no interest in any of that. Hel-lo! Haven’t any of these idiots noticed that the girl doesn’t even wear make-up?
“Seriously, Liv, you know you look like a model.”
Olivia scowled, but only a little. “Don’t you start that, too.” She laughed then, but something sounded bitter in it. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll never be popular like you.”
“Shut up!” But Olivia was right. Alison owned any room she was in. She had earned that right. Being the fat girl had often made Alison the center of attention whether she wanted to be or not. When Alison was younger and seriously overweight, kids were mean and teachers only made things worse when they tried to help. But being the fat girl who came home crying every day in elementary school had done a few good things for Alison.
She grew a thick skin, and she didn’t care who liked her. Unlike a lot of her friends who tried to act a certain way to fit in, Alison never quite fit in, so she could be herself all the time. Once the novelty of making fun of her for being fat wore off, kids just liked her for her. In case anybody didn’t get the hint, Alison also developed a flair for coming up with on-the-spot putdowns. Whenever a kid with his hat on sideways and his own YouTube channel took a swipe at Alison, he ended up red-faced and crying while the class pointed at him and laughed. Alison got hauled into the principal’s office a lot, but kids stopped bothering her.
That was the third gift her fat childhood had given her. Alison could sense what people were thinking and feeling. Empathy, her guidance counselor back in fifth grade had called it. What she didn’t tell her, but what Alison figured out on her own, was that empathy is just another name for knowing someone’s weakness.