They say it’s best to be yourself. Debatable.
Sixteen-year-old Aspen’s unruly red hair is the only thing wild about her, and she’s regularly overshadowed by both her roller-derby-star sister, and her cheer-captain bestie. But the spotlight hits her hard when questionable pictures show up online, leading to a string of vicious rumors that get her kicked off the cheerleading squad and abandoned by her friends.
Aspen copes by crafting a secret skating persona—complete with a mask—and straps on some roller skates: outriding rumors, making new friends, and falling on her butt (a lot) while learning roller-skating gymnastics. After a local skate-off takes her viral again, resulting in a sponsorship, sudden YouTube success, and a skateboarder boyfriend, she considers ditching the mask. But skating is her escape and the bullies still prowl—she can’t risk the fragile peace she’s found, even though her double-life is slowly ripping her heart in two.
14+ due to adult situations
My sister, Jojo, was Seattle’s favorite derby girl—a legend in the making, the local papers said. Her derby name was Red Thunder, because her curly red hair was the first thing people noticed about her and, supposedly, when she hip-checked you in the rink, it was like being rocked by thunder.
My hair was red and curly too, but mine was not so red as to be the first thing people noticed about me, like hers was. Mine was more auburn, and less curly than it was just big. Jojo always said mine was better, but I disagreed. If you’re going to be red, be red. Don’t skulk around, being almost red.
Anyway, the hair gods got it right, because Jojo was the supercharged version of me. Or I was the watered-down version of her, depending on which way you looked at it.
I didn’t miss her. I really didn’t. College could have her all it wanted.
Except … there were times I wished I could talk to her like I used to. Today, for example. Absently, I reached over my little brother and stole one of his nachos.
“Hey, that’s mine!”
I regretted it the moment I bit down—not because of his whining, but because of my upset stomach and throbbing head.
“Dad, Aspen ate one of my chips.”
“Ugh, fine, you want it back?” I opened my mouth, pretending I was going to take the mushy pieces out and put them back on his plate.
“Aspen, don’t you dare,” my mom said.
Okay, I wasn’t actually going to do it. Obviously.
The overhead lights in the roller dome dimmed, and Nate’s voice ticked up in pitch. “Aspie, it’s starting!”
Multicolored laser lights appeared, roaming the arena as the background music got louder. A man’s voice came on over the loudspeaker. “Good morning derby fans, and welcome to the Metro Roller Dome where we are just a few matchups away from crowning our tournament champions!” He paused, drawing out the drama of the moment while the crowd cheered. “This morning, Seattle’s own Metro Roller Girls are facing the Eastern Washington Skull Smashers.”
The opposing team filed out of the locker room on their skates, wheels gliding smoothly across the hardwood track. They wore tiny shorts and neon knee-high socks, along with helmets, mouth guards, and knee and elbow pads. The audience cheered while the music pulsed in the background.
Once the Skull Smashers were in place, the announcer continued, stretching out the words dramatically. “And now, put your hands together for your very own Metro Roller Girls!”
The room erupted in applause, but you could barely hear it over the music that came on—the kind that made you want to jump out of your seat and start dancing or do a hundred jumping jacks or scream your head off.
Today, it just made me want to pound a nail through my brain to stop the waves of pain.
Jojo’s team filed out of the locker room on their skates.
Nate forgot all about his nachos and watched in wonder as the Metro Roller Girls skated past us, even though he’d seen this almost as many times as I had. He’d grown up at these things.
I had to admit, the team looked extra fierce today. Some of the girls wore torn fishnet stockings, some had body paint and hair dye, and others had new tattoos. Beneath their helmets, their eyes were laser focused. It was like watching a pack of lionesses before a hunt.
I found Jojo among them, her hair wild and loose where it extended below her helmet. With her mouth guard in, she looked like she could rip your throat out in a single move.
The roller girls were all different shapes and sizes, but they shared the same ferocious dedication to their alter egos. It didn’t matter who these women were in real life—lawyers or dental hygienists, college students or stay-home moms—once they put on their skates, they were derby girls and that’s all that mattered.
I felt a twinge of envy. As much as I enjoyed the tumbling I did in cheerleading, it in no way compared to the very real grit these girls had. Sure, what I did was hard, and required a ton of technical skill. No arguments there. But I’d never experienced the passion that was so evident in their faces. Next to them, I kinda felt like a kid doing somersaults in the backyard—still trying to find my place long after I already should have.
I wondered if Jojo ever thought about me now that she was an official grown up.
The bout started. Wheels clonked against the hardwood as blockers set their feet down and fought to keep the jammers from getting by. Skates squeaked as the players turned, started, and stopped on a dime. Roller derby was unique because both teams were running offense and defense all at the same time, which made it exciting to watch. But I’d seen Jojo skate a thousand times, and I didn’t need to watch to know she would dominate.
I pulled out my phone and the lock screen appeared, with a picture of me and my two best friends, Rhea and Chase. They were dating each other now, but this picture had been taken years ago, before all that. It showed us at the state fair, our smiles sticky with fried dough and powdered sugar.
Now, after last night, I knew things would never be the same again.
My mom jumped up, yelling at the ref for something happening on the track, and my dad scrambled to catch the plate of fries she’d knocked off his lap. One of the girls on Jojo’s team—Peanut Butter Jamma, it looked like—headed for the penalty box, to a chorus of boos.
I started scrolling through my social feed as the skaters reset for the next jam. There were a bunch of pictures from last night, at the music club where the band Appellooza had played. Everyone had been there. When a band made up of kids you’ve known since kindergarten reaches even the fringes of making it big, you go.
A whistle blew and the action on the track started up again.
I commented on a picture. Laughed at another. Liked a third. I scrolled through my feed, catching up on the morning’s gossip.
And then something caught my eye. The kind of something you never want to see.
It was a picture of me.
On a stage.
Wearing nothing but a lacy red bra and panty set I had never before seen in my life.
I stared at the image—me practically naked onstage—while my world rocked. As if on cue, the action on the track kicked into high gear, the crowd roaring at something I hadn’t seen. I jumped, flipping my phone over to hide the screen.
That picture had to be fake.
I didn’t own underwear like that—I would never in a million years buy underwear like that, let alone put it on display for everyone to see. And, anyway, that hadn’t looked like my body.
Easing my phone over but holding it close so only I could see, I examined the image again.
Yep, the legs were too long and the stomach too toned. It wasn’t me.
But that was my face, and that was definitely my hair—one-hundred-percent, that was my hair. So, what, had someone Photoshopped an image of me and put it online? It was good editing work, too—not some crude cut-and-paste job.
But why would anyone do that?
Mom jumped out of her seat again, and I glanced up just as Jojo dodged past the pack of blockers for another four points. A chant started up in the crowd—Thun-der, Thun-der, Thun-der. My parents and brother joined in, urging Red Thunder on. No one was paying any attention to me.
I went back to my phone and sucked in a breath when I saw the comment count. There were ninety-two comments.
And then there were ninety-three.
No, wait, ninety-four.
The chanting around me continued in perfect time—thun-der, thun-der, thun-der. It was like clockwork, marking each new comment as it appeared.
I pressed a hand to my head, trying to squash my headache, as the comment count skipped right over one hundred and went straight to one-oh-four. My stomach lurched with a fresh wave of nausea.
What in the world were people saying about me? I clicked on the thread.
jazzyjay: hey Aspen, backstab much?
$ydneeee: Poor Rhea
Seahawksfan99: how does she hide her giant butt under that tiny cheerleading skirt?
alex451: dude, no. just … no.
flippinrick: No way Chase would ever leave Rhea for Aspen. Just sayin
Bile rose in my throat. Who had even posted this? Maybe I could convince them to take it down.
I scrolled back to the top—and nearly fell off my seat. This was Chase’s post. Chase with the powdered-sugar smile. Who I’d been friends with since the day I was born because our mothers were best friends and we’d grown up together. Chase, who’d had my back ever since elementary school when the other boys started making fun of my giant hair.
He posted maybe twice a year because he’d—quote—rather be throwing a football than gossiping online. Along with the picture, he’d included a caption I hadn’t noticed until now: “Sorry Aspen—I’m with Rhea. I thought we were friends.”
My face burned like I’d been slapped. Why was he doing this to me?
Then I remembered what I’d witnessed in the bathroom last night and, suddenly, I knew. This was because of Rhea. Because of what I’d seen.