Donna Cooner was born and raised in Texas. She is a three-time graduate of Texas A&M University. A former teacher and school administrator, she is currently a professor of education at Colorado State University. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband and chocolate labs.
Donna’s debut novel, “Skinny,” was named an ALA’s Best Young Adult Fiction Award, BEA’s Young Adult Buzz Book, and a Bankstreet College’s Best Children’s Book of the Year. Her book, “Can’t Look Away” was a Teen Choice Nominee and an ALA Top Pick for Reluctant Readers. “Skinny,” “Screenshot” and “Fake” are Colorado Book Award finalists. Her books have been translated into Norwegian, Swedish, Russian, French, Spanish, and Finnish.
The following is an excerpt from “Fake.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Young Adult Literature
Then, I go to the party just like most of my classmates—as an uninvited and unwanted guest. It’s easy. The Dezirea show is in full swing, broadcasting live on ChitChat with messages, pictures, and video clips.
At first, it’s just morbid curiosity on my part. The Davises’ basement is different from the way I remember it. Much more modern glitz, and much less My Little Pony. There is a lot of noise—laughing, singing, and talking. It’s hard to filter out the sounds and where they are coming from, but from the continuous stream of A-listers in the background, it’s clear that all the important people have arrived.
Dezirea herself appears. She’s wearing a ruffled gold minidress paired with black sneakers and ankle socks. Her hair has tons of glitter and sparkle, with crystal diamante bows pinned throughout her braids, amping up the glamor factor. Her brown eyes look even more striking with a thick addition of newly applied eyelash extensions. There is not a single blemish on her smooth dark skin. I watch as she puts on a glittering tiara that reads “Party Girl.”
“I don’t need to be waiting around like I’m some peasant,” she declares to the camera. “I need to be walking around like royalty.”
Giggling, Camila comes into the frame and tries to pull the tiara off Dezirea’s head. Camila wears a simple sequined black crop top, a red moto jacket, and edgy white cat eye sunglasses. If I wore an outfit like that, it would look like a Goodwill store threw up on me, but on her it looks chic and cool. Her hair spills over her shoulders in glossy, beachy waves. Outrageously pretty. I notice with a stab of bitterness the strip of toned stomach between the crop top and her jeans.
“Don’t touch my tiara with your filthy hands!” Dezirea teases.
They both start laughing so hard Camila spits out her drink. Of course, that makes them laugh even harder. Then Hunter Inwood walks up behind them, wearing some outrageously green checked blazer over a blue T-shirt, and puts rabbit ears up behind their heads with two fingers.
A new video comes up. Another one of Dezirea’s besties, Bella Carroll, snuggles up on the white couch next to a throw pillow with big red lips on the front. Everyone knows Bella is the richest girl in our school and tonight she definitely looks the part—wearing a Gucci ivory polka-dotted shirt paired with skinny jeans and nude stiletto pumps. Pearl-encrusted pins decorate her blonde French twist like ornaments. She looks more like a twenty-five-year-old CEO rather than a sixteen-year-old cheerleader. She stares into the camera with a glitter-flecked gaze, and then Dezirea and Camila join her on the couch. Dezirea snaps a selfie of the three of them, and posts the photo to her account immediately.
DEZIREA: ALL MY BESTIES IN ONE PLACE! ALWAYS BETTER TOGETHER XO #BABESUNITE #GIRLGANG
Camila comments below it, and then Bella chimes in too.
CAMILA: I KNOW I’M SO LUCKY TO BE THIS GORGEOUS!
BELLA: WHO YOU KIDDIN? I ONLY ROLL WITH PERFECTION
The ChitChats keep coming, the fun titles and hashtags filling up my page. I watch them pour in and scroll up. #instaparty #musicislife #chitchatpic #lol #friyay
The stark difference between the unwashed and the it crowd plays out in living, breathing color. Because the only people who understand the funny references and in-jokes are there—the chosen ones.
I don’t want to be there. What would I do? Stand in a corner and watch? It is no different than what I’m doing now. Not just at a party. Everywhere. In chemistry. In the lunchroom. I have to see exactly what I’m missing. Every single day. A new ChitChat video from the party starts playing, and there he is: Jesse. He’s standing with several of the football team members in front of the refrigerator, laughing about something. He wears a blue T-shirt that matches his eyes.
My stomach does a flip-flop. My shoulders tense, my mouth goes tight. “Oh, great,” I mutter aloud to myself. “Just who I want to see.”
Bella and Camila clatter into the kitchen, joining the football guys. One trips over the other, high heels tangled, and Jesse grabs Bella just in time to catch her before she falls. Instead she ends up in a giggling heap on top of him.
Bella makes a close-up, horrified face at the camera. “Did he just call me fat?”
Then they all start laughing. It is the worst insult anyone can receive. Everyone knows that.
Bella is a size two and she’s huge. What does that make me?
My spirit shatters. It makes me want to strap a one hundred pound bag of flour to each of their backs and let them feel the weight of it on their feet, in their knees, on their bodies. I want them to feel it shift and morph over the sides of chairs when they squeeze into tiny desks and when they dance away the night under the disco ball in the basement. There will be no place on the planet where they will feel free and weightless. Not even in their beds at night.
Most of all, I want them to see how people look at them—if they look at all—with pity and disgust.
I shut down the computer. The black screen becomes a mirror. Instead of Bella and Camila’s gorgeous smiles, I only see my own fat, sad face. No matter what all the self-help mantras say. I am not enough.
I put the laptop on my nightstand, turn off the lights, and slide under my covers. I’m tired, but I can’t go to sleep. Instead, I toss and turn, rearranging blankets and changing positions over and over. Finally, I end up on my back staring up at the ceiling, my hands clenched in fists by my side. I think about the meme of me sitting down on the stool next to Jesse. The ChitChats from the party replay in my mind like a movie projected onto my bedroom ceiling.
Why am I here in this world? There has to be a reason.
I want to believe I would step up to push the child away from the speeding car, to rescue the drowning puppy, to walk the old woman across the street. I want to believe it. But how can I be a hero, when I don’t even stand up for myself?
I understand cowards. They didn’t start out that way. Something changed them. At some point something horrible met them as they stepped up to confront the demons. Maybe it wasn’t all at once. Sometimes the demons chip away at you, whispering and slithering their way into the strongest of hearts.
There is a tiny spark of something I don’t want to face here with me in the dark. It is anger.
And it is growing.
A tiny voice begins to whisper in some small part of my brain. It grows deeper and louder until I finally know exactly what to do. The thought takes hold and starts to grow.
Jesse Santos is only one member of the popular crowd. I can’t take them all down, but he has a target on his back. Maybe I can’t be the one to defeat him in my current form, but what if I shape-shifted into something else?
Or someone else?
I might be able to wipe that stupid grin off his face. Maybe I could actually make him care about something other than football practice and being cool and making fat girls like me miserable.
Minute electrical sparks tingle at my nerves. Adrenaline courses through my veins.
Wonder Woman doesn’t fight evil as Diana.
Superman doesn’t right wrongs as Clark Kent.
I sit up and turn on the light. For a minute my eyes wander over to where my comic strips hang on my wall. Dragons with glasses. Elephants with porcupine skins. Fairies with cell phones. Unbelievable creatures I can never become when all I really want to change into is a perfectly normal-looking teenage girl. A completely impossible dream.
Or is it?
I sit frozen, thinking. Katy Purry bumps her head against my hand. I rub the spot under her chin where I know she likes it most, and then I pull my computer off my nightstand. My mind races. The idea is still bubbling inside my brain. I think it over, scratching Katy Purry behind one ear. It is so wrong on so many levels and yet . . .
This is crazy.
I turn my computer back on and immediately open ChitChat. The best place for this little experiment to go down. I click around until I find the button for Create New Profile.
The empty screen with the blinking cursor makes me feel the same way I do when I look at the blank frame in my comic strip—powerful and invincible. There is going to be something here soon that has never existed before, and I am going to be the one to create it.
I quickly discover lying—I mean creating—online isn’t complicated. It’s like drawing a new character for one of my strips, but instead I use my keyboard. First, I need a name. Something cool and a little bit unusual. My eyes wander over to my desk. The soft reddish-brown color of one of my markers speaks to me. It makes sense that my creation should emerge from the colors I use for my drawings.
I write in the new profile name—Sienna Maras. Even her last name has special meaning to me. In some Scandinavian shape-shifting tales I read once, the Maras are restless children whose souls leave their bodies at night to haunt the living.
Now Sienna needs a bio. Something catchy. I spend the next thirty minutes researching different websites and celebrity social media accounts. Finally, I write, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
It’s my own little inside joke. An Easter egg planted, but only for me.
I give Sienna’s age—sixteen—and her location: Denver. Close, but not too close.
And now the most important part.
I start to search on ChitChat for images of random girls, but looking for my perfect replacement makes me bitter. The more pretty girl pictures I see, the angrier I get. So many likes, praise, and comments. They live in a world I will never know. I feel the anxiety rising in my throat, choking me.
Telling me to be okay with my body through perky Pinterest statements and Dove commercials doesn’t change the way I feel inside. If I’m honest with myself, I would unzip my skin and step out of it. Just for a day. An hour. For a break. A breath.
Don’t ever admit that to anyone.
For now, I give up on finding Sienna’s perfect face. The picture is crucial, and I’ll take my time finding just the right one, even if it takes me all weekend.
Then, still in Sienna’s profile, I click over to Jesse’s page and hit the Send Direct Message button. I take a deep breath. This is it.
For every oink.
For every giggle.
For every eye roll.
For every turned back.
For every stupid meme.
For every broken heart.
A shape-shifter steps out of the shadows and takes up the challenge.