Gloria woke up to yet another sunny day in Spoons, Florida, the sunniest place in the USA.
The town was on a little island called "Spooner Key." She had come to live with her mother in this modest little home, and had determined to make the best of it.
It was her first day at a new high school, and she was dreading the thought of starting over with new friends.
Her mom packed her lunch and made her gulp down some cereal before she drove her to the small group of shacks that served as the K-12 school for the town.
Gloria made her way to the "office" and picked up her class schedule. She was late for History, so the secretary gave her a hall pass and explained how to get to the class. (It wasn't hard - there were four classrooms in the main building.)
Gloria knocked on the door and entered the room. Seventeen people ranging from 9-12th grade sat in small groups around the room. The teacher, Mr. Stevers, sat at a formal desk at the front of the room.
"Class, we have a new student." Mr. Stevers jumped up enthusiastically and shook Gloria's hand so hard her notebook fell out of her grop and crashed to the floor. She blushed a vivid purple.
A sympathetic senior sitting nearby slipped out of his chair and snapped up the notebook.
Gloria noticed several scars on his hand as he passed the notebook back to her. He slid back into his seat and quickly covered his hands.
She waved and smiled at the room and took the empty chair next to the senior.
"Everyone pelase take time to introduce yourself to Gloria."
Thankfully, the class started up again right away. Gloria was given a text book that looked older than she was, and she followed along. Most if it was review of stuff she had learned last year, so she didn't think this class would be too difficult.
She stole quick glances at her rescuer - if you could call someone who picks up a book a "rescuer."
She noticed he had scars all over his face, too. He wore a thin hooded sweatshirt over a turtleneck and long pants. Most of the others were dressed like her - short pants or skirts and tank tops. From all the scars on his face, Gloria figured he must be hiding more under his clothes.
The bell shook her out of her trance, and she realized she must have been staring at him.
She blushed again. "Hi."
"Do you make a habit of staring at freaks?"
"What? No! Was I staring?" It sounded as feeble and pathetic as she knew it would. She cringed as Francis took a step toward her desk. "I'm sorry, I think they've put me in the wrong class," she stammered. " I already covered this. I must have zoned out. Sorry." She looked up at him, and hoped she sounded sincere enough.
"Whatever." He abruptly walked out the door and left her more embarrassed than she thought it was possible for one human to be.
Her face was still flushed as she gathered her books and headed across the hall for Math.
Francis was sitting at his desk staring straight ahead. The only open desk was right next to him. She blushed harder as she took her seat. She, too, stared resolutely forward and concentrated on the blackboard.
"So now you ignore freaks?"
He whispered it just loud enough for her to hear him, and when she turned to protest, he had a smirk on his face.
Puzzled, she opened her mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say, so she closed it.
"I get bored in History, too. How many times can we hear about the atomic bomb? They don't even get it right half the time." Francis looked at Gloria with a wink and pulled his desk closer to hers. "Cat got your tongue?"
"Um. No." She was trying to decide just what was going on. "I don't know what to say." She smiled helplessly and he grinned at her.
"I find the scars can be off-putting. I'm sorry if I was a bit abrupt earlier. I had been having a bad day." He smiled at her and scooted his desk even closer.
"Don't take this the wrong way, butt are you from around here?" Gloria blurted it out before she could stop herself.
Francis burst out laughing. "No, I'm from Jupiter."
"Well. Welcome to Earth?"
He laughed harder. "Jupiter, Florida."
"Oh, yeah." Gloria flushed purple again and sank a little in her chair. "I seem to remember that in my last geography class. Anyway, what I meant was, I don't think I've ever met a guy my age that uses the words 'off-putting' and 'abrupt' in every day conversations."
"I'm an old soul." Francis winked again as Mr. Taylor began by introudcing Gloria to the students, all of which had just walked across the hall with her five minutes ago.
The rest of the day progressed much the same way - the same 17 people followed each other from classroom to classroom and the teacher (Mr. Taylor for Math and all Sciences, and Mr. Stevers for History, English and Social Studies) introduced Gloria to them as the new student.
When the final bell rang, Francis approached her desk and held out his hand.
"Gloria, is it?"
"Oh, ha ha." Gloria shoved her textbooks into her satchel and walked with him to the parking lot.
"Well, my mother is waiting for me." Francis pointed to a 1952 Mercury in a beautiful shade of maroon. "So long!"
Gloria walked toward his car and watched as he got into the backseat.
Her mother showed up seconds after his mother pulled away from the curb. Gloria rode home answering question after question about her day.
"Did you meet anybody?" Her mother had a knack for asking that particular question with more weight to it than Gloria liked, but today, she smiled a little as she lied.
The social lives of "Spooners," as Gloria found the population liked to call themselves, was fairly quiet and mostly revolved around surfing, swimming and bonfires.
She was invited to these outings by Linda and Bridget every weekend and she went to as many as she could.
Her mother turned out to be a major home-body and Gloria was climbing the walls with boredom.
Francis didn't swim or surf, but he would come to the bonfires at night every once in awhile.
Gloria got the feeling his family didn't let him out much.
He was picked up and dropped off at school, and his parents wouldn't let him drive. From what she had seen of Florida drivers, she wasn't sure she blamed them, but it did put a damper on his social life.
Gloria discovered that hardly anyone knew anything about him or his family.
Rumours abounded about his scars and why he kept himself under wraps. The most plausible ones she heard were that he was involved in a terrible accident, or that he had an allergy to sunlight.
Finally, at a bonfire on Valentines Day weekend, all the couples had wandered down the beach for some "alone time" leaving Francis, Gloria and an eighth grader to tend the fire. Gloria asked the boy if he knew where there was more firewood, and the kid rolled his eyes at her.
"If you want me to leave, just say so."
Francis smiled at him and said, "So."
The kid shook his head and grabbed a flashlight before pulling out a cellphone and walking back to his brother's car.
"So, do you want to make out?" Francis turned and looked at Gloria with exaggerated sincerity.
"What? No! I..." she reached out and smacked his arm. "Nerd. No, I was just hoping that we could talk, just the two of us."
"Actually, I'm relieved. I haven't really...Um."
"So," Gloria interrupted before the conversation got more awkward, "do you mind if I ask you about your hands?"
Francis smiled a tight smile and slid closer to her so she could see his hands in the firelight. He pulled his sleeves back to the elbow and Gloria traced the scars on the back of his hands and around his wrists.
"Suicide attempt?" She half-joked.
"Hah. No." His sigh sounded like the weight of the world was settling in on his shoulders.
"So what happened?"
"It's a very long story. Old story. Like a horror movie. My parents don't like me talking about it."
"I don't mean to pry."
"Yes, you do." Francis smiled wearily and took her hand in his. "It's okay. Curiosity is a good thing."
"But it kills cats."
They giggled for a minute or so, then drifted back to staring at the fire.
"I have a rare condition," Francis started. "The scars are terrible. I keep them covered to protect." The sad tone of his voice almost kept Gloria from pressing further.
"Protect them? The scars?"
"The scars. You. Me. My family."
Gloria was confused. "Why does your family need protecting?"
"Forget I said that. My family is fine. I am perfectly safe with them. Don't worry."
Gloria's mind reeled with a thousand more questions. Before she could pick one to ask first, Francis looked at her with an appraising eye.
"Well, after all, why not?"
But Francis leaned forward and kissed her, and the questions faded away.
For the next month, Gloria spent the rest of her free time researching horrifying conditions that leave scars, but she couldn't find anything that left the scars that looked like the ones Francis had.
From that first kiss, which was apparently witnessed by "firewood boy", Gloria and Francis were officially, "a couple." It was an unspoken rule, but understood by both, that his parents were not aware of their relationship and Gloria made sure to keep her mother in the dark as well. It would do neither of them any good if she spilled the beans.
They attended every athletic event and after school activity so they could spend time together.
Gloria knew they'd eventually have to tell their parents. They were both graduating in June and she'd be turning 18 a month later. She'd be heading off to college. Their conversations kept turning to the future.
Francis always replied there was only the present and would change the subject.
In April, Gloria received two acceptance letters from the only two colleges she applied for; the University of Washington, and the University of Southern California.
Her mother was ecstatic about both of them. Gloria's enthusiasm was bridled by her feelings for Franics. She couldn't get excited about either if he wasn't going.
Their next lunch period was strained and finally Francis grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the lunchroom and lead her to a space behind the gym where no one could see them.
"I am not going to college. My parents would freak out if they knew about us. How do you think they'd handle it if I told them I was going to college on the other side of the country?"
"USC and the UW both have excellent medical schools. I'm sure they could handle whatever condition..."
"No. They have never seen anything like me." Francis' eyes blazed as he seethed. "I'm a freak. How many times do I have to tell you? My parents won't let me loose."
"Have you asked them? Have you talked about it with them? How do you know?"
"There's no point. I know what I am. I know my limitations."
Gloria wanted to shake him.
"Your limitations? Are you kidding me? You're limited by fear."
"You don't know anything about fear." Francis' voice dropped an octave and he spoke in very clipped syllables. "I am the stuff horror stories are made of. These scars? They aren't what you think. I don't have a condition...I shouldn't even be here."
Gloria stood her ground despite the way his voice made her knees shake. "What do you mean?"
Francis laughed bitterly.
Gloria grasped at straws. "Is this survivor's guilt? Were you the only survivor?"
"Not hardly." Francis shook his head. "Look, you don't know anything about me. I..."
"Because you won't let me!" Gloria shook with rage. "What am I to you? A 'practice girl'? I thought we were building something here, but if you're just using me, I guess I'm wasting my time."
She stalked back to the lunchroom, leaving Francis to wallow.
Gloria's mother noticed right away that something was different. Gloria snapped at everything and everyone. She faked a cold to avoid school.
Finally, she had enough of Gloria's pouting and blew up.
"Gloria! Get your A-S-S out of bed right now! Front and center, young lady."
Gloria hated hearing that prhase. Mother was going to LAY DOWN THE LAW. Still, she couldn't lay in bed all day. Plus, she'd have to graduate to get into college so she could leave this place forever.
Who names a town "Spoons" anyway? Hippie nut-jobs, that's who.
Her mother was waiting in the kitchen when Gloria finally made it down the hall.
"What in the world is going on with you?! Are you going mental?" Gloria's mother was a fan of British television and these kinds of phrases littered her vocabulary.
"I'm not 'going mental.'"
"It's a boy. I knew it!"
"What? How did..." Gloria was shocked by her mother's newfound psychic abilities.
"Yep. Boy trouble. Don't hide it!"
Gloria realized her mouth was gaping open.
"Honey, you shouldn't wear your hair in a ponytail if you don't want your neck to show. It looked like you were attacked by high-velocity golf balls on your neck and collar bones for the past few months. I'm not blind, you know."
"Uh." Gloria's mouth clapped shut and reopened as she flushed a deep crimson. Finally, she sighed. "Well, you have nothing to worry about. I broke it off."
"Doesn't matter. It wasn't what I thought it was."
"Well," her mother said as she put her arms around her, " we all have these drams of how perfect love affairs should be. It hardly ever is the way they show in the movies." She picked up a lock of Gloria's hari and tucked it behind her ear. "Tell you what. I'll go to the store and pick up some Chunky Monkey and Love, Actually and we'll have a movie night."
"Make that First Wive's Club and you're on!"
Gloria took a shower while her mother was gone and marvelled at how much better she felt afterwards. She put on a pair of pj bottoms and a tank top and made it out to the couch just as her mother came in.
She handed Gloria the Chunky Monkey, set down her own pint of Phish Phood and headed to the DVD player with the rental.
"They didn't have First Wive's Club, so I got a 'cheer-me-up' movie. Young Frankenstien."
A drop of ice slipped into Gloria's stomach. Suddenly, the scars, the tirades, it all fell into place.
It couldn't be real, could it?
Gloria was waiting for Francis when he got to school.
He tried to walk past her without speaking, but she locked into step beside him. As they approached the main building, she pushed him toward the side and led him around the corner where they were alone.
"Yes?" Francis looked annoyed.
"Can you sing, 'Puttin' on the Ritz'?"
His eyes narrowed.
"Does violin music soothe your soul?"
"Are you on drugs?"
"I know what you are."
"I. You. What?" Francis looked very confused.
"What is your father's name?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess that's kind of a trick question." Gloria paused. "I take it the man you're living with didn't use an abnormal brain either, since you're not completely incapable of communication."
Francis shook his head. "Young Frankenstein?"
Francis regarded her with admiration for a minute before sighing with releif. "I love that movie. And to answer your questions, yes, that's just in the movies. My father is long since dead. Also, I am not terrified of fire and there is no one hanging around my house named Igor."
"No abnormal brains?"
Francis laughed. "No, I was a scientist."
They stood in quiet triumph for a few seconds.
"Huh," said Gloria.
"Yeah," said Francis.
"So, now what?"
Francis smiled at her. "It's kinda up to you. Could you date a freak?"
"Trick question." She pushed him against the building and kissed him.
"Okay, but we do this right."
"I thought we were," said Gloria as she kissed him again.
"Ha-ha. You know what I mean!"
Francis brought Gloria to the car t meet his mother that afternoon. The poor woman looked terrified.
He told her that Gloria would be coming for dinner and that he'd need the car. He walked Gloria to her mother's car while his mother waited, fuming, for him to return.
Gloria introduced Francis to her mother and Francis invited them for dinner.
All the way home, Gloria explained to her mother that she had been mistakien, it was a big misunderstanding, but now they were together and there may be a future in it!
Francis arrived at 6:30pm and picked up Gloria and her mother. They were dressed in floral sundresses and sandals. Francis gave Gloria a single pink rose and a bouquet of purple tulips to her mother.
He patiently answered every question her mother fired at him until they arrived at the house, which sat at the end of a very long driveway.
As Gloria's mother entered the house, Francis took Gloria's hand and led them into a sitting room off the entrance, where his parents were waiting.
After everyone was introduced and the small talk was exhausted, Francis stood up and poured lemonade for everyone. He offered a toast to the future and drank before anyone could agree.
Dinner was announced, and they made their way to the dining room. Gloria could hardly eat, she was so nervous, but the meal was enormous.
Finally, Francis announced that he had come to a decision and had invited everyone there because it affected them.
He decided to go to college at the University of Washington.
His parents went rigid in their chairs.
"You can't," his father said.
"It's my life. I'll be 65 soon. You can't stop me."
Gloria and her mother sat in shocked silence as the scene unfolded. 65?
"What if something happens?" His father's voice had become a terrifying hiss.
"They have an excellent medical school."
"It's not equipped for something like..." he drifted off and glanced at Gloria and her mother.
"Thing? Nice, dad. Besides, I'm not going alone."
"What?!?" Gloria, her mother and his father spoke simultaneously as Francis' mother whipped around to glare accusingly at Gloria. Francis grinned. He grabbed Gloria's hand and pulled her out of her chair to stand next to him.
"Gloria is also attending the University of Washington. I'm willing to wait, but I'd like to marry her before we go."
"What?!?" Francis parents, Gloria and her mother spoke simultaneously.
"You can't be serious," said Gloria.
"Well, after all, why not?" He winked at her and she flushed with the memory.
"Because we've known each other for four months. Because I just figured you out last night-" his father turned white-"because I'm only 18!"
"So we'll date in college and get married after. I can wait."
"Son," his father's voice warned.
"Later, Dad." He looked at his father and then back to Gloria.
"Well? What do you say?"
Gloria looked into his eyes and sighed. "Well, after all, why not?"
Two months later, Gloria and Francis walked side by side in the graduation processional. They joked that the band would only get four bars of the Commencement March out before the five graduates got to the front, but the Principal had mapped a route to the stage that used up a good sixteen bars.
The past two months had been a whirlwind of meetings and deep conversations with Francis, Gloria and their parents. In the end, Francis appealed to the scientist in his dad and said it was time to take this experiment to the next level. Could his creation sustain a "normal" life?
Francis and Gloria held hands during the ceremony, breaking only to give their speeches as Valedictorian and Salutatorian, respectively. At the end the Principal had walked down the row of folding chairs, handing out the diplomas instead of making them walk to him. He could have just turned around, really.
They tossed their caps, and the party started immediatley afterwards. Their parents congratulated both of them and there were lots of hugs and kisses going around.
At the end of the night, Francis dad pulled out a bottle of champagne and poured some for himself and his wife, Gloria's mother and when he was sure no one was watching, for Gloria and Francis.
He raised his glass and offered a toast. "To the Grand Experiment."
Gloria and Francis winked as they raised their glasses.