For Ages
14 to 99

This searing and intimate novel in verse follows a sixteen-year-old girl coping with sexual abuse as she grapples with how to reclaim her story, her anger, and her body in a world that seems determined to punish her for the sin of surviving.

"This is more than a story about sexual violence—this book is about race, sexuality, love, and how anger can be a catalyst for healing."
—Gabrielle Union, bestselling author, actress, and producer

Sixteen-year-old Alicia Rivers has a reputation that precedes her. But there’s more to her story than the whispers that follow her throughout the hallways at school—whispers that splinter into a million different insults that really mean: a girl who has had sex. But what her classmates don't know is that Alicia was sexually abused by a popular teacher, and that trauma has rewritten every cell in her body into someone she doesn't recognize. To the world around her, she’s been cast, like the mythical Medusa, as not the victim but the monster of her own story: the slut who asked for it. 

Alicia was abandoned by her best friend, quit the track team, and now spends her days in detention feeling isolated and invisible. When mysterious letters left in her locker hint at another victim, Alicia struggles to keep up the walls she's built around her trauma. At the same time, her growing attraction to a new girl in school makes her question what those walls are really keeping out. 

"[This] fierce and brightly burning feminist roar…paints a devastating and haunting portrait of a vulnerable young woman discovering the power of her voice, her courage, and her rage." —Samira Ahmed, New York Times bestselling author of Internment and Hollow Fires

An Excerpt fromDear Medusa

Friday, August 31

The worst part of working fast food is the name tag

because there’s always somebody’s mom with coupons

who thinks they are somehow being cheated by the teenager

at the register, and their eyes always dart down

to your chest to look for a way to be in charge.

“Listen,” she says, and I see her eyes laser in,

search out my name.

“Alicia. You overcharged me for my mozzarella sticks. Now,

do I need to ask for the manager or are you going to make it right?”

Make it right. Ever since last year, everything

sounds like justice or

its burning absence.

She thinks she’s been done grievous wrong

by the two dollars extra on her waxy receipt

and my mouth is supposed to be apologizing

but my mind is on everything else:

• the whole school/world calling me a whore

• Sarah cutting me out of her life like a tumor

• my parents, the wood chipper of their life between them

In the end I just say, “Ma’am, I’ll do my best.

I’ll do my very best.”

We both know

she’ll still call the manager over,

will still make the world a witness

to all the things she thinks she deserves

even with my smile so bright

it shatters.

It’s my last weekday shift before school

and it’s just girls on the clock, no creepy manager,

no too-old guys pretending they’re still in high school

and eyeing you over curly fries.

Slow day. No construction workers,

no cops expecting free food,

no guys in suits who refuse coupons

because they want you to know

they’re rich:

just teenage girls who don’t go

to the same school,

carrying different gossip

not about each other

and thus unimportant.

Stephanie is the shift manager

and she’s only twenty-one so

when there’s no customers

she lets us turn up the lobby music

and all of us sing along.

The final day of August is like a guillotine

separating September from the rest of the summer

in one clean slice, the red sun bleeding out

over my feet as I circle the school

in my Meat Palace uniform

one more time before I start junior year.

It’s empty. No one but me

would ever come to school while the freedom

summer drops like gold confetti

still sparkles on our shoulders.

But I like it like this, the quiet, the way

the beige bricks drink up the sunset,

taking on a color that reminds me

of a desert. Dry, baked,


I’ve never been anywhere but here.

My feet take me to the track, like they miss it.

Maybe they do. Maybe they remember

how it felt to transform

from girl to mustang

with grateful lungs heaving.

Freshman year

I could fly.

Then sophomore year happened.

I look back at the pink bricks,

settling into a deeper shade

now that the sun is sinking.

I’m sinking too, down onto the bleachers,

the metal warm against my thighs.

This school is empty of people

and full of memories

and I don’t want

any of them.

My mother offers to iron my school uniform and even though I want her to, I say no,

because sometimes

in this place

where I am

it feels good to refuse

help, because saying yes

to even something like an iron

feels like saying yes

to everything else

when my whole life

has become a pipe bomb

full of pieces

that explode in a furious


Tuesday, September 4

The school bus stops on my block but I don’t get on.

I’ve been taking the city bus all summer

and I like the way it makes me feel

like I’m living in a different world

than the people who are supposed to be

my peers. What’s the difference?

At least on the city bus

I can pull the string,

and it makes me feel

like I’m in control.

I can get off whenever I want

wherever I want

even if my destination

is predetermined.

On the city bus I can still wonder

what the people there think about me,

whereas at school

once I walk through the door

I already know what they’re all thinking,

what they’re all going

to say

about all the versions of me they think they know,

laid alongside

all the girls I was before

in stark contrast.


They are like ripples on a pond and they begin

in my earliest memories of myself:

Playing in the fountains at Elwain Park

with no shirt on, five-year-old bird


Eight and pointing at bras in Target, my brother

wearing them like hats while my mother

shopped and I laughed

Sarah getting her first bikini, me ten

and silent and feeling a brand-new envy

grow in like ivy

Me eleven

Me twelve

Me thirteen

Me fourteen

Curious and curious

Me warming up

Me sneaking to buy my first thong

Me excited for someone


to notice

Me kissing Michael Strong

the day I got my braces off

just to feel what someone’s tongue felt like

sliding across new teeth

Me hearing about what good girls

do and think and say

and always feeling like a neon opposite

even if only in shadow.

Me thinking I had secrets until last year

when I learned what it meant--

what it really meant--

to hide.

There’s always a white kid who says “Why do the Black kids sit together in the cafeteria? They segregate themselves.”

And I’m a white girl too so what do I know

but I think the answer is so obvious in a school as white

as this one

where Halloween parties still feature blackface and redface

where the student council only barely voted


to maintain a special events calendar for Black History Month

and the cheerleading squad is all white but shouts yas queen, werk! between routines.

Dawn of Day 1

and we’re all in the cafeteria waiting to be dismissed,

the swell of the student body heaving as if on a ship at rough sea,

all of us deciding where we fit, where to squeeze in, if anyone we hate or love

has rendered certain sections unsittable.

The girl who says it this year is skinny and blond,

a sophomore, and her whole table murmurs and laughs,

casts glances at the three tables where the couple dozen Black students,

the half-dozen kids from Mexico and El Salvador,

all take refuge in each other’s presence.

Why wouldn’t they

when to sit anywhere else in this sea of narrowed eyes and fake laughs

would be like throwing yourself overboard?

I’d never say that I consider my pain equal

but I can say I know

how it feels to step onto a ship

and be confident that everyone on board

is watching you, thinking that you’re not a sailor

but a creature from the deep.

The only text messages I get are from coworkers.

Mariah: can you take my shift tomorrow

Alicia: what time

Mariah: 3:30

Mariah: . . . ?

Alicia: I’m in school, sorry. Yes I’ll take it.

Mariah: I thought you were dropping out

Alicia: I wish

And from random dudes.

Him: Thinking about you

Alicia: I know what that means

Him: yeah;)

Him: free tonight?

Alicia: tomorrow

Day 1 was a success

in the way that surviving a haunted house

is a success:

I walked through the halls and saw

lots of ghosts

but never

the Devil


The garage is full of smoke

and someone who doesn’t live in this gray

house might think something is on fire.

If they looked closer they would know nothing

is, the smoke they see only the last remains

of what has finally ceased to burn. What’s left

of my family is a cold smolder. Divorce

is only white-hot for so long. If you’ve ever watched a fire

you know it eventually gives way to a gray zero,

smoke coming from nothing, piles of ash.

The smoke is my mother sitting in a lawn chair

cigarette in hand, coffee can next to her for the ashes.

She talks to her mother

or her sister

sometimes a friend from college

and from where I stand in the kitchen

I can hear the low blur of her voice,

the clink of the can when she taps,

the slide of a beer across the concrete.

It’s only the two of us.

My brother and my father have become

heavy apparitions. They exist but on a different

plane. My mother is here with me but she’s

also somewhere else--on nights like tonight

the garage is a distant universe

I would need time travel to cross.

Sometimes I stand at the door and try to listen

while my leftovers spin in the microwave.

Occasionally she laughs,

but mostly she cries.

My parents met when my father was still mid-divorce

with his first wife, one child already somewhere

in Montana.

He was 31 and my mother 20

and she was dancing at a college party

when he saw her,

her hair the same black as fresh asphalt

but softer, and swinging,

and he never danced

but that night he danced for her

the way birds in the wild

spread feathers and perform.

But like geese

and not doves,

my father takes many mates

and even when my mother still waxes

romantic about love at first sight

(even now)

and the way the music slowed

when their eyes met,

sometimes I wonder

(since the divorce)

what he was doing at that party

in the first place.

Portrait of a day

Dawn and toast.

Bus and its flickering yellow light.

School and its silent rivers of judgment.

Boys and their fingers in my belt loops

even when we don’t know each other.

No Sarah. No nobody except

a girl in physics who talks to me,

but she talks to everybody.

Weeks 1 and 2 down and I skipped art

both weeks to avoid the hallway

where “it” happened.

Lots of ghosts, but no Devil.

Bus. Meat Palace.


Thursday, September 13

Sometimes people put notes in my locker’s grille

Sometimes one word, sometimes several,

never more than a sentence.

One at the end of last year said

sex isn’t a hobby

and I had so many questions, the first

of which was

is putting weird notes in people’s locker a hobby?

But that’s the voice in my head

that says I’m too mature

to let these things bother me.

That voice is a little


Still, I had to laugh

when I looked up hobby

in the dictionary app

on my phone:

hobby: (n) an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.

The note-leavers didn’t waste any time this school year

so when I see the paper poking out from down

the hall, my stomach sinks, even as the mature

voice in my head says something tough

like let’s see if their handwriting has improved.

It has.

Neat blue pen.

Circles dot i’s.

But this one doesn’t feel

like the others.

It says:



and if I didn’t know Sarah

was twelve miles away at her new

school, I’d think it was her

issuing one last barb--it sounds

just Bible-thumpy enough.

There are more words on the back

but I don’t read them.

I may be a lot of things

but a masochist

isn’t one of them.

Friday, September 14

I have two shirts for work and only ever wear one.

Terry is the new manager of the restaurant--transferred in when Joey got caught

setting up a fake robbery, emptying

the safe into the backseat of his car.

No bag or anything. Shit for brains.

But I would rather have Joey than Terry, who is older and goes to church and wears a tie

every day like he doesn’t know this is a Meat Palace

in a nondescript part of town.

He lurks in drive-thru while I’m working, tells me to take my nose ring out.

He pretends he has to stand very close to me to see if I’m wearing it or not.

He thinks because I am sixteen that I don’t know every trick in the book.

Maybe I don’t. But I do know

there is a book

and that Terry pulls pages from it when he

leans close to see my nose ring

slips close behind me when he’s restocking napkins

stands close when the cashier steps out to take her break

Close close close

Never quite touching.

I know it will come--it always does

when men like Terry take your silence

for consent

or better yet



They know if you can claim not to know

that they can too,

like a hand down a teenager’s bra

is just a mistake

a slip in a puddle

an agree to disagree.

I can hear my (ex) best friend’s voice now, Sarah:

“If you hate it so much then quit.”

“If it really bothers you then why haven’t you said anything”

At the time (before she cut me off)

I didn’t have the words that I have now.

I didn’t know how to say

“This world is full of wolves. I’ve already

met worse wolves than Terry.

Terry is just a dog. Running from a dog

At this point,

at this juncture

in my career with wolves,

feels like admitting I’m a rabbit

when every day I feel more like a bull.

Sometimes wolves hunt bulls

and they win. But sometimes

they get the horns.”

The first wolf I remember was bagging my mother’s groceries.

I was fourteen and we’d just come from the pool.

(That doesn’t mean I was wearing a bathing suit.

That doesn’t mean I was wearing shorts.

People always wonder what I was wearing.


when it comes to girls and wolves

do we let our brains look for reasons

why she deserved to be prey

before we notice his fangs?)

His name was Adam. He was twenty-one--

I learned this later.

At the time he was scanning my mother’s

broccoli and bread

and when her eyes lowered to her purse

his rose to me.

Sometimes I remember the way the blush

felt crossing my cheeks and wonder

if I was to blame after all. After all

I was pleased to be noticed.

An older boy,

a man,

someone with perspective.

Not many people really noticed me at school

(before “it”).

But Adam did.

I thought he saw something my peers

didn’t see. I thought maybe in that moment

under the fluorescent lights

I had transformed into something worthy.

My father came back then from buying

a lottery ticket and if he saw Adam’s eyes

he pretended not to.

My father never liked conflict.

He avoided it like chewed gum

on the sidewalk.

Maybe if he were different

everything else would be too.

You are the ghost in the ghost town when people pretend you are dead.

When I started sleeping with guys, my friendship with Sarah became an hourglass.

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