In a world run by men, the women who feel that they were made for greater things than marriage and motherhood have one escape: to be accepted into the search for la Extrema, the one woman who needs nothing and no one but herself, the woman destined to lead her sisters to freedom.
When sixteen-year-old Salina Moore and her best friend, Katrina, are chosen to progress to the next level of testing, not even the acceptance of the class slut, Veronica, can dampen Salina’s enthusiasm. And when Katrina drops out of the race to run off with a man, Salina’s heartbreak strengthens her resolve that nothing will deter her from her destiny. But when, in the midst of the competition, a bond begins to form between Salina and Veronica, Salina is forced to question everything she has ever believed in.
“You’re not really wearing that, are you?”
I look up, annoyed, wondering who made the rule that eighteen-year-old sisters need their privacy, but sixteen-year-olds don’t.
“What did you wear to your testing day?” I ask, and then roll my eyes. “Never mind. I can guess. Your Sunday dress.”
“You don’t need to talk like that’s a bad thing,” Jill sniffs.
“It’s not.” I face myself in the mirror again. Simple black shirt and leggings, making me look tall and fast and feel sure of myself. I take my jacket off my chair and watch myself wriggle into it, watch it do its magic, transforming my breasts into muscles, broadening my shoulders. A man’s shoulders, a man’s hands, a man’s chest.
The one girl who can equal every man, who surrenders to nothing and no one. La Extrema.
It could be me.
“Oh god.” Completely abandoning privacy, my sister runs to my side and grabs my hands. “You don’t really think they could take you, do you?”
I close my eyes. I’ve been wrestling with these questions for as long as I can remember. Every day in school, I’ve ignored the stares, the whispers, the giggles: Sally Moore thinks she has what it takes to be a heroine. Sally Moore thinks she’s special, but she’s just delusional. Who does she think she is, to succeed where everyone else has failed? For years, I’ve taken this from both my town and myself. But today is my day, and I don’t need to deal with anyone else’s doubt of me.
“I don’t know if they’ll have me or not,” I answer. “But I have to try, Jill. This is the only chance I’m going to get to make something of my life.”
I can tell that she doesn’t understand. She’s got a good life here. She graduated well, with good grades. She’s got a boyfriend—I can’t stand being in the same room with him for five minutes, but she really loves him, and I’m happy for her.
But that can’t be my life. The pressure has been building since I was five or younger, and by this point I’m ready to explode. I can’t settle down with a husband and three children. It’s just not my destiny.
At sixteen years old, a girl gets one way out. All girls take a test on this day, the last day of summer, and the answers either confirm their destiny for the normal life, or…give them a way out.
I need this way out. If I don’t get it, I’m prepared to kill myself.
I’ve never told anyone this, but Jill must see the desperation in my eyes, because she sighs and says, “All right. At least let me brush your hair. If you want them to see you as a force to be reckoned with, you have to look the part.”
My best friend, Katy, is waiting for me outside the school, as she does every morning. When she sees me, she waves and grins, as she always does.
My heart begins to beat faster and harder at the sight of her. Used to be I’d hug her, but now I know better than to let my guard down, especially today. Who knows what the test administrators consider signs of weakness, and I can’t afford to display any of them.
“You ready for the big test?” I ask as I turn slightly away and we head inside. As usual, the class slut, Veronica, is leaning against a wall by the door, being felt up by one of the boys too packed with muscles to have any brains.
“Ready? I can’t wait to get out of this town!”
Katy and I have been inseparable since we were five. She was everything I wanted to be, tall and beautiful and ambitious, unafraid to speak her mind, so sure of herself, sure that she was destined for bigger and better things than this town of perfect blondes has to offer. We were drawn together by a shared restlessness, a shared innate feeling of being different from everyone else. Our one hope since the beginning of high school has been the discovery of the long-awaited Extrema, the woman who will lead us to victory, the woman as different as one can possibly be, the one woman susceptible to no temptation, who accepts no help, who does everything for herself.
I know that the only reason that the cause hasn’t died long ago is that our patriarchal government doesn’t think it’s worth it to quash a rebellion so small and so static that its fighters, hardly more than a handful of odd women each generation, have done nothing but wait and wait for years, but nonetheless Katy and I, and pockets of girls all over the country, continue to cling to the belief that when la Extrema comes, she will change everything. Women won’t have to hide in small pockets and play themselves down in order to survive anymore. We’ll be able to rise up and take our power behind our infallible leader.
La Extrema is more than a person by now, she’s the hope of all of us women who have felt different. On our last day of school, we all get to take a test, and those of us who are different enough get spirited away to the next level of the search. Katy has never talked about any goal other than getting out, but then, neither have I.
Only, deep in my heart, I’ve admitted that I want to do more than just break away. I want to do something with my life. I don’t know what, but something big, something that will change the world, something that no one will ever forget.
Those secret feelings have allowed me to imagine—could I be the one, la Extrema?
Maybe so, but first I have to pass this test.
The test is held in the largest room in the school. Katy and I find relatively inconspicuous places to sit—as she always says, why show off what no one cares enough to see anyway, when we’ll be gone soon enough?—as opposed to Veronica, who always takes a place right in front, daring any teacher to call her out for not studying hard enough.
Quickly, the room fills with giggly blondes and shy brunettes, clinging to their books, their smiles perfected, their eyes fixed studiously on the front of the room.
The administrator of our test is Grace O’Malley. As a sixteen-year-old girl, she believed that she was meant to be la Extrema, but like so many others, she had to give up that dream when she fell in love and was disqualified. Many of such women, if their husbands permitted, chose instead a life of service to the cause, continuing the search for la Extrema.
There is no shame in any of that, but stories such as hers are the ones that have given me nightmares since I was five years old. Beautiful, happy, dignified and whole as she looks, standing at the front of the room, as her wedding band catches the light I scowl and plant my feet more firmly on the floor, vowing that I will not give up my dream for anything.
“Good morning, young women,” she says in her clear, confident voice, calling us all to attention. “For today that is what you will become, whether your future involves safekeeping the old world, or discovering the new.”
She goes on to talk about the search for la Extrema, but I don’t listen too closely, since we’ve heard it all before. My mind is on the test: what will the questions be? What do I have to do to get what I want? What will I do if I pass without Katy, or her without me? They never take more than two girls from one village, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll take that many. Nonetheless, I can’t help imagining it…Grace calling my name, Katy’s name. Her fingers twined through mine as we wave goodbye to this town and turn forward to face the future…
I’m brought back to reality by the papers landing on my desk.
“At the top, in the blank slot, write a name,” Grace instructs. “Not necessarily the name your parents chose for you. We’re interested in a name that you feel expresses who you really are.”
My pencil was poised to write Sally Moore, but now I pause, rest my elbow on the desk, and bite down on the eraser while I think.
If I become la Extrema, I will have no other name and need no other name, but first I have to get into the running. My sister’s words sound in my head: “If you want them to see you as a force to be reckoned with, you have to look the part.”
All the other girls have already written their names and moved on to the questions. I should hurry and catch up, but I don’t want to rush this. I don’t want to regret the name I choose, on the chance it becomes how I’m permanently known.
In the end, it’s that uncertainty that makes me choose the name I do—because if I end up hating it people can just call me Sally again.
I don’t feel any indication that I will, though. Writing it down makes me feel kind of…tied to this. Like just by changing my name, I really can change everything.
For a precious moment, there’s no difference.