Sveta twisted and turned in the mirror, lifting her shirt to inspect her stomach, flattering herself that it looked harder, firmer, than it had last week. But no, she could easily pinch the flesh into an unsightly fat roll as usual. She pulled up her sleeves, inspecting every inch of her arm, hoping against hope to find something rough and scaly. Again, nothing but soft, pale skin, or what the upperclassmen liked to call ‘soft serve’. All quivering adolescent flesh and nothing substantial.
The only thing remotely tough on her body was the crusty elbow scab she had scraped with a key out of boredom. There were people she knew—well, they weren’t friends, of course—who could file down keys and fingernails against their skin. Even one guy whose head was so rock-hard that you could break a board over it. She had watched him once during third-period gym, and he just laughed, saying he didn’t feel a thing and asking his pals to do it again and again.
Out of sheer desperation, she peeled off her socks and inspected her toes and heels, hoping the skin had hardened, dried out. But even they were baby-smooth and without blemish. There were a few girls who couldn’t even wear shoes anymore, as their toes were granite-hard and could deflate soccer balls with a single kick. But after all, only those who didn’t change played sports after high school, since flexibility was the surest obstacle to upward mobility.
She must have been ignoring her texts, because when her phone rang, she saw Malorie’s name flash over the screen—and she never called.
“Bitch, do you ever look at your phone?” Malorie said, with a laugh.
“Sorry, I’m getting ready—running late. I’ll see you in a few.”
“Not today you won’t. I’m sick off my ass. I might miss the entire week, who knows?”
“Maly, not again!” Sveta said, throwing herself on the bed. “You can’t keep doing this. You’ve already missed, what, ten or twelve days? You’ll get suspended.”
“Whatever. We don’t belong there anyway, among those privileged, petrified snobs. I’m sick of pretending I give a shit. What’s the point of even graduating at this point?”
“Because otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life delivering take-out in this two-bit town. Come on, it’s just a few more months. Get your ass in the car.”
“Sorry, I really am coughing my brains out. Cough, cough. See, you can’t fake that.”
“Just take the bus and stop bitching. Or go pass the driving exam already. I mean, a lot of people fail it twice.”
“I’ve already missed the bus, and if you don’t take me…I have to ask her. Please don’t make me ask her!”
“You two need some quality time together; you’ll thank me later. Say hi to the clones in Calc!”
She wasted five minutes trying to call Malorie back, but she never answered. That only left her enough time to catch her mother before she left for work and ask her—or in this case, beg her—to take Sveta to school, which would add twenty minutes to her commute. The second she walked downstairs and they locked eyes her mother knew. She only shook her head and muttered, “Three minutes, and I’m leaving with or without you.”
The drive to school was more strained than usual. Sveta sat in the passenger seat, clutching her backpack against her chest, watching the traffic lights zoom past. Her mother’s eyes kept cutting over to her, as if trying to pry through the clothes and see some tell-tale sign of transformation. Even as a child, her mother’s hands would sweep over her flesh, poking here, prodding there, looking for resistance. There’s still time, you’re still young, she always told her, but it never sounded encouraging.
“You know, maybe you should see someone? Like a therapist? They say it’s often a mental block, and you used to have those nightmares, remember?”
Used to. Still did. Always did. But it was better for her mother not to know what kept her awake at night.
“Maybe it’s just not my time yet, okay?” Sveta replied. “You’re a late bloomer. And Malorie, she still isn’t showing.”
“Knowing her parents, I’m not surprised,” her mother said, with a snicker. “But you come from a long line of rockers. Okay, it started late for me—and like a lot of women, just one arm—but look at your grandparents: they were planted on the hill in their forties. It’s inspiring to see them looking down on us, along with the rest of our family…so many generations of Beckers and Burlatskys.”
She interrupted her speech to honk at someone who had cut her off, then continued.
“I’m just saying, you’re almost eighteen…some kids are already thinking about where they’ll be planted. If you already had a stiff arm or leg, we could reserve a spot somewhere on the hill, maybe just behind the house next to Daddy? You want to settle down before all the good places are taken.”
“I mean, I guess…I just wish everyone didn’t make such a big deal about it. It’ll happen eventually, won’t it?”
“For most people, yes, but you have to be a little proactive,” she said, thoughtfully. “Not to speak ill of your friend, but Malorie lives in a trailer park. Her parents never settled down, and I doubt she will, either. Can you imagine, spending your entire life running around, never knowing your place? I knew early on where I wanted to be, who I was going to marry, even before this,” she said, raising her arm. “And your father—”
“Can we not?” Sveta said, burying her face in her bag.
Her father, the famous rock star himself, who was in a wheelchair at eighteen. He had even made the local paper; a miracle of science, they called him. By the time she was six he was immobilized in the bedroom, just a living rock that would greet her and kiss her goodnight. A few years later they moved him to the yard, since the doctors said he was still there, still with them, though they couldn’t say for how long. It only took a year before they felt it was time, and moved him up with his parents on the hill, another Becker to watch over the generations-yet-unborn.
“Sveta, you should be proud of him. I know it’s tough not to have him around, but he did this for the family…he wanted the best for all of us.”
Honestly, she barely remembered him as a living, functional parent. He had always been that thing in the bedroom, and she used to dread going in there at all, which was mostly reserved for bedtimes and birthdays. She hated that look in his eyes, which always seemed distant, like he didn’t even know who she was. There were statues that looked kinder, more alive.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, after a pause.
“Does what? This?” her mother asked, holding up her ‘good’ arm, the one that was cracked and gray. “No, not at all. It’s just heavier, that’s all. If anything, it gives me comfort. I feel like I’ve become whole, like nothing can hurt me.”
“Really? But what happens when you can’t move? When you just have to sit around all day, having people wait on you? Doesn’t that scare you?”
“If I didn’t have such a loving daughter in my life, yes, it might,” her mother said, with a smile. “But I know you’ll take care of me. And then I’ll watch over you, along with your father, from the top of the hill. You can bring your own kids up to see me, and they can hug me, climb me, whatever they like. We’ll still be one big happy family.”
“I guess so,” Sveta said, seeing her school swing into view through the window.
“So listen, I made an appointment for you next week…the therapist came highly recommended,” her mother said. “Just try it, just for a session or two. It might help. Because there’s no reason you can’t do it…there’s nothing wrong with you. Really.”
She said that last really as if convincing herself, lest she see her daughter as a failed experiment, someone unworthy of the Becker-Burlatsky line. She gave Sveta an affectionate pat on the shoulder as she pulled into the lot and wished her a good day. Sveta gave a miserable smile and ducked out of the car, feeling that she had survived this conversation mostly intact (unlike last time, when they had stopped talking to each other for a week).
Still, the pressure to conform and change seemed more intense than usual; not just from her mother, but from Malorie, too. It had become their only topic of conversation, and the closer they got to graduation, the more she felt she had made a decision, even without making one. It made her examine everyone with new eyes today, seeing those who were and those who weren’t. All the jocks seemed to lumber about, some dragging stone legs across the floor or with faces almost set, so that you couldn’t tell if they were happy or pissed off. Most of the popular kids—probably for this very reason—seemed to be well advanced, a few using crutches to get about, but one with a neck so stiff he had to turn his body simply to look at his friends. There were only a handful of girls like her who seemed normal, who moved around efficiently but seemed to hide in the background, with no infirmities to boast of. Had it always been like this? Or were people changing faster, younger, so they could be as safe and watchful as their parents?
At lunch, instead of sampling the cafeteria fare, she ducked into the library and pulled up the yearbook archive on the school’s website. She scrolled through the decades, going as far back as the 1950’s, watching long hair and t-shirts gradually fade into sideburns and neckties, until finally everyone became indistinguishable from the teachers: frame after frame of well-coiffed girls with giant glasses, and crew-cut boys with funeral-director suits. At first it seemed depressing, as if every one of those 1950’s kids was half-chiseled out of marble.
Yet at second glance she wasn’t so sure. The further back she went, the more the students seemed to have eyes. Naturally, they all had eyes, but these seemed alive, full of mystery and excitement. As she went forward, the stares seemed to dim, to look away, to die out. In recent years, she could sense a kind of dullness creep in, a sense that the kids had nothing to live for. Almost like the transformation had started from the inside-out.
Was that how she felt, watching everyone else turn to stone like clockwork? Was that why she still had nightmares, why she was secretly terrified of seeing a patch of gray or a finger locked in place? Of course she knew it was a good thing; she had seen all the movies and read all the books, all those glorious couples turning to stone together as the sun set behind them. Her mother called it going back to the earth, and said there was nothing more natural, more romantic. How strange that people used to die in wrinkled, useless skin that had to be buried out of sight and forgotten. Why settle for tombstones when you could become a living monument for those you loved?
And yet it terrified her. She still woke up most nights in a cold sweat from dreams where she was mounted like a bas relief over the fireplace. Her parents and friends would gather to inspect her, offering toasts, saying how wonderfully she completed the room. No matter how hard she screamed they only shook their heads, assuring her that the feeling would pass as soon as she let it go. And then she saw all the other terrified faces on the wall, all of them frozen in screaming stone.
She became so lost in these thoughts that she missed both bells and was late to Biology. By the time she arrived, students were already working in pairs on their next experiment. Her normal partner wasn’t there, so she had to sit awkwardly at her desk, waiting for the teacher to notice. She thought about asking to be a third wheel in someone else’s group, but she could see the looks on their faces; she was on her own. Mr. Malkin, largely immobile behind his desk, suddenly noticed her and waved imperiously.
“Miss Becker, don’t just sit there. Your partner’s out sick. You can pick up the lab when he returns. Here, take this to Study Hall,” he said, handing her a pass.
“Study Hall? But Mr. Malkin, I can’t go there! I mean, I’m not…can’t I just work with someone here?” she asked, panicked.
“If you had come earlier, maybe, but I can’t stop everyone just for you. Now here, take the pass. I have a lab to conduct.”
“Mr. Malkin, please, you don’t understand—”
“You’ve only got yourself to blame,” he said, with a look that suggested he wasn’t just talking about class.
Horrified, she took the pass and felt the whispers of mockery behind her. Study Hall was reserved for students who were on the fast-track to immobility. It allowed them a chance to take all their normal classes in a single room, since they couldn’t possibly make it across the building, much less to lunch, between bells. If she walked in there like this, on both feet, without crutches or an obvious impairment, the jokes would never end. She almost thought about ditching school entirely, but without a ride she wouldn’t get far. The only other choice was to hide in the bathroom until the bell rang, but that’s where the druggies hung out, and she wasn’t stoned enough for them, either.
She opened the door to Study Hall and the students—a small group of twelve or so—looked up from their desks, students she knew from junior high and grade school. She had watched them grow up, sometimes being friends with them, sometimes not, until they all got lost in a blur of adolescence. Surprisingly, no one laughed or objected to her presence. The teacher gestured for her pass and then went back to his book, similarly indifferent. Sveta scanned the room, trying to think which student she would piss off the least by sitting beside them.
Helen Canevaro. They had been friends for a short space in third or fourth grade, but something had happened, a spat at a birthday party, she didn’t remember. She still fondly remembered spending the night at Helen’s house once, reading manga and watching old horror movies until three in the morning. Helen looked up at her with a smile and said hello. Gratefully, Sveta slung her backpack over the chair and sat down, smiling back.
“Hey, good to see you,” Sveta said, quietly. “Sorry, I know I don’t belong here, I’m kind of a loser, but I got kicked out of class. No lab partner.”
“No, it’s cool, I’ve only been here for a few weeks,” Helen said, gesturing to her foot. “I don’t feel like I belong here, either.”
Sveta looked down at her right foot, which at first resembled a mud-stained cast. Upon closer inspection, she could see what used to be toes encrusted with a jumble of mottled stone. Otherwise, though, Helen looked completely normal, her bare arms untouched, except for a small bird tattoo near her left elbow. Their eyes met, and Sveta was startled how much Helen looked like that one girl from the crazy Swedish movie where they sacrificed people. Maybe that was the real reason they’d stopped hanging out all those years ago. Sometimes girls could tell when she looked at them a certain way, or for too long, and didn’t like it.
“Is it hard…you know, getting around?” Sveta asked.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a drag,” she said, nodding. “It goes all the way up to my knee. I woke up one morning and it was like that, no warning. My parents were thrilled. They would have bought me a car if they thought I could drive it.”
“Shit,” Sveta said, with a laugh. “I don’t know whether to say congratulations or I’m sorry.”
“Both, I guess. What about you? Any signs yet?”
“No, nothing. I’m a total failure. The disappointment of my entire clan,” she said dramatically.
“I doubt that. You were someone people always looked up to. I remember when…well, never mind, it’s silly.”
“No, what?” Sveta asked. “Come on, tell me.”
“Oh, you probably won’t remember…but back in third grade, we went to the county fair together. Your mom took us.”
“Oh right, of course,” Sveta said, starting to remember.
“Anyway, there was that booth where you had to throw baseballs at bottles. I sucked, couldn’t hit even one. But you hit every one, over and over again. There was a crowd of people watching you, cheering you on, and you kept going until the guy kicked you out. Said you were cheating.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot all about that! What a dick.”
“But you still won that giant rabbit: it was ridiculously big, cotton-candy pink, with these huge floppy ears, remember? And you gave it to me, even though it was yours, even though I begged you to keep it. You even told me—I know, it sounds silly now—that I was your inspiration.”
Sveta didn’t have a clear vision of winning the rabbit or giving it to Helen, though the general impression rang true. She only remembered a vague, warm sensation in her gut whenever she thought about their brief friendship. It was still one of the happiest times of her life.
“Sorry I made you keep it. Hopefully you got rid of it in the morning.”
“No way, I still have her!” Helen said, eyes wide. “She sits right on my bed…sometimes I even use her as a pillow.”
“Her? Don’t tell me you named it?” Sveta said.
“Of course: Anastasia! I think your name inspired me. Whenever I see her, I always remember you, that night we spent together. I hated that we stopped being friends.”
“Yeah, I wonder why we did? I guess it doesn’t matter anymore, we were just kids. Maybe we can…you know, start over? Especially since we’re stuck here together.”
“But only here until your lab partner comes back to class, right? Are they really sick?” Helen asked, cautiously.
“I don’t know, maybe. I barely even know the guy,” she said, with a shrug.
“Good…I don’t like competition,” Helen replied.
It was only after the bell rang and they went their separate ways that Sveta realized she still had a crush on Helen, and her third-grade game had been smoother than she thought.
As it happened, her lab partner, Sam Dickey, was having unexpected complications from his sudden change. It happened sometimes. They didn’t like to talk about it, but a few students were hospitalized when the change was too abrupt, or when it started in the wrong place. She knew at least one kid had died when his heart turned to stone. That was what scared her the most, the Russian roulette of the transformation. It was almost like someone was having a sick joke at their expense, one time choosing something ridiculous, like an ear, and another, an essential organ. She suddenly felt guilty that she didn’t even remember what Sam looked like, other than his glasses, which were always slipping off.
However, after a few days of Study Hall, she fell into a comfortable routine with Helen, no longer worried about being witty or stupid or whatever. Mostly she just spent time observing Helen, noticing all the little things hidden in plain view, but which took days and weeks to pick up. Case in point, she realized Helen was filling up page after page with elaborate arabesques, which sometimes coalesced into familiar shapes and faces. Once, without trying to be too sneaky about it, she spied a dreamy portrait emerge on the margins of Helen’s homework.
“Damn, did you do that just on the spot?” she asked.
“Oh—yeah, I mean, I’m just scribbling. It helps me think, it always has. It’s nothing really.”
“If you do that, you must have other stuff, too, like where you’re really trying. Can you show me?”
Helen grew a bit red at the suggestion, though it was clear that the scribbles were a subtle invitation to see more. But now she was nervous to go all the way.
“Well, look, don’t read too much into this…but I wanted to give you this. I was just worried you would think, wow, that’s weird or something. But I made it for you.”
Helen unzipped her backpack and removed a sketch pad smudged with charcoal on the cover. She opened the cover and flipped past several pages of abstract images, still lives, landscapes, houses. Then she came to one of the last pages, which, after a grin, she nudged over toward Sveta. Sveta could tell what it was even upside-down, even before her eyes really put it together.
It was a portrait of her, a bit idealized, of course, but taken by someone who had paid attention, who caught more than just the shoulder-length hair, the freckles, the little gap in her teeth. She saw her hesitation, her excitement, her awkwardness, her beauty. That was Sveta’s first thought when she really took in the portrait: Jesus, she’s gorgeous. Because she really felt like she was looking at Helen looking at her, and so much of Helen had bled through that it made the portrait feel like a warm embrace that wouldn’t let go.
“My God, Helen…this is wonderful. I mean, I wish I looked like that. When did you do this?”
“A few nights ago. I got bored doing my homework…or rather, I couldn’t concentrate on my homework. I kept thinking about you.”
So there, I said it, her eyes seemed to announce. They were wide-awake eyes, right there, looking to the future. Like those fifties kids in the yearbook, but no longer carved in stone.
“It’s wonderful, I love it,” Sveta said, stroking it with her hand. “It’s perfect.”
“Then it was worth doing,” Helen said, with a smile. “It’s yours, of course. I still have the original.”
“Where, in your head?”
Helen gave a little nod that suggested both yes and no. They didn’t say another word for the rest of class, allowing Sveta to replay the scene over and over until she knew it by heart.
Sveta waited for Helen after school, saw her coming out of the building on her crutches, her dead leg holding her back, bringing tears of frustration. When she suddenly looked up and saw Sveta, her face went blank, the pain retreating. Then her eyes lit up again. Sveta didn’t look at who was watching, what they might think (or what she might think tomorrow). She went right up to Helen and said something, she didn’t even remember what, and kissed her. Really quickly, before either of them could think twice. Helen’s eyes stayed wide-open in surprise, only closing as she pulled away, drinking it in.
“That’s for the drawing,” Sveta said, awkwardly.
“I have a few more, if you want to see them. But I keep them at home.”
“I want to see everything. I mean, if you’ll let me…if I’m not being, you know, too weird or something.”
“Whatever…I like weird girls.”
A car pulled up just behind them, which Sveta recognized from the general cacophony (shuddering engine, muffled sounds of Black Sabbath) as Malorie’s car. She tried to ignore it and steal as much time as she could, but Malorie laid on the horn: a long, impatient blast. Sveta gave a backwards wave in Malorie’s direction.
“Shit, I gotta go. My ride. You want to come? We can take you—”
“No, my mom insists on picking me up. But thanks. I’ll text you later, okay?”
Another honk. Sveta gave Helen a quick squeeze of the hand and darted into the passenger seat of the ‘Gremlin’ as they called it, though she had no idea what brand or model it was. Malorie zoomed off and even went between the parked buses with their STOP signs extended. A few kids flipped her off.
“I’d be doing them a favor,” she muttered. “So what, are you hanging out with her now?”
“Yeah, I mean, we’re friends,” Sveta said, cautiously. “I met her in Study Hall. She’s funny, you’d like her.”
“I heard she was a stuck-up bitch. But, I mean, if you like her.”
“I do. She’s cool. So, you actually came to school today. What’s the occasion?”
“Girl, I guess I’m celebrating,” she said, accelerating dramatically out of the parking lot. “I tried to text you, but you were too busy with what’s-her-face.”
“Celebrating? Why, did Steve send you a dick-pic or something?”
“Honestly, they look the same as his selfies, so who knows? But for real, check this shit out,” she said, revealing her left hand, which she had kept hidden at her side.
Flashing it in Sveta’s face, she revealed four fingers that were completely stone, with only one, the pinky, unscathed. Sveta shrieked and immediately grabbed it, running her fingers over each one, amazed and terrified by the transformation. Only a few days ago Malorie had made fun of all the stoners, as she jokingly called them, comparing the stratification of torsos and biceps. But now she seemed almost giddy over her change, having already posted it across social media, where, she explained, it already had hundreds of likes.
“My parents are flipping out,” Malorie said, trying unsuccessfully to wiggle her fingers. “You know how they said I was on my own for college? Well, guess who just put up five thousand bucks?”
“You’re joking! Really? Just because of this?”
“Hell yeah, because of this. A lot of people say if you get fingers first, that’s a good sign. It means you’re as good as gold by your twenties. So if I can get into State, or even one of the liberal arts schools, I might jumpstart fingers into an arm and a leg—or hell, even a torso!”
“But weren’t you going to take a gap year or something? So you could travel the country, hike all over the Southwest? Remember the postcard I sent you of the giant saguaro? You were even going to get a tattoo.”
Malorie frowned at the reminder, clearly from a different time, a different life. The world before she knew she had a future, or a body worth investing in.
“I mean…that would be cool, but I can’t just waste an entire year when I could, you know, be getting ahead. And why go to Arizona or wherever when there are so many good colleges here?”
“And that’s what you really want?” Sveta said, hesitantly. “You just seemed so happy, like you had everything figured out. This shouldn’t change things completely.”
“But it does, like a million percent! I never thought I would have a chance to settle down, find a place on the hill where everyone can see me. And who knows, after college I might be solid rock. Think what that would mean to my parents!”
“To be a statue before you’re thirty?” she said, unable to hide her disappointment. “You saw what happened to my father; I barely knew him, Maly. What if you have kids? Is that how you want them to remember you? Because they won’t remember you at all. You’ll just be that thing in the garden, or up on the hill, reminding them to study hard and eat their vegetables.”
Malorie abruptly switched lanes and pulled into an abandoned gas station where they used to hang out, where Malorie allegedly made out with some guy who just graduated. The car slammed to a halt and Malorie just glared at her, her soft hand gripping the wheel.
“I thought you would be happy for me,” she said, her deep voice cracking. “You’re the only person I really wanted to tell, Sveta. Because I knew you would give a shit. Or at least understand. I wasn’t supposed to change and you know it. My parents are soft-skinned, trailer-trash rednecks. And I’m trailer-trash, too.”
“No, Maly, I do—I get it. I am happy for you. I just don’t think you should be in such a hurry to be like everyone else. You’re different than them, you always said so. That’s why we’re friends. And we’ll still be friends, no matter what.”
“What the fuck do you know about me?” Malorie said, giving her a shove. “Maybe I’ve wanted this my whole life but was too scared to ask? Maybe I didn’t want to be disappointed like I always am? People don’t give two shits about me around here, Sveta. I don’t have parents, a reputation like yours. I’ll always be that girl to them.”
“Who cares? I like that girl, don’t you? And since when do you need them to like you? It’s us against the world, remember?”
Malorie gave a world-weary laugh, as if she had heard this before, many times, in fact, and still didn’t buy it. Sveta tried to backtrack, but Malorie cut her off, rolling down the window and yelling “bullshit!” at the top of her lungs. Sveta waited for the moment to pass, for Malorie to realize she was overacting and apologize, but it seemed she was just warming up.
“We were never on the same side,” Malorie said, eyes flashing. “You’re still the same old Sveta, slumming it with me until you find something better. But you don’t know the first thing about me…like the reason I hate your guts.”
“Do tell,” Sveta muttered.
“You’re everything I want to be, everything I tried to believe in. You made me feel that it was okay to be who I was. But then I started to see that you didn’t even believe in yourself. People used to look up to you, you know? You were the girl most likely to succeed and shit. But now…they talk a lot of shit behind your back. They think you’ve given up; we all do.”
“Why, because I’m not practicing to become a lawn ornament? Is that what little kids really dream of doing when they grow up? Why can’t we look around, get lost, not try to be exactly like our parents? Why is everyone in such a rush to do nothing for the rest of their lives?”
“Actually, I’m trying not to be like my parents,” Malorie said, sucking her teeth. “But I’d like to see how far you get with what’s-her-name. You think she really cares about you? Today, maybe, but tomorrow she’s going to want something real, something lasting. I know I do.”
“Then lucky for me she’s not like you,” Sveta snapped. “No, she’s the person I thought you were, the one I felt safe with, who I trusted more than anyone on earth. But I guess friendship’s only skin deep…so you’ll need a new friend to go with your fucked-up hand.”
They drove home in silence, and when they pulled up to Sveta’s house, Malorie just sat there, idling. Sveta just sat there, too, trying to think of whether to salvage their relationship or blow it to hell. Malorie beat her to it.
“I love how no one’s supposed to change but you,” she said, looking away. “I have to remain the fuck-up, the loser, while you figure it out. And once you do, you sure as hell won’t wait for me. You’ll leave me in the dust.”
“Maly, that’s not true. I’ve always had your back.”
“You mean you’ve held me back. When I talked about college, or having kids, or anything you don’t agree with, it’s always don’t do it, it’s not you, you’ll regret it. But what if I don’t have the same regrets as you?”
“So your answer is to do what everyone else does, to follow them off the same fucking cliff? That’s your idea of finding yourself? No, you’re smarter than that.”
“Everyone goes there for a reason,” Malorie said, coldly. “It’s what we all secretly want. Like falling in love, having a family. No one stays in the valley unless they have to, even if they lie to themselves and say they prefer it. Life looks better up on the hill, and you know it. At least, your father did.”
“Fuck off, Malorie,” she said, and opened the door.
“You first,” Malorie returned.
As soon as Sveta got out, Malorie sped away, music blasting. Sveta knew she wouldn’t see her again for months, maybe not ever. Now she had no one to talk to, no one to console her for being different, no one to confide in about her feelings for Helen. Of course, that’s what choosing your own path was all about: being alone, choosing the road less traveled by. She had to have faith in the destination, in ending up far away in some happily-ever-after, even if it never was. All the same, the conversation hit its mark, and she replayed Malorie’s words and her responses far more than she cared to. Even when Helen started texting her after dinner, she was only half-listening, thinking about who Helen was talking to: the now-her or the one-to-come? The one who had rock legs like Helen did, or the loser who never would?
After a few days, Sveta had made her decision: she and Helen had to break up. Partly it was everything Malorie had told her; partly it was her own fear of commitment. But what really clinched it was the meme making the rounds of the school, a picture of two people playing Paper-Scissors-Rock, the hands of one opponent forming scissors, the other forming rock. On the ‘rock’ someone had Photoshopped a picture of Helen’s head, and on the ‘scissors’, Sveta’s. Though the words of the meme had a few variations, the most consistent one said Happy Valentine’s Day, with a copy even making its way to her locker at school. The message was clear: rock always beats scissors, and not even love can change the rules of the game. She shuddered to think how often Helen had seen it, and what she must have thought the first, second, and fiftieth time it swam through her feed.
Sveta had to tell her face-to-face, and it had to be at school, so she wouldn’t waver and change her mind at the last minute. Of course, it was harder now that Sveta’s bio partner had returned and she was back in class doing make-up. Worse still, without Malorie, her mother had to pick her up from school, and she was always there at 3:15 on the dot. So Sveta had about five minutes to waylay Helen, find somewhere semi-private, and tell her the truth. She spent the entire day planning her route, worried about the distance between their rooms and the congestion in the hallway. When the release bell finally rang, she was the first one out the door, pushing and prodding her way across the building to Study Hall, which was precariously close to the exit. A few minutes late, and Helen would slip through the doors and make it into her mom’s car before Sveta could say a word.
She made it in record time, just as people were starting to trickle out of other rooms, though Study Hall seemed comfortably full (it took them much longer to leave, obviously). Sveta flattened herself against the wall, eyes picking out every jock and bonehead who left the room, excited—yet crushed—when it wasn’t Helen. Seven or eight people came out, then a few more, then one more…then the teacher himself, who flicked off the lights.
Holy shit, where was she?
She knew Helen was here today, because she had said she had a Calc test and couldn’t chat over breakfast. Frantic, Sveta began sweeping up and down the hallways, looking for any sign of her presence. She checked both of their lockers (nope), circled back to her last-hour class (no one), and even checked the bathrooms, trying to match the shoes beneath each of the stalls (Nikes; Helen only wore Converse). After five or six minutes she knew it was too late, that somehow she had missed Helen, even though she had covered all the bases and left nothing to chance.
As her heart stopped racing, she became aware of a steady, pulsating hum just around or behind her. Shit, her phone! In her anxiety she had missed an entire stream of texts from Helen. Pulling them up, they all basically said, Where are you? Really need to talk! Meet me in the locker room. Are you coming? Sveta? Hello???
It took her another three or four minutes to make her way to the locker room (the hallways were packed now), but it was a well-chosen spot, completely dead. She found Helen sitting in a dark corner of the room on a bench, hugging her knees while she stared down at her phone, waiting for a reply. Sveta swept in and started apologizing, saying she was sorry but they really had to talk, it wouldn’t take a minute…but that’s as far as she got.
Even as she was explaining, her mind was processing Helen’s face and expression. She had been crying. Her eyes were red and there were tissues all over the floor, so she had obviously been here awhile. She must have skipped out early to come here, which explained why Sveta hadn’t seen her in Study Hall. But wait, had Helen figured it out? No way, she had been way too careful—and hell, she hadn’t even known it herself until just this morning. Sveta walked over and took her hand, squeezing it.
“My God, Helen. What happened?”
Helen gave a little laugh, her expression more happy-sad than distraught, her eyes burning with some hidden passion she couldn’t betray. Helen stood up and pulled her close. They embraced, and Helen whispered something in her ear, which sounded like, Well, I guess I’m all yours now. What did that mean? As they embraced, Sveta instinctively reached out to support her, since without her crutches there’s no way Helen wouldn’t—
“Holy shit, your crutches! Helen, where…?”
She was standing straight on both legs, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Sveta, it’s gone. Just like that. I woke up this morning…and it was gone. I was too scared to tell you. I made up the Calc test. I’ve been working towards it all day.”
Open-mouthed, Sveta looked down at Helen’s bare feet (she had taken off both shoes and socks) and saw two beautiful feet, painted nails and all. She didn’t know what to say or think, so she sputtered with a kind of choking laugh, which made Helen laugh even harder.
“I wanted so badly for it to go away. Every night I begged God or whoever was listening to get rid of it. I didn’t want anything to take me away from you. And now…well, I don’t know what to think. But I’m happy…I think!”
“I don’t understand, it’s gone, like, really gone?” Sveta said, shaking her head. “So you’re not…you’re not going to be one of them? You can do that?”
“I mean, it’s happened before, you hear stories, but I didn’t believe them. I guess it helps if you’re really in love,” she said, looking up at her. “Sorry if that freaks you out, but that’s where we are right now. I’m in love with you, and I want you to know that I gave this up, all of it, for you.”
Sveta started crying, and she just stood there, pressing her head against Helen’s, feeling happier than she knew what to do with. Sveta realized how stupid she had been to come here, to say what she thought was kindness. It would have been kinder to simply tell her the truth: that she was scared. Scared to fall in love, scared that Helen had made a mistake, scared that she would have to watch Helen figure it out in slow motion.
“But what about your parents? They were so happy…what are you going to tell them?” Sveta asked.
“I don’t know; I don’t care. They’ll just have to deal with it. Because honestly, I was only worried about you.”
“You really think I give a shit about what your leg looked like? That I liked you for that?”
“No…but when everyone else does, or would, it’s hard to make exceptions. I still can’t believe you see me, the real me, rather than…someone else.”
“I see you…I look at you every day, and never stop looking,” Sveta replied, kissing her. “That’s why I’m in love with you, too.”
“What if that’s not enough? I mean, for now it is, but what if you feel differently later on? That’s what I’m scared of. I might never grow it back, Sveta. This might be it. And I’m cool with that…I don’t want to be that girl anymore. I want you to love me like this.”
“Then good, let’s both be over it! Whatever happens, we won’t regret what we lost. We’re just freaks of nature. The losers left behind to love each other.”
Helen laughed, and they kissed each other again and again. She could almost believe they would be happy now, even without the future she once planned, that everyone else in the world expected. She nuzzled against Sveta’s cheek, kissed her neck, brushing the hair away so she could nibble her ear.
“Oh God! Sveta!” Helen exclaimed, almost leaping back.
“What? What?” Sveta said, catching her. “What’s wrong?”
Helen’s eyes were large, alive, frightened. Her hand flew to her mouth as she backed away. Sveta began feeling all over her face, trying to wipe away invisible bugs, when a finger grazed her ear. Or what used to be her ear. Its once-smooth surface was now furrowed and sharp. She felt it again and again, hoping it was just some trick of the moment, excitement and fear running rampant.
But no, it was there, and it had changed. She had changed. Part of her was horrified, wanting to rip off the offending ear. Another part was secretly relieved that she could still do it, after all. That she wasn’t a lost cause like everyone (well, her mother) feared. Strangely, she had slept soundly for the past few nights without a single nightmare, as if she had finally made peace with her fear. Of course, she didn’t want it for herself, her mother, or because of anything Malorie said; she wanted it for Helen, to prove to her that they could still be together. Maybe that’s why her father had been able to do it so young, with so much of his life still ahead of him. Because he had a ‘Helen’ too.
“But I thought…you couldn’t,” Helen whispered.
“I can’t! I mean, I couldn’t! I have no idea how this happened. I guess…I don’t know, I was scared to lose you, too.”
“So you gave me the one thing I can’t return,” Helen said, with a laugh. “Well, Merry Christmas, Sveta! I got you the same thing.”
“Thanks, it’s just what I wanted,” Sveta said.
She stumbled forward and fell into Helen’s embrace, enveloped in tears and silence. Sveta’s phone began vibrating again, a stream of texts from her mom, wondering where the hell she was and if she wanted to start walking home from now on? She returned it to her pocket, didn’t care whether she walked home or stayed in this room for the rest of the night. She could only stare at Helen and remember that Keats poem about a lover chasing a nymph for all eternity, never catching her, always in the heat of pursuit. That’s where she felt she was with Helen right now, and where they always would be; their fingers almost touching, their happiness real, but not of this earth.
“What do we do now?” Helen asked.
“Just hold me,” Sveta said, closing her eyes. “Maybe if we stay here long enough, we’ll fossilize into a bas relief so some modern-day Keats can write a poem about us. You know that poem…beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
“You’re such a show-off,” Helen said, smiling. “Yeah, we read it in AP-English. But I think it’s about an urn, and not a bas-whatever.”
“Same difference. It’s old, it’s beautiful, it tells the truth.”
“Like Keats, we’re going to live forever. And that’s all I need to know.”