Summary: The signs come when she is a baby.
Author's Note: So this was started at about three in the morning. I blame lack of sleep on this.
Transparent (adj.): so find in texture that it can be seen through.
The signs come when she is a baby.
There is a small, round face staring up at a man who is looking down at her as if she's the Eighth World Wonder, and just like how he doesn't even bother to put out his cigarette, he doesn't even realize that she is the Eighth World Wonder at the age of twelve months.
Already, she can see the veins in his skin and know who she's speaking to without any hesitation.
Her smile is bright and larger than her face.
Her mother comes out from the kitchen, holding up a purple cake and a lighter. "Happy birthday!" she says softly, and already, the notes make their way to her head and almost make perfect sense in a distorted way. Candles light the contours of her face, creating a shadow that spreads and overtakes. "Blow out the candles."
She does so, swiftly, without thinking of a wish. There is nothing she wants at the moment, nothing that she can ask for that would make her fold in and out of herself. The room is pitch black, faded in and full of smoke that almost chokes her.
When the lights come on, so does her father's hand on her head, his long fingers running through her hair as if she had just done something worthy of praise. It's empty and bare and honest and she doesn't understand the hard look her mother gives him.
There are other people in the room, filing in and filing out as if they were searching for someone important. A woman comes up to her mother and tells her that something smells like it is burning.
Running ahead, everyone leaves father and daughter alone, without a coin to operate them.
She looks back up at him, blinking, and she can feel his intake of breath as if it were her own.
Her father shrugs, as if this explains everything.
She asks him for cake, and he gives her some on a dinosaur plate, running his fingers through her hair again and calling her Katie before he gets up and walks out the door.
It isn't until about twenty minutes later that her mother comes out of the kitchen and says with a frown, "Where did he go?"
She feels the familiar notes well up and bobble in her rib-cage. "Never Land."
Time passes by like the speeding cars on the highway. Occasionally there will be a wreck, but they're not entirely dead yet and the changes happen gradually.
The curiosity lingering in the back of her throat shrivels up and dies and she clings to her mother with the question echoing in her brain, hoping the signal would pass through like a transmitter radio.
Her mother looks down at her, lodged between her knees, head covered by her skirt.
She reaches down and almost touches her. "It'll be alright, Katie. I'll come and get you at two o'clock."
But of course, her world does not revolve around time. It revolves around sound and color and the racing thoughts that she can physically see flying after each other in the sky as the clouds split open and swallow them whole.
She can hear her own heart beating, and she just knows in a moment of clarity that her mother can't.
Which is how she finds herself with a stranger, whose face resembles that of the old woman who had once lived across the street by her house before she had moved away without telling anyone.
"I'm Mrs. Brown," she says, the long thread of her sweater already becoming an identifier. "Why don't you go play by the slide, Katie?" She points to a small plastic slide, but all she can see are the children who occupy it. Their thoughts are a muddled mess and her eyes almost roll into the back of her head. She feels like she has to throw up, but doesn't say anything.
Instead, the other children stare at her as she approaches them, as if picking her apart and examining the gears that make her work, just like she can do with them. There's a flash of a red toy truck and a low whine before they tell her she's weird.
She tells them that their insides are red and squishy.
Some start to cry, others just stare some more, and she compares it to breaking of glass. The slide is all hers now, but she doesn't really want it.
It's hollow. Empty.
Then, when she is not looking, she opens and then slams shut again, trapping the moths there so they can't get out. The fire licks and frays at the edges.
It becomes stronger when she falls.
The wooden swing is hard and the ropes burn under her fingers, and she moves higher and higher and higher until she eventually floats down like a leaf tumbling from thousands of miles up. The people below are nothing but specks of dust and skin and it's been made obvious that the sun is beating down on her as if reaching for her hand.
The pleasant yellow turns to a cold blue, and then the cold blue turns to a dull gray before gray turns into nothing at all and she is evaporating and becoming a cloud, big and puffy.
The world feels as if it's turning upside-down and is being inverted, everything turning inside-out.
The sand stings at her eyes and she's clutching something, maybe hair, and cries deeply, throat spilling with frozen secrets and a new type of pain.
Her mother swirls in front of her, a mass of purple and orange and flesh and bones.
There's a shout she can't identify, and somewhere far off, she can hear the sirens and feel the blood trickle down her chin and onto her clothes and her brain feels as if it were upside-down and inverted along with the rest of the world. It is stuck between potential and kinetic.
"Broken nose," is the doctor's diagnosis. He reeks of anesthetic and death. "What happened?" he asks, turning to her mother, who sat cold and silent in one of the metal chairs. She can practically taste the salt in her eyes.
"She fell," is the only thing she says. There's sniffling. A hand comes up and blocks her vision. Her heart is pounding faster than a rabbit's.
The frames of the doctor's glasses glints softly, blindingly. "I see." He dabs at her skin with a cotton ball, and pulls back red.
The drive home is broken into bits of static, tearing at the barrier between them.
Her mother drums her fingers against the steering wheel, her eyes blotchy and skin pale as paper. She's thinking, wondering, pretending. The pound of her fingers stop.
"I love you," she says. Her voice cracks and the sound is so low it's as if the words hadn't been there at all.
A shiver runs up her spine, through her nose. The blood on her shirt is like a reminder.
No other sound is uttered, and the silence is drowned out by the patter of rain against the car windows.
Her mother's tight grip on the wheel is like a hand squeezing her heart.
Her breath is caught, her dreams cracked and being removed as her eyes open and fall on her father. He's staring down at her with a detached expression, nervous, apologetic. His hand reaches out, and for a second, all she can think of is that there is going to be a time when he won't rush to her hurt twelve-year-old body and ask her if she's alright.
The hand thins out, becomes nothing but bone. His face turns to glue, and everything around him turns to ice and suddenly she's screaming. Everything inside of him is made up of different functions, something she had learned in school but had never actually witnessed firsthand. His heart pulses hard in his chest, as if it's ready to break out, and his lungs look dark and filled with smoke.
As things begin to open up and spill over the rim of their container, she can see anything and everything. Beyond her father, she can see past the baby blue walls of her room and watch the birds fly outside, twittering away in their own language. Then comes the ozone layer, becoming nothing, an empty distance. There's a brief intermission where she thinks she's having a nightmare before the stars erupt and show her space.
A crash occurs abruptly. She's just exploded. She's back on earth again, looking up at her parents' faces. It's as if she's just traveled the world and back.
There's a flinch that breaks the air apart. A hiss of breath, her father moving his hand back, startled. "Christ." He's looking down at her again, at her hair, her eyes, her broken nose. The outburst hit something inside, and she's scared to look at him again because she just might see what it is. "I can't do this," he says, walking past her mother, who tries to grab his arm. "I can't."
"It was just an accident," her mother tells him. Her lips are parted slightly. "It's good you came to see her."
Something wavers, a rift in the floor separates her from her parents. Neither of them notice.
The sight of the two of them together is enough to make her look at them, say something she herself doesn't understand. It's hard to breathe.
It's enough to make them turn to her again, eyes wide as if they've been caught doing something illegal.
They're still transparent.
Black cats are bad luck, she remembers being told once or twice.
This one stares up at her with one eye, the other one missing from it's socket. It makes a low, rumbling sound in the back of it's throat as if it's got a cold.
She's been experimenting lately. Comparing one thing to the other. It's not like before, when her father had walked in and she had seen the world closing in on her, no. There's the slip-ups that had scared her for weeks, even months. Her mother's collarbone had never looked so strange and prickly from the inside as when she had hugged her from the outside and actually seen it. Supportive, always there.
Then there are the kids at school. Their book bags become a gaping nothing, a super-sized joke as she sits in science class and looks through their brains and sees the teacher explaining that old anatomy song that nobody ever remembers.
She gets almost used to it. A relapse into surprise is always prone to happen, and she'll see a neighbor's earwax stuck against the shell of their ear, or a baby's tiny lungs expanding as it screams it's head off that makes her scream a little herself. The old friend coming back to greet her.
She's never tried this before; it's a brand new experience that climbs up into her neck and makes the hairs there stand on edge.
"Here, kitty, kitty," she calls softly, snapping her fingers at the animal. It glares back. "I won't hurt you."
It makes no movement besides a swift flick of it's tail. It's eye is narrowed at her.
She gives it a name in that instant: Hook. It fits.
Her finger rests hesitantly on it's furry head, and is then moving down, down, until the finger rests against the eyeless-socket.
There's some nasty goop, blood, skin, and the start of something new. There's a man. He's standing with an angry expression, an evil human with a bite. There's a large stick and a yell and suddenly there's a blackout, and half of a face becomes blind and painful. It's a memory, a feeling.
A hiss grabs her, holds her by the wrist as if it's a hand catching her trying to steal. There's a sweep of a paw, claws, scratching through her skin and making the blood rise to the surface.
She hardly has any time to look up before the cat is running away, it's legs jutting out at odd angles as it becomes a dot against the grit of the sky.
She's left scared and sweaty, frantically searching for a man she has never met in her life.
"What happened to your face?" her mother asks.
There is a silence on the other end.
It's harder to deal with now. The insides of people are combined with a new brush of crazy, and when she touches them, she touches their memories in ways that aren't normal. Sometimes there will be a new name and face in her head, of a person she's never met before, or sometimes there will be the swish of a color, an emotion, a feeling. Hot and cold. Hard and soft. Gray and white.
Fading in and out, the images of her father smoking a cigarette and her mother looking her best not to cry sticks like glue for the next couple of months before it's replaced by others. Pictures of Others. That's what she calls them.
It isn't until her first year of high school that she thinks she might have some semblance of control. It comes in seconds and flashes. Snippets and late night insomnia. It comes in a big oak tree and ashes.
"Hey," her new classmate says dully, as if this was nothing more than procedure. "Did you do the summer reading project?" Or perhaps not.
She shuffles her feet against the ground, doesn't look up. "Not really." She had. Pages and pages.
"Great," she huffs, arms high above her head. As they move, she thinks she sees a flash of bone and vein before it slips away into tanned skin. Control. She has control. "I guess that means you didn't do the math packet either." The girl makes quotation marks in the air. "'F for you, Rhonda! F for you!'" She kicks a stone at her feet. "Damn."
The jibe is stupid, funny. Laughter bubbles underneath.
The girl looks confused. "What?" she asks, eyes alight with something she can't see. Relief floods. "What?"
"Nothing," she says quickly. "I'm Katie."
"Rhonda," she says in return. Her hands never move from her sides, and it's appreciated in ways she'll never know.
Underneath an oak tree in the school front yard, she feels alive from the inside out.
Endless, endless oxygen.
There is talk that lasts for twenty minutes before it's stomped down by a larger, more authoritative voice. There's a speech of school spirit, uniform, grades, and the ever present welcome back, students, and work hard! that lulls them into their seats like dolls at bed time.
It feels like her space is becoming larger and larger, rotating, swirling gently at her feet. A transformation, she tells herself. A new her to go along with the new school.
Rhonda sits three rows in front of her. She wills her to look behind her, to wave, but all she gets is the back of her head.
She clutches her seat. A new her.
She sits in classroom 203, the achingly familiar ticking of the clock. A finger poking her in the side.
The prompt she's given is this: What did you do over summer vacation?
Simple. Elementary. Given every year.
It's never felt more difficult to answer.
Covering her face with her hand, she peeks out between her fingers and looks at the other students. Some have their heads down, others are writing, most are still thinking. She breathes. In. Out.
Instead of writing about what happened this summer, she writes about the swing in the park and the tumbling and the broken nose and the doctor with the large cotton balls. She forgets to add that she's seen past her walls and into space.
So much for new.
"I hate Ms. Reeves," Rhonda tells her after class, swinging her under-packed book bag over her shoulder and letting it drop to the floor, hitting dirt. "She's a bitch."
Breathe. Out. In.
"What'd she do?"
Rhonda makes a soft tsk at the back of her throat, looking over at her, wrinkling her nose. "She gave me an F on that stupid reading project. And I still have to turn it in by the end of this week. It's crazy."
There's a pause, and a leaf lands on the forgotten book bag.
"You should've done the reading project, then," she says, not knowing what else to say. It's hard to focus on Rhonda's face. As if staring too long will make it slip away into fragment and glitter.
Rhonda gives her an irritated stare. "Whatever. You didn't do it either. I'm not the only one."
She shrugs. It feels good to do something so offhandedly.
Rhonda purses her lips, eyes staring forward, over her shoulder. Her cell phone rings loudly. "I've got to go," she drones, as if speaking to herself. Then she blinks and turns, her hand capturing her book bag before rummaging through it. "Here." There's a piece of paper, a pencil. She scribbles something down. "My number. Don't lose it."
She hands it to her, giving her a brief wave before she is left with the back of her head.
She goes home, collapsing onto the floor as if she's been sucked dry. The ceiling stares down at her like a strict parent, commanding her to do her homework.
Ignoring the ceiling, she pulls out the paper. It's pink. With twenty-seven lines - she counted. But the important part of the paper only takes up five, in a messy scrawl. Rhonda's name takes up two, the R standing tall and slanted. At the end, the A curves backwards and then swings forward in a long loop. Before it, the numbers take up the other three.
She sits there at the door for a long time, looking at it. She practically burns a hole through it, can feel it consuming her hands. She runs her thumbs over it, listening to it crinkle and fold.
A number. A friend. She doesn't know why this makes her so excited. It's just another name on paper, just another exchange of something that will probably be left forgotten in her bag.
She clenches it tightly, the name and number disappearing from her gaze. She thinks of the children at the slide, the playground spinning around her on a bright day. Closes her eyes.
She picks up the phone.
Listens to it ring two times.
There's a fire that morning.
She wanders behind other students, lets herself be crowded by them for the first time since she actually thought this was amazing, thrilling, wonderful. Since Hook the cat. It comes back like a bad taste in her mouth, and she can smell the ashes in the air.
There's a call of hurry up, you're too slow, come on, and she walks further out into the long and grassy PE field.
On the other end of the building, a fire reaches for the sky. Wisps of smoke curl around the clouds and pull them apart. It's entirely whole and real.
There's a shrill call of sirens ringing in her ears. She lifts her hands and almost covers them, like the other students, like Rhonda, who's standing with her own class not even five feet away, but lets them fall against her sides and just listens. It's not that hard to keep them there. It's watching.
The billowing smoke makes it hard to see. She can see through people, not buildings. The memory of looking out at birds and sky and star dust is a one time thing. Changing. Never constant. She wonders and dreams of that moment and considers it a turning point. Like in a movie. The hero wakes up and does something great, something grand, something to save the world.
She stands and watches.
"That was awesome," Rhonda comments, a grin tugging at the corners of her lips.
An eyebrow is raised, a hand reaches for a textbook in her bag. "It was?" She puts it back, realizes it's not the one she wants.
"Yeah," Rhonda replies, looking happier than she should be. "Now Ms. Reeves can't use her classroom. Which means we have to move to a new one."
"Ms. Reeves will be there, though." Still searching.
"But she'll have to get all her stuff together. Lesson plan or whatever." Rhonda waves a hand in her direction. "What're you looking for?"
The hand stops. A frown comes to her features. "My Algebra textbook."
Another grin rises to clash with her frown. "Maybe you left it in the classroom."
She thinks of the pages and pages of numbers swirling away into ash. The frown deepens.
Rhonda pats her on the back, probably bruising the skin. "Cheer up. Just go ask for a new one or something."
Instead of replying to the remark, she tilts her shoulders back and pokes Rhonda in the cheek and says breezily, "Your epidermis is showing."
It's obvious, it's playful, it's simple for the first time in ever.
Days pass; glimpses of light seep through her barriers. She sees a heart beating in the gardener next door. A woman changes her favorite color from blue to indigo. Her mother dreams of her father.
Fleetingly, almost nonexistent, she wonders what Rhonda is like on the inside.
The new classroom comes with new sights and smells. The paint on the wall is peeling off, revealing gloomy gray underneath. It smells of mold only cleaned out yesterday.
Right away, they're given a project. She thinks of Rhonda, knows she'll be disappointed once the next class gets here.
She's given a partner to help her research. He comes in the form of dark clothes and a lanky body, dirty fingernails and a name: Cole. It rolls off her tongue.
"Hi," she says. "So how do you think we should make this?" She holds up some scraps of paper to show him. "Think we should make a book to go along with it?"
She can see his eyes glance at her, dart away. Out the window. He wants to be somewhere else.
Their project consists of three simple things: read, write, create. Or some variation of the three. Make something up. Use facts from history. Work together.
The bell rings. Cole gets up and leaves the room.
Rhonda doesn't come to school the next three days.
"Why don't you call her?" her mother asks, frowning in that way she always does. "Maybe she's sick. It would make her feel better."
She's left staring down at the phone in her hand, wondering why she can't just dial. She's memorized the number. Memorized the curve of the name above it. Memorized this moment of deja vu from the first time of calling and hanging up.
"So?" her mother prods gently. Tries not to sound impatient.
There's a sigh that echoes in the room. A click of numbers being pressed. A ring tone. Silence.
She waits for three point nine seconds before she hears Rhonda on the other line, alive and not mechanical.
"Hello?" Her voice sounds tired and not like her.
"Rhonda?" she says.
"Hi, Katie," she replies. There's a thumping noise coming from the background. "What's up?"
"Nothing." Everything. "You weren't in school today."
More noise. "Yeah." The reply is distracted. Soft. "I haven't been feeling well."
A pause that stretches and breaks.
"Listen," Rhonda continues. "I have to go now. But come over tomorrow, I'm feeling a lot better."
One beat. Two beat.
Rhonda's house is made of things that hers is not.
"Like it?" Rhonda asks, throwing her bag to the floor. "Make yourself at home."
She stands, tries to imagine that she's on the ceiling, like a bug. Earlier that day, she'd accidentally gotten a glimpse of Mr. Richardson's better days filled with less wrinkles and more hair, right when he was in the middle of telling them about frog dissection.
Losing it. Losing it.
"I can make a pizza for us. Dad's still working, so he won't be back 'till later," Rhonda calls from the kitchen.
"What about your mom?"
It's almost like Rhonda is apart of the Pictures of Others, a carton of milk in her hand, spilling and overflowing past the edges of the counter.
"Ouch. Stupid piece of --"
"The paper towels are above the sink."
Together, they clean up the mess. The swish of the milk was once apart of a cow, she thinks uselessly, throwing away the wet paper almost angrily.
Rhonda's eyes are flickering. "Thanks," she says. "Here."
Pepperoni and melting cheese looks back up at her. She thinks it might be smiling.
They take slow bites, try to make it seem like it's not pathetically hard and stale.
Three beat. Four beat.
"My mom doesn't live here."
She stops eating, looks over at Rhonda's long bangs, the shadows covering her face. "My dad doesn't live with us either," she says after awhile. Something surges in her chest. Blossoms.
Rhonda stares forward, pizza forgotten. "Bad divorce?"
"I guess." The next thing is bad, bad, bad. The next thing is honest, honest, honest. "I think my mom still loves him though."
Rhonda gazes at her, eyes dark and shoulders straight. "Is that right?"
"What makes you say that?"
A smile. The next thing is truth, truth, truth. "I can see right through them."
"You're weird, you know that?" Rhonda asks, shaking her head. "But you're cool." She reaches out, runs her fingers through her hair and she is reminded briefly of her father.
There's a woman in her head. A laugh. Wires. Sickly white.
It falls away to nothing.
The next morning, she runs to the bathroom, nauseous and burning. She sticks her head somewhere on her lap. Breathes. She can see her own bone structure, running up and along her body like she were a flag on a pole. She's her own symbol.
Yesterday, tomorrow, today. It's hard to tell what this is. It hurts from the inside, and Rhonda's mother's face is stuck like tire marks against the street.
The story stretches on for a couple of feet and stops.
"I know what we should write about," she tells him, after finding him behind one of the buildings smoking a cigarette.
Cole blows a smoke ring in her direction. "Really?" It's the first time he's spoken to her. In words.
"Yes," she replies, ignoring the smoke. She sits down next to him, leans against the cold wall that chips white paint and lands on her sweater. "It can be about a girl. About the Salem Witch Trials. All of her neighbors want to burn her, thinks she's one of them. Except for her best friend." She reaches up and swats at her clothes, the paint flying off. "Her best friend believes she's good. Would save her from anything." She looks up, shivers at the morning dew touching her skin. "They could die together."
Cole looks at her, like he suddenly wants to laugh. "What happened to your nose?" he asks instead.
She touches her nose with two fingers. It's crooked and a memory of red and sky. "I broke it."
He raises an eyebrow at her, interested. "When?"
"When I was younger."
For some reason, she feels like she's exchanging scars with him. "I fell off a swing."
He frowns. No longer all that interested. "Oh."
"Smoking is bad for you, you know."
The amusement is back, his grin overpowering as he steps forward and pulls out a pack, offering her one.
"It'll enter your system and blacken your lungs until you can't breathe. The rest of your body parts will fall apart, and then you'll die," is her prompt answer. Her father's face is etched deeply into the back of her heart and mind. The sun peeps out from behind the clouds. "So what do you think of the story?"
"What'll the witch's name be?" he asks, wiping ashes off his jeans.
He drops his lit cigarette into the grass.
Her eyes stick to it. It shrivels up and the grass bows down towards it. She stomps on it, hard.
"You're the one that started the fire, aren't you?"
He looks back at her, shrugs. On the line between forwards and backwards.
"See you later."
Green and dead, the frog stares up at her with its belly up. Mr. Froggie, she calls it.
As Mr. Richardson explains the importance of a clean work station and correct way to cut, she ignores her partner's annoyed look and simply thinks Don't look at me like that! to them both. It doesn't work.
"Do you want to cut, or should I?" her partner asks. She doesn't remember his name.
"You do it," she says, and jots down the parts with gloved hands, not looking at him make a Y-cut. The heart, the liver, the spleen, the kidneys, the gull bladder. Oh, look. Eggs. Mr. Froggie just became Ms. Froggie.
She cuts the frog open in her mind, writes her observations down.
"Look!" her partner says, pointing. "Eggs."
"Mom's coming over to visit," Rhonda tells her at lunch, swirling her fork around in her mashed potatoes. "I told her you'd come over to meet her."
She tries not to touch her. Too many feelings pouring out of her. "Why would you say that?"
Rhonda frowns. There's something sharp and desperate underneath the surface. "I was hoping you could come with me. Moral support and all that."
"You're nervous about seeing her?"
Rhonda shrugs, this time stabs her straw through her salad. "She hasn't visited in a long time. It's different from going to visit her when she's --" She stops, frowning again. "Never mind."
"Never mind." She gets up and throws her lunch tray away. Sits on the other side of the cafeteria, not looking at her.
One point two seconds and she's following her, sitting down and looking at her. Through her hair, she sees eyes, and through her eyes, she sees the parts that root them firmly in her head. Tears swell up from behind.
"Hey," she says, quietly. "I'll go."
Rhonda nods, only nods.
And that's the end of that.
That weekend, Rhonda leads her to her house as if it were the first time she's been there.
When she opens the door, a woman smiles and greets her. The Woman in her Head. Pictures of Others. Rhonda's mother.
Wires. Sickly white.
"Hi, mom," Rhonda says, kissing her on the forehead. "This is my friend, Katie. The one I was telling you about."
Rhonda's mother smiles again, reaches out to shake her hand. "Nice to meet you, Katie."
A loud gulp that she's sure everyone can hear. A sweaty hand shake that lasts one rise and fall.
Bruises on the inside line her body. Her hair deceptively curls around her head, slightly tilted, obvious.
"I'll fix soup or something," Rhonda says, staring at her as if she knows she knows. The look is paralyzing, fearless, full of questions that have no answers. "That okay?"
"Sure." Her mother nods.
"Katie?" Rhonda asks. "Wanna help me?"
"Sure." Echo. Echo.
Once they're on safe grounds, out of earshot, Rhonda says, "Don't tell anyone."
"I won't." Her own voice sounds far off and low.
"Sorry I didn't tell you before. But... it's just --"
"Yeah," she says. There's understanding like never before between the two of them.
Rhonda looks at her for what feels like forever, and then she turns away, body full of life. Tangible, warm, beating life.
All she can think is she's dying, she's dying, she's dying.
"Quite the story," Ms. Reeves comments, handing her back the book project. "Very interesting."
"I'm going to assume you weren't the only one working on this assignment, correct?" she asks, referring to Cole, eyebrows bushy and raised questionably.
Cole had written the last sentence.
And then they died together.
Months pass. Weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds.
It's December. Happy holidays. Christmas. New Years.
"You should invite Dad," she comments to her mother.
Her mother looks like she's about to choke. Her lungs grasp for air. "Katie, I don't --"
"We're a family."
"Yes, but --"
"And you still love him, don't you?"
Her mother becomes very still. An old image of her driving the car out into the rain so long ago doesn't match correctly. Paper pale skin and whispered words aren't present.
"Katie," she says.
"Did I do something wrong? Am I the reason?" she asks, the gingerbread cookie cutter in front of her a distraction.
Her mother's eyes widen. "No!"
Her mother covers her face with her hand. The nerve endings in her brain make her open like the book she always has been. Page 967, class.
"People grow apart, Katie. It happens. Your father's never stopped loving you."
There's guilt lingering there somewhere, a memory of twelve-years-old and a broken nose and this will stop one day. Her mother looks at her as if she's trying not to cry. She's never looked so serious before.
A moment of clarity settles on their shoulders.
He never stopped loving me. But he stopped loving you.
Rhonda's knocking on her door at five in the morning, face set and hard as stone. Beyond the door, beyond her home, there is warmth that billows and sprouts up, up, up. Her breath fogs up the glass, then disappears into vapor.
"She's back in the hospital." Her expression stays the same, and the rest of her remains cold.
Together, they whisper in unspoken words, this is the last time.
She passes people in the hallway, like always. She sees their hearts and their brains and their functions and can even see past their lives and into what she likes to call the future.
You're living, you're dying, you're going to be a rock star someday, just watch.
Only one thing left to do.
The teacher calls her name that morning. She's here, she's not here, she's somewhere. Anywhere else but here.
The school bathroom had never looked so dilapidated before. Toilet paper sticks to the ceiling, obscene drawings are carved into the walls.
Rhonda's crying is heard through the stall door and in her ears, vibrating in her chest and in her veins and down to her toes.
She sits down in front of the door. Calls her name. "Rhonda."
The sniffles continue, muffled, angry, broken. Glitter.
"She died." Rhonda's voice comes through clearer than any voice she's ever heard. "She died." It's repeated as if she hadn't heard it the first time. "Died." Again. Again. Again.
And she can just picture it. In her mind, she can see Rhonda, with her fingers laced between her mother's, her daughter, her air, her ocean against the sun set.
She's never wanted to tell anyone more than now.
"I have a secret," she says against the resounding doubt. Pushes it back. Drip. Drip. Evaporate. Ignore the white coats. Rhonda's quiet now. "I can see through people."
Even though she can't see her through the door, isn't facing her, she just knows Rhonda's frowning, remembering the only thing she can.
She continues, wanting stars to wish on. "I can see into their bodies, know what's going on inside of them." One. Two. Three. "I know them better than they know themselves."
"What are you saying?" The question, gaping open.
Blink. Breathe. Control. "When I look at people, they become transparent. Skin, bones, blood, body parts. I can see it all. I'm like a walking X-Ray machine." Wait for it.
She lays her head down on her knees, almost cries. "I'm sorry."
"So you're like some closet pervert or something?"
Crooked smiles. Stupid. "Not like that." She straightens, stares ahead of her. Ahead. Nowhere else. "The first time it happened, I saw space. The ozone layer. The Big Bang. My Dad was like a walking skeleton." She turns her head a little, the cold of the stall door making her shiver. "I thought I was dying. I'm crazy, aren't I?"
More silence. More waiting.
She can feel a shift in her, around her, and the soft click of the door opening behind her lets her know that Rhonda's looking at her now, more intense than ever before.
Her eyes are wide, red, full of tears. "You can see inside of me?"
"So I'm still here?"
One more nod. Bones jostle each other under the ground.
Rhonda blinks, stares at her more. "Can you see my mom?" Her eyes widen even more as she points up, up, up to the ceiling, past the sky and space and whatever else there is in the universe. "In heaven?"
No nod. Just a look.
"Try," she commands. "Just try."
So she does. She leans back and lets herself thud against the grimy floor, lets herself try to look past the boundaries that line the atmosphere just like all those years ago.
She thinks of dreams, silver, and death. She thinks of numbers and science. Everything that it's not.
"She's better now."
The words are almost not even there. Barely.
Rhonda hears them fully, and laughs, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Solid melts into liquid, and liquid becomes air. Air becomes breath. Breath becomes life. Life becomes tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Colors shudder and mix together. Laughter bubbles up.
Space. Time. Layer upon layer of the universe.
As she stands up and receives her certificate - only three years left - she can see Cole leaning against the doorway far in the back, trying to act like he doesn't care. The dimmed lights don't hide his smile completely.
Rhonda's looking up at her, pointing up, there, right there.
Her parents are a couple of feet behind her, standing together, looking whole, even looking happy.
They all melt into the other nameless faces, becoming transparent, becoming apart of something bigger than themselves.
The world builds up into this moment.
She's never seen anything more beautiful.