Mirabilis by Shannon Peavey
No one’s really seen a girl turn to glass. It’s one of those things journalists make up when they’re bored, like the knockout game or the Russian heroin that rots your skin. They show these pictures of sick-pretty starving girls on the evening news, girls with slatted ribs and fierce eyes, and my mama clicks her tongue and I change the channel.
Meanwhile, Zola eats none of her peas. We hardly notice and certainly don’t worry. After all, peas are gross.
When the two of us sit on the couch watching reruns of My Strange Addiction, Zola’s sharp little knees stabbing my hipbone, I almost say something. Nothing big, just oh hey, those glassgirls. Fucking weird, right?
She stares at the guy on the TV eating fireplace ashes and says, “It’s loud. Mind turning it down?”
The volume’s set to something like twelve, but it’s not like the narration’s adding much. I turn the TV down low and we sit there watching this man with his white-powder face, his bulging stomach. How he licks ash off his fingertips.
I clench my hands in my lap. Intent on the screen, Zola reaches up and taps gently on her front tooth with a fingernail. It makes a strange, ceramic sound—click, click, click.
Mama has the opening shift, so she’s gone by the time Zola and I drag ourselves downstairs in the morning. But she always leaves the coffee pot on and a pair of multivitamins laid out on a napkin. She used to leave us orange juice and cereal boxes and whatever, but nobody’s got time for that, oh my god.
I suck down my coffee and crunch the vitamin. It’s shaped like an elephant and tastes like something a chicken might eat. Zola lets hers sit on her tongue.
“Yuck,” I tell her, but she just brushes past me to get her shoulder-bag. At this rate, we’ll be late for the bus.
This change didn’t happen all at once. It was long and slow and I didn’t even notice until one day I woke up and knew: we’re twins, but we’re no longer identical. I can tell her stories, now, because she wasn’t there to be part of them. She doesn’t meet her own eyes in the mirror when she brushes her teeth.
Zola and I used to do everything together, but we don’t anymore. She’s part of a club that writes letters for social justice and I go out on Tuesday afternoons to get frozen yoghurt with this group of other girls. I normally don’t get much, but then here I am at the checkout with this huge cup of yoghurt and tapioca balls and strawberries and Oreo cookies. It doesn’t even go together and I can’t imagine putting any of it in my mouth.
“What is going on with your sister?” Anna asks me, when we’re settled at a table. She’s the prettiest of the group, with long curly hair that she likes to twine around her fingers. She knows she’s the prettiest, but she’s not one of those girls who are mean about it.
“I don’t know.” I lick my spoon clean. “She’s always been the weird one.”
We laugh, because when we were younger Zola and I were alike enough that people couldn’t tell us apart. Two frames but the same girl. Like how our mom had a blue Chevy and the neighbor had a silver Chevy, but no matter the color they’re still the same junky car.
“She’s gotten really thin.”
“I’ve just been slacking off at the gym,” I say, and try a careless smile. It works, maybe. At least they don’t say anything else about it.
We talk about boys and we talk about our Chemistry exam. We talk about how Anna’s mom got a new job and now she flies down to South America all the time and do we think she’s got, like, a hot Brazilian boyfriend?
“She could have a whole other life down there and you’d never even know,” one of the girls says. “I saw something like that on some crime show.”
Somehow all my yoghurt is gone, every last cookie-crumb of it. I chew on the end of my spoon and think about the look in Zola’s eyes, that turned-inward look. Like there’s nothing of our world that interests her anymore. Nothing about me.
I try it—close my eyes and try to see the hot dark places inside myself. Until my teeth hurt from clenching them. But there’s only light, dull and red through the skin of my eyelids. A hard pulse I can feel under my jaw and the sharp voices of my friends around me. They’re talking about going to a movie.
There’s a third-floor girl’s bathroom in the sketchy corner by the art rooms that’s dark and smelly and no one goes there unless they want to be left alone. So when I see Zola duck inside during a passing period, naturally I follow her.
She’s sitting on the floor under the sinks, her head bowed to her knees. I drop my bag and crawl over to sit next to her. The floor’s cold and there’s dirt in the corners where the custodian’s mop doesn’t reach.
She turns to me, her face full of a strange kind of light. “Look,” she says, and shows me the little finger of her left hand. I jolt back, my stomach clenched—her fingernail’s missing. The rest of her nails are painted aubergine, but the littlest one is just gone.
Only the nail bed isn’t bleeding; it’s not even red. It’s shiny and dark and if I look at it right, I can see something that I’m pretty sure is the whorl of her fingerprint. It’s glass—almost all the way through.
“What the hell is that,” I say, though of course I already know.
“It’s all right,” she says. “I’m meant to be this way.”
I want to say: we are the same, we are sisters. We can’t be meant to be so different.
She digs in her coat pocket and pulls out a sandwich bag of raisin bran. She takes a single flake and gives me a single flake and we put them on our tongues like communion wafers and wait for them to dissolve. I’m just sitting there under the sinks with a piece of stale cereal fuzzing up my mouth, but I can tell that for Zola, it’s more.
“I don’t worry, anymore,” she says. “About what anyone thinks. Everything that matters to me is already here.” She pats her baggy sweater and shrunken stomach.
I say nothing. The raisin bran is like limp cardboard in my mouth.
“So many things weren’t important,” she says. “So I got rid of them.”
There is a kind of calm surety to her now, like she’s more Zola than she has ever been. Boiled down to the marrow of her bones. It makes me think about density, a star shrinking under the pressure of itself until it can’t bear the weight anymore.
“What about me,” I say.
Zola only touches my hand, her fingerpads sliding loose over the bright glass of her insides.
Zola doesn’t want our mother to know, so I don’t tell her. I want to, I want to do something—slip her pamphlets about anxiety and self-image, siphon protein drinks down her throat as she sleeps.
But I worry she would hate me for it.
“You could do it too, you know,” she says to me as we eat—while I’m eating a salad and she’s letting a leaf rest in her mouth.
“I don’t want to be you,” I say.
She nods, but I don’t think she hears me. Sound travels almost thirty-eight times faster though glass than it does in the air. I know; I looked it up. So Zola says things and I say things, but how could we ever understand one another?
Understand this. Her face is quiet, her face smiles, but it’s just a painted-on thing. For the people who are always looking, because people always look. And she’s good at it, right? We’re beautiful girls, the both of us. They say so all the time.
I wish she would talk to me, but she won’t. Not in a way that matters. So instead I just have to listen for the things she doesn’t say, but means all the same. Because I think Zola is howling, and maybe she’s been howling for a long time—but all I can hear is a faint, musical note, like a fork struck on a wine glass for a toast.