Part 1 of 2
The fall after Justine moved back home, the high school girls became beautiful. She saw it herself, from behind the counter of the coffee shop by her old high school. The beauty spread viciously: first to one girl, then two, then four, and now almost twenty.
Once it struck, the girls became impossibly beautiful in the space of days. Even if you could pay some super-surgeon-sculptor-sage (a three-way cross between Dr. 90210, Michelangelo, and Maimonides) to crack open your face like a watermelon and chisel away at it until your bones were fine and symmetrical, you still wouldn't look like these girls. Their necks were too long. And the whites of their eyes? Much too white!
Justine had moved back home after losing her job at a weekly paper in the city. She was now a twenty-seven-year-old who lived with her parents. Magazines like Time and Newsweek called it "boomeranging," as if vaudeville canes were emerging from the childhood homes of millions of young adults to yank them out of their lives as consultants and assistants and editors and back into their old bedrooms, where they would download music from the Internet and collect Cheeto dust in their emerging wrinkles.
So for now Justine was at the coffee shop—not belonging, not young but not old. She dealt with it. Many geniuses had sections in their biographies that could be described as "The Shitty Years" so perhaps all this was necessary. As long as it was temporary.
Pearl came into the coffee shop.
"Caffeine," said Pearl, "I need it." Lacking beauty, Pearl was one of those girls for whom style was a refuge. Today she was wearing a houndstooth coat, its tall funnel neck covering her up to the chin, like a mod ninja. Some sparkly lip-gloss was smeared on the collar.
"Sure," Justine said. "But you need to pay this time."
Pearl moaned. "How about you put it on my tab?"
"Girl, if we did tabs here, it'd be about time for us to break your kneecaps for non-payment."
Pearl pulled a cranky, ha-ha face. Justine poured her a mug anyway.
Pearl was Justine's friend, and yes, Pearl was in high school. Justine was as embarrassed as any normal person would be, but also she was charmed by funny, artsy Pearl, an obsessive shut-in who worshipped alt-weeklies, music festivals, zines, homemade screen-printed T-shirts, boys with torsos like female runway models. Justine didn't have any siblings, and she justified her friendship with Pearl by herself by telling herself that she'd always wanted a little sister, whether that was true or not.
"When are you off today?" said Pearl.
"Another hour. Then Greg takes over."
"Mmm, Greg taking over," said Pearl.
"He's not that great," Justine said. But if Greg wasn't that great, he was still pretty fucking good. He was one who had cast off the stupidity of his teenage years—had given away his bowling shirts and skater sneakers and shaved his floppy, trying-too-hard hair into an even quarter-inch all over his head—in order to become nothing. Nothing was good. Nothing was hot, actually. There wasn't anything bad you could say about nothing.
"You only say that because you can't have him, according to society's rules."
Pearl knew the rule for determining the youngest person you could date. Take your age, halve it, add seven. Greg was nineteen. Pearl was sixteen. Justine was at an age where nobody was the right age for her. It was the world she had stuck herself back into, all kids and parents. She had Rip Van Winkled herself in a backwards, sideways, mixed-up sort of way.
"Hon, he's a fetus," said Justine. "He's an egg."
Pearl shrugged and looked around the room. Justine thought maybe this big sisterly/old-school diner waitress "hon" thing wasn't working so well. Always, she had to recalibrate.
At a window table near the front door, a girl named Rebecca was laughing with a boy. She kept slapping the table and throwing her head back, her teeth glistening in her gaping mouth. Her face was careless and unarranged in the way of all beautiful girls who knew that, on them, ugly looked good. Rebecca used to be a plain, chunky girl who wore her hair in pomaded hanks over her face. Now she looked like something a talented goth high school student would draw in her notebook—a manga goddess with big-irised sepia eyes and witchy white skin and an upper lip with two fine, pointy peaks.
Justine glanced over at Pearl. Pearl was staring at Rebecca, her face too ravenous and obvious, beaming out painful pick me pick me rays.
"Check her out," said Pearl, subdued. "Miss Thang."
"He should have seen her two weeks ago," said Justine.
"Why her? No wait, why everyone but me?" Pearl said. She sounded five years old for a moment. "I have to show you something. It'll just take a minute." She scurried around the counter to stand next to Justine and set down her laptop.
"So, I started this blog last week," Pearl said. "As a record of all the weirdness going on here lately. You know." She scrolled halfway down the page, and found a post that had a YouTube video embedded, which she clicked on. "You are going to pee your pants when you see this," she said.
There were three girls in the video. They leaned in close to the webcam, their faces turned moony and wide by the slight fisheye effect of the lens, but no less lovely. They sat there, very still, just blinking and smiling. Justine could tell that Pearl thought they were perfect. It showed in the yearning stretch of her neck, the way she held her breath for the entire duration of the video.
But the girls, even though they were beautiful in their way, looked wrong. Justine thought she recognized the one on the left—but was that really Khadija? The face was morphed, skin faded to a pale glow, hair hanging down in sleek, heavy curtains, the same style as the others. She could be mistaken; the girls in the video all looked alike. All of them distinctly uncanny, with airbrushed skin and features with sizes and shapes that fell just a bit beyond the human norm. No one looked like that, except for video game characters.
Their staring grew intolerable. The video played for a minute and a half. Justine was relieved when it ended.
"Look, they've got a whole YouTube channel." Pearl clicked over to a screen with long columns of thumbnails. She snickered. "It's all the same thing, with different girls. Dumb hos."
Justine was chilled, but she tried to match Pearl's light tone. "High school kids," she said. "I don't understand you. They're not even doing anything. People used to have to do something to become Internet-famous."
"Don't act so old. I don't understand us either."
"God, though! What's the point? That's pornography that's non-pornographic. But still completely embarrassing to watch in public."
"I know," said Pearl. "That's why I made us hide behind the counter. It's skeevy. But you have to admit it's also super-interesting! That's what my blog is about, this whole phenomenon. I totally think it's a phenomenon. Someone needs to analyze it. Like, how do I have the stupid luck to live in a place where everyone is suddenly beautiful? God, it sucks. I wish I was dead."
Pearl was awkward-looking, with a pug nose and gappy teeth and tender, glowing cystic acne. She was so short and stocky that she appeared to be from a high-gravity planet. To top it off, she was Filipino-American in a town where most everyone had only recently made room in their worldview for Asians who were 1) Chinese and 2) Japanese people (not so much the people themselves, but the idea of them, at least), so what the hell was Pearl, some like mutated Chinese chick? Or perhaps Mexican? Probably things would have been easier for her if she were, like, Miss The Philippines 2009, some kind of pretty that was universal enough to play in all nations; but she wasn't. Still, Pearl was so clever, so curious, so fun, they should have given two shits about her no matter what, and then Justine remembered how she had hated her own high school, and she'd hated life too. She'd hated everything. She remembered what it was like to not so much wish you were dead, but to feel bad and lonely enough that you'd tell everyone you wished you were dead.
"This is wonderful, Pearl," said Justine, nodding at the blog page. "What a timely project. I can send it around to people I know, try to get you some more traffic."
Pearl's eyes widened. "That. Would be. So great!" She took her computer and sat down at a small table. Soon she was typing at a rapid clip.
Justine rested her elbows on the counter, sucking her cheeks in and out, in and out. All around her, beautiful girls were sitting at the tables and on the floors with their jackets and backpacks spread around them, as if they had parachuted in. Some of them were resting their heads on the table while their friends talked over them. Such tired, languid beauties. She was not afraid of them when they were at rest, when they didn't look up at her and creep her out with their impossible faces. When they left, they left plates of muffins, poked into infinity crumbs, and full drinks with only the foam licked off. That too was awful. What was with these girls? Were they are all on crash diets?
Pearl, friend to the arts, also wanted to be an actress. She was playing Tzeitel in the high school's production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Justine attended opening night by herself. Greg was sitting a few seats away. He had said hello to her when he sat down. To her horror, her hand had moved up to pat her hair, as if pulled by a fishing line.
The great thing about high school plays was that almost everyone was exactly physically wrong for their roles. Tevye, a tall boy with girlish wrists, had a fake belly that sagged in his shirt and sometimes swung in the opposite direction of his torso. Pearl played the oldest sister, but she was the smallest. Now Pearl and her two sisters stamped up to the front of the stage and started shrieking the lyrics to "Matchmaker."
Justine's stomach began to growl. There hadn't been time to eat dinner. Fiddler on the Roof had its moments of quiet (buried somewhere in the traditional musical SONG scene transitional-oho-we-just-said-the-first-few-words-of-the-next-song-I-think-it's-time-to-SING SONG structure) and during those moments, her stomach yowled and moaned.
"Father, I love him!" said one of the sisters.
Justine wrapped her arms around her waist. It didn't help. If anything it pushed the noises out of her stomach more hastily. Baaaaaaarrrroooooool. Greg made eye contact once. Then he was laughing, staring straight ahead with his lips clamped shut.
During intermission, Justine escaped. She walked down the hallway and out the front doors. Hunched over by the entrance, she dug through her bag for some Tums. Greg stepped out of the building.
"Are you okay?" he said.
"Just hungry. I guess that's obvious."
"Possibly a little." They smiled. "They're doing good so far," he said.
"Yeah. Pearl's really talented," she said. "Who are you here for?"
"My brother," said Greg. "It sucks. They didn't give him any lines. They made him play the violin, but he messed that up too. You saw. I don't know what they were thinking, it's not like playing the violin is easier than acting. Do you want to go get something to eat? I'm hungry too."
The auditorium was lit up. You could see down the length of the dark hallway right into the back rows of the auditorium, everything tiny and bright and precious, like a diorama. People were starting to file back in.
Justine said, "I don't know. Pearl, she has a few more scenes."
Greg didn't try to convince her. He just stood there, waiting. It seemed respectful of him, but who knew. He was thin. She couldn't see any of his body through his clothing, only his shoulders.
Glaaaauuwwwwhoaa, intoned her stomach.
"It's speaking German," said Greg. "Or Chinese."
Like Greg's appearance, his apartment gave away nothing of himself—all the things superficial that ended up being important. What kind of music do you like, are you a food snob, do you consider yourself well-traveled, how much disposable income do you have, do you care if people who are thirty feet away from you and will never meet you think kindly of you?
Greg's apartment was neat. He had no books, but there was a stack of DVDs rented from the library, on the coffee table by the couch. There was a gray kitten sleeping on a pet bed in the corner of the living room, curled up like a little slug. Justine admired the kitten as Greg told her darling facts about it, like its name and the fates of its siblings and which items it had destroyed, and then they were kissing and moving toward his bedroom in this clumsy backwards kissing tango. Justine hadn't had sex with that many people, but she was accustomed to guys who had specific tastes and would try to pretend that they had just thought up those ideas (say, what if I were to come on your feet? Wouldn't that be fun? Cool and different, right?). But Greg in bed was like his anonymous apartment and haircut, as forgettable as someone who might be a kindly serial killer.
Greg sat up afterward and asked Justine if she wanted to take a shower. "With me," he added.
She blinked and blinked as if it would make Greg disappear.
"Why are you laughing?" he said, laughing. "That's not weird."
"I'm not laughing," she said. "You go ahead. I'll be in."
"All right," he said. "But don't wait too long. The hot water runs out fast." He went into the bathroom. She heard the spiky hiss of the shower turning on, and pressed her palms into her stomach. She still had not eaten. Greg had forgotten to offer her food! She had slept with a nineteen-year-old, and forgotten to eat dinner. Now Justine felt the panicky regret that comes after you've fucked someone you didn't intend to fuck, so strong that you would gnaw off your leg to escape from the sex trap, in fact you would do anything to rewind the tape, dick goes out of vagina, THIS NEVER HAPPENED.
It would have been nice to shower with Greg, she knew. The slow, hot Laundromat press of their bodies. But she had already done one type of thing, and she could not allow herself to do the next. What would come after the shower—sitting around in bathrobes, all pruney and sleepy, trying to make conversation?
Oof. Now she was hungrier than ever. She grabbed her clothes, squirming a little when she pulled on her damp underwear, and went into the bathroom. Greg was rubbing soap under his arms. She tapped on the glass. He turned around, grinning, and then pressed his dick up to the glass until it looked like a flatworm, or half of a hot dog. He seemed to think it was pretty funny, and did a dance, squeegeeing his dick around on the shower door.
"Why'd you get dressed?" he said.
Justine began to feel a little bit damned. The bathroom was steamy from Greg's shower and her feet stuck to the floor, as if she was being pulled down into a sweltering, sweating Hell. "I don't have time." She stepped back. "I'm meeting up with Pearl. And getting dinner."
"Oh no! I forgot you were hungry!" Water ran into Greg's open mouth.
"No worries! Finish your shower. I'll see you at work tomorrow, and maybe we shouldn't mention this to anyone, I feel like they'd put me under arrest or something! Not that this was illegal, though, unless you were lying about your age, ha ha . . ." She paused. "Sorry," she finally said, in a loud desperate honk, then escaped. The kitten was sitting on the coffee table licking its smoke-colored legs. It swiped at her with its claws as she went by.
It was fully night, and the streetlights had switched on. The sidewalk was dotted with bushes and sparse trees that, in the dark, seemed too full of intentions and possibilities, and Justine veered to avoid them. Hurrying down the block, Justine felt a wet hand on her shoulder. "Wait," Greg was saying. He was holding a towel around his waist with one hand and reaching out to her with the other, and then a girl came lurching around the corner, rattling the bushes and crashing into them.
Justine took the girl's arm and held her up. "Rebecca?" said Justine. Rebecca lifted her head, her mouth slack. Justine brushed Rebecca's hair off her face, away from her mouth, and said, "What's—" when Rebecca's body spasmed. She fell forward on her knees and threw up. There was blood in her vomit, big dark gleaming garnets of it. It pooled and spread over the sidewalk and dripped into the gutter. Justine and Greg both yelled. Greg ran back to his apartment to call 911, while Justine squatted there next to Rebecca, rubbing her quaking back, watching her puke and puke and puke until the ambulance came.
After asking Justine and Greg some questions, the paramedics took Rebecca away. The ambulance zoomed down the street, rattling and wailing, and the quiet pressed down on them. "Come back for that shower sometime," Greg said sadly, and left.
Safely nestled in her car, Justine drove to Burger King and bought two cheeseburgers and extra-large fries and tried not to think about puke as she ate the internally scalding fries by the handful. There was an ancient alchemical recipe for gold, which involved stirring melted lead without once thinking the word "hippopotamus." This was just like that: if she didn't think about puke or Rebecca or Greg or beauty or hot dogs, she would be fine.
Justine made another quick stop at the 24-hour supermarket to buy flowers for Pearl. Tzeitel had been Pearl's biggest role yet. As she drove to Pearl's, feeling gross and grimy, she thought about her ex-boyfriend. He would be glad if he knew what she'd been up to tonight. He was the webmaster at the weekly paper where she had worked. He had broken up with her six months ago, but she knew that he still needed more reasons to not like her, so that he could check the breakup off firmly as a GOOD DECISION. The Greg thing would do it.
But he would never find out. The longer you lived, the more things you did that you could never tell anyone about. The embarrassing, horrible shit didn't end when you stopped being a teenager. Different people were marooned on different islands inside of you—one person held her breath when she walked past dead pigeons, crushed against the curb like dirty work gloves, and one person thought racist things about a waiter who screwed up her lunch order, and one person lost her job because (wait for it) she pushed her techie ex-boyfriend down five steps in the emergency stairwell of their office building, during an argument. This person did not think about how easily the ex-boyfriend could spin the story as her pushing him down the stairs—implying a whole flight of them—without even needing to lie, exactly, because five steps is still plural-stairs. And in the arena of Downsizing Weekly Paper, a battle between Webmaster and Really Only Semi-Talented Writer is easy to call.
Maybe Justine did wish there had been a whole flight of stairs stretching out behind her ex. But she didn't want to know about this person who crouched right underneath her surface, a fish under murky ice, frozen but still alive. Every day Justine worked hard to forget this person. She bit a ragged semi-circle from her cheeseburger and swallowed everything down.
Justine texted Pearl from the backyard. Pearl let her in. Justine didn't like sneaking in through the back door. It made her feel like a secret boyfriend, or even possibly a sex criminal, when all she was doing was visiting her friend. She never knew if she should take off her shoes or not.
"Where were you?" said Pearl.
"It's a long story," Justine mumbled. Pearl squinted at her. Time for the truth. "I was going to find something to eat during intermission but I met someone and went over to their place. I'm really, really sorry."
Pearl gawped. She played at being worldly, but secretly she couldn't yet believe that you could go home with someone, just like that . . . and emerge unscathed. She had seen too many slasher films and episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to not suspect that all unfamiliar men wanted to peel her skin off and wear it as a bathing suit. She had never dated anyone.
"You had sex!" said Pearl.
"I don't know."
"Greg! You had sex with Greg!"
Times like this, Justine wondered if the blood had rushed to her cheeks in tiny dots that spelled out cursive words; she was that easily read. "It was a horrible, awful mistake," she said. "Please don't be mad."
"What? It doesn't bother me. Greg's pretty, but he's too pretty to have a crush on. I don't need that kind of trouble."
They just sat there.
Then Pearl said, "You're, like, a sexy older woman. No reason he wouldn't go for that." She wiggled her butt in her papasan chair, like a furious bee inside of a peony, and crossed her arms. "It's kind of weird, but maybe it doesn't matter at your age. You don't seem that much older than him." Pearl was trying to be kind. Justine appreciated it.
"No. I do. At least to me," Justine said.
"I was amazing," Pearl suddenly announced. She was still wearing stage makeup. Up close, her rouge was bright and overwhelming and sick. It was how Justine had pictured scarlet fever might look.
Justine sighed. "I'm sorry. Here, I got you flowers. And a cheeseburger, if you want it."
Pearl smiled for a moment. "A cold cheeseburger, ew." But she rolled her eyes as she took the flowers. "Great, flowers. I already got some from my supportive parents! Oh wait, they didn't come to the fucking play. I got some from my boyfriend! Oh, wait, I don't have a boyfriend."
"Pearl, did something happen?"
"For college," said Pearl, "I am moving to a city where all the cute boys have Asian fetishes. For real." She sighed hopelessly.
"Come on, tell me what's wrong," said Justine. Pearl stared at the floor and started scratching the inside of her left elbow, where the skin was already hot pink. "Stop scratching," Justine said, and put out her hand. Pearl got in one more good scratch and then sat on her hand.
She said, "That's cool you got laid. I got totally freaking rejected. That's why I left the cast party early. What if you actually liked Greg, like you cared about him and wanted him to be your boyfriend instead of just using him to see if you could have sex with a teenager. . . ." Justine flinched. "But he didn't like you back because there were so many better-looking girls swarming around? And maybe he would have liked you if those girls weren't there? You're decent-looking, so maybe you don't know what I mean, and you're not a teenager anymore, so life doesn't suck as much. But it happens to me all the time. Because I'm ugly, and everyone else is turning beautiful."
There was no point in telling Pearl that everything would be fine.
"I think you're lovely," said Justine. "These boys just don't appreciate it yet. You're going to be glad that you didn't involve yourself with all these high school shitheads when you get to college. Your whole world's going to open up."
"Glad?" said Pearl.
"Bad word," said Justine quickly. "Sorry. I'll go to the play again tomorrow. I won't be a skank during intermission again. We can go get dinner after."
Pearl kicked the air. "Doesn't matter. The other performances have been cancelled. Everyone got sick at the cast party. Marla told me. People were throwing up in line for the bathroom. It sounded awful."
"You're kidding." Justine told Pearl about Rebecca. Pearl sat up so straight that her chair yawed and nearly toppled.
"I knew it!" she said. "It's the pretty girl anemia. I know this sounds sick, but I don't care—whatever they have, I want it. It's not just me. You should see what's going on at school. Everyone's trying to catch it. They're hanging out with the pretty girls, trying to touch them. I even saw—" Here Pearl lowered her voice. "Well, I didn't see it myself, but I heard that someone got someone's tampon out of that thing, the period box, from the bathroom stall, and they were going to do something with it." She shuddered.
"I wish you hadn't told me that," said Justine. The cheeseburger was trapped like a hairball somewhere between her chest and her stomach. It wasn't going anywhere.
"It might not be true. They were making fun of this one girl who was acting all desperate."
"It's sad," said Justine. "You know, people used to have parties where they'd deliberately catch smallpox from someone, like a mild case so they'd be immune after. But I don't know what those girls are doing."
"Maybe it's better than being ugly forever."
"Pearl—you're so young. Nothing is forever right now. I remember how it felt when I was in high school," said Justine. She tried not to pull out her high school mastery often, with Pearl.
Pearl rested her hand on her eyes, a snottily mature gesture. "No offense. But you're being close-minded and acting so incredibly old. I can't deal with this right now."
"Fine, I'll go," said Justine, standing. "I was only trying to help. Pearl. . . ."
"You actually don't know anything," said Pearl.
When Justine left Pearl's house, she saw that Pearl had already turned off her lights. The whole house was dark now.
A question: was Justine beautiful? It was hard to say. She occupied a certain middle ground. She "cleaned up well," if "cleaning up" meant applying various paints and powders and unguents to her face until she looked like a high-contrast Photoshop job of herself. But she no longer knew what she looked like. Whenever she drifted while working and her laptop greyed out, she would see herself reflected in the dark LCD, and she could not tell if the screen distorted her face or if that was the face itself.
But there were people enough in the world to tell her what she looked like. Some days it seemed as though everyone in the whole world wanted her to know what she looked like—the way they shouted from cars, beamed her subliminal messages from TV screens and movie theaters and magazines. If only they would all shut the fuck up. If only she had been taught not to listen. It was too late to save herself; she wondered if it was too late to save Pearl.
The next day, Justine woke up late. Her mother had already gone to work, leaving a note on the fridge that read, "Tried to wake you up but you were completely dead. Sorry! Oatmeal on the stove. Love, Mom."
The street by the coffee shop was blocked off. Justine parked as close as she could and walked over. Where the coffee shop had been, there was a huge, puffy white tent that wiggled in the breeze like a fat ghost, shuddering away from the metal spikes impaling each corner of it to the cement. Small crowds of people, some in neon yellow Hazmat suits, huddled near the entrance. Justine came closer. A person in a Hazmat suit emerged from the tent. Justine saw rows and rows of flaps inside, like fluttering laundry lines.
"Excuse me," said the Hazmat suit, in a sexless voice. "Sorry, Miss." The suit's mask was black, silvered with a reflective sheen. The suit put its big mitt of a hand up. "You can't come in."
"What's going on? I work here."
"You must return to your home and await further instructions. This town is under quarantine."
"Is this about Rebecca? She was sick. We called an ambulance for her last night."
"Oh, Rebecca," sighed the suit. "Rebecca Norbeck is dead. We are with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may have something very bad here. Four girls died in the night."
Justine shook her head. Rebecca might have been puking her guts out, but even so, she'd never looked better. She, above all, had been so pleased with her new beauty. She would come into the coffee shop and order big foofy drinks, sipping at them with a thrilled, almost cross-eyed screwball comedienne expression, except Justine knew that she was only pretending. Those drinks grew cold on the table, full to the brim. Nevertheless, in the last two weeks, Rebecca had acted like everything was delicious, especially the love-struck boys and girls who stood awkwardly at her table, trying to make conversation as she put away the vampire novels that she never finished reading anymore.
"No, I don't think so," said Justine. "I just saw her last night. She was sick, but not that bad."
"The virus works quickly. This coffee shop may be a vector. The high school is a vector. The body-piercing parlor is a vector. Anything the young people have touched is a vector. Please—go home, await further instructions. Although," and the suit cocked its head with a loud crinkle, "You may be too old to get it. Maybe? We've been wondering about that."
"I feel fine," Justine said, distracted. "So how many girls have gotten sick?"
"Feeling fine is one thing. Do you feel pretty?"
"Never mind. Just go home. If you have any little high school girlfriends, please tell them to stay in their homes and call this hotline number." The suit produced a card from its thigh pocket and handed it to Justine. "The rate of infection is growing. The virus grows ever more virulent. You must warn all of your unpopular friends as well. The beauty sickness is no longer co-morbid with popularity. It is trickling down."
The suit politely waved her away from the entrance. When Justine reached the roadblock, the suit was gone. In the crowds, she saw people she recognized. Lots of parental types, swarming around the tents and anyone with a clipboard. Justine turned away. She wanted to jump back in time, warn the girls as they chose door number two, the beauty prize—she would tell them that death was waiting there, don't do it, but maybe they wouldn't have listened. Justine called Pearl. Nobody answered. Her heart beat faster as she started her car.
Justine pulled up in front of the high school and saw Pearl's friend Marla standing at the curb by herself, crying. Crowds of people were working around the high school, blocking off the entrances and setting up tents around the many buildings.
When Marla saw Justine, she waved frantically, the too-long sleeves of her hoodie flapping.
Marla yanked the car door open and threw herself inside. "They kidnapped Pearl!" she told Justine. Some girls had followed them out of school. Marla and Pearl had waited at the front, too afraid to walk home. The girls surrounded them and dragged Pearl into their car.
"It's because of that blog," said Marla, sniffling. "They were pissed. They didn't like what Pearl said about them. I told her not to post that stuff, but she said if those bitches don't understand that YouTube videos are on the actual internet for everyone to see, then it's their own fault. You have to find her."
"Oh boy," sighed Justine. "I will. Just . . . don't touch your face anymore. Don't touch anything. You don't want to get sick."
Marla shrugged. They were silent for a long time, while Justine drove to Marla's house. A few other buildings had been encircled by the white tents, and the CDC people walked in and out, their movements softened by their awkward suits so that they looked like astronauts, not even on Earth but already in space, drifting from station to station.
Marla burst into tears again. "I hate Pearl. I'm all alone now." Her face was blotchy, her eyes like slits in an overripe fruit. "I'm going to be the only one."
Justine didn't need to ask what she meant.