Part 2 of 2
Read part 1 here!
On the lawn in front of Pearl's house, six girls stood in a circle. Justine recognized some of them from the coffee shop and the YouTube video. Deanna and Katie were cheerleaders, and with them were Khadija and Nora, who were, respectively, President and Activities Coordinator of the school manga and anime interest club. The other two girls Justine didn't recognize.
The suit had said that beauty was no longer co-morbid with popularity. It was true. Weeks ago, these girls had started out in different social worlds, but you couldn't even tell by their clothes anymore. As they changed, they had all started wearing older-brother-style sweatshirts and gym shorts and huge flannel shirts and flip-flops, as if the normal world of normal-looking people had lost all interest to them. They had stopped grabbing at beauty; now they swam in it; they breathed it in and out.
Justine got out of her car. The girls, even the ones who'd been muscular or rounded or stocky, were now all equally spindly. She could take them. But as she walked past them to Pearl's front door, she was afraid. They looked as still and perfect as mannequins. It was scarier than dealing with something that seemed alive. They were like girl-shaped landmines.
She banged on the door and rang the doorbell. "Pearl," she shouted. "Pearl! Let me in!" No one answered. She turned around to face the girls.
"What did you do with her?" she said. Deanna shrugged. They all did, their lips curling up at the edges like burning paper.
"This is serious. People are dying. You're all in danger." As Justine spoke, she knew how weak and lame she sounded.
The girls shrugged again. Justine wanted to pull the sidewalk out from under them, to knock them over like bowling pins. Anything to plow through the total brick wall of teenage stoicism.
Justine said, "Where are her parents?"
"They're all at that big meeting for parents," said Nora. "It's too late, though."
"What's too late?"
"I don't know," said Nora. "Stuff."
They laughed. They glided closer, moving to surround Justine. She was nervous. They were so damn tall, and their faces blocked out the world around her in a circle of horrible loveliness, creating an alien ecosystem in which Justine—imperfect, spotted, human—could not breathe.
"Pearl doesn't want to talk to you," said Deanna. "She doesn't feel well."
"Don't lie to me. You're not her friends."
"Like you are. How old are you again? Fifty billion?"
"It's creepy you want to be Pearl's friend," said Khadija, in a lilting, lispy voice. Iths creepy you wanna be Pearlth fren.
"Fuck off," said Justine. "Get out of here, or I'm calling the police."
"Fine," one of them said. "Do it."
They stood there, pushing their sleeves up. Justine was afraid again—these girls didn't seem sick, no, they were fierce and wicked. She pushed Nora, but realized her mistake as soon as she felt Nora's shoulder, all tendon and bone like a pig knuckle. Nora fell onto Khadija, and Khadija stumbled into another girl. They screamed like normal girls. Nora stood up and pulled down the neck of her sweatshirt over her shoulder. She already had a bruise as big as an apple, a deep red one that seemed to pulse and grow more vivid as they looked.
"Look what you did!"
"Holy shit," gasped Justine. There was no way. She hadn't done anything. Perhaps something lurking beneath her surface was capable of punching a teenage girl, but she had only pushed a little. "It was an accident."
"We're calling the police on you," yelled Deanna.
"Nora, you need to go to the hospital," said Justine. "This isn't normal." Justine reached into her pockets to find the card that the suit had given her, but then the girls stepped even closer.
"You're not normal, bitch," said Nora.
Khadija lifted a fist, and her T-shirt sleeve shifted to reveal an evil bruise blossoming right where Nora had bumped into her.
Justine kept saying, "Sorry, I'm sorry," and ran to her car. She drove away in a panic, as the girls rubbed their wounds and screamed swear words at the retreating car.
Justine's mother was sitting on the couch. "Justine," she shouted, as if she was throwing a surprise party. She hugged her daughter so swiftly that Justine's teeth clacked together. "I was so worried about you." Her mother kept talking as she held her, her voice echoing against Justine's skull. She hadn't gone to work after all. The roads out of town were blocked. "They just told me about this disease that all the young girls were getting. I thought you had gotten sick, or you were trapped somewhere. . . ."
"I'm not young anymore, Mom."
"Things can still happen to you," her mother said. "Not young, my ass."
"I'm not in high school. I'll be fine." Justine tried to wiggle out of her grasp. Weren't mothers supposed to be the ones with motherly bosoms? But her mother was small and flat-chested, and also quite buff ever since she'd started taking Cardio Powerlifting at the local gym. You must have gotten your father's boobs, her mother would say, sometimes enviously, sometimes not.
Her mother brushed back Justine's hair. "You don't look any different," she said. Justine felt disappointed in a small and distant way. "Thank god for that. Be quiet. I'm allowed to worry. When you're a million years old, I'll still be a million-and-thirty-three."
"I know." Her mother stepped back. "I should go wash my hands now."
"Mom! Are you serious? I'm not sick." Then she remembered her fight with the girls, and how easily Nora had folded under her hands. "I guess you should."
"I wish we at least had those masks," her mother fretted. "Those SARS masks."
"Sit down, Mom," said Justine. "Relax. I'll start dinner."
"Dinner? Sure you're feeling well?" Her mother didn't smile. She snapped the living room window curtains shut before sitting down again. "Poor girls," she said. "It seems so much worse that they get beautiful before it happens."
The next day, Justine's mother went out to attend some community meetings. Justine stayed home, doing research without knowing what she was looking for or why, except for the fear that Pearl too might be in trouble. Her mother had been relieved. "Good idea," she said. "Stay inside. Forever if you can."
Pearl's blog was still up, but all the old posts had been deleted. The only thing left on the page was a video, embedded without commentary. Justine clicked on it. The video was an edited clip of an old movie from 1933, Footlight Parade. James Cagney's character raced around town, trying to think up a concept for his new theatrical extravaganza. Suddenly he stopped, struck by the sight of some black kids playing in the street around a gushing fire hydrant, and grew excited, ecstatic. "Look at that!" he shouted. "That's what the prologue needs—a mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!" From there, the scene cut straight to the big Busby Berkeley number: rows of scantily clad young women sliding down an artificial waterfall, bodies gleaming white in stark contrast against the pitch-dark water. The women wore rubber caps molded into the shapes of hairstyles. They writhed in synchronized frenzy, grinning through wet lipstick. Then they joined arms in two long lines, and interwove their legs to form the shape of a zipper, which opened and closed itself up again in the path of a single swimmer traveling up and down the line of interlocking leg-teeth.
Justine had to stop watching. She hit pause and took a few breaths. Then she clicked through to YouTube and searched for the videos of the local girls. Once again, she looked at the girls looking at her. The low-quality resolution washed them out, simplifying and deepening their features until they looked less like girls and more like drawings of girls. She couldn't stop watching them. Neither could everyone else. The view count was up to twenty million.
Modeling agencies were sending representatives to her town. Justine scrolled through pages and pages of "I wish it were me" and "Lucky girls" and "Put that in a syringe and stick it into me!" from all varieties of girls and women and boys and men. Others wanted in, too: movie directors, talent agents, pharmaceutical giants, fundamentalists, cosmetics companies, Disney, journalists, perverts. There was some big-ass money at stake here. If only there were a way to prevent the dying.
Though even with the dying, surely they could work something out.
Outside the living room window, Justine saw that a few other houses on the street had been covered with bloated white tents, houses like spongy funguses, puffballs growing into the shapes of houses. These were houses that girls had lived in.
Pearl had texted her once during those two days.
The text read: still ugly.
Justine texted her back immediately but got no response.
She went online again, and saw that people were comparing the situation to a video game, a movie, a comic, a TV show, and, much less frequently, a book.
On the night of the third day, Justine received another text from Pearl. It read: come over. A few seconds later, her phone beeped again. The next text read: at gregs apt. will explain.
This didn't upset Justine. At least not in the way she thought it would. Greg was not hers and she did not want him.
Only, she did begin to feel worried for him. She refused to think any more about this.
Her mother was asleep. Justine shut the door carefully behind her. She wore a pair of knit wool gloves, to put some kind of barrier between her and the rest of the world. Now she wished that they did have SARS masks. For one wild moment, she thought about wrapping a long piece of toilet paper around her face.
She decided to walk to Greg's apartment to avoid being stopped by officials. Without the thin hard shell of her car, she felt like a kind of forest creature darting around in the woods, the billowing white tents like fairy tale houses, filled with the same ominous promises.
She felt fifteen again, and it wasn't just because she didn't have a car.
One of the tents had a long, jagged rip down the front. Justine saw it out of the corner of her eye, and automatically sped up her steps. By the time she got to Greg's apartment, she was almost running. Her feet hurt. Someone buzzed her into the building and she took the stairs two at a time. About to knock on Greg's door, she got a funny feeling, a sense of unutterable wrongness. Her armpits went damp. She tried the doorknob instead. The door opened.
Pearl was slumped at the kitchen table, facedown, her head resting on her arms. She was very still.
"Hello," said Justine.
Pearl lifted her head. She was wearing a fake nose attached to a mustache, bushy eyebrows, and black-framed eyeglasses, a Groucho Marx-type thing.
"Yo," she said.
Justine sat down at the table across from her. "Why aren't you at home?"
"I ran away. I didn't want the disease nerds to bother me."
"They could have helped you."
"Doubt it." Pearl sat up and stared at Justine. There was something different about Pearl. Pearl was taller. Something had taken her neck and waist and gently yanked them longer. And her boobs, her boobs. . . . "Stop looking at me," Pearl said. "I think you should know—I'm not doing Greg or anything. He's just letting me stay here."
"It's fine with me if you're doing Greg."
"He's still obsessed with you. All he does is ask about you."
"Don't tell me that. We're not together. It doesn't matter. How are you?"
"Me? I'm beautiful now." Pearl adjusted her eyeglasses with a poke of her finger.
"Can I see?"
"No, you can't see. I'm turning into a fucking white girl. It's annoying. It's like, even this stupid disease has Western-influenced ideas of beauty. Big eyes, pale skin, whatever. I grew six inches. Look, my nose bridge got taller too! I could never wear glasses before, they were always slipping off my face. It's bullshit. But I am hot stuff." Pearl reached across the table and tapped Justine on the arm in a friendly, off-hand way. "How are you feeling? You look like you feel like shit."
"I'm fine. I'm always fine. I've been telling everyone that I'm fine. Ask me a new fucking question," said Justine. "It's you I'm worried about."
"Hmm. Are you acting like a major bitch right now?"
Justine relaxed a bit. "Sure," she said. "Nice to see you too."
They both smiled. It was the best they could do.
"Justine, please don't worry," Pearl said. "Check out my new rack! It's okay, you can look. I'm great. I've never been better."
"Except you're turning into a white girl," said Justine.
"See, that's why I had to run away," said Pearl. "What if my parents checked up on me? They pull back the covers on my bed only to find this bee-yoo-tiful white child!" Pearl started laughing. "You know what's fucked? They'd like me better this way. I bet Sarah Anderson's parents loved it when she caught the disease and went all double-lidded and six feet tall, like them. From now on they'll never have to admit she's adopted!" Laughing, laughing.
"Stop," Justine said, but Pearl kept chortling, her mouth frozen into a rectangle of wet white teeth. Underneath her disguise, Pearl was flushed pink and plush and spotless. Justine went around the table and pulled off her gloves. She bent to touch Pearl's forehead. It was freezing cold. She drew her hand back. "Oh," she said.
"Do I have a fever?" said Pearl plaintively.
"No. Not really."
"I feel really bad." Pearl closed her eyes. "I'm hungry."
"Oh, Pearl," said Justine. "Just eat something." She went into the kitchen and looked through the shelves. "Look, there's tons of food."
Pearl shook her head until her disguise almost fell off. "That's why the other girls died. They couldn't eat food. Something in them ate them up from the inside." She started to cry. "I know what to do to feel better. I bet they knew too. But I don't want to do it. I don't think I can." This last word she wailed.
Do . . . what, exactly? Justine didn't want to ask. Right now, she needed to keep herself stupid, frozen. She knew she was going to find out sooner or later. The later the better. "Don't cry," she said. "It'll be okay. I'm here for you." She went to Pearl, putting her hands on Pearl's shoulders and gripping them gently, remembering Nora. "Pearl?" she said.
Pearl stopped crying. There was a blankness in her eyes, behind the glasses, and Justine was close enough to see it. Pearl's face shone with tears, but now the tears looked fake, as if they had just appeared there under her eyes without a history, without reason.
Then Pearl grabbed Justine's arm with both hands and held it to her mouth.
She swiftly bit down on Justine's fleshy forearm without breaking the skin. Justine was afraid to move, to do anything that would bring her nearer to those teeth. Pearl's head jerked up, Justine's arm still in her mouth. They looked at each other.
Pearl spit out Justine's arm; the suction made a quiet popping sound. "Just kidding," she said. She leaned back in her chair.
Justine wiped her arm on her jeans. There was no spit on it. She said, "Where's Greg?"
"He's out." Pearl put her head down on the table again.
"Is that the truth?" Justine said carefully.
She watched Pearl's head nod. "But," Pearl said into the table, "he'll probably come back again. It's his apartment. Nice furniture, nice cat, comfortable bed. . . ."
"You are doing Greg." Justine tried to say these words without making them mean anything.
"Maybe," said Pearl. "For the same reason you did it. You wanted to see if you could. Being beautiful is great." She made a weird noise, a sigh that went from high-pitched to low and back again. "But it's tiring."
Justine moved to touch Pearl on the back of her head, but thought better of it. "You scare me," she said, and swallowed. "Why don't we get out of here? We'll sneak out of town."
Pearl lifted her head and smiled.
"Fuck you, I'm serious."
"Why?" said Pearl. "No, wait. That's a nice idea. I wish we could do that. But I'm past that point." She lifted her slender hands, and Justine could see that she no longer had lines on her palms.
Pearl said, "I hate to tell you, but this thing's going to catch on. I can feel it."
They fell silent. Justine wondered where the kitten was.
Eventually, Justine said, "Do what you need to do." She was probably not supposed to say that. "Or, I don't know. Good luck, Pearl."
Pearl laughed. Then she stopped short, as if a switch was flicked inside her throat. "Thank you, Justine," she said very seriously. "You realize we can't be friends anymore."
"Yes," Justine said. "It makes me sad."
"Me too," said Pearl.
Sadness rose up inside them like a plasma, plugging up their throats, pushing their eyeballs out, hurting their chests. Justine wanted to hug Pearl and take her out for dinner at their favorite diner, where they would talk all night and draw on the table with the condensation from their sodas. On nights like those, Justine didn't feel as young as Pearl, exactly, but she felt as if they had the same amount of future stretching out ahead of them. They would both go home before dawn, and the sun would rise on a normal morning of a normal day. No one would have turned beautiful, and that would be just fine.
"Can you open the window for me?" said Pearl. "It's hot."
It wasn't, but Justine went and opened the window. Pearl came and stood next to her.
"Listen," Pearl said. "It's my friends. My other friends are coming over."
If Justine tried hard enough, she could make out girls' voices as they shuffled through town in one big laughing group.
"Maybe I should get going," she said.
"Yeah, dude. You might even want to run."
"That bad?" Justine said lightly. It was very important to be calm now. It was very important that she keep all her limbs to herself, as if she was on some junky, deadly amusement park ride.
"I kinda want a hug," said Pearl, "but I guess that's a bad idea." Her disguise began to slip, but this time she didn't try to stop the slow elevator slide of the glasses down her nose. Justine knew that she had until when the disguise fell off to leave the apartment. Thank you, Pearl, for this mercy, she thought, and then turned and ran.
At the threshold to the apartment building, Justine stopped and inhaled, letting the icy air clear away the grime from her brain. There were things she needed to be thinking about. Her life had been yanked out of her hands, remolded, and returned to her twisted and unrecognizable. Now she would have to make something out of it. Down the block, some of the streetlights were broken or burned out. The way home was obvious; what might happen to her in those dark spaces in-between was not.
She knew her final role in this now: she was going to become the latest in a long, proud line of girls who ran. She would be one of those girls who ran to save their mothers, girls who knew how to cobble together weapons out of household items, girls who could kill without crying, girls who grew up to be women with weathered creases down their cheeks and mysterious, hard-earned eyepatches. Women with pasts, women who could admit everything: That was me. I was there. I did that. Justine got tired just thinking about it.
Pearl's role would be entirely different. It struck Justine that Pearl would have been applying to colleges soon. It was all so ridiculous. Pearl had really only wanted to get out of town. Now she didn't need college anymore; a girl like her could and would go everywhere without it.
Good luck, Pearl, Justine whispered. Good luck, everyone else in the world.
She prepared herself. Her leg muscles twitched. She would leap over the sidewalk cracks, ignore the white tents and the rustling bushes full of insects and animals and other things. She would not look for Greg. There would be no hesitation in her body.
In this way, she might make it home.
Now Justine really could hear the girls coming. Someone muttering, low and sarcastic, followed by a high-pitched giggle. She couldn't hear shoes. Maybe they weren't wearing shoes. Oh fuck, where were their shoes?
Every molecule in her body fired a starting shot, quick and hot and electric, and then she was off.