The emergency goes on, but no one believes her about it anymore. Mary waits in the ER waiting room every Thursday from noon—the elementary school’s early release hour—until the end of her mom’s shift at the coffee cart, one floor up. Knowing no nurse will call her name, hoping to be surprised. Today, the room begins empty as her stomach but fills with anxious chatter in the time she’s here, parked in her usual seat along the back wall at the end of a row of connected chairs. The chairs are flanked by a table, and on the table sits a fake potted bromeliad and Mary’s spelling words and multiplication worksheets, which she keeps handy in case her mom pops in. It’s noisy enough that she sees more than hears what a woman across from her says to a girl supine on her lap. You know he didn’t mean anything, right? He’s been so.
The girl is a few years older than Mary and has hoop earrings much hoopier than Mary will be allowed to wear once she’s allowed to get her ears pierced. One earring sticks up cockeyed from the side of the girl’s horizontal face; the other has fallen to the sand-colored floor and been kicked, unnoticed, down the opposite row of chairs. The older girl balls her body awkwardly on the seat, arms hugged close, laceless sneakers jammed against one armrest and neck stretched around the other so that her head balances like a boulder on the edge of the woman’s knee. Mary isn’t sure when they arrived, but they’re directly across from her, so she hears without trying to listen. Could be in serious trouble if you.
The woman taps the girl’s shoulder with one finger, over and over, hypnotically. The girl stares straight ahead. Neither of them notices Mary.
If his manager gets a whiff. He’s already.
Nobody could accuse her of eavesdropping, but it doesn’t take much—a little memory, a little premonition—to propel Mary’s imagination toward an image of the him the woman keeps referring to: bland and empty-handed; a minty smile, an invasive invitation. Expert in the art of extracting sympathy. This girl, Mary suspects, is like every girl made to offer an alternate emergency to ensure some dude’s crimes don’t stick. Mary has never had this particular problem, but she knows it well. The clumsy girl from after-school specials. The skinny girl crying about a stomachache. The mystery illnesses and secret infections that finally land them all here, in the ER. So buried in their armor they don’t even notice when a chunk of it falls off.
The woman doesn’t drop her voice or anything because she isn’t ashamed of what she’s asking the girl to do—which, Mary understands right away, is to lie—and she isn’t ashamed because, even though Mary is right in front of her, the woman doesn’t think Mary is old enough to understand. Even people who know she’s old enough to understand, like her own mother, treat her as if she isn’t. Adults act like childhood comes with an inoculation of amnesia, which her mother reframes as resilience. She uses Mary as an example of resilience, which Mary hates because, the way her mother means it, resilience is permission and exoneration rolled into one, turning any shitty thing adults did to kids into the kids’ obligation to recover. Mary knows parents have a terrible responsibility when it comes to their children, so they should be cut some slack. Mary knows this because her former babysitter said it, and Mary believed that she believed it. The babysitter had been paid to watch Mary after school, but she was often preoccupied with her online business selling these spiny plants that grew in thin air, and she often left Mary to fend for herself. More than once, Mary had overheard her complaining that she never saw her son, either, but she was the one who put the TV in his room, so it was mostly her own fault that he stayed in there.
What the one accusation did to. Let alone more than.
Mary watches the tapping finger, the way the woman’s face-framing haircut lifts off her cheeks when she bends towards the girl’s ear, as if the girl is a wind blowing back. When the woman looks at the girl, she smiles as if at her own reflection. It isn’t right, and though Mary knows Things That Aren’t Right happen all the time, she’s a big believer in truth. It’s her whole belief system, in fact, and the reason she’s here. She has an emergency, that’s the truth, and she would like to be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.
She doesn’t say that out loud anymore, though, and not saying it is a kind of lie the adults in her life have forced upon her, so she is sympathetic to the older girl’s silence.
Mary stares angrily at the woman, and the woman looks up, then away.
Then Mary catches the older girl’s eye and holds her gaze meaningfully. Taps her own right ear. The girl lifts her head, reaches for the earring that isn’t there, and sits upright. Recognition ricochets between them. They could be one or five years apart; they could be classmates or reading buddies; they could be the same girl living parallel lives. It doesn’t matter. People would say that Mary is younger but more confident. She told the truth about the babysitter’s son, and her mother had instantly believed her, and they’d taken every single step the doctor and counselor suggested, and that made Mary resilient, which implied that she was recovered, which she wasn’t. The other girl is not so fortunate. Her passivity makes her seem younger, to Mary, who suspects that age, like illness, can be incorrectly diagnosed. Ever since her emergency, Mary’s age has been fractured, some strands becoming ever younger, some skipping ahead whole decades, some frozen in place. Maybe age is always like that, and she just didn’t notice it before.
Right now, more parts of her than not are older than the older girl, although the older girl can almost certainly do higher level math.
If you want him to. You don’t want him to.
Mary winks conspiratorially at the girl and sends the woman away. This is mostly luck, with a little skill she’s developed from so much people-watching. The woman is a classic case, self-absorbed and antsy, and she won’t put up with being ignored much longer. She frowns at the girl—You could say you—who isn’t listening to her anymore. Mary waits until she’s almost sure the woman’s impatience has gotten the best of her, and then she lifts her hand and flicks her fingers toward the exit. The woman tries a final time—I’m just saying—and then, right on cue, she touches the girl’s arm, mouths some excuse, and leaves for the restroom. On her way out, she spots the missing earring, bends to retrieve it, pockets it like a prize. She’ll present it as a gift, later; offer it as proof of her own necessity.
Adults, both girls know, are always trying to prove their necessity.
And girls, adults think, are simple, suggestible, easily swayed by gifts that were theirs to begin with.
“How’d you do that?” the girl says, incredulous.
“I have this, like, power or whatever?” Mary says.
No one else in the waiting room pays them any mind. No one speaks to them. They are two girls making friends in an unlikely situation, and that’s all anyone needs to know.
“What, like mind control?”
“No,” Mary says, flattered. “My power is visibility.”
And even though the girl saw it with her own eyes—maybe because she saw it with her own eyes—she doesn’t believe it. “That’s not even a power,” she says.
“I know what your mom was saying,” Mary says.
“So? That’s not a power either.”
A nurse calls a name that’s not either of theirs. Someone shuffles toward triage, holding a bunch of paper towels to a body part. Which body part is not important. Because this is an emergency room, the paper towels are bloody, and blood indicates where doctors should look for problems. Even if you have the kind of emergency that isn’t accompanied by blood, doctors still have to look at you, and this is how Mary originally discovered her power. Some of the nurses even announced it: The doctor will see you now. As if, before, the doctor could not see you. Which seemed, to Mary, like something no one realized but her.
She spends her time in the waiting room perfecting her power, staring at people until they notice her. She likes the feeling when she turns visible: tingly, points pinging up and down her veins. Sometimes it causes people to change seats or leave for the restroom and return to a different seat, which is a fun side effect.
“I’ll prove it,” Mary says. She’s done this trick before. “Close your eyes.”
The girl does, which is a good sign. It means part of her wants to believe, and she should know better than anyone that the first step in fooling someone is to work their own desire against them.
“Who is in this waiting room right now?”
After a moment, with her eyes still closed, the girl says, “Yeah, yeah. I get it. I don’t know who else.”
It’s so easy, Mary feels almost guilty. “Are you in the waiting room?”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t say yourself.”
The girl opens her eyes.
The power of visibility is a funny thing. Most people see—and are encouraged to see—what they expect. This goes for themselves and others. A certain kind of person is presumed to be safe, so what he does seems safe even if it’s not. Which means that harm is called safety and being harmed becomes a way of being. Same with danger, which people often see in things that aren’t actually dangerous, so sight becomes a way for the danger to enact itself. When you call a place a dangerous part of town, as you’ve either done or heard someone else do, you don’t mean the den in the older girl’s mother’s boyfriend’s townhouse, which is in a gated community where the girl’s mother has to show ID to the security guard every time she visits. The girl—let’s call her Florida—wouldn’t mean the boyfriend’s den either, even though, for her, it is the most dangerous part of town. She just says she hates gated communities. She says it to her mother, her friends, the security guard, and she’ll say it to the doctor if she gets the chance. None of them asks why, and in this way, everywhere she goes becomes another gated community. She’d like to leave, but the gates are a labyrinth she’s been working her whole life, and it’s exhausting to keep searching for a way out when they’ve mostly hidden the exits anyway. She doesn’t know who they are, except that her mother and her mother’s boyfriend are two of them.
That’s what she sees when she opens her eyes. The exit. The way out. For a moment, she sees walls that before were shadowed or camouflaged or implied. It’s something about the way this little girl looks at her: her gaze has this barely-there tangibility, like walking through the misting machines that prevent heat stroke at theme parks, a blend of air and water that shimmers and swirls and makes you feel reborn. The little girl seems to apprehend everything about the situation that Florida herself can’t articulate: what her mother asked her to do, and also—this is what trips her up—how her mother wasn’t exactly asking her to lie. She wanted Florida to package the truth in order to obscure crucial parts of it. To say that she’s not sure where the infection came from, which she isn’t, or that it might be a fluke, which it might, or—and her mother has never directly said this, but—that it was partly her own fault, which it was. Her mother was right; he was a good man in many ways, and the good in him could be damaged if she tells what he did to her. But it seems important to the girl not to stop there. His goodness did not prevent him from doing terrible things, and his terribleness will not prevent him from doing more good. She desperately wants her mother to see this, to allow him to be all things, good and terrible, so the girl can be all things, too. She’d despaired that there was no way to communicate this to her mother or anyone else, but now she feels certain that this strange little girl across from her understands. The moment washes her in clarity: she will tell the truth. Someone will see it.
She will tell the truth, despite the unhappiness it will cause her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, an unhappiness that travels further back than the years the girl has been alive. She will tell the truth, even though it might cause her mother to be enraged or crushed, to despise her forever. She will tell the truth, because she does not want to be talked into ransacking herself further. The enormity of what she will do is overwhelming. She feels like she can’t breathe.
Florida looks at the door, where her mother will return any minute, and knows she has to get out of there. Clear her thoughts. Cool the heat wave that is consuming her mind.
It’s not the way they’ll tell it later, but when Florida leaves, Mary follows. She goes willingly. She’s worried she’s done something bad. To the girl. To make her run out like that. She’s worried she’ll get in trouble, and not in the good way. Mary is only allowed in the ER waiting room because she’s promised to do her homework and not disturb anyone. She’s allowed to be unsupervised because, so far, she’s proven herself trustworthy. Her mom doesn’t ask why Mary prefers the ER to the annex next to the coffee cart upstairs, maybe because her mother is afraid of getting a truthful answer.
Mary used to go to the babysitter’s house after school, and the babysitter’s son had allowed her to watch things on his TV that she was not supposed to watch, if she did certain things which at first she didn’t mind doing, but which eventually turned into things she did mind, and then one thing that really hurt. His mother had been downstairs the whole time, which was a part of the story Mary’s mother told over and over, as if it made everything worse when, really, it just meant that Mary hadn’t ever felt truly afraid, not even during the foulest parts. She knew she could tell on him. And then she did, and the cops had been called and the babysitter fired, and Mary had been rushed to the hospital, and she’d discovered her power, and her mother had been very attentive for a while and rearranged her schedule so she could watch Mary after school every single day of the week except early release.
But even strange and scary times have a way of settling into place. Pre-emergency, Mary wasn’t visible; post-emergency she was, but only for a while. She thought she’d stumbled onto a kind of magic, but the effects faded over time, and eventually she found that she no longer had claim to any emergency at all. It was as if there was an expiration date no one told her about. She looked up the word and all its variants, but nowhere did it define when something ceased to be emergent. The thing that happened to her hadn’t changed; how she felt about it hadn’t changed, not one bit; so why had its classification been downgraded? Why, she wanted to know, couldn’t she call 911 every day to report her emergency? But it wasn’t allowed, they told her—her mother, the police, the doctor—so instead, every Thursday after early release, while she waited for her mother’s shift to end, she sat and sat in the ER waiting room, no one calling her to be seen, no one knowing what to do about her. She practiced her power in the small way she’d retained it, and otherwise tried not to disturb anyone unless she bumped into some other poor, unenlightened kid. Like this one.
When the girls leave the hospital, everyone—you, me, the complicit unfamiliar—sees them go, so when Florida’s mother returns from the restroom and inquires, frantically, at the desk, she receives a surprisingly straightforward answer. Two girls exited the building. They looked like they knew where they were going. People who saw them, which was everyone, assumed they were sisters, and that their parents must be somewhere nearby.
The girls cross the parking lot, in full view of a number of new arrivals, and continue onto the road. Everyone, in every car that passes, thinks they look too young to be walking unsupervised along the shoulder, but no one stops to inquire. No one questions their presence, or their right to be there, because—at least one passerby will falter over the flimsiness of this assessment—they just look like they belong.
They go on, but not too far. They’re still kids; they don’t have that much agency, and they know this is more of a scenic route to the same place than a new destination. Florida tells herself she needs air, space, time to steady her nerves and figure out her plan. She’s young enough to believe that when she goes back—she really does need medical attention—she only has one chance to say what she needs to say. To do this right.
Mary is along for the ride, fretting over the older girl, who hasn’t said a word to her, and eager to see where they’re going. She knows she’ll get in trouble, but she doesn’t realize how quickly someone at the hospital will summon the cops, and someone else will call the news, and the cops and the news will collude with the mothers in the project of Let’s Get Ahead of This Story. They’ll get so far ahead, they’ll pass the girls entirely. No one really thinks it’s a kidnapping except the one reporter, and even after he’s caught up, he’ll keep the crime as part of his tongue-in-cheek headline for a human interest story about a wild goose chase and two adorably mischievous little girls.
The girls don’t know the circus the adults are making of responsibility, and if they did, they might point out that they’ve barely left the hospital grounds and they intend to come right back. They’re right there, two blocks from the waiting room, dipping away from the street towards a small lake with a fountain spurting from the middle. Socks covered in burrs from cutting through the grass along the road, powers slung across their bodies as casually as backpacks.
The bank of the lake is sticky, muddy with decaying brush. The heat of the day is leaden, the water of the lake tannin-red. Stagnant, despite the fountain. Nothing else disrupts the surface, no eye or head, no bubble, no ripple. The water from the fountain plunks straight down, disappearing ingloriously into the larger mass. The girls stay in the weeds for a moment, taking it in. The shushing highway behind them sounds a little like applause.
The escape was exciting, but now Mary falters. She senses the need for a grand gesture. Florida seems stuck, planked above something ready to swallow her. Though she stands still enough, evidence of struggle manifests in movements meant to be imperceptible: the chewing of a cheek, the working of a fingernail into a thumbnail over and over and over. The part of Mary that’s still young—growing younger by the minute—wants to do something to regain Florida’s attention. She says the only thing she can think of. “Race you across?”
“What?” Florida says, and her twitching stops. She turns the full heat of her gaze onto Mary.
“You swim, right?” If she doesn’t, Mary will think of another competition that she can let Florida win.
Florida nods, and they look up at the lake as if it’s suddenly changed shape. More than something to look at, the lake is now a vehicle, an event. Wide enough to be challenging, almost certainly too warm for comfort. Murky, which conjures warnings about alligators and water moccasins and brain-eating amoebas. Mary supposes that if something gets her, she’ll have another legit emergency, which is what she wants. Florida thinks that if something gets her, they’re right across from the hospital, so it would probably be okay. They both think that if they make it across without being gotten, they’ll feel something like accomplishment and something like resolution. For sure, they’ll feel better. Already, their respective hims, hovering on the edge of awareness, are blinking out, like someone has cut the power to the past.
Florida’s mother must be worried by now, and the thought gives Florida some satisfaction. She imagines returning to the hospital, to her mother’s cascading relief, so happy to see her that when Florida says, I’m going to tell the truth, her mother will say, Of course, that’s fine, whatever you need.
Then she imagines saying the same thing in lake-drenched clothes, and her mother’s recoil: Why are you all wet?
“With clothes or without?” Florida says, but the idea of public nudity is so not even a possibility for Mary that she just snorts. Florida answers herself, “Without,” and takes off her shirt.
“But I'm not wearing a bra,” Mary says.
Florida takes off her shorts.
“You’re basically cheating,” Mary says, secretly thrilled at this turn of events. “Do you know how heavy wet jean shorts are?”
“Ready?” Florida says. She folds her clothes and lays them on the grass. Knots her hair on top of her head. Her mother doesn’t need to know about the diversion of the lake, she thinks. She will tell the truth, but she will do it dry as newsprint.
At the water’s edge, their feet sink into the muck. Florida sloshes ahead, hips swaying widely as she drags her legs through the thick water, the surface making clean cuts across her knees, thighs, waist. “So much for visibility,” she says, looking down. “Come on. I don’t want to get eaten.”
When the water reaches their chests, they turn onto their backs, first Mary, then Florida, the lake now slicing them lengthwise. “We don’t have to race if you don’t want to,” Mary says, letting her limbs float. “It wouldn’t be fair anyway.”
“Nothing’s fair,” Florida says, then squeals and flips over. “I just felt something. Let’s swim.”
“That was me,” Mary says, meaning that she, Mary, was the something Florida felt. Florida’s foot had grazed her elbow, and some rogue wickedness had tempted Mary to grab hold, pull the older girl under. Instead, Mary rolls over and gathers the lake into her arms. They paddle leisurely, side by side, heads sailing above the surface. They pause in the middle near the fountain, which dribbles and spouts and tattles on them to their reflections. They look back to see how far they’ve come, which is exactly how far they have left to go. Or so they think. No one has come for them yet, but the whole procession will be there when the girls arrive at the far bank, thanks to a nurse who is right now jogging past on her break and spotting them, these swimmers where there should be none. When the girls climb out of the lake, they will have much, much farther to go than they expect.
The righteous and embarrassed adults will demand that Florida take the fall. Because she’s older. Because she knows this story at least as well as they do. She will accept their blame, though no charges will be filed. Both girls will be reprimanded for their reckless behavior, but everyone—including Florida’s mother’s boyfriend, who’s been called to join the search—will agree that Florida especially should’ve known better. She could be prosecuted as an adult, her mother’s boyfriend will lecture, if she ever pulls a stunt like that again.
The truth Florida wants to say will rush to her mouth like saliva. Standing there, dripping in her underwear, she’ll lean over and spit onto the boyfriend’s stupid loafers. A cop will produce her clothes, and her mother will drag her back to the hospital, where she’ll answer the reporter’s questions, distracted by the cartoonishly pornographic wet spots her bra has leaked onto her shirt. Look at you, her mother will keep fussing. Florida will be spoken for, attended to, fixed up, driven home. Stories about her will bloom like algae. She’ll be called a kidnapper at school; she’ll become kind of famous. When she finally does tell the truth about the mother’s boyfriend, later—years later—it will be an addendum to a completely different story, an explanatory detail her audience won’t be sure they heard correctly.
Mary’s mom will be angry at her, so angry that it’s as if she’d been waiting for a reason. “It’s not your fault,” she’ll say, “but you can’t keep putting yourself in these dangerous situations.” Mary doesn’t agree that she’s put herself in any danger, but she won’t argue. Her mother is often mad at the wrong things. Mary won’t be allowed to go anywhere unsupervised for a while, and she won’t resist the punishment. It’s temporary. She’ll find other, better ways to use her power.
Neither girl will ever feel sorry for the trouble they caused, not even for their mothers’ pain and worry. Adults are resilient, after all. And swimming in the lake is the happiest either girl can remember being. Here they are, still inside it, not yet set onto the track of the future. Loving how their arms pull them through the water, how their toes are completely lost until they wiggle them. They are commanding and embodied, aquatic and fierce. The lake consents to the whole of them. Anything could happen. They love how they are wise and damaged enough to know anything could happen. But anything doesn’t happen, and that makes them even happier. They swim toward the next moment, which is always just beyond them, as improbable and undeniable as the wispy-legged water striders flexing across the surface.
They’re so happy that, when they emerge from the lake, happiness is all anyone can see. There are two of them, that’s a fact, and eventually they’ll sort themselves into individuals. But despite real differences in age and height and state of dress, the lake renders them identical. Let the record show that by the time they’re caught, not the police officers, nor the reporters, nor the hospital workers, nor the mothers themselves can tell the girls apart.