While Helen stood frozen with shock, staring at her mother's unexpected note, Megan was in her room, staring at a book.
She hadn't bothered to turn the page in at least ten minutes; she was struggling with her concentration lately, and the stories that used to engross her for hours no longer held any sway. The words melted into an incomprehensible blur before her eyes as she lay on her bed.
It had been months since she had last set foot in a school. It had worked for a long time, but it wasn't possible now. Megan thought sadly about her elementary school, how all of the kids had been taught not to splash her with water-- "not even as a joke," the teacher had lectured them as they all nodded solemnly-- and how they all looked after her. They had the playground towel, which they used to dry off the slide and the swings after a rainy day so that Megan could use them safely, and the children would plead for a turn to be on 'towel duty.' Her classmates would fill her water cup for her at the drinking fountain so that she wouldn't risk getting damp; they would attach its lid securely and wipe off any stray droplets with their sleeves before giving it to her. They paid no mind when Megan steered clear of the sinks after using the bathroom, since they knew that she kept a giant dispenser of hand sanitizer in her desk and that she would use it faithfully. They didn't notice her stringy hair or dirty fingernails; they were kids, after all, and they were just as dirty as she was, and they were too busy with imaginary games and feats of strength anyway.
But then Megan had turned twelve, and she was too old for her school, and she was sent to a different intermediate school than most of her classmates because of where she lived-- they redrew the district lines-- and there nobody knew nor cared about her condition. Suddenly, on the cusp of adolescence, the appearance of her hair and skin was of utmost importance, and people whispered about the girl who didn't wash her hands and snickered about how she smelled, and the few kids who knew her from her old school were too insecure about their own precarious social positions to say anything in her defense. The school sent out a memo to inform parents and classmates about her condition, but that only made things worse; the kids who teased her had new material to work with, and her classmates' parents were afraid of inviting her to their homes for fear that she would be harmed (and they would be sued). Eventually Megan refused to attend, and her parents, sympathetic to her plight and unsure of any other solution, didn't make her. Helen became a reluctant homeschooler, and was daunted by how she would get Megan ready for college on her own; with the medical expenses, they didn't have any money for tutors.
Now Megan sat, ensconced in her room, staring blankly at a book with no memory of anything she had read in it. Carefully she inserted the straw of her water cup between her lips, as she had been trained since toddlerhood to do, and took a cautious sip.
She didn't have anything else to do.
She flipped the book over, still open to the page, and rose from her bed. She walked out of her room into the hallway, where she could see her mother from the landing staring at a piece of paper, not moving. Her mother heaved a sigh, crumpled up the paper, and tossed it into the garbage can.
Megan needed to use the bathroom, which was always fraught with peril, but she had been well-coached and she had never come to any harm; it had been years-- at least five?-- since her parents had decided she didn't need supervision and left her to her own devices.
She finished up and flushed, careful to stand away as she did so to avoid any possible splash, then reached for the hand sanitizer. As she rubbed the alcohol-scented goop over her hands, she looked at herself in the mirror, just long enough to see her dirty hair, her skin which managed to be both dry and oily at the same time, her chapped lips, the washed-out color of her face, and suddenly she was crying, and as the salty tears slipped down her cheeks, they left angry red traces that soon welled up in black and green.
The effect was so startling that she stopped crying and stared. She had never seen her rash in real life, only in lab photographs, and she was mesmerized. It didn't really hurt, and she breathed in consciously, trying to detect any struggle or catch in her chest, but there was nothing.
I thought this was supposed to kill me.
It was her own tears, she reasoned; she was certain she had cried before, and she had survived, so they must not be dangerous. But now, suddenly for the first time in her life, she wondered.
Her eyes drifted over to the faucet, which came into sharp focus, almost glowing in the bathroom light. She had always avoided it, as she was instructed to, and had never really looked at it before.
She stepped over to it, reached for the handle, and turned it on. The water flowed gently in a neat little column and disappeared through the drain that lay beneath it, utterly predictable in its course. The sound was both electrifying and soothing at the same time. She shut it off, then, with a thrill, turned it back on again. She glanced at the closed door; she didn't know if they could hear her. For several moments she turned the water on and off and on again, but nobody came running, and after a while, she let it run freely.
With trepidation she touched her fingertip to the cool stream, her arm jerking with surprise when she actually made contact, but she steeled herself, moving her whole hand beneath the flowing water. It burned at first, and the red welts rose up in their diamond pattern, but as the redness turned to black the pain subsided, and to Megan's surprise, she discovered that the feeling was delicious. She resisted the urge to stop up the drain, fill the basin, and submerge her whole head, but she spent several long minutes drawing the burning rash on her hands and forearms, withstanding the pain to see the black diamonds form. Her breathing remained normal and Megan felt giddy.
Calm down, she reminded herself. You don't know how far you can go.
"Megan?" called her mother, coming up the stairs. "Are you ready for our history session?"
"Oh," replied Megan, quickly shutting off the water and grabbing a towel. "Give me five minutes?" She wrapped the towel around her hands.
Her mother's footsteps approached the door; Helen knocked once, then opened the door. She saw the towel around Megan's hands and her face grew alarmed.
"Megan?" Helen gasped. "What are you doing?"
"It's nothing," Megan pleaded, but Helen snatched the towel away from Megan's hands and yelped.
"What happened?" Helen grabbed Megan's greenish-black hands and studied them frantically.
"I tripped," Megan fibbed.
"How did they get wet?"
"I fell into the toilet," Megan said, instantly regretting the words as she spoke them.
"Oh my God," said Helen. She grabbed another towel and began rubbing Megan's hands. "How do you feel?"
"How's your breathing?"
"Fine. Mom, please, you're rubbing the skin off."
Helen took a deep breath and stared accusingly at Megan's hands, as if they had betrayed her in some way. "Well," she said.
"I'm okay. Really. It was an accident."
Helen's gaze swept around the bathroom like a scanner. "What did you trip on?"
Megan searched around for something to scapegoat, but saw nothing obvious; her parents had removed all obstacles in the room years ago. "My own feet."
"Your own feet?"
"I had a klutz moment," explained Megan.
"God, Megan," sighed her mother. "Be careful."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm okay...please stop worrying."
Helen rubbed her face exasperatedly with her hands. "Are you ready for history?" she said, her face still behind her hands, muffling her voice.
"Yeah. Look, Mom." Megan stuck out her hands, now back to bright red. "It's already clearing up."
"Make sure you put a ton of sanitizer on your hands and arms," instructed Helen, as she walked out of the bathroom. "Then meet me downstairs."
"I will," promised Megan. When her mother was out of sight, she gave her reflection a conspiratorial little smile, then left the room.
This was something she would have to try again, and soon.