Once Upon a Time

May 17, 2008
By Elizabeth DiGangi, Westerly, RI

Once upon a time, there was a girl.

She always walked alone, because all the kids around her whispered, and never invited her into conversation. They’d given up on that long ago.

The kids whispered because she always wore gloves, boots, long pants and long sleeves, no matter what the weatherman said. She always wore her hair straight and down, to hide behind while they whispered. She never went to the beach, or anyone’s pool. No one had ever seen any of her skin aside from her neck and face. It was a shame, because she was beautiful. She was beautiful, and yet let no one touch her. She’d never danced with anyone, hugged anyone, or kissed anyone. The kids whispered because they didn’t know why.

She astonished teachers because she never asked questions, or gave answers, but still handed in all of her work, and completed all her tests and quizzes within the time provided, and it was always done perfectly. Yet her report cards were never perfect, because class participation was part of her grade, and she always failed at that. And whatever spare time she had, she buried her nose in a book, and spoke to no one. The teachers whispered, too, because they didn’t know why.

Her parents knew why, but they never spoke of it. They’d taken her to more doctors than any of them could count, and no one could explain it. She was an anomaly, one many desired to study, but her parents loved her enough to refuse them that chance. The last thing their daughter needed was to become some sort of government experiment, locked away in a cell somewhere for the rest of her life, treated as nothing more than a guinea pig with a funny gene. A mutant. A freak. Not a person.

But she was a person. No one could deny her that right.

Every day after school, she picked up her books and walked. She would wander the city, alone but for her books, killing time until dinner. On one particularly hot day, she found herself in Central Park, surrounded by life. People played Frisbee with their dogs and each other, children fed breadcrumbs to ducks and pigeons, and teenagers spread towels and blankets and basked in the late May sunshine. She gazed around wistfully, a powerful urge to join them consuming her heart like black fire…but the fire cooled, because she couldn’t. She wasn’t like them, and never would be. She was alone.

She found her usual place, a little glade off the beaten path, carpeted by thick green grass and moss, surrounded by maple trees, their leaves glowing. She found a warm patch of ground, sat down, opened her book, and began to read in the gentle, greenish light. The incessant buzzing of June bugs beckoning summertime didn’t quite drown out the sounds of happy people. She sighed, and tried to focus on the page in front of her, but the words all melted together into one unreadable blob of black ink. She could feel tears forming, but didn’t want to cry, because crying only reminded her…

Naturally, regardless of her wishes, she began to cry anyway. The tears were hot when they came out of her eyes, but soon they were tumbling to the ground as ice drops, stinging her pale cheeks where they froze solid.

Suddenly, a new sound reached her ears, an angry cry echoing the wretchedness brewing within her, but she knew she wasn’t the one who made it. Then a smell reached her nose, the smell of something burning; instinctively, she dropped her book and followed the sound and smell deeper into the lonely parts of the park until she found the source.

There was a young man, maybe 18 or 19, stomping out a blaze in the grass that refused to die. For an instant, she saw the same desperation in his face that she felt every day, so she didn’t even have to think about taking her gloves off and throwing her hands on the smoldering earth.

“What are you doing?!” he cried, moving forward and pulling her hands away, then releasing her like she’d burned him after steam shot up where their skin contacted. But, as he was glancing strangely between the now soaking wet ground and his hands, she was staring at her hands where he’d gripped them, because there was water on them, and the water wasn’t freezing…

She dried her hands quickly, before the icy cold in her body could act, though she could still feel the memory of heat tingling in her nerve endings. She stared at him, and he stared at her, both dumbfounded and silent. She noted how handsome he was, and how he, like her, had every part of his skin except his face, neck, and hands covered…

She broke the silence: “What happened?”

His eyes darted from his hands, to her face, to the damp, brown spot between them. He replied, “I…lit the grass on fire by accident…and…”

When he stopped, she understood. “Was it your hands?”

He glanced back to her face sharply. His eyes, she noticed, were amber, like fire. Hers were pale blue, like ice. “Yes,” he replied after a long moment, “How did you…” But he looked at her hands again, and she knew he had a similar revelation.

To demonstrate, she reached out with one pale, slender finger, and touched a single blade of grass. It froze instantly. She gave a small, sad smile, and said, “Me too. Only different.”

“Only different…” He stared at her for a few minutes, and she stared back, and neither of them spoke. Then he came and knelt next to her, and raised his hands, palms out. She mimicked him, and their skin met in a sizzling haze of steam. Through the shimmering vapor they looked at each other with new eyes, saw more clearly through that silvery cloud than before.

“I’m not alone,” they uttered together.

They spent the rest of that day together in the park, talking nonstop. For the first time in years, her voice escaped its cold, harsh prison, and by the end of the day, her frozen heart was beginning to melt with the happy, warm knowledge that she was not alone. When she arrived home, her eyes were bright, her cheeks were slightly rosy, and her lips were curved in a smile. Her parents could only look at each other and wonder, because they weren’t sure if they wanted to know the reason behind their daughter’s abrupt happiness. As it turned out, they didn’t need to ask, and their relief at knowing their daughter wasn’t the only one was indescribable.

The next day at school, the students and teachers still whispered, but for a different reason. Everyone noticed that she was smiling now, and everyone wondered why. They weren’t as lucky as her parents, though. She still said nothing, simply smiling the day away, because she knew she wouldn’t be wandering the streets by herself anymore.

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