By Heather June
From the moment Rebecca Blackwell entered the fourth grade classroom, Maggie felt it, just under her ribs. It stretched between them like a ribbon, tying them together. The class stared at Rebecca, small and thin, with the whitest hair imaginable. Long hair. With Mrs. Resnick’s arm around her fragile shoulders, Rebecca shivered, looking at her black leather shoes. Maggie knew what an albino was from National Geographic, but real ones had pink eyes. Rebecca’s were blue. Maggie felt sorry for her, because the fourth grade girls were mean, even if you looked normal.
“We have a new student today, class. Let’s welcome Rebecca Blackwell.”
No one said a word, they only stared at Rebecca. Watching, Maggie thought they looked sort of clueless, the way people do when nothing bad has happened to them yet. Rebecca was old on the inside, Maggie could tell. She raised her hand, “Can she sit next to me?”
Mrs. Resnick nodded. “That’s very nice of you, Maggie.”
At close range, Rebecca’s fingers were slender like twigs of birch, trembling. Maggie knew, the way she knew other things, that this tremor surfaced from deep under ground. Rebecca’s eyes were so round they protruded. The girl’s thin veins were visible beneath her pale skin, a miniature road map of her blood system. Maggie wanted badly to feel the texture of that translucent skin, different from her own. She touched the hair instead, so soft it slipped easily from her sturdy fingers.
“Your hair is white.”
“I’m a towhead,” Rebecca whispered.
“I like it,” Maggie said. “It’s beautiful.”
In the lunchroom, Maggie watched Rebecca’s lips quiver while she ate, her big front teeth sticking out, her fingers shaking as she ate her tuna sandwich. “Daddy is back from the war. They brought him in the ambulance.”
“Yeah?” Maggie brushed Rebecca’s hand with hers. The pale skin was cool and dry, like paper. Maggie saw the pale bruise spreading upward from her wrist. Rebecca pulled down her sleeve. She looked at Maggie. She nibbled at the white bread.
“Daddy got hurt in the desert. His helicopter crashed.”
That night Maggie could not sleep. To kill time she played she was the Queen of Hearts, the one in Alice in Wonderland, marching around her room formidably, fist in the air, directing in her bossy voice.
“Off with their heads!”
The door opened and her mother came in. Still the Queen, Maggie turned sharply. “Yes? What is it?”
“Maggie, it’s time to go to sleep now. It’s very late.”
“I know that,” Maggie said. Then, in her own voice, “I know, Mama.”
They lay down on Maggie’s bed, her mother still in her work clothes and nylons. There was the faint smell of stocking feet. She pulled the blouse from the waist of her skirt and let go a long sigh. “Maggie,” she said, looking at the ceiling, “we’re going to be just fine.” Maggie smoothed her mother’s red hair against the pillow, picking up long, coiling strands and winding them tightly around her fingers. It was a game they used to play, she and Mama, before Papa went away.
Maggie had gone to see him, in the strange apartment with no furniture and ugly gold carpeting. In his bedroom, on top of a cardboard box still full of clothes, Maggie found the photograph: a thin, tanned blonde lady in a black bathing suit, sitting beside a swimming pool. When she asked Papa, he had said, “That’s Nina.”
Since then, Maggie’s mother had not wanted her hair touched, but that night she let Maggie. She lay with her eyes closed and her pink lips smelling faintly sweet, like raspberry candy. “We’ll be all right,” Mama said. “Won’t we, Maggie?”
Maggie nodded, even though her mother’s eyes were closed. She unwound the red coils, smoothing the flaming hair against the pillow. Maggie felt it again in her stomach, like a string pulling.
The next morning when school began Rebecca was absent, but her mother brought her in during silent writing time. When Mrs. Resnick got up from her desk, Maggie stopped writing to watch Rebecca move down the aisle in a blue parka with fake fur lining around the hood. Rebecca sat down with the hood still up, hiding her face. Maggie leaned over and tried to catch her eye. No. She pulled at the flowered material of Rebecca’s dress that hung down below the parka. Nothing. Maggie fidgeted, twisting in her chair.
At the back of the room, Mrs. Resnick and Mrs. Blackwell stood with their heads together, whispering. Maggie saw Mrs. Resnick place her hand gently on Mrs. Blackwell’s narrow forearm. Mrs. Blackwell was pale like her daughter, only with shiny black hair. Like Snow White, but old. In the winter light filtering through the windows, she looked ghostly. Maggie stared at this tiny, frail mother in a dress just like Rebecca’s, the same little yellow flowers.
Maggie lifted the lid of her desk, where she kept a sand dollar that her Uncle Eddie from La Jolla had given her back when she was six. When held at just the right angle, a thin stream of sand poured out. Margie believed it would never run out.
“Look, Rebecca.” Maggie offered the sand dollar on her open palm “Take it. They’re good luck.”
Rebecca’s hand shook so much she nearly dropped the sand dollar. She put it carefully into the pocket of her parka.
Finally, in the lunchroom, away from the watchful eyes of Mrs. Resnick, Rebecca told Maggie what happened. At three in the morning, Rebecca’s father had drawn a gun on her mother. “He kept hearing scary noises. He thought he was still in the desert. That’s why he got his gun.”
“He keeps it under the bed.”
“You saw it?”
“No,” Rebecca shook her head, shivering in the blue parka.
Maggie’s imagination went wild. She pictured Mrs. Blackwell getting out of bed to turn on the light, the hem of her long, filmy nightgown rippling from her rush to the switch. And when she flipped it on, Mr. Blackwell had leveled the gun at her chest. “It’s just me, honey,” she would have whispered. “It’s only me.”
Rebecca did not touch her food again. She hunched over the lunch table with her hands clenched in her lap.
“Don’t you like tuna fish?” asked Maggie.
“We can’t make noise,” whispered Rebecca. “He’s always trying to sleep.”
Maggie looked in Rebecca’s brown paper bag. “Can I have your banana?”
“We can’t say anything.” Rebecca put a finger to her lips. “It hurts his head. The crash hurt his head.”
Maggie imagined Mr. Blackwell then, head wrapped in white gauze, holding his gun to his chest.
Rebecca shook her head side to side. “We have to whisper,” she said. “All the time.”
When school was over, snow had just begun to fall. Big, slow flakes floated down. In the purity of the snow, Rebecca’s hair took on a yellow tint. She’s a snow princess, thought Maggie. That’s why her hair is almost white.
“Let’s walk through the trees,” Maggie said, pointing to the top of the hill behind the schoolyard.
“I’m not supposed to,” Rebecca said. “I can’t play outside.”
“It’s okay,” Maggie said. “I go there all the time. We’ll run right back.”
They started to run, Maggie laughing at the sound of snow crunching beneath their feet. At the bottom of the hill, Maggie slowed to let Rebecca go first up the dirt path, up to the trees at the top, where a canopy of pine protected them from the falling snow. They ran, laughing, Maggie knocking snow from the boughs. Just over the top of the hill, the path fell sharply to the right and Rebecca tripped on a rock and stumbled, gashing open her knee. She held the ripped dress around her, crouching down and curling her body over the knee, rocking back and forth.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m sorry, Maggie. Please.”
“What?” Maggie squatted down in the path and lifted Rebecca’s dress away. The cut was deep and blood welled up in it. A flap of skin hung down, quickly turning red against the yellow flowers of her dress. Maggie saw the blood coursing down in a thick stream and dripping red into the snow.
“I’m so sorry,” Rebecca whispered. “I should have told you.”
Maggie looked down at the small red circle blooming in the snow. It grew, slowly, until it was big as a stop sign.
“Don’t be sorry. You didn’t know it would happen.”
“Yes I did,” Rebecca looked up from the ground and their eyes met. Maggie watched the black center of Rebecca’s eyes grow bigger and bigger, expanding so fast it swallowed up the blue. Maggie thought of Nina’s black bathing suit. The string in her stomach tightened into a knot.
“It’s not so bad, Rebecca. Come on, let’s go back.”
“All my blood is coming out,” Rebecca stared at the blood in the snow. “Just like the doctors said it would.”
Maggie stood and pulled up on the sleeve of the girl’s parka, trying to lift her. “Come on,” she said to Rebecca. “We’ll get a band aid.”
“No,” Rebecca pressed her lips together. “You can’t stop it.”
“Yes,” Maggie said. “I’ll get Mrs. Resnick.”
“No,” Rebecca whispered. “Stay here with me.” Rebecca crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s too late.”
Maggie sat down behind Rebecca on the path, the snow wet and cold against her pants. She began to play with Rebecca’s hair, running her cold, stubby fingers through it like a comb, dividing it in three parts, braiding it. Maggie affected a lady hair dresser’s voice, “It’s the most elegant style.” When she was done, the braid reached half way down Rebecca’s back. She lifted and coiled the braid on top of Rebecca’s head and held it there, leaning away to check her work. “Beautiful,” Maggie said. “Elegant.”
Rebecca’s teeth chattered and the two girls stared down at the cut, watching the blood drip steadily, so dark against the snow. Maggie wanted to run for help, but her legs had grown numb. The cut kept bleeding.
“See,” Rebecca said. “You can’t stop it.”
Maggie just nodded, unwinding the coil, unbraiding the hair. A curtain of white fell about Rebecca’s face, soft as a rabbit’s fur, clean as snow.
Fear snaked up Maggie’s spine. The string snapped. She leapt to her feet. “I’m getting Mrs. Resnick,” she said.
“Don’t leave me.”
“I’ll be right back.” Maggie started to run, then stopped suddenly and turned around, saw the red snow. “Do you still have it?”
Rebecca’s eyes widened and she nodded, fishing in her parka for the sand dollar.
“Hold it until we get back.”
Maggie ran then, as fast she could down the hill, her breath coming hard and her mind chanting, Please, No. Oh Please, No.
©2003 Heather June