I became an invader myself / a pathogen with survival traits
(apologies in advance that formatting is a little weird. I struggled with spacing on this platform)
Alyssa snapped the green glow stick in half and downed its phosphorescent insides in one gulp. The caustic slime filled her mouth with a sensation more than a taste, a dry cold metallic buzz coating her gums and teeth. She tilted her head back to help slide remnants of brilliant juice off her tongue, the chemical lava flow slowly burning its way down her throat.
Huddled to the left, her shivering friend, Grainne, clutched the cracked pink glowstick she was supposed to have sipped from in solidarity. It looked tasty, like magic bubblegum, but Grainne knew better than to consume things with skulls and exclamation points on their packaging. While Alyssa’s head was still tilted back, Grainne brought the pink vial to her closed lips and mocked a deep swallow.
Beneath the boardwalk, floodlight cut through the platform above, casting sharp stripes of shadow on their candy-flushed faces. The damp underbelly reeked of burnt funnel cake oil and sewage; only a thin plank of wood separated the rot below from the sugared air above. Some distance down the rickety tunnel, a trio of tie-dyed men laughed around a red roll-away grill. Beyond them, atop the perpendicular pier, the colossal Ferris wheel of the carnival rocked and groaned.
“I can feel it working,” Alyssa said, teeth bared in a victory grimace, neon green pooled in the pockets of her aluminum spacers.
With lips suctioned shut, Grainne pushed her smile out wide and tucked the broken pink tube into her pocket. “I feel it, too,” she said through her lips and Alyssa whooped.
On the exposed beach, gales barreled through an army of tents, nylon and canvas brutally snapping in and out of rigidity. Out past the sleeping bags, the sound of waves was overcome by the winds tearing through the annual Mid-Atlantic Girl Scout Summer Beach Jamboree.
Before dusk, the adults divvied out glow sticks. Intended to buoy the scouts in the approaching darkness, waves of multicolor light swished and ribboned as they marched to and from porta-potties, rolled around giggling in the sand, and thrashed violently throughout the campfire singalong.
Grainne and Alyssa sat on the bench closest to the flames, and although their knees baked, they were proud of their front-row roasting spot. They had no patience for a golden-brown toast around the edges and thrust their skewers into the fire until the marshmallows charred and almost slid off the stick. Alyssa inhaled twelve and Grainne slowly nibbled on one as the pyre assembled by the fire building badge team crumbled to embers.
Once the kids were stuffed, the adults drifted to the outskirts of light to compare tactics of coercing sleep. With the scouts left to lead their own campfire experience, the evening stalled. A few repeat song suggestions sputtered out, a Brownie offered to read an original poem, and the friendship bracelet weavers whipped out their plastic looms. Alyssa and Grainne poked at the embers with their skewers and singed the wide flat stones bordering the pit in the shapes of their initials, hearts, and aliens.
Just as the Brownie mustered enough courage to recite the first line of her acrostic, Tanya, the most terrifying Cadette from Wissahickon, cut through the timid poetry with a high-pitched performative yawn—her back arched, her wrists curling in and stretching out.
“I want to tell a story, but it’s scary,” Tanya said in one long slur on the outbreath, slumping back into her foldout chair.
The other Wissahickon Cadettes lounging on beach towels at Tanya’s feet thumped the sand until the Brownie retreated and Tanya took the stage.
“It gave me bad dreams for months,” the terrifying Cadette warned and stepped closer to the dim ember light.
“We want to hear it,” Grainne said out loud, too quickly, and instantly felt stupid for ever speaking a word in her life. The sprawling Cadettes giggled but Tanya smirked, turned back to her chair, and dragged it closer to the fire.
“We have to be quiet.” Tanya looked over at the adults, now even farther away and punching open a box of wine.
Hushes rippled through the troops. Tanya withdrew a flashlight from the cupholder of her chair and aimed the beam under her chin. The universal sign for incoming fear. On the cold metal bleachers, scouts squirmed in anticipation, their sticky hands clasped together, fortifying against the impending nightmare. Tanya leaned forward.
“One summer night, like tonight, after all the songs had ended, like tonight, a Junior showered, brushed her teeth, and zipped herself inside her tent.”
Grainne squeezed Alyssa’s hand; they were Juniors.
“There was a storm coming and the wind was wild around her. It shook the tent, but the Junior thought she would be safe, so she turned off her lantern and fell asleep. Her tent poles were locked in tight, but she had made a crucial error.”
Whispers erupted; they had all spent the morning futilely daggering stakes in the soft sand. Duffle bags and random heavy objects from trunks were recruited to weigh down the tents after a few tumbled toward the water. All-day, while the scouts played volleyball and built sandcastles, they couldn’t ignore the tents straining and writing beside them.
Tanya cleared her throat, looking suddenly very serious and wise.
“A massive gust rushed in. It lifted the tent from underneath and tossed the Junior into the air.”
She threw up her arms and the scouts all looked up at the satellite dotted sky as if the tent and the Junior could still be up there, spinning.
Tanya tucked the flashlight back under her chin. “She was blown all the way to the ocean and the waves pulled her out. The Junior woke up underwater, tangled up in her tent. She thought she was dreaming and didn’t even try to swim and drowned, asleep.”
With every brush of wind against the small remnants of the fire, the flames rekindled and relaxed. Inhaled and exhaled. The scouts were twitchy. Oceans could be contained by the shoreline; their tents were a football field away from the water. The wind, however, was everywhere and thievish, snatching chocolate wrappers and arts and crafts all night.
While the Junior drowned, the Wissahickon troop leader strolled back with a Dixie cup of wine. “What are you girls talking about?”
Loyal to their terrifying storyteller, the scouts said nothing. Tanya stood and walked to the opposite side of the fire circle, planting herself a few feet from Grainne and Alyssa. Her shaven legs towered above them and, with the flashlight aimed at her chin, they could see light filter up through her mascara clumped eyelashes. Alyssa squeezed Grainne’s hand. They were hypnotized: the straps of Tanya’s pushup bra slipping off her shoulders; the pink Motorola Razr clipped on her hip; the way the tails of her sentences were so deliciously fried.
“Tanya?” the leader asked again.
Tanya flipped her bangs. “One more quick thing.”
The leader folded her arms and Tanya plowed forward to the finale.
“For months, everyone tried to find her body, but they couldn’t. People say they still see her, though, floating between tents in the middle of the night, pulling up stakes, looking for someone to join her.”
A whip of wind struck the embers, sending up sparks like a flare. The scouts gasped. Tanya nodded sagely and clicked off the light. The ghost had spoken.
Before she could take a bow, a hand snatched Tanya’s wrist and tugged her away from the fire circle. However, the troop leader was too late; the gaping expanse around the scouts had already transformed into a sinister playground for stake-snatching ghosts. The rest of the adults wandered back and quickly realized the terrible night before them. Some scouts were energized, tearing around the campfire with their beach towels over their heads, doing howling impressions of the Girl Scout ghost. Some scouts bawled, begged to go home, promising a sleepless night for all adults involved. Alyssa and Grainne were thrilled.
Typically, Girl Scouts were not allowed to die in event sanctioned stories. Mostly silly and with a soothing twist, approved tales were more eye-roll inducing than anything: a dog with a sheet over his head mistaken for a ghoul or a mysterious sound in the woods revealed to be rubber duck. Life didn’t work like that, Tanya’s story reminded them. Endings did not have to be sanitized and undo the fear felt at the beginning. The world was full of real dangers and unknowns. Shallow stakes and ghosts. A Junior could be tossed in the air and just let go. Rather than sending them down existential spirals, the words that dripped from Tanya’s glossy lips comforted Alyssa and Grainne with a sense of something beyond themselves: a boundless world in which they could be and do whatever they wanted.
“Tanya is so cool,” said Grainne with profound reverence, “I wonder if she smokes.”
“Probably.” Alyssa stood in line with the other scouts, now dividing into their respective troops for shower hour.
“Should I ask her for a cigarette?” Grainne chewed on her lip.
“She wouldn’t give us one.” Alyssa reached back and tugged Grainne with her.
“She’s cool,” Grainne reminded Alyssa.
“She probably has a boyfriend,” said Alyssa. A warning.
Grainne shuddered. They both found it highly suspicious that anyone would willingly attach themself to a boy.
When Alyssa was eight, she killed one hundred lightning bugs, mashed up their bodies in a jar, and made a paste of their bioluminescent enzymes. Before it could fade, she dipped her fingers into the mixture and painted it on her arms, stomach, legs, and tongue. With bug carcasses crammed under her fingernails and bare feet pressed into moss, she stood very still and waited for something to happen.
A few moments before the lightning bug massacre everything had been calm, a dark warm night blurred around the edges. Alyssa collected smooth stones and braided grass, avoiding her mother’s dinner party inside. Then, a lightning bug flashed a few inches from her nose, and she felt three emotions in quick succession: first, jealous of the insect’s glow; then, anger at her dullness; and finally, overcome by an unshakeable desire to change.
That desire still simmered as she walked through high damp grass to the back porch. Alyssa, after reading books and watching television shows about extraordinary children, was desperate to claim an extraordinary existence for herself. She yearned to mutate into a beautiful immortal creature, or somehow awaken innate superhuman powers. In the reflection of the sliding glass door, all she saw were splotches of semi-luminescent yellow. She felt exactly the same. Past the glass, ten red-lipped women swung wine glasses on white leather couches while her mother held court over a display of small sparkling bottles on the dining room table. One of the women, hair blown out and eyes ovals of blue shadow, saw Alyssa hovering in the porch light and laughed. Her mother regarded Alyssa coolly through the door, raised a stringy eyebrow, and pointed upstairs, mouthing b – a – t – h. Alyssa tugged open the door with a faintly illuminated hand.
“What is that gunk all over you?” Her mother asked the moment Alyssa stepped into the air conditioning.
The ladies chuckled and sipped.
“Nothing,” Alyssa said, walked through the dining room, and trudged up the stairs. At the top, she heard her mother apologize for the interruption. The ladies reassured her that everything was fine. Kids would be kids.
A voice that Alyssa knew belonged to the blue oval eyed woman offered some wisdom to the group. Raspy and blunt. “They warn you about boys, but it’s really the girls isn’t it? Complicated little bitches.”
The ladies grunted and sipped.
Her mother sighed and launched back into her script. She had a talent for delivering persuasive speeches about the powerful radiance in women’s pregnancies, marriages, and the face creams she shilled out at her monthly dinner parties. Alyssa’s medicine cabinet was packed full of serums and balms leftover from gatherings or damaged in shipping from the plant in Cincinnati. Taped to the inside of the medicine cabinet, her mother wrote out her recommended routine, seven steps in the morning and seven at night. This was her mother’s offer of transformation. Beauty. Alyssa tried to tell her that she had entirely missed the point, but her mother had blinders on when it came to her opinion.
The goop felt heavy and stiff on her face, and the potpourri stench of the lotions made her head spin. And as far as Alyssa could tell from the caked-on faces of the red-lipped ladies downstairs, her mother’s magical lotions weren’t doing much to help them either.
The night before the lightning bug massacre, Alyssa told her mother that the creams weren’t working. Her mother balked, scanned Alyssa slowly from head to toe, and flippantly surrendered all hope. Some people just have that glow, she said with the same vagueness she imbued in her sales pitches. Alyssa watched her mother lower two fingers into a shallow lapis blue jar, excavate a dollop of yellowish salve, and bless the t-zone of her face with a healthy slather. The cruel unsaid second half of the sentence hung there for her to take: and others do not.
No matter how hard Alyssa pressed the lightning bugs into her pores, and although she truly radiated for a few moments, it faded completely by the time she reached the bathroom. In the tub, she furiously scrubbed the dull smelly residue off her skin. She scrubbed until she scratched. When her nails drew blood, she stopped, horrified. Dripping wet, she blotted the bloody scratches with toilet paper. In the mirror, she saw an angry read paper-mache statue. The only remnant of the lightning bug paint a soft sting on the tip of her tongue.
Under the boardwalk, the glow stick imprinted an acidic sting in her mouth, almost like the ink from the gel pen she licked during recess but sharper and buzzier. Not as scratchy as the aftertaste of the red foam finger in her grandfather’s closet or the aquamarine shag carpet in the basement. It wasn’t dry like shoelaces, sleeves of t-shirts, and the fur on her stuffed Barney doll.
After the lightning bug massacre, Alyssa became hungry. Victim to waves of insatiable cravings. It was like an invisible pressure accumulated at her center until, without warning, the world rattled, her stomach growled, and she devoured a whole cardboard box. In that moment, with cardboard melting in her mouth, the box tasted delicious, like it could fill her up. The hunger presented a false horizon, one that promised her if the box was consumed, she would surely reach the other side. What she hoped was there: satisfaction, another state of being where she didn’t feel this way.
The doctor, only mildly concerned, decided Alyssa was deficient and prescribed a handful of vitamins to mash up in breakfast smoothies. Alyssa’s cravings were not unusual for young children, the doctor assured her mother. It would all be easily fixed with a new diet and time.
But even with a balanced diet, the devouring continued, worsened even, and so the doctor referred Alyssa to a kind woman in a small room with two brown overstuffed couches. Every other week, Alyssa would sink into the seam between two cushions and watch the kind woman watch her from the opposite couch. They spoke quietly about school, the weather, her mother, and everything but the hunger. Over time, in the negative space, the hunger became defined and understood. Though giving it a name, a code on the upper right-hand corner of her chart only scattered the feeling into new corners of her body, new symptoms.
Her mother was pleased that the bizarre binges had stopped and cheerfully proposed an end to the appointments. It was an artificial ending. She couldn’t pay the rate. The cosmetic pyramid scheme behind her dinner parties collapsed and she was stuck with three thousand dollars of worthless product in the garage. Only the blue oval eyed woman showed up to for dinner, and that was to have sex with her mother more than save her from financial ruin. She knew about the sex because her mother told her that’s what she was doing whenever she locked her bedroom door and left a frozen pizza defrosting on the counter.
At the end of the farewell appointment, a week before the Mid Atlantic Summer Beach Jamboree, the kind woman sent a scattered Alyssa out into the world with as much glue as she could give her: a book on mindful meditation, a fidget toy, and her phone number in case Alyssa ever needed to talk.
Only five days unmoored from the kind woman and Alyssa was already depressed and panicky when she arrived at the Jamboree. She longed to go back to the singular focus of the hunger, when the world boiled down to one objective. That is why once the glow stick was in Alyssa’s palm, it was inevitable for her to drink it. The hunger effortlessly swept back in and brought with it a new beautiful horizon: once Alyssa sipped the green glow stick everything within her would surely come together. She would become full, strong, above everything. Ok.
All Grainne wanted was to smoke one cigarette. At the start of fifth grade, she wrote a list of Cool Girl Things To Do Before Middle School. She wrote the list with the noblest intentions— she didn’t want to lie to the popular girls when she bragged about kissing boys, tasting vodka, skipping school, or smoking a cigarette. There was only one task left to complete when she arrived at the Jamboree with Alyssa and their troop. Unfortunately, up to this point, attempting the list had been a mostly disappointing and unsettling experience. Her first kiss wasn’t even a choice, a drive-by hit in the middle of capture the flag at her coed day camp earlier in the summer. Out of nowhere, blond Peter ran straight at her, crashed his head against hers, and bolted. The force of the kiss knocked her over. For the rest of the day, her friends moved with Grainne from activity to activity, arms linked in a chain, on alert. The next morning, the skin around her lips was mottled in a blue-purple bruise.
“What in the world happened, Granola?” her mother asked. She cupped Grainne’s face and pressed in her cheeks. Grainne melted into tears and wrapped her arms around her mother’s middle. A blubbering retelling of the kiss fell out.
“I’m so sorry, dear.” Her mother lifted her and swayed them for a while.
Grainne rubbed her nose in her mother’s sweater and pulled back once it was decided she could stay home from camp. Bundled in a supremely soft blanket, Grainne spaced out to cartoons with an ice pack pressed on her lips. Her mother worked from home, banging out code for X-Ray machines on the forty-pound desktop computer anchored to their kitchen table.
When the phone rang, her mother reached back for the receiver glued to the wall and ducked behind her monitor. She typed as she talked.
After a few minutes of impassioned muttering, the phone dangled at the end of her mother’s extended arm, her left hand still clacking away on the keyboard.
“It’s your dad.”
Grainne hopped over to the table and took the phone. Her father’s voice blared into the room before she could bring the handset to her ear.
“Hello? Granny? You there? Margaret, put on Granny.”
Grainne groaned, “Don’t call me Granny.”
“Tell me what happened. You didn’t go to camp?”
With more distance from the kiss, she held it together to tell the story again. Only at the very end, when she got to the part when she fell on the grass, hard, did the tears start again.
Her father’s sigh overloaded the handset’s speaker.
“Oh honey,” he said, “he just likes you.”
For a moment, Grainne considered her father’s interpretation of the kiss. She could not reconcile her bruised and throbbing face with any positive feeling of love or liking.
“But it hurt.”
“It’s a crush. That’s what boys do.”
“I guess.” She could hear his eyes following someone else in the room.
“Doesn’t it feel good to know someone likes you? You’re an absolute gem, Gran.”
Grainne twisted the phone cord around her finger. “Mom says that I have to go.”
“Oh. Hand me back,” he said. “And Grainne?”
He rolled the r like her grandma used to. She heard his eyes come back to her. His attention always made her feel fuzzy and taken care of.
“Any boy is lucky to kiss you. You know that right? I love you.”
He smacked his lips.
“Love you.” Grainne placed the phone next to the mousepad and hopped back to the couch and her ice pack.
The kiss was a confusing catalyst. After it, girls she barely knew instantly claimed friendship and glommed onto her for kissing wisdom. They copied her rolled-up short shorts and tied their hair back in the same unoriginal braids. Boys hovered around her, dropping their sweaty baseball caps on her head. It made her nervous. She was not equipped to handle the power the kiss brought her, and she couldn’t wipe away the phantom slam of blond Peter’s lips against hers. She wanted to tell everyone she would never kiss again, but her world had already rearranged in relation to lips.
When Grainne told Alyssa about the list and the kiss at the start of the campfire, the world righted.
“I don’t get it.” Alyssa scrunched up her nose and tugged at her new Wildwood sweatshirt. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” Grainne responded, relieved.
While the bonfire still raged, Alyssa held up her glow stick. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, they would sneak out behind the bathrooms and walk all the way to the boardwalk. Under there, they would drink the glow sticks and smoke a cigarette.
Grainne understood the cigarette element of the plan, it was her mission, but was wary of the glow sticks. Her pink tube still lay dormant in her pocket, waiting to be activated.
After she asked Alyssa why they were going to drink glowsticks, Alyssa hummed. Bodies clamoring for the chocolate to melt on s’mores formed a barrier around their plotting.
“So we can transform,” Alyssa said, after a moment.
“Oh,” said Grainne, “How does it work?”
“It just does,” Alyssa said firmly.
Grainne nodded. She had come to understand that some things were just true, like God, vegetables, and chores. Perhaps, she thought, this was one of those things.
After popping a raw marshmallow into her mouth, Alyssa asked through puffy cheeks, “Why do you want to smoke a cigarette?”
“Just because,” Grainne said proudly, with the same impenetrable logic.
Alyssa raised her pinkie between them. “Let’s swear on it, then.”
Bound by the precarious friendship of obligatory after school activities, the two found the right amount of anarchy in each other and clasped fingers, setting their fate.
Alyssa lifted her shirt and observed the alchemy of acid and hydrogen peroxide roiling behind her stomach, like a lava lamp behind a curtain. “Look, I’m transforming.”
“Yes, you are,” Grainne’s eyes were on the ground as she kicked around soggy taffy boxes and greasy wax paper.
“Let me see your stomach,” insisted Alyssa. Grainne huffed, flipped up her purple tank top, and let it fall right back down.
“You didn’t even give me a chance to look!”
“I’m tired, I don’t think it’s working, and I want to smoke a cigarette.” Grainne crossed her arms and stomped her foot. The cigarettes she clocked littering the dirt were all too saturated to salvage.
“It’s not my fault you can’t find any.” Alyssa examined her stomach again. The light under her skin was gone, maybe never there. She coughed and a little glow stick came up. Alyssa quickly pushed it back down and blocked the top of her throat with her tongue. Crouched on the ground before her, Grainne picked through dirt and used needles. The glowstick’s revolt intensified within Alyssa. She opened her mouth to warn Grainne, but it was too late. She spewed virescent vomit, a bright stream of light pouring from her mouth.
Grainne squealed, scrambled onto the beach, and dropped to her knees, tossing handfuls of sand at the splotches of luminescent puke stuck to her purple zip-off cargo pants.
“I’m sorry,” Alyssa moaned. The glow stick was not finished with her and she keeled over upchucked again, the color less green and more muddied with bile and deconstructed s’mores.
“I don’t forgive you!” Grainne cried.
Alyssa keeled over onto the sand beside her. “I feel sick.”
“It was your idea.”
In the fetal position, Alyssa watched Grainne roll around in the sand, and asked, “Why aren’t you sick?”
Grainne stilled and Alyssa realized.
The pink glow stick lay there on the sand between, mostly full and still glowing.
“You promised,” Alyssa wailed, her voice not making it far in the wind.
“It’s not safe to eat.” Grainne sat up and scrubbed at her pants with her knuckles.
“Cigarettes literally kill people, Grainne.”
Alyssa rattled statistics from D.A.R.E class while Grainne worked fastidiously to clean off the pants she begged her mom to buy. She bit her lip to concentrate on getting the stain out and tasted something odd. Alyssa moans and chatter faded and she bit down harder on her lower lip. She tasted something different: only herself. The echo of Peter’s collision was gone, burned away by the pink slime that bumped against the outside of her lips when she tipped the vial back for a fake swallow. Eager to confirm her reclaimed lips, Grainne forgot about the vomit stuck to her fingers, touched her mouth, and instantly gagged. Alyssa rolled closer to Grainne and patted her back.
Both nauseous and curled up like little nautiluses on the beach, the weather began to change around them. As if a cap had been screwed on a bottle, the wind flattened. The waves pulled away, low tide. Alyssa could sense it, she rolled over to her back and looked up. This was a moment primed for something else, teeming with the potential energy for change, a horizon. Grainne unfolded and began the long walk back across empty sand to the tents, biting and rolling around her lips. Alyssa looked to the sky. Her empty stomach growled. It rained.