It was me. I pulled the fire alarm. It was in between classes. Afternoon. Most of us had eaten lunch—those beef and cheese raviolis and iceberg lettuce salads. We hadn’t reached that part of the afternoon where all that cheap food makes your head sink toward the desk. We drifted down the hall like debris in a river. I hugged the bank, coasted along beside the lockers. A month ago, that wouldn’t have happened. The debris would have parted. I would have easily coasted the center section of the river. But I’d slowly lightened my shade of lipstick, worn shirts that revealed less cleavage, earrings with smaller hoops. I’d let my hair fall over my face, hiding half my face—or more when I needed it to. I hadn’t lost my friends; they were too good for that. But I had, as I’d hoped, lost the attention of many of those on the outskirts.
That’s how I was able to drift unnoticed to the fire alarm, give it a quick pull—the metal cool, solid. Thick bleeps erupted. The debris caught, spun itself in tight circles, and then jockeyed down the river, sticks slapping and snapping as they spit toward the exit doors. Bodies tossed against mine. Two weeks ago, the apartment building on Finley Street had caught on fire. Fourteen people died. Two students here. I hadn’t thought about that when I’d pulled the alarm; I hadn’t thought about the fire much at all. Now, as I was pushed toward the door, my feet moving only because the people behind me insisted they must, I imagined the folks on the top floors of the apartment building pushing down the stairwells filling with smoke, feeling for the railings, grappling at them as the stairs fell away. A few teachers shouted for order, for us to remember the protocol. Maybe their voices would have counted for more if we’d been tucked in our classrooms when the sirens went off. But now we were a river. The shouts that came to us were tinged with worry—a clear sign this wasn’t a drill, that some corner of our school might be burning away, the fire quickly eating its way to us.
I’m not sure when I stumbled to the floor, the riverbed biting my chin, the debris continuing to churn around me. Someone stepped on my hand, and for the first time in a month I felt like yelling that I was Alexis Holcomb, that I was to be noticed and not ignored. I looked up as the bodies pressed forward, expected a hand—especially a male hand—to reach down and offer to pull me up. I was everything every guy ever wanted. Good at complementing at them. Good at swallowing my hurts. I’d literally done that when I was seven and my guppy died and Dad stood over the toilet saying a prayer. I yanked the guppy out of his hands before he could drop it to the bowl. I swallowed the fish. Because I couldn’t have it traveling the sewer. Because it was my fish and I wouldn’t let Dad determine what happened to it. Its fins pressed against my throat. It shot toward my stomach like a large vitamin. That evening, when Mom wondered if I should see a doctor—if I might contract whatever disease had brought the fish to its end—Dad leaned over the table where I was sitting and said, “The result is the same. You’ll pass the fish, and it’ll still end up in the sewer.” I hugged myself, then retreated to my room, where I traced what I knew of my digestive track from science class, poking around near my belly button, wondering how far the guppy had made it and what she thought of the ride.
The hand that reached toward mine was that of Mr. Switzer, my biology teacher. I cringed. His class was why I’d pulled the alarm. He was over six feet tall and solid. He could stand still as the debris pushed forward. His hand curled around mine, pulled me up. The movement from horizontal to vertical made me aware of a dripping from my chin and before I could distinguish between blood and sweat, he had a handkerchief pressed to my chin. He led my hand to the handkerchief, said, “apply pressure.” Then he guided us through the debris until we poured out the exit doors. The sun made me squint. New leaves unfurled from tree branches. I stumbled, and Mr. Switzer placed a hand on my back to guide me forward. It was then—in the bright sunlight—that the repercussions of being seen with him became clear. Although his size was impressive, his slight lisp and tri-focaled glasses dulled his stature. We looked at him and saw a bumbling middle school nerd in a man’s body.
“Here,” he said, leading me over to picnic table on the outskirts of the parking lot, where the other students teemed, teachers trying to organize them into classes. Mr. Switzer and I sat on the bench. He asked for a peek under the handkerchief, and I gave him one. He quickly pressed my hand back into place. “You’ll need stitches,” he said.
Stitches. The word pinched through me. As if I’d swallowed the fish again, but it moved more slowly this time, its fins prickling my insides. Would they be the same kind of stitches Mom was going to get in a couple of weeks, I wanted to know. Would the material be the same? Would I still have my stitches by the time she got hers?
“Hey, Alexis.” The call came from the parking lot. I glanced over and saw Leo—the closet thing I had to a boyfriend. He jogged toward me. “Hey, what happened?” Then, within two feet of me, he saw the blood. He slowed, stalled. He was center on the school basketball team, but blood dropped him to his knees. “Woah,” he said turning his back to me.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Go back to the parking lot.”
“But you’re bleeding.”
“And if you pass out, you might bleed, too.”
“Mm-kay,” he said. He gave me a last wave and shuffled back toward the parking lot.
“Your hands are shaking,” Mr. Switzer said, managing to get all the words out right. He called for the school nurse.
She must have grabbed her bag before pushing out the school doors. She opened it now, pulled on a pair of gloves. She bent toward me, her eyes hazel, bright. Then recognition of who it was. Me. Alexis. Surprise spread through her face. I swore her ears twitched—I was the one who’d gotten knocked up in the debris. “Let’s give your hand a rest,” she said, as if I were one of those nerds who regularly got trampled in the hall or slammed into lockers. She took over pressure on the handkerchief, said she could tape on some gauze that would help with pressure until one of my parents could get me to urgent care. She failed to say how large the hunk of gauze would be, that the tape would reach from one cheek to the other in order to apply enough pressure. The flow of blood felt more comfortable. Now my skin felt tight, the adhesive a hot burn. The nurse actually set her hand on top of my head. “You’re going to be fine,” she said.
“Of course, I will.” I stood to move away from her, but her hand found my forearm and she guided me back to the bench. I was too dizzy to resist. I felt the stares of everyone in the parking lot on me, on my stumbled steps, the nurse’s hand on my head, the giant strip of medical tape spread from cheek to cheek.
“We couldn’t get through to your dad,” Mr. Switzer said. “Your mom is on her way.”
Dad taught ecology classes at the community college. He left his phone off when in class. Mom coached the softball team. She always had her phone on her. Maybe the team had been in the middle of a workout when the call came. Had she had to run from the field to her office to the car? Had she scuttled around picking up bats and balls? I hoped she hadn’t, that she hadn’t rushed on account of me—that she hadn’t done anything to push too far.
“Hey.” Karen and Lily stood in front of me. I’d missed their movement toward me.
“Hey,” I said, tugging at the collar of my sweater as if could hide the gauze and tape. Talking felt weird, tugged at the tape.
Karen dropped to the bench, scooted her hip against mine. That was Karen. Always there. Always right up in whatever you were going through. At least when she could figure it out. “How ya doing?” she asked.
“Fine.” One word. Easy.
“I’ll stand here,” Lily said. She stood up as tall as she could with that lanky frame of hers, her skinny jeans. “I’ll try to keep others from seeing you. I saw that on tv once. A bunch of football players stood in front of the bench where the kicker was sitting so the tv cameramen couldn’t show him crying after he missed a field goal.”
“I’m not crying,” I said.
“No,” Karen said. “Because you have the most balls of any woman I’ve met.”
“But not so much lately,” Lily said, peering over her shoulder to determine who was looking at us and how good of a job her thin frame was doing of blocking it.
Karen, always the one with more tact, pushed her shoulder against mine. “We’re here, you know.”
“Yep.” But I couldn’t tell anyone. That’s the way Mom wanted it. In a couple of weeks, she would come down with the flu. A bad case of it that would keep her cooped up inside for weeks. Mom had planned it to a T. For me and Dad, she’d printed calendars of the month following her surgery, what we were to say when people called or asked about her. She’d noted the days we were to say she’d be hospitalized, corresponding with her own hospitalization for a different reason. There would be no visitors. Because flu is contagious. And because those who came would notice what had changed and realize it wasn’t the flu. Mom wouldn’t recover from the flu until she could appear in the world with a restructured version of what she’d lost.
“Well, at least we won’t have to dissect the grasshoppers,” Lily said.
I imagined the grasshoppers, the scalpels we’d use to cut them open. The corners of my eyes burned. I didn’t used to mind cutting animals open. In middle school, Mrs. Jerry held up my perfect incisions on a frog for the class, noted how clean and straight the cuts were. I hadn’t nicked a single organ. My grandfather, who lacked a grandson, insisted I go fishing with him, insisted I take part in each part of catching and preparing fish. By nine, I’d learned how to expertly slice open a fish. I was good with a knife. Mom put me to work slicing vegetables for dinner each evening.
But now I cut the vegetables quickly and messily. I couldn’t cut into a grasshopper at all. Nor could I have my friends witness my refusal. Not after my perfect cuts years before.
So, I’d pulled the alarm.
Karen hugged me. “Oh,” she said. “I know. I know you really wanted to dissect the grasshoppers.”
I cried a little into her shoulder.
Inside the car, Mom’s makeup was perfect. She set a hand on my shoulder and took a good look at the tape stretched under my chin. She hadn’t looked at me like that since the time in kindergarten when I’d decided to cut my own hair. “You think they’d use flesh-colored medical tape,” she said. “Something that doesn’t stand out quite so much.” She rubbed the edge of the tape, then pulled her hands away. She clasped them together, and they hovered in front of her breasts like they so often did now. I wasn’t sure if her hands were calculating each ounce of what she was about to lose or if they were holding up a shield.
Mom started up the car. I glanced back to see Leo, Karen, and Lily waving at us. Firemen filed out of the school.
“I heard they think someone pulled the alarm,” Mom said as she steered us out of the parking lot. “What a horrible thing to do after the fire.”
I nodded, clasped my own hands together in my lap.
Mom took the river route to the hospital. I shifted back into my seat, a knot in my back releasing. Clear water coursed over rocks. It wasn’t time for the salmon run yet, but Dad and his students would be there when it came. Pines blocked the view of the river, then the view opened again, the water allowing me to draw in a deep breath of air. We passed a riverside park, picnic tables not so different from the one I’d sat on minutes ago. Signage about the salmon run stood faded from sun and wind. Years ago—just days after I’d swallowed the guppy—Dad drove us down to that park. He opened the trunk and pulled out a salmon that had died in one of his tanks at the college. He’d probably chosen that fish because it was large enough I couldn’t swallow it. The three of us stood at the river’s bank, and Dad said words about how dead fish became food for other fish, for snails, for other animals so small you’d need a microscope to see them. His hand curled into mine, and I understood this was an apology for the guppy. He let me drop the fish. The river gurgled it, then swallowed. After, we sat at a picnic table, eating cupcakes with blue frosting and fish-shaped sprinkles.
Something about the water—the speed at which it raced, its clearness—made me turn to Mom and say, “I pulled the alarm.”
She laughed. It bubbled up out of her in a way I hadn’t heard in weeks.
I didn’t want to say anything more, but I was in the river again, pulsing forward. “I’m serious.”
She rubbed the steering wheel. One hand left it to hover near her chest before returning to the wheel. She glanced over at me, then back at the road. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“But it was me.”
I waited for her to ask why, then it occurred to me that she never would.
“I couldn’t dissect a grasshopper.”
“I never liked dissecting things either.”
“I sliced into the frog in middle school no problem. I got an A+.”
Another clump of pines blocked the river. The tape itched. I resisted the urge to pull at it. The only thing Mom had told me about the surgery was that her breasts would be gone when she woke up. But I’d googled lots more. I knew the incision would be oval-shaped. I knew there’d be stitches, a drainage tube.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“I can’t believe you pulled the alarm. Did anyone else get hurt? We could be liable if they did.”
“I don’t think so.” I hadn’t seen anyone else with an injury, but there were so many of us. What if there’d been someone on the other side of the school? Would someone really sue? We couldn’t afford it. Especially not now. I rolled down my window, gulped in air. The wind slapped at my face and hair, tore at the tape. Mom pressed the button to roll the window back up again.
At the hospital, Mom said, “I’m not going inside.” She gave me the insurance card and set a hand on my knee. “You’re getting older now. You got yourself into this. You can get yourself fixed up. I’ll be here right in this spot when you’re done. Text me if something comes up.” I nodded, pushed myself out of the car.
I made it all the way inside, through the double set of doors and over to the check-in desk. I filled out all the info on the form. I handed the clipboard back to the woman behind the desk. She saw my birthdate and asked if I had a guardian present.
“In the parking lot,” I said, then realized how it sounded. “It’s not like you think. It’s just that I have to do this one on my own.” My voice shook, and I turned away from her.
“Sweetheart,” she said, her voice soft, every syllable different from how Mom would say it.
“Call me when you all are ready,” I said, heading back to a chair. I wilted there. Mom was in the parking lot. Dad was probably still lecturing—maybe about salmon and how after a long journey they just gave up and died. Tears ran into the tape and gauze. I wiped at them until the woman from behind the desk brought over a box of tissues. She let me catch my breath, then she led me to a quiet room where I could wait. The walls were a light blue. I guessed it was a room meant for a child, then I remembered that nurses and doctors considered me a child. I sat in a chair alongside the wall because the woman said I didn’t have to get up on the examining table yet.
She asked me if I wanted to talk. I said no, then when she turned to leave, and I realized I didn’t want to be alone, I said, “My mother’s having a double mastectomy.” It all came out. Mom’s plan to get the flu. The calendar folded into my desk drawer. Our pinky finger swears over dinner one night that we’d never tell. Mom made chicken parmesan because it was my favorite. I hadn’t eaten it since. I was just starting in on the grasshoppers when a doctor entered the room. I looked up at the woman who handed me tissues, listened through my snot and tears. “The last part doesn’t really matter,” I said.
She guided me toward the examining table. “The last part is you getting all stitched up and going back outside to your mom.”
The doctor peeled back the tape and gauze, applied a local anesthetic, then went to stitching me up. Partway through, when it didn’t feel like it hurt enough, I wished I’d ask him not to use the anesthetic. I wanted to feel every last stitch.
In the parking lot, the sun was sinking. Mom reached over and ran a finger along the stitches as if counting each one. “It’ll leave a scar,” she said.
“A turtleneck won’t be able to hide it.”
She started up the car. The river flashed orange and red under the sun. I considered pulling down the mirror in the sun visor, getting a look at the stitches. But I had the river. Mom kept glancing at me and then away. I wondered if, when we reached the park, Mom would think of the guppy like I had.
As she drove, Mom began to tremble. I’d seen her cry before—on senior day for softball, the part of romantic comedies when the couple finally got together, those commercials raising money for impoverished children in foreign countries. But I’d never watched her slowly break open like that, her body shaking, her jaw setting as if its steadiness could calm the rest of her. She seemed she might erupt with tears at any moment, but it took minutes before they came. I touched her shoulder. “Mom.”
She pulled over at the park and stepped out of the car. She jogged over to the river, and I followed her. We stood at the bank, the water coursing, the sound of it reigniting my limbs. I wondered if tomorrow I’d have to dissect a grasshopper.
“When you dissect a grasshopper, you have to pull off each of their legs on one side before you can cut into them,” I said.
Mom looked over at me, her eyes wet. I hated the words I’d chosen. I shifted my feet in the grass. Mom stared out into the river. She wiped her face with her sleeve. “I used to give my Cabbage Patch dolls breasts. I saved the shells from plastic Easter eggs, taped the halves to their chests.”
Rachel Furey teaches at Southern Connecticut State University. She earned her PhD from Texas Tech. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as One Teen Story, The Briar Cliff Review, and Baltimore Review. She is a winner of Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Prize and Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize.