Digging Through a Heart of Stone
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The rain began to come down in torrents just as I pulled into a parking space in the student parking lot. I didn't have an umbrella, so I ran toward the school. I pulled open the door to the building and held it for the girl I recognized. She walked in behind me and shot a flirtatious smile at me as a thank you and greeting. After brushing my now wet, shaggy hair from my eyes, I gave a slight smile in return before I turned to the steps.
"Off to spend time with your lifelong charity case again?"
"What?" I asked with curious shock as I turned back to look at her.
"You're going to the library. That's the only place you can go upstairs before school. You're going to see that nerdy bookworm. The only reason anyone knows she exists is because you spend time with her. You could do so much better as far as friends are concerned."
I didn't respond. I just stepped slowly toward the stairs a couple small paces.
"She's turning you into nothing as well. I'm proof of that. We used to be friends in middle school, and now you don't even seem to remember me," she said softly to me before she turned toward the hallway that led toward the adjacent building and the cafeteria.
For a moment, I watched her retreat toward the cafeteria. She had been one of my friends in middle school. I think her name was Vivian. I remembered this now that she said something.
I continued up the short flight of stairs toward the library considering what Vivian had said. It was true, I suppose. I was the only one who spent any time with her. It had been that way since middle school when she first moved that to our district. I remember clearly that she had seemed so fragile; it was almost compelling that I looked after her and made sure she knew her way around the school and town. No one accepted her. I'd never put much thought into it, but I suppose it was because she was much smarter than everyone else and had a captivating yet intimidating appearance; it must have been jealousy or fear of the unconventional. Since the others had avoided her like she had brought the plague with her, she made no effort to force herself where she knew she was not wanted. I had become her only friend. I had always enjoyed her company; she was humble, eccentric, intelligent, and kind. I'd rarely put much thought into what I had sacrificed in befriending her. Others still avoided her at all costs though, and they avoided me when I was with her. Perhaps I would be happier if I found new friends.
While contemplating this, my chest panged then tightened slightly. I found this odd, but disregarded it as I walked through the doors to the library. I nodded to Mrs. Spencly when I passed her on my way to the reading corner filled with couches and chairs. Sitting deep in the corner was a girl with waves so dark brown they were almost black. She had her legs pulled around beside her in a way that made the legs of her jeans twist up just enough to show socks with neon stripes above her Chucks. Her shirt was abstractly colored with blues, greens, and grays. Her delicate frame made her look rather fragile - like she needed protection from the world. Her face had strength to it though it was gentle. She looked up as I came closer, and her eyes shocked me just as they always did. They were like an ocean.
"Good morning, Brayden," she said in her soft voice while she placed a book mark in between the pages of the book she had been reading.
"Morning Jillian," I returned as I set my bag down next to hers; the tightness in my chest seemed to make my heart and lungs spasm.
"You're rather wet."
"Really? I had no idea."
She straightened her legs out so I'd have room before leaning forward and placing her book on top of her bag. I read the title.
"Crime and Punishment again?"
"I love this book," she said as she brushed her hair from her eyes with her tiny hand.
"You're an idiot," I said almost harshly. My chest clinched again as though I was flinching away from something.
"Is everything okay?" she asked with a voice as confused as her eyes.
"Of course. You're the one who's reading that ridiculous book again. Why do you do things like that?"
"Because I like the story. Why does it matter?"
"I'm not sure," I said after a pause.
"What did you put on your Cheerios this morning?" she asked with a light laugh.
"I didn't have time to eat this morning."
"Well that's your problem then. Let's get you something to eat," she said teasingly as she stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder.
"I only have enough money left in my account for lunch."
"I'll buy something for you. It's not as though you've never helped me out before."
I put my bag back over my shoulder, but I didn't take Jillian's bag like I normally did.
"See you later, Mrs. Spencly," Jillian said over her shoulder as she held the door for me to follow.
After waiting in a short line, Jillian handed a couple dollar bills to the lunch lady while I took a napkin and put it on my plate next to the muffin and fruit.
I looked around the cafeteria to see who had called me. My search ended when I saw David waving at me to come to his table. Jillian and I walked over to them.
"Hey Brayden. Want to eat with us?" David asked gesturing to the only open seat left at the table and shooting an unwelcoming glance at Jillian.
I set my food down and pushed my bag under the chair with my foot.
"Did you go to the volleyball game last night?" James asked me from across the table.
"Bye Brayden," came a soft call that I barely registered.
"No. My aunt and uncle came over for dinner last night. How they do?"
"They killed the other team! It was great!"
"The only reason you care is because you like their uniforms, Matt," James said to him.
"Who did we play?" I asked.
"North Fayetteville," Matt answered.
"Oh. Where are you going to go, Jillian?"
"I'll go to the art room and get started on that charcoal piece I've been working on."
I barely saw the shine leave her eyes before she turned away. I coughed a couple of times as my chest suddenly tightened again. When my breathing calmed, I put a piece of fruit in my mouth while the guys finished running me through all of the good plays from the volleyball game.
"See you guys later," I said before taking my bag from under my chair.
I received nods from the others and then headed toward the trash cans at the front of the cafeteria.
After walking into my first block European Literature classroom, my knee stiffened and locked up causing me to trip and fall into my desk. My teacher and the other few students in the room looked up at me. I tried to ignore then and worked to bend my knee so I could pick up my books. I managed to place everything on my desk and sit before the majority of the class came into the room.
Mr. Browning walked to the front of the room and started a discussion on the middle section of The Metamorphosis. I tuned out shortly after the discussion led to an analysis of the behavior of Gregor's father because I found the novella rather unappealing. Instead, I thought more about Jillian. What was it about her? Yes, I knew her better than anyone else, but why did I stick with her? I enjoyed spending time with other people. Eating with the guys from chemistry this morning was a nice change. It was odd that I spent all of my time with her, and I would very much like to be around other people, but, at the same time, the birth of our friendship and times we'd shared since were some of the clearer things in my memory, not the memories from before we met and I had other friends.
She's sitting alone? I would have thought someone would have sat with her even if it were only to be polite.
"Hello. Are you finding your classes alright?" I asked before sitting at the table the new girl had chosen in the corner under the window.
"Yes. Thank you. You said your name was Brayden, right?" she said politely but with a look of guarded curiosity.
I wonder what that look was for. She seems surprised that I sat here. Blah! Be polite. Talk back.
"Yes. What are you reading?"
"Crime and Punishment. It's one of my favorites."
"Really? That sort of thing has never been my favorite. I prefer science fiction, especially Ray Bradbury."
I'm talking about books with her? Wow! I probably would have been better off with the weather.
"Hmmm. He's never been one of my favorites. Turning one of my favorite animals into a mechanical, morphine-injecting thing and having a plot about the destruction of books made him somewhat evil in my eyes."
She's actually read Ray Bradbury. That's interesting, especially since she obviously doesn't like him. And I don't think she's talking about this just to be polite. I think she's actually interested in talking about books. I wish there were people here like that.
"That's understandable," I said with a laugh. "Is it only Fahrenheit 451 that you dislike or his other stuff too?"
"I don't care for any of his stuff. I don't know how to explain why, but it reminds me of Star Trek, which I also despise."
"You don't like Star Trek either? Do you like anything from the genre?"
"I like Star Wars. Does that count?"
"Absolutely." I said, but after thinking about it, I added. "Well, if it's for a good reason."
"What constitutes a good reason?" she asked with a captivating laugh that reminded me of bells.
"You're not allowed to like it simply because you think one of the actors looks good."
"Oh! Don't worry then! It's definitely not that. I love the music, and I really like the Ewoks."
She likes instrumentals too? I can't believe no one else is sitting with her. She's so interesting. It's like talking to a nerd, musician, and the best friend you could ever have all rolled into one person.
"You like John Williams?"
"Mmhmmm. I certainly do."
"What else do you listen to?"
"I listen to pretty much anything so long as it isn't country or rap because that's not music. It's just vile," she said with her bell-like laugh breaking through again. "I normally listen to rock though."
Wow! Her taste in music is perfect.
"You have no idea how much I wish that more girls had that opinion." I said before picking up the orange that was on my lunch tray.
"You're much kinder than everyone else," she said suddenly with an odd conviction that caught me off guard.
"What do you mean?" I asked unsure of how else to respond.
"You're the first person who has talked to me in order to get to know me rather than simply making sure I wasn't lost. It's a nice change to have a good person as company."
"How do you know that I'm a good person? You barely know me." I asked taken aback by her statement and the fact that she was boring through me with her eyes.
"I've always been good at reading people." she said before adding with a teasing smile that lightened the air. "Do you think I'm wrong?"
I started and glanced up at the clock. After glaring at me, Mr. Browning picked his book back up from the table and shifted his discussion toward the changes in Gregor's sister. I switched to listening to some of my favorite songs in my head. First Seize the Day by Avenged Sevenfold and then Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen which was followed by Bush's The Chemicals Between Us. After those were finished the guitar riff from Collective Soul's Where the River Flows rang in my head.
Once the bell finally rang I trudged to my computer imaging class. I took a seat at my assigned computer.
"Do you want some lotion, Brayden?"
I looked questioningly at Bridgette, who had just sat down next to me.
"Your hands are all cracked and scaly looking."
I looked down. My skin did look a bit like the dirt in the flower pots in which my mother was attempting to grow African violets.
"Sure. So long as it isn't scented lotion."
"Nope. I'm allergic to most of the scented ones. It's just plain old Curell."
I spent the class working on the photo collage project we'd just been assigned at the start of the week. It was not going so well though. I was having trouble working the mouse for some reason. I finally managed to place three of the seven photographs I wanted to use inside of each other when the bell rang for lunch. I clicked save, logged off the computer, went to my locker, and literally dropped my books there because I couldn't set them down for some reason. Then, I headed toward the cafeteria.
I looked down with little enthusiasm when the lunch lady put a blob off casserole-esque something on my tray. I quickly took a bowls of salad, corn, and fruit to compensate for the lack of appeal of the stuff.
5-3-0-9. I pushed the keypad at the end of the line to charge my account before walking into the lunch room. Jillian was sitting alone at the table in the corner under the window. I weaved through the tables avoiding food spills and set my tray down next to the bag she'd brought her own lunch in.
I didn't respond. I just looked at her bag of food. She had a peanut butter, Nutella, and banana slice sandwich.
"Why do you eat the same thing every day?"
"Because I like this, and I actually know what I'm eating. Do you know what is in that blob of stuff on your tray?"
"School food. Why don't you ever sit with anyone else?"
"Because it wouldn't make a difference. If I tried sitting somewhere else, I would either be told to leave or everyone would just go to a different table. Why are you asking this stuff?"
"Have you ever wondered what it is that's wrong with you that keeps everyone away from you?"
"What? What you mean what's wrong with me?"
"You don't find it odd that no one can stand to be near you?"
"You are a good friend. That's plenty for me."
"But I hate this! I liked having friends. I liked being part of a group of people. Being with you is like being a walking disease. No one wants anything to do with me, and it's because of you!"
My words just kept flowing out. I didn't understand them, and I couldn't stop them.
"You don't have to look at me like I'm betraying you. You should have expected this. You are nobody, Jillian. You are agreeable enough that you can get along with everyone when necessary, but you're all alone. You always will be."
Feeling stiff, I picked up my bag and left her sitting there at the lunch table. I didn't look back at her. I knew what I'd find if I did. Her eyes would have flooded with tears. Her bottom lip would be trembling, and she would bite it to try to keep it from continuing to do so. She hated to show weakness; she was like a puppy who thinks it's a wolf. She would have pulled her knees to her chest as much as the table would have permitted and wrapped her fingers in her shoe laces. I didn't care. I had spent the past four years beside her, and I, though I couldn't explain it to myself, wanted nothing to do with her anymore.
I didn't make it out of the cafeteria though. My chest seized again, far harder than it ever had before. People around me looked up as I raked in gasp after shallow gasp. I tried to move my hands to my chest, but they wouldn't move. I heard people scream when I fell over.
"Brayden, what's wrong?"
Jillian's blurry figure hovered over me and then faded to black.
"His vitals are all stable, doctor."
"Okay. That should wrap things up for now then. He can have visitors now."
"But what is wrong with him? Is that safe?"
"The results just came back from the lab. Whatever it is that's wrong with him isn't contagious; it's completely isolated to him. In fact, it doesn't even seem to be living."
"How very strange! Where are the result reports? I'd like to read them. At least, that will make the girl happy. Being able to see him, I mean. She's only left the door to his room to go to the bathroom. His parents have been bringing food for her."
I heard footsteps. Two sets of them left where ever I was; I heard a door shut. Shortly after, the door opened again. I heard more footsteps and felt the surface of what I was laying on dip down slightly. I opened my eyes; it was incredibly difficult though. I saw her sitting on the edge of my bed. The lights were so bright that they blurred her features, but I could still see that the angel was crying. I stared for a while, and my vision eventually cleared.
"Are you okay?" Jillian asked.
"What are you doing here? Go away," I said; my words were slow though. It was as though my lips were turning to stone.
"What's wrong with your skin?"
With difficulty, I turned my head to look down at my arm, but it didn't look like my arm. My scar from my skateboarding accident that should have been on my forearm wasn't there. I looked as though I'd been covered in something. My arm looked more like part of a terracotta soldier than a part of me.
"Leave," I said as I looked back at Jillian.
With difficulty, I shoved her from my bed. My incompetence was enough though since she was too small to be strong enough to prevent my action.
"What's happened to you?" she whispered regained her balance.
"Nothing has changed. I've just stopped lying to myself," I said while another shudder shot through my body. It was like I was trying to move but was restrained in concrete.
She turned and left, and I went to sleep because I didn't want to think of her. I buried the side of me that had once cared for her even deeper. I didn't want it anymore.
I woke up some hours later. My parents were standing by my bed.
"How are you feeling, Son?" my father asked.
"Stiff and it's hard to breathe. What did the doctor say?"
"They…they…" my mom's sentence choked off and she buried her face in Dad's shoulder.
"They're still working on everything, Brayden."
"What does that mean?"
"Do you want Jillian to come back? The nurse forced her down to the lunch hall to make her eat, but I expect she'll be done shortly."
"I don't want to see her."
My chest froze again and set my lungs burning. Dad slammed the button by my bed, and as everything faded again, I heard footsteps hurrying toward my room.
"Good morning, Brayden. Can you hear me?"
I opened my eyes with what seemed like the energy needed to lift landscaping stones. I felt like there was no life left in me. A part of me knew that this disease would kill me. Whatever it was that was turning my body and heart to stone was going to kill me.
Jillian walked to the edge of my bed and sat there; she entwined her fingers through my own lifeless ones. I couldn't feel her. I know that her hand should have felt ever so slightly cool and very soft; it always had in the past.
"Where are you?" she whispered; the anguish she had obviously been suppressing whether on the doctor's orders or for my sake burst through in her words.
Her words were like a shock to my mind. I felt my heart breaking as I tried to move my lips, but they had hardened and couldn't be persuaded to move. My head swam with confusion. The words that had reduced her to this state blurred through my head. What had I done? Why? I wanted to comfort her. To tell her that everything would be okay once I was finally gone --once this fight finally claimed me --but no sound came from me.
Jillian suddenly pulled my hand up toward her. It felt strange for my arm didn't want to move. I could see her straining to hold my arm in place; my little angel was fighting to do this though I didn't know why. I watched her examine my skin. My skin which had completely repulsed her and set fear in her eyes yesterday. She ran her fingernails along my forearm. Small clumps of what looked like hardened clay fell onto my bed. The strangest sensation I'd ever felt raced along the scratch in the surface of my skin. It spread out from the miniature trenches she'd left leaving a tingling feeling that settled into my bones. I could feel this! It was exquisite. My eyes darted to her face, but she was looking at my arm. Following her gaze, I could see something where her nails had just traced. It was a jagged scar; skin was visible around it --my skin. Jillian's eyes darted to mine and then back to the lines of my skin that showed underneath. She started tearing away my shell impatiently and expectantly. More and more of my skin was beginning to show. My arms were soon free of their bonds. Jillian pulled back the sheets of my bed and scratched the stony stuff from my neck now.
"Jillian, what are you doing?"
My parents had come to see me again.
"This stuff comes off, Mrs. Runnt."
Both of my parents were tearing at my skin within seconds.
"What are you doing differently, Jillian? It's not coming off," Mr. Runnt said.
"No! It has to come off!" Mrs. Runnt said in panic.
"What is going on here?!"
Jillian, Mom, and Dad snapped their heads around to the doorway where my startled nurse stood gaping for a moment before she started to rush across the room to my bed. Jillian turned back and locked her eyes with mine; their intensity brought tears to mine. She pulled her hands down my face with a rapid fluidity. I gasped. This was echoed by my nurse; she had just reached my bed.
"Get away from him!" she said grabbing Jillian around the waist and shoved her into the chair a few feet from my bed.
"No!" I rasped; it felt as though I hadn't spoken in years.
"What is it, Brayden?" my father asked.
"Don't take her away from me," I forced myself to say through my gasping.
My mother pushed passed the nurse and pulled Jillian back toward me.
I tried reaching for her hand, but my arm trembled far too much to accomplish anything. She saw this and mercifully took my hand again.
"Try stretching," she said as she brushed more of the scales from my face so they wouldn't get in my eyes.
I did, though it took what seemed to be an excessive amount of energy. More of the scaly substance fell from my skin. My parents both backed away with unsure expressions that were mingled with concern.
"I'm going to get Dr. Hattfield," said my nurse as she rushed from my room.
As I kept twisting inside of my suit, each movement took less and less to be accomplished. Jillian watched me with her piercingly clear eyes while a smile toyed with her lips. We both turned when we heard footsteps hastening down the hall. Jillian's focus remained on the door as my nurse and doctor bustled into the room and then stopped short with their mouths hanging open, but I looked back at her and sat up. She turned back to face me when she felt my weight shift on the bed. I saw her smile of relief and joy as I leaned forward and embraced her. She wrapped her arms around me gently.
"Thank you for bringing me back," I whispered through her dark waves into her ear.
"I knew you were in there somewhere. I just had to dig you out from under what was covering the better part of you."
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