Mary told Charlie she could only come to the stream if she stopped worrying for the afternoon. Charlie agreed. As they drove Charlie leaned her head on the window and scrolled through her phone. “I think I would’ve been sick by now,” she said.
But Charlie had decided not to hold up her end of the bargain. “Maybe I already am sick and I just suppressed it.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Are you a doctor now?”
“No, I just know you can’t do that.”
Charlie returned to her phone, and Mary pulled onto the dirt access road at the edge of the woods. From the car she unloaded her rain boots, a shovel, the trowel her father kept in the shed, a tin for specimens. Charlie carried the tin and her phone and lagged behind. “I don’t know what you’re expecting to find,” she said. “If anything was actually here this place would be swarmed. There would be helicopters. Which there aren’t. It’s empty. I lost my virginity here.”
Mary’s hair was unfurling from its ponytail. She brushed it off her forehead and shifted the shovel in her other arm. This was her stream, the one place to which she had staked a claim. Now she couldn’t spend five minutes here without being reminded of Charlie’s erstwhile virginity.
“I’m just going to sit here,” said Charlie, arranging herself on one of the slabs of rock that presided over the laconic water. “You tell me if you see anything.”
“OK,” said Mary. She was not at all sure she would see anything, and then she would have to come back to Charlie empty-handed.
What Mary was looking for were the fossils ostensibly encrusted in the familiar stream bank—specifically, the fossils of ammonites, an order of spiral-shelled marine mollusks that went extinct with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. All of New Jersey, its oil drums and farms and strip malls and bending highways and the stream Mary stood in, was at the time underwater, part of a vast continental shelf through which the ammonites propelled themselves backward like octopi and accrued, with their durable shells, into a detailed fossil record that later helped prove to inquiring scientists that the Cretaceous extinction had in fact been effected by asteroid. Mary had read about it in a magazine and said to Charlie, “Monmouth County! That’s us. Our streams.” Recently she’d been nominated to represent the high school at the county science fair, whose winners would go on to compete at the state level. She envisioned a demonstration of the area’s geological relevance, with examples from this stream where she’d learned to fish.
It was a vision she’d unwisely shared with Charlie, who did not manifest much enthusiasm. She thought, and often managed to intimate, that Mary liked science so much because she never had much going on in her personal life. Mary sometimes thought so too.
Now Charlie was half-heartedly paging through a book she’d brought, having come to an unpleasant apex of her own personal life–that is, having missed two periods and waiting to see about the third–while Mary, whose virginity was intact and periods regular, tried to do science. Mary loved extinctions, especially the dramatic Cretaceous, which had eaten the dinosaurs but whose mysteries were contained in the remains of a humble and competent invertebrate. The stream was low after a hot summer, the banks climbing around it like a trough, and Mary tested the soil at the water level with her finger. Faint highway noise filtered through the thin barrier of forested land surrounding the stream; half a mile away was the ice cream parlor and the salon where her mother got manicures on special occasions. The soil under her hand was probably the iridium layer, the compact remnant of asteroid ash that had once choked the planet. In the lively dirt above worms tunneled, unaware that the world existed for anyone but them. Below were the ammonites, buried by an apocalypse of which they never could have conceived. It was pitiable. Mary had thought she’d immediately distinguish the different soil strata but that seemed childish now.
Charlie’s phone rang. “It’s Eric,” she fretted. “I can’t talk to him, not now.”
“Then don’t.” Mary slapped a mosquito off her arm.
Eric was how Mary learned the word barrel-chested; his rib cage pushed sharply against the skin because he could never put on the flesh his big skeleton so clearly wanted. He ran cross-country in the fall with Charlie, was very good, like Charlie. Mary had wanted Eric very badly and thought she could have him. “I can see it,” said Charlie encouragingly. Last summer they’d all driven to one of the free summer concerts in the city, Eric and Mary and Charlie and the others. She and Eric were separated in the press of people and she watched the entire show leaning on him for support against the tipsy crowd. When she couldn’t see the stage he considerately lifted her onto his shoulders. Looking over other people’s heads she saw Charlie jumping up and down in the front but declined to mention it, just rested one hand in Eric’s lank hair and let the too-loud guitar fill her ears. On the way home Charlie leeringly accused them of sneaking off together.
But in the end it was Charlie with whom he wanted to go to the movies. “I know you had a crush on him,” she said to Mary, already using the past tense, “but do you really mind? I mean, I feel like one of us should have him.” Mary, who had been Charlie’s best friend for many years, knew this was a notification, not a request for permission. She said she didn’t mind and Charlie, satisfied with this wooden response, put all crushes out of her head.
“If I’m pregnant,” she said, “then I’m already three months pregnant. Do you realize that? I’ve been, like, carting this thing around to class.”
“Then I don’t see why you weren’t worried about this two months ago.”
“It was cross-country season! I never get my period during cross-country. I just figured it’d come after practice stopped like usual, and then it didn’t.”
Mary chiseled out a sliver of the soil, long from top to bottom the way she’d read scientists took samples. She was confident that, were such a situation even possible for her, she would handle things much better than this. She would never have let it go three months without thinking to check.
“Maybe I should just do a test today,” said Charlie.
“You won’t be sure unless you wait until you actually miss it.”
“Ugh.” Charlie lolled onto her back, long and pale against the rock, observing the industry with which Mary tossed fragments onto the bank. They all looked like rocks to her. She prodded her belly. It seemed impossible that she could be harboring anything extra there; in her runner’s body, which was purely linear, no curves even around her tiny breasts. There was no room for anything but Charlie.
“Let’s just do it today.”
Mary wanted to make her wait. They had spent a lot of time lately on Web MD and it was almost fun to watch Charlie click earnestly through those articles, with their bad grammar and the links to grotesque slideshows of skin conditions. But she just said, “Fine, Charlene.”
“Don’t fucking call me Charlene.”
Charlie lay on the rock and thought about sex. It had felt like she was really seizing control of things, and this was one of her favorite feelings. She told Eric they had to wait three months to have sex, and when the months elapsed she reminded him. She chose the little grove by the stream Mary had shown her, which seemed romantic. They’d come to the woods all summer and into the fall until there were goosebumps on Charlie’s bare shoulders. She liked sex a lot. She liked lying out there in the grass while the frogs ground out what Mary said were their own mating calls. She liked being there next to the fossils that were supposedly in the stream; she imagined she felt the way Mary did when she chiseled them out and held them in her hand: welcomed into a broader world than the one she lived in every day. She felt affectionate towards her body, part of it, initiated into all its capabilities. But now something was going on in her body, her own body, and she could only guess at the state of things. She looked at her hands, her ankles, and no longer felt a part of that body. It was her vehicle, meant to house and protect her, but instead it was making itself hospitable to something else, without her consent.
* * *
Charlie was ten when her mother explained to her briskly the many changes she could expect, one day, to occur in her body. “I have a secret,” she said the next day to Mary, over whom she already exercised much tyranny. She enjoyed the horror she could inspire by liberally embellishing her mother’s clinical description.
“How much blood?” Mary asked.
“Like, a bucket,” said Charlie, hand on small hip. Later they found a encyclopedia at the library and confirmed that what seemed like a gross impossibility was, in fact, a documented reality. Mary was scared, she thought it would hurt. “Maybe it just won’t happen to us,” Charlie said.
Mary was eleven the first time it happened, still sharing a bunk bed with her brother. Joey shook her awake that morning to tell her she was bleeding. She was already telling him to shut up when she realized that the pajamas she’d gotten for her birthday were sticky. So were the sheets underneath her. She thought of Charlie’s buckets of blood.
“Are you going to die?” asked Joey, grinning through his missing teeth.
Her mother arrived and pushed Mary into the bathroom. “Poor thing, I thought you’d have another year or two before this,” she said wearily. “I guess you’re really grown up now.” She popped off Mary’s pants and took a box of pads from the cabinet. “Do you want me to show you how to use these?”
“No,” said Mary. With her pants limp in the corner, she didn’t feel grown-up at all. The blood left a many-fingered stain on the sheet which, although her mother scrubbed it vigorously, could be faintly made out for a long time after.
* * *
Mary climbed up the bank to Charlie, who watched skeptically as she shifted through the most promising finds. In the high light of the bank, two of them were clearly nothing at all. She threw them back in the water. She wasn’t sure about about the others; she would clean them off at home and see.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe something.”
Charlie turned them over and over in her hands with interest but then dropped them, let them clang against the tin like they were nothing. Mary packed up their things and they walked back up the access road to the car. She knew the names of almost all the plants they brushed aside, the birds that flickered in the corner of her eye.
In her first heady weeks of having a boyfriend, Charlie stopped answering her phone and Mary, realizing how little she had to do in her absence, took her guidebooks to the woods and stumbled through the paths, forcing herself to learn what was what: beech tree, red-bellied woodpecker, common black ground beetle. It was her one satisfaction to say confidently, “A scientist,” when people asked what she wanted to be, while next to her Charlie murmured, “Oh, who knows, I guess a teacher.” When Charlie was saturated she came back, demanded to know what Mary had been doing, to be told what tree was what. She resumed her right to decide for both of them what was interesting (birds) and what was weird (the Cretaceous extinction). It was a right she would eventually relinquish, when something else interesting came along. Mary didn’t know if she was looking forward to it.
They bought the test on the way home. Mary said, “I will totally not see someone I know at CVS and have them think I’m knocked up,” and stayed in the car. She regretted this when Charlie came out of the bathroom in just her underwear, her big knees pallid in the twilight of the kitchen, and presented the positive. No one else was home so she just stood there, without her clothes, in front of the big window looking over the street. Mary felt exposed.
“Shit,” she said, and hugged her, which Charlie endured for a few seconds before pulling away and opening a bag of pretzels.
“It could be a false positive,” said Mary, unfolding the instruction sheet again.
“Well,” said Charlie, and pulled her shoulders back. Her mouth was full of pretzels. “You’ll have to come with me to the clinic and they’ll tell us.”
Mary did, although they couldn’t get an appointment for some days and then it was during school. Mary had to forge a note from her mother saying she was leaving early for a wedding. Charlie clung to her briefly in the parking lot but decided brusquely she wanted to see the doctor alone, so Mary sat in the waiting room and reminded herself that it wasn’t her problem. The frugal blue carpet, the pamphlets on prenatal care had no bearing on her. She opened a magazine and gave serious thought to fall wardrobe essentials.
When they reemerged into the cheerful afternoon there was a man smoking, waiting for someone inside. “Can I bum one?” asked Charlie, who had never before smoked or used the word “bum.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, looking down at her flat stomach.
“Yes,” said Charlie, resenting that anything offered to her before should not be offered now. She took the cigarette, inhaled deeply, coughed, and inhaled again, willing the smoke into her body. “She’s the one that’s pregnant, anyway,” she said, gesturing to Mary. The man looked away, Mary rolled her eyes.
“Since I’m so pregnant, I don’t want your secondhand smoke,” she said pointedly, but Charlie kept the cigarette and finished it while leaning out of the truck’s window.
“Are you going to tell your mother?” Mary asked.
“What? So she can interrogate me about what brand of condoms I used? I don’t think so.”
“Or Eric? Don’t you have to tell Eric now?”
Eric was now an implicated party in what was happening inside Charlie, although he didn’t know that. Only Mary had this dubious honor of inclusion in Charlie’s worries. Whenever she suggested that Charlie say something to him she wrinkled her nose.
“I told you, didn’t I? Are you trying to pawn me off? Let’s stop at McDonald’s.”
“I’m not trying to pawn you off,” said Mary, turning into the drive-thru. “I’m just saying–they said you’re three and a half months in, that means a real surgery.”
“They told me all that. You weren’t even there.”
“So how is Eric supposed to help me?”
“I don’t know, he could hold your hand?”
Charlie twisted in the passenger seat as Mary turned off the ignition. “Do you know how useless that is to me? It is so useless.”
“OK, fine, I’m sorry,” said Mary. She hated that she’d apologized. They ordered fries and a milkshake and dipped the fries.
Charlie’s mother was standing at the mailbox when they pulled into the driveway. She asked after Mary’s parents. “Thanks for the ride, babe,” said Charlie, kissing her ostentatiously on the cheek before skipping into the house.
* * *
All week Charlie told no one, would not even schedule a follow-up appointment. She cornered Mary from time to time and asked if she still looked thin. “You look fine,” Mary said. But at Thursday swim class, Charlie pulled her shirt tight over her stomach and said, “Look, you can tell. I can’t swim, you can tell.” There did seem to be a swelling, a roundness where Charlie had never been round. “You’d better not,” Mary said.
Charlie visited the gym teacher. “I’m having female problems,” she said, which wasn’t a lie. She was told to jog on the bleachers next to the pool, like all the girls did whose female problems coincided with swim class. The price paid for this overlap was everyone’s awareness of what was occurring inside that girl. Her body belonged to the swim class at large; there was a general right to discuss it. “Hey Charlie, what’s wrong?” called one of the boys, grinning, as she made her way along the pool deck and through the risers. Charlie did not snap back as usual, but looked away. She was the cross-country star, had distinguished herself at the state championships. Now the jogging was hard; it was difficult to breathe. She told herself it was the hot air of the pool room, but humidity had never troubled her before. In the water, Mary cut cleanly down the lap lane. She was a slow swimmer, but she had a graceful backstroke of which Charlie was jealous. She wondered if Charlie was watching.
At lunch Charlie slid into Eric’s lap. She pilfered his French fries and made jokes. Every gesture was pointedly agile, as if to fight off the lethargy stealing over her. When they got up to leave Charlie put her hand in Eric’s back pocket. She didn’t look at Mary.
On Friday Charlie called to ask if Mary would come to the movies. Eric and the guys were going, and she didn’t want to be the only girl. She had taken to calling Mary several times a day. Every homework assignment, every observation, everything but the indubitable growth inside her was too important for a text. Mary said no, she wasn’t going to a stupid action movie just to be an extra girl, and hung up. She watched TV at home and felt righteous.
Two hours later Charlie let herself in with the key on the porch. “What about Eric?” Mary asked, and she shrugged.
“They just wanted to go home and play video games.”
Charlie boiled water for tea. She had rested her hands on her stomach in the dark theater while bullets ricocheted onscreen and the boys cheered every new moment carnage. Now she wormed under Mary’s blanket Mary, tucked her cold feet in with Mary’s. Mary knew she should be angry, should tell Charlie not to bother if she just wanted to crawl into bed at the end of the night, but she felt grateful that she was crawling in at all. When Mary turned off the TV, Charlie trailed her upstairs and opened a spare toothbrush from the drawer.
On Mary’s nightstand was her specimen tin, housing two fossils, the only ones she’d confirmed were real ammonites. Charlie picked one up. “Poor things,” she said.
“I don’t know, just getting obliterated like that. Do you think they knew what was happening?”
“Probably not,” Mary said. She lay next to Charlie in bed and thought about her house underwater. This acre of grass and brick which her parents had striven to acquire, in which most of her life had taken place, had also existed millions of years ago, all its molecules assembled into different compounds. Ammonites drifted across her front lawn on dark currents, passing unhurried millennia in the evolution of new variations of their many-chambered shells. One day she and Charlie, and the house that encased them, would be interred just as they had been, simplified to curiosities in the fossil record.
Mary dreamed of rain. In the morning her mother came in to say she was going to get bagels, and did they want anything? When Mary woke up she felt sticky in an old, familiar way. Seeping underneath her was blood that she first thought was hers but realized, as she blinked, was Charlie’s.
“Charlie,” she said, “Wake up. Now.” Charlie’s lips, parted ungracefully in sleep, were chapped and mauve. In her momentary fear that there was something really wrong, that she wouldn’t wake up, Mary shook her. “Mom,” she said, and pushed the quilt back. They saw the red bloom on the sheet.
“Mary, what’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, she’s just–well, she’s not anymore–”
“Oh dear,” said her mother, understanding.
Charlie sat up, touched her wet shorts. “What happened?” Mary thought she would smirk at her own good luck, ball up the sheets in the garbage and go about her day. But Charlie didn’t actually like luck; she liked force of will and the fruition of her own plans. She sat silent.
“Oh dear,” said her mother again, and told Mary to strip the bed and put everything in the laundry room. “Let’s get you up now,” she said to Charlie, and Charlie swung one leg onto the floor at a time as if it were an effort to do so. When Mary came upstairs from the laundry room she stood framed by the doorway of the bathroom, gingerly taking off her clothes.
“But this is bad for me, I’m anemic,” she said, looking at all the red, and began to cry. Mary had never seen Charlie cry except in fury. But maybe this was fury. Maybe it was fear, or an iron deficiency making the bathroom swim before her eyes, or the new, acute knowledge that her body obeyed dictates not hers or known to her. Maybe it was the first of the cramps that would worsen all day and only subside in the evening. Already streaked with blood, Mary stepped onto the tile floor and put her arms around Charlie. Charlie tucked her head into Mary’s warm neck.
Outside it was raining, like in her dream, a drear fall rain foretelling winter. The last leaves, pristine in their high colors, fluttered and refused to drop. Mary watched them as her mother padded about, turning on faucets and unfolding towels. She rubbed Charlie’s protruding shoulder blades and murmured that it was OK, it was going to be OK.
Irene Connelly is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. Her senior collection of short stories, of which “Little Apocalypse” was part, won the Field Prize, the university’s highest award for thesis work of any kind.