Maggie was born both first and last of her kind. The perfect specimen of a baby girl, if not for the iridescent scales covering her body.
The first few years of her life, her parents hid her from the world. Partly from shame, but also from fear, because the world is not kind to those who are different.
When Maggie was old enough, her parents reluctantly sent her to kindergarten. As word of the lizard-girl spread, news reporters and casual gawkers lined up to visit. So too did the pranksters. One said he was hired by salamanders who claimed Maggie as their daughter. Never mind that salamanders don’t have scales.
They came in droves to stare at Maggie in amusement, pity, or horror. Her life was a freak show, with her the star.
I first met Maggie in sixth grade. Like her, I was an outcast. I was fat and butch, and even at twelve, other kids in class called me dyke or faggot. On this particular day, the prettiest girl in class, Emily Foster, directed her minions to toss dirt clods at me.
Maggie was sitting alone on the seesaw, her side weighted to the ground. Something must have snapped when she saw the other kids pick on me. She jumped off the seat and stood between me and the dirt tossers. “If you throw one more clump of dirt, I will eat your face off! My bite is poison; you’ll be disfigured for life!”
No one moved. Maggie had never raised her voice before. She had always sought to avoid attention, but there she stood, for my sake, demanding it.
Tears stung my eyes.
The other children dropped the dirt clods and ran to the playground monitor to whine that Maggie was threatening them. Their crocodile tears made them more reptilian than Maggie.
Of course, Maggie was blamed for the disruption. Didn’t she know that her skin condition frightened people, the teacher asked. It wasn’t acceptable for her to use it to scare others. Apparently, it was an acceptable reason for others to torment her, though.
When she had to stay after school as punishment, I stayed with her. We wrote, “I will not threaten my classmates” on the board 50 times. We cleaned chalk boards and dusted erasers together.
From that day forward, we were inseparable. We had sleepovers, we braided each other’s hair, and ate popcorn with chocolate-covered raisins while watching scary movies. We painted each other’s toenails, and talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up.
“I want to be a biologist,” Maggie said, wiggling her Barbie-pink toenails.
“Because maybe I can find other things that don’t belong, like me.”
“You found me,” I said. “I don’t belong.”
“Then you should be a biologist, too. We can not belong together.”
By the time I got to high school, I’d started working out. My flabby exterior gave way to muscle. After that, all it took was a few punches, and people no longer insulted Maggie in my presence. I’d finally become strong enough to protect her.
I joined the swim team, my new body well-suited to athletics. She cheered me on at all my meets. My teammates were wary of her, her presence a constant source of unease for them. I was never invited to team celebrations or parties, and I knew it was because they didn’t want me to bring Maggie.
After the team won regionals, I wanted to celebrate, but Maggie was waiting outside the locker room. I decided it was time to talk to her. I would be doing her a favor. I’d made other friends, she could too. It wasn’t like I’d be telling her I didn’t want to hang out anymore. I thought I’d bring up the subject on our walk home.
“Have you thought about joining any clubs? It might help you, you know—make other friends.”
She shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I don’t think they’d want me in the yearbook photo.”
“If you never try, you’ll never know. You always assume people are going to reject you. You don’t give them a chance to prove you wrong.”
“I’ve given people chances. I’m lizard-girl, remember? Most people can’t see past that. I’m not a real person to them.”
“It might help if you actually try to fit in.”
“Try fitting in,” she said the words as if they tasted bad. “You think I haven’t tried?”
A long and lasting silence settled over us for the remainder of the walk. It was the sound of a friendship falling apart.
I didn’t see her the next day, or the next. I tried waiting by her locker, but she avoided me. For someone so conspicuous, she was good at being invisible.
The next time I saw her was in the cafeteria. I didn’t know where she had been going during lunch for the past few days, since she’d stopped sitting with me. But there she stood with her bagged lunch, crossing through the crowd.
Emily, still the prettiest girl in school, stood up and blocked her path. I felt every muscle in my body clench. She waved to a seat at her table. “Want to sit with us?”
I couldn’t eat. She’d been avoiding me for days, and now she didn’t so much as look in my direction. Emily and the other girls at her table chatted with her. I strained, but couldn’t overhear. I watched as Maggie’s discomfort faded, as she looked them in the eyes and joined the conversation. I kept glancing at their table, waiting for someone to do or say something cruel, waiting to jump to Maggie’s defense. Instead, I saw her smile and laugh, like she was part of their group.
The bell rang, and I pushed through the crowded cafeteria to follow her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Emily Foster? Really?”
She tilted her head. “What about her?”
“Have you forgotten? She’s an asshole.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“People don’t change.”
“You’re the one who told me to give people a chance.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You didn’t mean for me to make other friends? Or you thought people wouldn’t be friends with someone like me?”
“I don’t trust her. She can’t just suddenly want to be friends with you.”
Maggie looked as if I’d slapped her. She turned away and left me standing in that same cloud of silence as before.
Maggie and I didn’t speak after that. I watched as she sat at Emily’s table every day. I saw them walk home from school together. I watched from a distance, sure that at any moment, I would need to rescue her.
She started wearing lipstick. When we used to hang out, she’d talked about how she couldn’t wear makeup. It wouldn’t stick to her scales. She looked ridiculous.
When Emily laughed at her, I launched myself across the cafeteria.
“What are you laughing at?” I shoved Emily’s shoulder.
“Huh? What’s your problem?”
“I asked what you’re laughing at.”
“I was laughing at Maggie, you spaz. Now, could you please leave?”
I shoved her again. “It isn’t funny.”
Maggie sighed. “Actually, it was funny. I was telling a story.”
“Oh… I thought she was making fun of your…” I gestured vaguely in the direction of her lips.
Emily placed a hand on her hip. “You seriously need to get a grip. That color looks fantastic on her. You’re the one with the problem.”
My cheeks burned red. I looked at Maggie, but she wouldn’t meet my gaze.
In the following weeks, I watched her walk down the halls in her new designer clothes. I watched as Emily took my place by her side.
Jealousy grew inside me, a balloon inflating in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I’d braided her hair and painted her toenails. I had smelled her morning breath. I knew she loved oranges, but hated orange juice. Who was Emily to replaceme? Where had she been for the last five years?
As the weeks passed, I saw Maggie less and less. I tried to live my life without her. To not think about her, our friendship, or the pact we made to study biology together.
I didn’t notice at first when she stopped coming to school regularly. When she did show up, she seemed dazed. She stopped sitting with Emily, then disappeared from the cafeteria altogether.
One day, when she did show up to school, I risked following her home.
“Maggie, I know something’s wrong. Talk to me.”
She shrugged, keeping her face turned from me.
“I know you’re mad at me, but I don’t care. What’s wrong?”
When she turned to face me, tears were streaming down her cheeks. “For once, I wish someone would just call me ugly or fat or stupid. Anything besides lizard-girl.”
She handed me a folded up piece of paper. I unfolded it and read: Take lizard-girl to prom? Very funny. That’s gross.
“Who?” I asked again.
She tore the paper from my hands. “Does it matter? It’s everyone. Even you. I thought I fit with you. I thought we didn’t… belong together. But you’re just like the rest of them. When something better came along, you didn’t want me around.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just leave me alone.”
She turned and left me there on the sidewalk, alone. I was getting all too familiar with the sight of her walking away.
She wasn’t at school the following week. Her picture appeared in the local news. Headlines read: “Girl With Scales Gone Missing,” “Lizard-Girl Vanishes Without a Trace,” and “Scale-Covered Teen Missing.”
Her body was found floating in the Chattahoochee River three days later. The headline read: “Lizard-Girl Found Dead.” Even in death, she was never just a girl, never just a person. She was always the girl with scales.
I realized that Maggie was right. I hadn’t seen past her scales, either. I was no better than whoever wrote that note. I never got the chance to tell her that I was sorry.
And now, as I sit filling out college applications without her, in the Field of Study area, I write: Biology.
Author Bio: Holley Cornetto was born and raised in Alabama, but now lives in New Jersey. She is a librarian by day, and a writer by night. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in Sage Cigarettes, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Collective Realms. She can be found on twitter at @HLCornetto.