The Uncontrolled Variable
Catlin is abnormal. Everyone knows this. You can tell just by looking at her. Her hair is a natural bright orange. Her eyes are a piercing green, clear and wide, in her pale heart-shaped face. A scattering of freckles sprinkles her face. And she always wears the same overalls rolled up at the ankles, with fraying holes at the knees. Catlin is someone whose name is only whispered, spoken in lowered voices, exchanged in small huddled groups where it cannot escape. People only allow themselves quick glances in her direction. She has no friends. At least at school.
We are fascinated with Catlin though we would never it admit it out loud.
We are the types of girls who wear their hair long and parted to one side. The kinds who wear black skirts, knitted sweaters, and knee-high socks with boots or else skinny jeans with simple tops. Who color their faces with a hint of mascara and lip-gloss. Whose goal it is to blend in. Our only secret is Catlin. She is a secret so secret we keep her hidden even from each other. We collect pieces of information, rumors we hear about her hungrily, and then hoard them like precious jewels, waiting for the best moment to weave them calmly in our conversations. We practice our facial expressions in the manner we will present them to each other in the mirror, neutral or apathetic, even bored. Sarah is the best at this. Her grey eyes are dull like tar, her voice unaltered, “Catlin was seen again today, with another man. He looked about thirty years older.” This is big news. “Is that so?” we ask, with practiced indifference, but there is quiver to our voices, a glitter to our eyes. We cannot yet hide our hunger as well as Sarah.
The afternoon sun is high and white in the cloudless blue sky. For lunch we eat in our usual place, the one we have been coming to since the first week of ninth grade. We keep meaning to move but it never works. The table is circular; we sit facing each other, eating homemade leftovers microwaved in small Tupperware or fresh salads with tiny, red tomatoes. Mostly we talk about school, classes, teachers, and homework. But when we have exhausted these topics, drained them until they are left lifeless, shriveled like dried dates under a relentless desert sun our conversations drift to Catlin. Sometimes we pretend to be worried about her. That poor thing, we say, why she thinking taking all those art classes? What is she doing with all those men instead of doing her homework? Doesn’t she care about her future?
A few boys are clustered before the classroom door. The energy around them is electric. I can feel it pulsing; little bits of it break of, zinging through the air like bullets. “Its Catlin,” one of them says. Of course it’s Catlin. It is always Catlin.
“What happened?” Tate wants to know. A boy opens his mouth to answer her, but Catlin herself is already coming down the hall. Bruises color up the left side of her arm in deep violets and blacks and there is a gash on her chin, covered by a thin layer of dried scarlet blood. We forget about not looking at her and stare unceasingly. Her beauty is obvious even with the injuries, maybe even more so. In the time she is walking down the hallway I am sure she is not from this world, but from some beautiful alien planet. Take me with you, I want to shout. Her green eyes are streaked with gold like pieces of drowning sunlight. Her skin is so white that a kind of pearly glow seems to emanate from her body. She smiles as she nears us; there is a cut on her bottom lip, crimson leaks out of it. “No worries,” she reassures us, “Just had a little accident.”
She glides into the classroom. We notice only now that she is not wearing any shoes. Only socks. They are striped, red and hot pink. We edge into the classroom, a cluster of bodies, suddenly timid. We all think about the fact that the air we are breathing is the same one Catlin is breathing.
When the teacher arrives we hastily retrieve our binders, pulling out our neatly typed-up homework assignments, at least a paragraph over the required amount. Catlin rummages around her backpack for a few moments, finally pulling out a crumpled piece of paper, handwritten. Black ink spirals across the paper in big, loopy letters. She writes in cursive, I document in my thoughts. When I write my letters are military straight, printed in sharp pencil.
“Do you want me to turn in your homework for you,” Catlin asks me. My heart freezes, and I can feel myself blushing. A throaty noise escapes my mouth when I hand her my homework. She holds out her hand to collect Linda’s and Tate’s. They exchange glances before handing them to her. As she crosses the classroom Linda and Tate pretend to be nonchalant. They smile and talk, but the nervous tapping of pencils, shaking legs, and quick glances toward the turn-in-box gives them away. They are worrying. What if she puts they the homework in the wrong box by mistake? They don’t trust her. She is the uncontrolled variable in our experiment. Everyone’s actions are already accounted for, determined only hers are unforeseen. For all we know she could blow up at any minute. We treat her like a bomb. We want to know more but we don’t want to get to close.
In my dreams I run down endless hallways, white and windowless but with thousands of open doors and in every room I can see students bent over their desks, their eyes inches from their booklets, furiously bubbling answers in answers on their scantrons. They have gone blind, deaf. They don’t hear me scream. They don’t see me fall.
Unlike Catlin we would never dare walk alone. We cling to another, always walking in groups, or else in pairs. Only together we can stay afloat. We go to the bathroom together. In fact we enjoy bathroom breaks because it gives us a chance to worry about something else besides school. Our ritual is simple. We take turns standing in front of the mirror complaining about various aspects of our appearance while the others refute these claims through lavish compliments or otherwise by pointing out a more horrific aspect of their own appearance.
“My hair looks like something died on it.”
“What are you talking about, you could be in a shampoo commercial! But have you seen my pimple, its practically swallowed my whole face!”
“At least it will go away eventually I am stuck with my nose forever.”
Nothing is worse than too much self-confidence.
Once we leave the bathroom our conversation circles back to school. It always seems to circle back to school these days.
“What did you get on your chemistry test?”
“Oh god, it was terrible! I think I completely failed!” I had trouble with one question.
“It was awful,” Sarah agrees. She has never gotten under a 95%.
Every Wednesday after last period we meet in the library. We sit at a table in the corner, where it is quietest, sheltered by bookshelves. We pour over our Algebra notes, hunch over our world history textbooks, and sometimes we bring our laptops to type up strenuous essays for English. We do not talk during these sensations. The only sound is the flipping of pages, the scratching of graphite on paper, the clicking of laptops.
We near our table already silently plotting what homework assignments we should tackle first when we notice Catlin sitting there. A poster-sized white paper is rolled out in front of her, a case of vibrant colored pastels on her right, black charcoals to her left side. She is wearing her usual overalls with a dark purple short-sleeved top underneath. The bruises are still dark on her arm. She smiles when she looks up and finds us staring at her, “Oh, should I move?”
No stay, I almost say, but I bite my lip just in time. We shuffle our feet, not wanting to meet anyone’s gaze we avert our eyes to the floor, “that would be nice,” Tate finally says, in a small voice.
Catlin jumps up from her chair, rolling up her paper, and collecting her art supplies, not at all bothered for having to move, “I couldn’t concentrate here anyways,” she grins. Instead of walking she seems to float out of the library.
Sarah shudders, “did you see her socks,” she asks with a dubious expression.
“She has a pair for every holiday,” Linda explains. When Sarah raises her eyebrows she quickly adds, “she was telling people in the locker room.”
A few moments later Linda, Sarah, and Tate have ascended into the realms of homework. My thoughts are wondering, my attention drifting, I read the same sentence five times without any comprehension. Outside Catlin is crossing the street, orange hair burning underneath the golden sky.
I have never been to the art room before so I feel like a trespasser as I step inside. The room itself is like a giant piece of art. Intricate, abstract, black and white drawings tapestry the walls. All the chairs and tables are painted in different themes; there is underwater, purple fish spiraling up the legs, and an old, rotting anchor in the seat, huge bubbles rising from it, and a table supporting the large coiling body of a snake with black scales, its lurid red eyes glint at me. There are decapitated manikins strewn over the back room, and jars of paint are left open, permeating the air with a sharp acrylic smell. A few feet away from the tallest decapitated manikin an easel is set up, in the center of the canvas a mermaid is splayed on a rock in the middle of a frothy charcoal ocean, her body melts into an elegant grey tail and her blue eyes are dark and forlorn. The waist- length orange hair cascading down her back is Catlin’s.
“That is my sister,” a voice whispers, and I twirl around. Catlin is standing behind me and I am astounded to find that she is only somewhat taller than me. She had always seemed heads taller.
Still my heart is pounding very fast and it is hard for me to breath. I surprise myself by asking, “Is she a mermaid?”
“Yes,” Catlin states, matter-a-factly, “she was a beautiful mermaid.”
That night I dream of mermaids. In my dream I am weightless, I have a tail, I glide through the water swiftly. There is music all around me, a music that I have never heard on Earth before, deep resonating sounds that pulsate throughout my body in rhythms of color. Catlin and her sister swim next to me, bubbles rise from their mouths in visible laughter.
I walk down the hallway alone, my footsteps echo loudly in the emptiness. I keep looking over my shoulder to make sure nobody is following me. My intention is find Catlin, but now that I think about it seems absurd, Catlin could be anywhere, with one of the men, at the beach painting mermaids, in outer space. I check all the classrooms, the art room twice, I scurry across the campus, hide in the shadows when I pass our table. I worry I worry I have gone mad when I finally find Catlin in one of the courtyard behind the ceramics classroom. She is standing in the center of the field looking at a canvas, there is nothing on it yet, it is just blank but her eyes are squinted and her paintbrush hovers expectantly inches from its surface. I lower myself onto the bench nearest to her easel. The silence stretches out in front of us.
“Can I sit here?” I ask, my voice raspy. She nods without looking up from her canvas. Silence stretches out in between us. Though it could be a comfortable silence, with the dandelions swaying in the slight breeze, and clouds drifting over the blue horizon, I am uncomfortable. I search frantically for words to fill the gap of sound. Any gaps in my eyes are dangerous. I feel awkward in my skin, itchy, I scratch my arms, leaving red marks. I fold my legs and unfold them. “What did you get on your history test?” I ask.
She lifts her head and looks at me. Her emerald gaze is unwavering, her eyes don’t seem to blink as much as normal eyes do. My fingers tremble, and I hide them in my lap. I wonder why I am so afraid of her. She smiles, her teeth are uneven. I fall in love with them. I grin uneasily, and she turns back to her painting, “You should try painting.”
“I don’t think I will be any good. I have never really painted before.”
In that moment I don’t care anymore if Catlin is a bomb.