Elizabeth Quirk

Meg’s Fever

That was the same year Polly Klaas was killed, taken out of her home during a sleepover, raped, strangled, and lost to us forever. They were the same age (twelve) and Meg read everything she could find about it, in horror and thankfulness and shuddering disbelief. For over a year, the teen magazines bellowed Polly’s story in red font headlines alongside pages devoted to slender fashion girls in matching pants and crop tops, easy three-step hairstyles, and various gel-haired boy heartthrobs with studio grins (who might grow up to be well regarded for award-winning roles in eccentric films or, more likely, barely remembered at all; then too a small number might also die young, one last headline [overdose, suicide, car accident]). Meg searched the photographs that accompanied the articles for some sign, some evidence of being marked out for the unutterable: Polly’s half-curls so like her own, and which she too probably had sometimes hated; the sweetness of her smile somehow exactly like a friend Meg used to imagine and dream about (before Letty came); warm brown eyes that had expected to see far more than they had been allowed. Lying belly-down on the floor of her bedroom, chin in her hands, Meg gazed at the dead girl’s features until they stopped making sense as a whole; mouth and nose and brows becoming like the numbers, symbols, and letters of an algebra problem after the spell of understanding has broken.

Such disorientation brought with it a welcome dulling of her senses and after Polly’s image seemed exhausted, collapsed into disparate parts and incoherence, Meg’s gaze moved onto the secondary, smaller set of photographs, usually found toward the back of the magazine, by the cheaper and more obscure advertisements. These were of the two other girls, the friends, the ones that had lived— in fact, were living still, somewhere, even as Meg’s eyes moved over the page. Maybe this instant they too were thinking about Polly, or about the terror they had felt when he had roughly tied their hands with electrical cord and put pillowcases over their heads. Their mute helplessness as their friend was taken away from them (forever [forever]). (Like the silent center of nightmares, seconds when you cannot scream and wonder if your heart might burst.) Or maybe they were not thinking of it at all. Maybe they were laughing at a joke or singing along to a song. Examining their features, Meg could not help but see that neither seemed like the type of girl that could stir Meg’s wonder and admiration and envy. (How awful, how sick! to be envious of someone who never saw thirteen!) But they were alive; they would, in all likelihood, grow old. Could they ever forget? Without noticing it, fears had begun unspooling like curses inside Meg, finely threading her heart and lungs and womb.

Just when POLLY KLAAS had nearly disappeared from the front pages of the sordid glossies at supermarket checkouts, replaced by other horror-ephemera, Meg came down with a sudden and serious-seeming illness that somehow (inevitably, or randomly— or randomly, and so inevitably) became intermixed thereafter with her impressions of that distant violence. One morning, she awoke to find her upper lip erupted in a row of tiny blisters and knew before checking that she burned with a high fever. Her body felt heavy and ached terribly. Meg’s mother put her on a regimen of painkillers to safely bring the fever down and so her existence receded to pills, pillow, Polly (repeat again), all in the semi-darkness of her blinds-drawn bedroom. But sometimes as sleep began to overtake her, she felt hands tightening around her neck and she had to sit up, gasping. When Letty brought homework assignments in the afternoon (along with notes written on both sides of lined paper and folded into impressively compact patterns) Meg refused to see her; instead she listened to the rise and fall of her friend’s voice with her mother’s and felt a pang once the front door closed again. At moments she almost relished her suffering, lingering over it like a sweet lozenge, enjoying how her eyelids sat hot and heavy and sweat gemmed her chest. MaladieFièvre. She went over her few relevant French vocabulary words as if the syllables contained some wisdom or magic.

The official diagnosis given by her doctor was that she was suffering from an unusually severe response to the initial infection of a virus so common that it has invaded the bodies of most people that have lived since the dawn of civilization— herpes simplex, teenage frightscare and Queen Mab’s nighttrick, almost as universally known as boredom or melancholy. But Meg’s severe symptoms were atypical, usually seen in children much younger. “…Probably from a shared Coke or exchanged chapstick, the way girls do.” When the doctor spoke, he looked at Meg’s mother rather than Meg, who found satisfaction in the practiced flatness of her expression. But the only real relief was learning that the symptoms would cease within the following week, even as she must always have the virus coiled within secret corners of her body, sleeping, or waiting. But Meg knew he was wrong. Not shared soda or lip balm— or not only. Lately they played at brides in the afternoon, between girl-martyrs or queens; but it was different from earlier pretend, from the distant epoch that had been the year or years before, because she was always only ever Meg in a borrowed dress and Letty in a self-made crown, and when they clasped hands under a blue or gray sky, neither forgot whose, and yet the magic remained, increased, because it was living— alive. So Meg was sick with a perfectly ordinary infection, a generic medical pamphlet experience without even the dignity of being dire or unusual, but her experience of it felt precisely that— even more, felt extraordinary and catastrophic (there are probably other parallels, too).

Letty’s Saint

The girls had two existences, or double identities: one, at school, shared, and another, after school, at their homes and in their bedrooms, or their many outdoor hideaways, just the two of them. No one knew they still played pretend; at school, they were too old for that, too caught up in the halfway posture of their age, which they both did exceptionally well, coolly tossing out clever quips and exchanging notes with boys, standing with the right groups between classes, wearing the right shoes and cultivated air of indifference. But alone, it was different. Between the two of them, nothing was like expected: cats became hyenas and horses, or else lions and lemurs, subjects of a wild kingdom that together they ruled on equal terms, in fact did not rule at all so much as conjure and conduct, amid trees that were really castles (or the other way around). Here they talked for hours, real and irreal mixing and overlapping, where two queen-brides wed and one time kissed and kissed and kissed (for practice; for hours; afterward burrs had to be pulled from their hair and clothes). Meg had long felt, without saying so, that many of her thoughts were mere formlessness, the shadow of something definite but out of reach; only now, when entered into the rarified air of Letty’s listening, through the interplay of the two girls’ conversation, were they able to gain more firm outlines, sometimes shade and color, too. And hardly anything was outside the purview of their restless consideration. “I have a theory” was their common refrain, occasionally announced instead of hello, the precursor to a painstakingly thorough expression of some new understanding regarding middle school social mores. Or the behavior of a girl in a novel. Or the personality of a blooming flower. From Letty, Meg adopted a mania for “numbers that matter,” as they called it, memorizing, quizzing each other, and endlessly examining the birth, marriage, and death dates of favorite queens and saints, singers and movie stars, imagining in them some secret to their own futures. Her entire life, Meg would remember with precision the pretty symmetry of Elizabeth I’s 1533 and 1603, the numbers conveying somehow in their alternating curves stolen pearl and crimson red.

Letty’s fervent Catholicism was for Meg first a curiosity and then a revelation. With increasing frequency, Sunday mornings found her seated next to Meg amid the rest of her siblings, hushing one another in the faintly incensed interior of the cathedral. It was underneath that high ceiling with its crisscrossed beams, upon those ancient-seeming wood pews that one could tap from behind with a patent leather flat to great satisfaction, beside the warm body of her friend, that Meg felt awaken within her some dormant capacity. She felt at times weak and exultant, dizzy and lucid, yearning and sated, all at once. As she gazed at the painted eyes of hallowed martyrs adorning the wall, she felt something akin to recognition: in their face was the manifestation of an unknown desire— for God, the spectacular, the infinite— as well as, in that perverse rule of equal inversion, the exact weight of its future demise. (Even years later, after complete transformation into seasoned agnostic with wry expression and darkly lacquered nails, suddenly turning in an art history book to St. Philomena in the Ars Shrine could still bring a faint thrill of vertigo, the surprise dots of spontaneous tears.) Looking down at the pink skirt next to her, the crisscrossed legs, Meg considered how Letty knew with such calmness, almost contentment, how to act in the face of all the unknowable mysteries. Still more, the rest of her family knew, too, and all the others there as well. This knowledge seemed for them both comfort and intoxication; it was not a casual fact, like the haphazard religious instruction Meg had previously known (Methodist, bapt. Aug. 1981; tiny cotton gown folded in a chest), but was instead, appropriately, everything.

These thoughts culminated another Sunday morning with Meg’s knees pressed against the soft velvet before the altar and her darkly gleaming curlets falling forward as she bowed her head, silently swearing with the entirety of her heart (.22 lb., 1.49 in.) that she too would devote her life to God (now and at the hour of our death). The evening of the very same day, one hallowed in the private annals of their friendship, Meg and Letty decided to make Polly Klaas into a saint, a transformation they understood as both inevitable and true. (“She will be with Saint Maria and they will be like sisters,” Letty said.) Together, kneeling in the dark sanctuary of Letty’s bedroom closet, they set a large photograph of Polly that they had cut from a magazine cover and pasted onto thick cardboard against a stack of books. They wreathed the portrait in colorful paper flowers and placed three small flickering votive candles beneath. Holding hands, they prayed to Saint Polly in remembrance and reverence, and from their softly glinting thread of fear they knitted together an intricate, almost original design. But not everything felt can be spoken, even to those closest to us, at least not right away, and Meg was still young enough to think that waiting might give them more time. At the same instant, the two girls looked at each other and blew at the candles; they went out; this, everything, these walls and floor, the faint scent of shampoo and dissipating smoke, your shoulder against mine, our beating hearts, was perfect, timeless, (doomed).

  Elizabeth Quirk 

Elizabeth Quirk won the 2021 James Hurst Prize for Fiction and teaches literature and composition at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC.