Days after Miranda began middle school, strangers started thanking her. Always it was boys who did this, boys she’d never met and who were not in her classes, boys with jumbled teeth and missing fingers, boys with limps and tics and roaring coughs. Without saying why, they thanked her in supermarkets and in restaurants, at the park and in the library.
Then, on a cool Sunday morning near the end of September, while reading a Nancy Drew mystery in her backyard, Miranda saw a handsome teenage boy suddenly erupt from the ground behind the big sugar maple in the middle of the yard. Brown crumbs of dirt and green frizzles of grass clung to the boy’s long black hair as he looked around in a daze. Moments later he jumped the fence and ran away, but soon he returned and thanked her like all the others. Before he could run away again, Miranda asked him what she had ever done to deserve his thanks. To this he grinned and revealed a nubby ridge of naked pink gums in the place where his three front teeth were supposed to be.
“You gave me a second chance,” he lisped.
From here he told her about his alcoholic parents and hopeless life, and how everything would be different now thanks to her.
Following this incident, the thank-yous continued for another two years; then, a few days before winter break of seventh grade, they stopped just as abruptly as they had begun.
Years later, not long after turning fifteen, Miranda felt a pain churning in the soft place just north of her belly button. Cold and fibrous, crackling with electricity, the pain curled its tendrils around every part of her life. No longer could she act on her own; her pain had to be consulted first.
Sometimes the pain let up for a bit, but it never went away. Always it swirled, dragging her forever inward.
The pain made it hard to sleep. Laying awake in the middle of the night, the dark house creaking around her, Miranda imagined her life in the future. She thought of the people she might care for as a nurse, the animals she might help as a vet, the lives she might touch as a social worker. In this way her pain would fade and she could finally fall asleep.
Soon a solid ball of tissue formed under her skin near the source of the pain. Weeks passed and the ball shrank and hardened, then morphed into a narrow vertical ridge running from belly button to sternum. Turning dry and crusty, the skin above the ridge began to swell and crack. Days later the ridge became a wound, leaking and itchy, smelling of cool earth, a reptilian pupil etched into her flesh.
Miranda kept her wound a secret. She didn’t want her parents or anyone else worrying about it, not with so many others around the world suffering so much worse than her. To protect her secret, she took to the internet and researched how to clean and dress an open wound.
Upon returning to school in September, the men started watching her. Wet and hungry, their darting eyes followed her through the hallways, the lunchrooms, the parking lots, and the classrooms. They all seemed instinctually drawn to her wound, to the earthy smell of it, to the heat it belched in blurry waves. And it wasn’t just boys her own age that were drawn to her. Teachers, administrators, coaches, and custodians all stared at her in ways they wouldn’t dare with other students. Suddenly, it seemed she couldn’t go anywhere without the head of every man turning in her direction.
Soon Miranda started accepting some of the many dates she was asked out on. Even with her wound and the pain swirling behind it, she couldn’t come up with one good reason to say no to the most attractive boys in school.
Although the dates usually started good, they all ended the same way: the boys always wanted to see her wound. Moments after peeling back her bandage they would disappear, her bones crunching and unhinging to take them inside, her taut skin stretching like a balloon to swallow them whole. By the fourth or fifth date, when a handsome boy with long black hair started talking about his alcoholic parents and hopeless life, Miranda finally understood what was happening. From here she decided to start using her ability to improve as many lives as she could.
The first two years of transports were a success. She didn’t even charge a fee for her services. After that, things went bad. Her pain turned crippling. Some mornings she woke up and couldn’t feel her legs for the rest of the day. Other days she suffered through migraines powerful enough to split the sidewalk. Not long after, she started vomiting up the missing parts her body took from the boys: fingers, toes, jewel-like teeth; pinkish chunks of hearts and lungs.
In addition to her worsening health, the men started harassing her wherever she went. They bellowed at her on the street and begged for a chance to fix their wasted lives. They followed her home from school and started showing up at her house at all hours of the day and night. Soon they were pounding on her front door, throwing rocks at upstairs windows, and sending death threats to her parents.
Now Miranda began to fear for her life, and the lives of her parents. Days later she woke in the middle of the night to a strange man carefully peeling away her bandage; but when the police arrived twenty minutes later, they dismissed her complaint in an instant and sternly interrogated her and her parents about the boys who had gone missing over the past two years.
Following this incident, Miranda understood that her parents would never be safe with her around. The men would never stop; it was not in their nature. So, a few minutes after her parents went to bed the next night, Miranda wrote a note telling them how much she loved them, and how sorry she was for bringing so much trouble into their lives. She left the note on the kitchen table and went back into her room. Laying down on her bed, Miranda peeled the bandage from her wound and slowly thrust her hands into the opening in her flesh. Her bones crunched and unhinged. Her skin stretched and unraveled. A powerful force pulled her deep inside herself, into a swirling vortex of marbled light, and she was gone.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Five on the Fifth, The Fiction Pool, and others, and is forthcoming in Riggwelter. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.