“Mary A Through Z,” by Jennifer Diemer
Mary Q has grown up on a scientific compound surrounded by twenty-five girls who look exactly like her. They may share her face, but Mary Q isn’t certain that they all share her secret longing to escape and experience the strangeness of the world.
(photo by Borikatu)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“Mary A Through Z”
by Jennifer Diemer
They say we all look the same, but we don’t. Mary T plucked her eyebrows so that they arch up. Mary M wears her hair in a bun fastened with black bobby pins. Mary C wears her hair in a bun fastened with brown bobby pins. And Mary H fell down when she was four and scraped her arm; there’s a scar below her elbow shaped like the branch of a tree.
If you know what to look for, we’re different enough. None of us needs to glimpse the letters printed on our t-shirts to know whom we’re talking to, or studying with, or sharing secrets with.
But we aren’t wearing the shirts for our sakes, of course. The scientists can never tell us apart, even though they’ve known us since birth. A few of the girls have switched shirts and tried to trick them, but we have the tattoos, too, on the underside of our left wrists, so the pranksters are often found out in the end—and punished: sent to their rooms without dessert, or deprived of their favorite video games for the night.
Still, for all of our differences, sometimes I get tired of staring at my own face. Twenty-six girls with identical features—the same green eyes; the same brown hair, wavy when it’s damp but otherwise board straight; the same crooked bottom teeth; the same freckle to the left of the narrow, sloping nose.
We’re special, I know. Or…that’s what they tell us. We’re unique in all the world. Never before have there been so many human beings with identical genetic composition. We’re a shining achievement for science, a golden opportunity to study the effects of nature versus nurture—everything from annoying habits to serious illnesses and psychological disorders.
With us, with our creation, the geneticists feel as if they’ve found the hammer to crack the code to the whole human experience.
Maybe they have.
But all I want to crack is every mirror in this stupid compound. I want to cut my hair off and dye it neon blue.
I want to run away.
Mary X tried two weeks ago—to run away. She didn’t get far; the gate zapped her. And now she hardly ever comes outside anymore. When she does, there are guards on either side of her, keeping close watch. She’s more of a captive than ever before.
They’ve made an example of her. They want us all to witness the consequences of defiance. They want us to see the shame of it, the humiliation.
But when I catch Mary X’s eyes across the yard, there’s no shame there, only resolve. She hasn’t given up. If she sees her chance, she’ll try to escape again. And this time, maybe she’ll make it out.
I hope she does.
Mary R is my best friend. We were assigned to be best friends at birth, and so…we are. Because that’s how the letters of the alphabet divide up—Q (me) and R (her), side by side. We share bunk beds and are always partnered together during activities. Like now. We’re in class, dissecting a frog. More important than the actual dissection, Scientist Greg told us, are our personal reactions to the dissection. So he moves around the room, asking us how we feel as we slice into the flesh and remove and label the small amphibian’s organs.
“I feel fine,” I tell him, when he comes to me, but Mary R’s face is a sickly shade of green.
“And you, Mary R?” Scientist Greg asks, making a note on his chart.
“I feel…fine, too,” she stammers. Her smile is wavery. I can tell she’s feeling very ill, not fine at all.
But Scientist Greg nods his head and continues on to the next table, where Mary S and Mary T are arguing over whose turn it is to cut open the heart.
“Why did you lie?” I ask Mary R, once the scientist is out of earshot.
She swallows and stares down at her white-gloved hands. “I don’t want more tests, extra tests. I hate how they pinch me and stare. I hate…” Her voice trails off, and she lifts her eyes to meet mine. There are tears shining upon her lashes. “I hate this place,” she whispers, tears sliding down her cheeks.
I draw in a deep breath, the skin on my arms prickling.
I hate this place. The words spiral in my head until they’re all I can hear, all I know.
I’ve only ever heard them once before—though not from Mary R. Or anyone else who lives at M Compound.
“Psst! You! Come here!”
“W—what?” I pull my eyes away from the stars above me and see…a girl. “What do you—” The words catch in my throat.
I had assumed the girl was Mary P, who likes to tease me about my stargazing; or maybe Mary D, who takes long walks at night. Either way, I’d assumed the girl was a Mary, could only be a Mary, because…I’d never seen a girl who wasn’t.
But a second later, I realize that this is a different girl, with different eyes and different hair—long black hair. A tall, lovely girl wearing a dirty t-shirt marked with an O, her face a calm but fierce expression of purpose.
“Hey,” she whispers. “Come here.”
Nervous, startled, I almost refuse, almost run off toward the dormitory that houses the scientists, to alert them about the intruder in our midst. What if she means us harm? What if she—
“I won’t hurt you,” she tells me softly, then, as if she knows what I’m thinking. “I want to help you. Please…move out of the light so that I can talk to you.”
There’s no reason for me to believe her. We’ve been taught from infancy that all strangers are threats. Of course, no strangers have ever passed through the compound’s electrified gate. It has an ultra-sensitive motion detector. If someone—a person or an animal, or anything that projects warmth—comes within two feet of it, the gate sizzles and sends a shock through the air, shooting electricity out in a wide arc, like fingers made of fire.
The scientists have demonstrated this for us many times. They even set up a live demonstration, right after Mary X’s escape.
They opened a can of tuna and lured a cat right up to the fence.
It happened so quickly. The light was blinding, and the wail the animal made…
Sometimes I still hear it, when I look at Mary X. And when I dare to wish for my own freedom.
Mary R cried herself to sleep that night. I cried, too, but not loud enough for her—or anyone else—to hear.
“Please,” the girl says again. Her dark eyes, reflecting the outdoor lights, glitter, as if they, like the sky, contain constellations. Universes I’ve never learned about in my astronomy books. New stars.
I’m staring, but I can’t help myself. It’s not only that she’s not a Mary. It’s not only that I’ve never seen another girl like her. It’s that…she’s pretty. Sometimes I clip out photos of pretty girls from magazines and tape them up on the wall beside my bunk bed. Mary P tells me it’s a weird thing to do, that I’m weird for doing it, because all of the other Marys have pictures of boys on their walls.
But I don’t care what she—or anyone else—thinks. I like the girls best. And I told her as much.
This girl reminds me of the girls from the magazines. Pretty like them.
Except she’s real. She’s here.
And she looks strong and brave and all of the things I wish I were, dream to be.
I make up my mind, then: I walk up to the girl, keeping a small space between us, and say, tentatively, “Hi.”
Her mouth flashes me a smile that makes her whole face light up—like a comet streaking past. But the smile fades fast as she leans toward me. “I’ve come for you, to save you. Where are the others? What are you called, Margarets? Mollys?”
“M—Marys,” I breathe, shaking my head. “I’m Mary Q. How did you know… Who are you? Why—”
The girl waves her hands, glancing back over her shoulder, and I can see, in the distance, beyond the gate, a gathering of lights bobbing up and down, smearing white against the silhouettes of the trees. Lights. Flashlights, maybe.
“We’ve come to save you.” Her eyes are intense, her tone urgent. “You have to hurry, before—”
“Who are you?” I say again, and she bows her head, sighing.
“Katie O.” Her expression hardens. “From the K Compound. Though I go by Ocean now.”
Her lip curls a little, and a blush creeps over her face. “Because I’ve always wished to see it. The ocean. And I will. We all will.”
“Go gather the others.” She peers over her shoulder and turns back to me, breathless. “We’ve deactivated the fence, but it’s only a matter of time before someone notices, before they start it back up again, and then it’ll be too late.” She scowls, looking around at the flat-roofed buildings and the short-cropped lawns. “I hate this place. It looks just like my compound, like all of the compounds.” Her eyes darken. ” You’re the last ones, Mary. You and the rest of your…friends.”
I grip the sides of my head. “None of this makes sense. What do you mean, we’re the last ones? Who—”
A warm hand grazes my temple, sliding down to rest against my cheek. I gaze into Katie’s—I mean, Ocean’s—eyes and feel myself, my world, coming loose, sliding away…drawn, as if by gravity, toward her new, unfamiliar universe.
“Okay,” I whisper, surprising myself—and Ocean, I think, because her eyes grow wide. “Okay. I’ll wake them. I’ll… Somehow, I’ll make them come.”
She squeezes my hand, urging me on. “I’ll wait right here, in the shadows. Try to hurry. I don’t know how long—Oh!”
Suddenly, I can’t see, and several seconds pass before I figure out why. The floodlights—they’re all on, all at once, and the brightness is too much, brighter than daylight, like staring straight into the sun.
Ocean’s hand tears away. “We’ll be back, Mary Q!” she hisses, “I promise! Be ready!” And then she doesn’t say anything more, and I’m running, shielding my eyes, racing in the direction of my dormitory, desperate to hurl myself indoors and escape the burning, scalding light.
I didn’t get caught. The light chased Ocean away, but it also concealed me—and her—from the scientists’ sight. I think she escaped before they pumped electricity back into the fence. I think she did, because I didn’t hear it go off—zap!—and she seemed fast, and sure…
We’ll be back, Mary Q! Be ready!
Her voice, in my memories, is still so clear, so certain.
Ocean spoke those words three days ago. I didn’t tell anyone what happened, not even Mary R. I almost did once, but I stopped myself, because I figured it would only frighten her, make her worry.
I glance at her now, still green-faced, crying softly to herself, and I bite my lip.
She’s as tired of being a test subject as I am.
So now it’s me, Mary R…and Mary X, too. Three fed-up girls out of twenty-six.
I wonder, resting my scalpel against the desk, do all of the Marys hate it here? The scientists insist that we are the same—every pore identical, every hair. Still, I know that we don’t all have the same interests, don’t dream the same dreams.
But…do we all—every one of us—want to run away?
When darkness falls, no matter how cold it is, and even if it’s raining, I watch the stars. It’s my private ritual, and my rebellion. The scientists have taught us about the planets and the constellations, but I don’t try to pick out Venus or the Pleiades while I’m staring up into space. I think of the vastness, the endlessness. I think of a world, a life without limitations, without fences.
I think of the billions of stars and imagine that, instead, they are billions of people—each of them with their own face, their own story, their own triumphs and mistakes.
We aren’t supposed to concern ourselves with what lies beyond the fence. We’re more special than anything out there, they say. We’re too unique and precious to waste a thought on the world—the world with its strangers.
Strangers with eyes full of stars.
I tiptoe into the dormitory and sit down on my bed, surrounded by the soft shushing of the other Marys breathing, sleeping and—in the case of Mary U, snoring. It’s a nice sound, a comforting sound.
With a sigh, my head still full of sky, I lay back. But something crinkles beneath my pillow when I rest my head upon it. I slide my hand between the mattress and the pillow and draw out a small piece of paper, folded in half.
There’s little light to see by, only starlight beaming in through bare windows, but the writing is thick and dark—inked upon the paper with a heavy hand.
Heart racing, my eyes follow the black lines:
Be ready. Tonight they come.
I crumple the paper hastily and stuff it into my pillowcase, sitting up, my mouth dry and my palms sweating.
How did Mary X get into the dormitory? She sleeps in a locked room in the schoolhouse. And how did she know that I knew about Ocean?
I’m going to leave this place.
The sudden certainty of that blots out my questions, fills me to bursting—and jolts me into action.
“Wake up!” I hiss, after leaping off of my bed and poking at Mary R’s side in the bunk above me. “Wake up! Mary R, wake up!”
“Wha…Mary Q?” She blinks her eyes—my eyes, all of our eyes—and rubs at them with a balled fist. “What time is it? Did I sleep in?”
“No. Listen.” I hoist myself up by placing my feet on the edge of my bottom bunk and wrapping my arms around the railing surrounding her mattress. “Someone’s coming. To help us. To take us away from here.”
She gasps. “But—who? How do you know? Where will they take us?”
“I don’t know all of the answers… There’s no time to figure it all out. But this is our chance—maybe our only chance. So you’ve got to make up your mind fast. You said you hated it here, right?”
Almost imperceptibly, Mary R bobs her head.
“I do, too. And I think…” I glance around the room full of sleeping girls who look just like Mary R and me. “I think some of them do, too. Maybe all of them. But we’ve got to give them the choice. Will you help me?”
Again, Mary R nods, and her hand covers mine. “Is it really true, Mary Q?”
“I think so.” I breath out hard, swallowing. “Either way, everything changes tonight.”
Mary R and I shake everyone awake and tell them to get up and get ready, if they want to go.
“But where will we go?” Mary G asks.
“And who are these strangers come to save us? Are they nice? Are they dangerous? Will they put us through more tests? Will they feed us, take care of us, like the scientists do?” Mary F wrings her hands together, biting at her lips, though she’s standing with a small bag slung over the shoulder of her nightgown.
“I don’t know what awaits us.” I stand before twenty-four girls and try not to tremble, remembering Ocean’s strength. “But I know that I want to see the world. I want to meet people. I want to…” My lower lip shakes. “I want to dance and eat too much ice cream and…and fall in love.”
In a small voice, Mary A pipes up, “I want that, too. I want a kiss—from a boy who plays music and writes songs for me.”
“I want to see the mountains,” Mary Y sighs, her eyes pointed toward the floor. “And gardens and elephants and snakes!”
Mary J shivers. “Ew, snakes!”
“Yes, snakes. I think they’re lovely.”
“You’re strange,” Mary P says, making a face.
“No.” I step before them all, and suddenly I’m not afraid anymore. Suddenly, I feel strong, instead of just pretending at it. “You aren’t strange, Mary Y. You’re just you. And, Mary J, if you hate snakes, that’s just you, too. We’re all entitled to our own thoughts, and no one—no one, not the scientists or anybody else—can tell us they’re the wrong thoughts, or aberrant thoughts that need to be analyzed in the lab. We may look the same and even sound the same, but we aren’t the same, because I’m me, and you’re you. And that’s…” I swallow down a sob. “That’s beautiful. Different is beautiful.”
“But everything’s different…out there.” Mary R looks at me with fear in her eyes. “What if it’s scary? What if we can’t understand it, or what if—”
“We’ll have each other. We’ll learn the world together. And then, when we’re ready…” I sigh, thinking of Ocean’s comet-flash smile. “Then we’ll choose our own way. No limits. No fences.”
“No tests,” Mary R whispers, mustering up a tiny smile as her hand slips in mine.
We all jump as the dormitory door blows open.
Standing in the doorframe, silhouetted against the night, Mary X gestures us toward her, her eyes flickering like green flames. “They’re here!” she shouts, wasting no time with whispers, and, without another word, we pour outside, huddled together on the lawn, until Mary X again beckons us to follow.
“They’re waiting! There!” She points toward the fence.
I see her, and a rush of warmth fills my chest, and I run toward her, calling her name.
“Mary Q,” she smiles.
Her fingers reach through the fence separating us and grasp my fingers, holding them tightly, squeezing. “The fence is off. Don’t worry. I’m…I’m glad to see your face again.”
“Well…” I incline my head toward the girls surrounding me. “It’s not only my face. They all have it, too.”
But, “No,” she says softly, still smiling. “It’s your face, yours alone. I’d know it anywhere. Besides…” Now it’s her turn to nod at the people surrounding her. There are dozens of them, boys and girls both, all dressed in dark clothing, whispering instructions to the Marys in hushed tones. “There are 25 other Katies running around, too. See?”
I do see. There are many girls who look like Ocean, and I realize, then, that her compound—K Compound—was just like M Compound, only with different faces, different genes.
But there are other girls, too, who don’t look like Ocean. And identical boys demonstrating for the Marys the proper way to climb the fence.
“You’ll have to climb,” Ocean tells me. “All of you. Can you do it?”
“Yes,” I tell her, and I let go of her hand and jam my bare feet between the chinks—knowing that, at any moment, the fence could come alive, could electrocute me like the poor dead cat, but also knowing that, on the other side of the fence, Ocean waits for me. Ocean…and the whole world.
At the top of the fence, I glance back over my shoulder. The compound looks so small from up here. Not special at all.
“Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?” Mary X says beside me, grinning.
“Yeah.” I draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “How did you know they were coming, Mary? And how did you know I—”
“Sometimes we slipped notes through the fence. And when I got locked up in the schoolhouse, they started flinging notes through my window. I broke the window tonight, got out. They tried to help me escape that first time, but…” She shrugs. “Now’s better than never.”
I swallow and nod my head, swinging my leg onto the other side of the fence. “Now’s everything,” I breathe.
The floodlights come on before we’re all on the ground, but the few girls still clinging to the fence let go and drop down, and then we take off running—into the woods, into a world we were never meant to see.
I’m going to cut off my hair and dye it neon blue, I think, panting. I’m going to eat too much ice cream. I’m going to fall in love.
Ocean squeezes my hand and whispers into my ear, “I know a great place for stargazing. I’ll show it to you, Q.”
I look into the galaxies swirling in her eyes, bow my head, and smile. You already have.
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