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For years Ben kept his sunglasses on even at night so he didn’t have to look anyone in the eye. Because he believed in aliens and literature he was a target. People called him Ben Stink, if they bothered to call him anything at all. Shelby barely remembers him, but that was then. Now they’re comfortable with each other, if being comfortable is possible for either of them. When they meet they sit in a nearby park, mostly in silence, two loners who can barely make it through their own lives. As dusk falls they sometimes share a joint and talk about teachers they hated most. Shelby managed to get decent grades from even the toughest ones, but now she lets her true feelings out. She doesn’t have to be a good girl anymore. Whenever she talks about high school, Shelby takes out her house key and digs it into the palm of her hand until she bleeds. No miracle. That’s Helene’s business. Shelby’s blood is strictly a penance. It’s for real.
“I don’t think you should do that,” Ben said to her when he realized what she was doing, drawing her own blood while she sat beside him.
“You think?” she goaded him. “That’s a surprise. Did you know we used to think you were a werewolf?”
Shelby guessed he’d stalk away, insulted, and maybe that’s what she wanted to happen. Her aloneness, after all, is all she has. Instead Ben said, “I’m just worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” Shelby warned him.
“I wouldn’t mind being a werewolf,” he said, which only made Shelby feel guiltier about all those years they’d made fun of him.
Ben was fine as long as he didn’t talk, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. Say something, Shelby often thinks when he’s blabbing on. But not everything. Ben now asks if it’s true that touching Helene’s hand can cure an illness. That’s what people say. They say you can smell roses in her room, that she speaks to you without talking, that she can send a message to you that will reveal what you need to know about your future or your past. The first miracle happened on the day Helene’s parents brought her home. Helene’s grandmother had been unable to walk due to arthritis for more than ten years, but she got out of her wheelchair and walked straight to Helene. She never used her wheelchair again, until one day she suddenly said she needed to lie down, that she was too tired to walk. She told Helene’s mom to put her in her chair and wheel her into Helene’s room; then the old woman got into bed with Helene and passed right there, in comfort and peace.
After that, roses appeared on the dry stalks of the hedges in February, and in the spring the wisteria beside the driveway, always a faded purple, bloomed a pure white. A toddler with a scar on his face nuzzled his cheek against Helene’s pale hand and by evening his skin was without blemish. Folks come from all over, from the Midwest and Florida and New Jersey and France. Helene is famous, that’s another difference between them. There are magazine articles about the miracle of the girl in the coma. People who have been healed merely by being in her presence often give testimonials. Like Helene’s grandmother, they can walk again. The asthmatics can breathe. Babies who never slept and cried all night become calm. Jittery teenagers buckle down and become A students. The roses always bloom on the day of the accident, huge, blood-red flowers that are impervious to snow and ice. Roses in February are clearly a miracle, and they’ve been photographed and set on the front page of Newsday. Helene’s parents have been interviewed in People magazine, and this year Channel 4 sent out a news team to interview those who’ve been healed.
“Nobody with any brains would blame you for what happened to Helene,” Ben Mink says.
Shelby looks at Ben with horror, amazed he has the nerve to utter Helene’s name in her presence. She thought he was a little smarter than that. She’ll talk to him, but clearly she’s not about to discuss her feelings, not with him or anyone else. Feelings are best left concealed. They can bite you if you’re not careful. They can eat you alive. Shelby has a tremor in her left hand. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night and finds she’s shaking. As it turns out, people say Helene’s left hand is the source of the miracles. The concept that mere touch can cure you and restore your faith disturbs Shelby. Nothing can restore her. Shelby tosses Ben a desperate look. Not you too.
He immediately picks up on her contempt. “Not that I expect you to believe in that shit. I know I don’t.”
Shelby once had a beautiful smile. That’s long gone. It disappeared on that night, and at this point she doesn’t even think it’s possible for her to smile. She’s frozen into the expression of someone who expects the worst. She taps her foot constantly now, as if she were running and getting nowhere.
“I believe in tragedy,” Shelby responds coldly. “Not miracles.”
“Yeah, right. Faith is for idiots.” Ben seems relieved. “Statistics speak the truth.”
“You have to stop thinking. It’s going to drive us apart.” Shelby keeps her good hand over her tremoring hand. She can feel her brain waves shift when she smokes pot. Pseudo-coma. Drift of snow. What a relief. “Let’s not get too personal. I buy weed from you. Period.”
On the way home, Shelby realizes she’s probably spoken more to Ben Mink in the past two years than she has to anyone else. She counts the people she’s come in contact with, most of them from the psych ward. Shrink. Nurse. Pathetic members of her therapy group. Parents. Clerk at the 7-Eleven. The orderly, twice her age, who told her to keep her mouth shut as he pulled down her pants. Until then her only kisses had taken place in a closet during parties at Helene’s house. The orderly took her into a closet as well, a utility closet where there were mops and buckets and folded sheets and towels. She wasn’t speaking then. She tried to tell him no, but the word sounded like a sob.
The orderly’s name was Martin. He was holding her by one wrist as he forced his other hand into her underwear. He told her if she made any noise at all she would never get out of the hospital. The staff would think she was hallucinating if she tried to blame him for anything. The nurses would drug her and tie her to her bed. And if they did, he would still do whatever he wanted to her.
So Shelby didn’t speak. Instead, she rose out of her body. She watched the whole thing happen. She never told anyone what he did to her on a nightly basis because she was afraid of him, but also because she was worth nothing to herself. One night when they were locked in the shower room, he told her she was never getting away from him while he fucked her up against the cold, tiled wall. He said she belonged to him, a seventeen-year-old girl still bruised from her car accident who had tried to slit her wrists and was committed to this ward. He fucked her a second time on the damp floor that smelled of Lysol. It was the same cleaner her mother used, only Sue Richmond preferred the lemon scent, and Shelby cried for the first time since the accident while he held her down. Crying did something to her. It unlocked a small part of her soul. She kept seeing her mother’s face, thinking about what Sue would say if she could see what was happening, so she told her mother on her next visit. Months had passed and Shelby looked like a waif. It was impossible not to notice all the weight she’d lost, the slit across one wrist, the bruises Martin left on her. When her mother came to visit she spoke a single sentence, the first in months, the words like glass. The orderly Martin is fucking me. She and Sue were looking into each other’s eyes and Shelby thinks that in that moment her mother saw everything inside her. Sue raced down the hall, a crow, a wild woman, a scorpion ready to sting. She grabbed the first nurse she saw and informed her that Shelby was leaving. Sue told the nurse that her daughter didn’t have to pack up, all they needed was a doctor’s release. They would wait by the locked elevator until the physician on call signed Shelby out. If a release didn’t come through, there would be a lawsuit. They were in the car half an hour later, Shelby still wearing her pajamas. That night, down in the basement, Shelby took scissors and chopped at her hair. Then she used a straight razor on her scalp. She gazed at her reflection and it was clear: she wasn’t the same person anymore.