Cast of Wonders 278: Strong as Stone
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Strong as Stone
by Effie Seiberg
I thought Halloween would be different. The one day where I could go out and run around with kids my age, and be myself – truly myself, with nothing to hide. I was right, but not in the way that I thought.
For you see, I’m made of stone. My skin is rough granite, my teeth are like river-washed pebbles, my hair crystalline gypsum. I’m streaked in grays and whites and browns. All the races of the world shoot through my palms and ankles and stomach. I am the melting pot, where the stones of the earth liquefy and boil together.
The doctors don’t know what it is.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in and out of the hospital. Mostly in. A banged-up knee is a bigger deal if you chip off a piece and leave it on the sidewalk when you fall off your bike. Broken bones are not as big a problem as you might think, but gallstones and kidney stones, forced out through crystalline paths, are much more problematic. It’s hard for doctors to treat me when their needles break on my skin.
My parents tell me I need to be strong as the rocks I’m made of. Little girls need to be strong to deal with the whole wide world, and look how strong I am already, they say, when they see me crush a Coke can with one stony hand. But they protect me from the world. It’s nasty out there, they say. People don’t understand someone who’s different.
But Halloween, is where that can change. Where they’ll let me go outside and play with other kids like me, where it’s okay that I look different because that’s the day that everybody looks different. And I won’t need to wear long sleeves and gloves and a bandana over my nose and mouth, which is annoying because in the summer it gets really hot and I look even weirder dressed like that.
Sometimes I think they’re ashamed of me, of how I look. Why else would they want to hide me so. But Halloween… everyone is allowed to look like anything they want, so why not me? Why not go outside and feel the sun on my rocky skin and let it heat up, even in the chill October air. Everyone will think it’s a costume, a mask, and it will be okay.
I come up with a backstory. I’m Stony Girl, the strongest superhero. When the other kids say they’ve never heard of her, I’ll just act superior like they don’t read the latest comics. She’s got a blue and a green outfit with a blue insignia, because those are my favorite colors. But the other kids won’t need to know that.
I go to school online. There are classes for kids like me, kids in the hospital too often to keep up with a regular school. You can video in, but my parents told me I should keep my avatar up instead. Just because the other kids may have a tangle of tubes coming out of them doesn’t mean they too won’t be cruel.
They were right. One girl videoed in with burns on half of her face, and the other kids laughed at her. They called her pizzaface, and half-cheese-half-pepperoni. She cried, the tears making her wince when they hit her raw red flesh. At least stone doesn’t hurt like that. But even so, I’ve kept my avatar.
This year Halloween is on a Saturday. No school to video into with my “costume”, but there are block parties and parades and costume contests for everyone. And it’ll all be outside.
I’ve been working on my costume. A needle is hard to hold with fingers of stone. It slips out with a scrape, grating against my rough fingertips. I asked one of the nurses for a spare pair of rubber gloves, and those help keep the grip a bit. Thread is another issue. But the costume is done, after a month of work – a green shirt (tank top, where I can show my arms) with a big “SG” logo in blue, and a blue skirt. None of the newer superheroes have capes, so I don’t add one.
My parents are hesitant, but in the end they let me go. The neighborhood around our house (I’m rarely there – the hospital’s neighborhood feels more familiar) has a Halloween potluck in the street. No running, they tell me, so I don’t chip when I fall. Just be very very careful, they tell me, over and over.
It’s okay though. I’ll be able to play foursquare and jump rope and red light/green light and all the usual games I can’t play. No hand clapping games, though, to avoid bruising the other kids’ palms. And no freeze tag, so nobody slaps their hand on my stony flesh, even through my shirt.
I shake with excitement as I go outside, arms and legs and face and hair exposed. It’s windy, chilly. My hair doesn’t move, stalactites curving down my head in tans and browns. I lift my face to the cold October sun and feel the weak heat come down on me. I can feel dry leaves whip around my bare gray ankles. It’s glorious.
As I walk with my parents through to the cluster of neighbors (not my neighbors – my neighbors are the kid with liver cancer and the kid with scleroderma – these are my parents’ neighbors) I see people point and stare. But everyone’s pointing and staring at everyone, as the costumes stream through, so it’s okay. For once, I’m just like everyone else.
A big smile cracks through my face, tiny pieces of granite crumbling at the corners. It hurts a bit, but I’m too happy to care. I run over to a group of kids that look about my age.
“Hi!” I say with a wave. “I like your costumes.” There’s a Batman and a princess and a Pikachu and a teddy bear.
“Who are you supposed to be?” says the kid dressed as Batman. His mask is too big for his face, and he chews the bottom of the nosepiece.
I’m glad I prepared for this. “I’m Stony Girl! The strongest superhero out there!” I strike a pose, one arm flexed and the other pointing out. I bet I look like I can take on the world. But to make sure I don’t sound like I’m putting him down, I add, “I bet between Stony Girl and Batman, we could save the world from all the bad guys out there! Stony Girl’s strength plus Batman’s great fighting powers make us unstoppable!” I smile. Batman isn’t smiling back.
The princess gives me a strange look. She’s got glitter lip gloss on, and it shimmers as she curves out the words, “I’ve never heard of Stony Girl. What are you, some kind of nerrrrd?” She stretches it out.
“I’m not. Stony Girl is real! She’s so strong, she can lift buildings and throw cars. She saves people from supervillains.” Good thing I had the backstory ready.
“I’ve never heard of her either,” says Batman. “But you know who’s made of rock? The Thing!”
The teddy bear and the Pikachu laugh. “Haha yeah, The Thing! He’s a big monster made of rock, like you!” says the Pikachu.
“And as ugly as you!” says the teddy bear.
“Yeah!” says the princess. “You’re not The Thing, you’re The Ugly Thing! Because you’re so ugly!”
This gets another laugh from the teddy bear. “Ugly Thing! Ugly Thing!” she chants.
I want to cry, but rocks can’t do that. So all I feel is pressure behind my nose and eyelids, where water would come out if it could. You can’t squeeze water from a stone. So the underground geyser has nowhere to go, and the pressure builds up.
Maybe these are just mean kids. I didn’t want to be friends with mean kids anyway. I’m as strong as stone. I walk up to the table where all of the adults have brought their food.
Two identical plastic containers with vanilla and chocolate cupcakes with orange jimmies on top sit next to three identical plastic containers with pumpkin-shaped cookies. Looks like some of the adults go shopping at the same Safeway. I grab a cookie. Crunchy things feel better in my mouth. My teeth are good at grinding and snapping, but my stiff basalt tongue is not as good at poking into the crevices to lick out frosting stuck between them.
One of the mothers is there, arranging orange and black paper napkins next to orange and black plastic forks. She’s put on cat ears and drawn whiskers on her face. “Ooh, aren’t you scary!” she said. “What kind of monster are you?”
The pain beneath my nose and eyelids grows. I’m not a monster! I’m a superhero! Why can’t they see that? I clench my fists, crumbles of shale coming off my nails as they grind against my palms.
Without a word I run to the other side of the table where I just barely manage to stop myself before I run into another one of the mothers. This one is in some sort of warrior costume, with a gold plastic breastpiece and a gray plastic sword strapped to her side.
“Oh no!” she says in mock horror. “A scary monster! Whatever will I do?” She draws her plastic sword and makes a few swipes in the air. I bury my face in my hands, wishing the tears would come so at least the geyser could blow.
“Aw honey, I’m sorry,” she said, kneeling down. “It was just a bit of fun. Here, you can play with my sword if you want. What are you supposed to be? Your makeup is just incredible!” She’s wearing too much eyeliner, and there are clumps at the end of her eyelashes. If that’s what makeup makes you look like, I don’t want it.
I raise my face out of my hands. “It’s not makeup,” I whisper. It’s just me. They think I’m the monster. Even a superhero insignia can’t make them look past my monstrous face.
“No no, of course it’s not makeup!” She’s playing along. “Oooh, you’re just the scariest thing I’ve ever seen!”
I run back to my parents, past the crowd of kids who, when they see me, chant “The Thing! The Thing! Uglier than anything!” I can’t even console myself with how pathetic their rhyme is.
I guess it takes Halloween for the monster to come out. Look out, here she comes. Run and hide, or the ugly rock monster will getcha. All they see is stone, and what’s inside makes no difference. I could be the most beautiful geode in the world, with blue and purple and gold shimmering crystals inside, and they’d still laugh. Would they stop, if I broke open and they could see what was inside? Or would even that not make a difference?
I find my dad and bury myself in his pant leg. He reaches down to hug me, and I can feel him jolt back a bit when he feels the heat from my stony skin. He kneels down and cups my hot face in his hands, “Sweetie, I’m so sorry,” he says. He gives me another hug, and as he moves his hands away from my face I see they’ve gotten a bit pink from the temperature. That’s what happens when you can’t cry.
He turns to my mom and gives her a knowing look. “Come on sweetheart,” he says softly. “Let’s take you back to the hospital.”
Within the week, it’s back to the usual. Online classes, doctors taking skin samples (skin chips, which they bore out with a diamond-tipped drill which itches as it whirls), pain in my stomach, doctors putting me in more machines that beep and buzz. I don’t like it, but here at least I’m someone to take care of. Someone who poses an interesting problem. Someone who can speak up in class when we learn about long division or the ecosystem, because my voice is not so gravelly to be distinguishable. My avatar is as good a mask as any.
But the next day, I get a new neighbor. This kid’s hands and feet and tongue burn with red-orange fire. The doctors have a hard time getting close enough to him, and he keeps burning through the bedclothes. Eventually they bring in a metal gurney for him and set it up like a bed, and dress him in aluminum foil. The metal glows to match the flames, but doesn’t bend or drip. They bring in heavy clumsy heatproof gloves that make them struggle with the needle for the IV. They say he’s getting dehydrated, and no wonder. The IV quickly boils and bursts from the pressure, scalding water shooting everywhere. A few of the nurses shriek as it burns their skin.
Eventually they clean things up and leave. The boy is one more puzzle to be solved. He lies there, heat emanating from his side of the room.
“Hi,” I say.
He turns over onto his side and looks at me. But his eyes don’t do that giant jump, that sudden widening like a blob of silly putty splatting onto the ground, when they see me. He looks me up and down, thinking.
“I bet they call you The Thing,” he says.
I scrunch my lips together, hard enough that some bits of rock scrape together and crack. So he’s going to be like that. Fine. He can go burn on his own. I wonder if you can tell someone who’s on fire to go to hell.
“They laugh at me too,” he continues, flames jumping from his lips as he talks. “They call me the Human Torch, after the other guy in the Fantastic Four. It’s not that bad though.”
I un-purse my lips. “Why’s that?” Tiny bits of cracked stone fall from my mouth and make a quiet clatter on the floor.
“Cuz we’re badass!” he says. “We may be freaks now, but someday we’re gonna save the universe. We’re better than those superheroes, because we’re real. Those ones are only what people dreamed they could be. Everyone wants to be a superhero, but all they can do is put on tights and a mask, and even then it’s only pretend. But us – we don’t need a mask. And tights are stupid anyway, and don’t make you any more super.”
I smile. My stony face isn’t used to that – my cheeks feel stiff as I push them out. “I’m Emma.”
He smiles back, fire between his teeth. “I’m Roger. I can melt the corner of this bed, if I concentrate enough. Check it out.” He does.
I look around. “I can break the chain that holds the window shut.” I walk over and squeeze it between my hands. It’s hard, but after a bit of work I’ve made a thin spot in the metal. I waggle the bits of metal in the link back and forth until they break, and then shimmy it out of the lock on the window.
“Nice!” he says, appreciative. “Can you open it?”
I push the windowpane to the left, and a light breeze hits my stony skin. I catch my reflection in the glass. My cheeks sparkle a bit where the sun hits them, prettier than any stupid princess’s glitter lipgloss. My sparkle is real. I’m as strong as stone. And stone is beautiful.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others, as well as on PodCastle and Escape Pod.
Effie lives in San Francisco. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can follow her on twitter at @effies, or read more of her work at effieseiberg.com.
About the Narrator
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019.
When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts. You can find out more at her website www.elizachan.co.uk or on twitter @elizawchan.