Back to Issue Twenty-One.

spy girl

BY DANA DIEHL & MELISSA GOODRICH

 

            Spy Girl currently has three cases. The Case of the Missing 6. The Case of Bird-Stuck-in-the-Gymnasium. The Case of Lost-and-Found-Scarf. She expects that she will solve them all by Monday, but by then she might have new ones.

            Spy Girl goes to Spy School after regular school. Spy School has a diverse student body. At seven years old, Spy Girl is the youngest in her class, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a rich social life. At Spy School, Spies start intramural basketball teams and disco bands. Practice starts at 2 AM and goes until the sun rises. Everyone wants Spy Girl to be their lead singer, their offensive player, their co-Spy.

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            I am not supposed to have favorites. Spy Girl isn’t as smart as Samurai Boy, not as nice as the Unicorn Twins, not as funny as Astronaut Girl. But Spy Girl appreciates a secret. Of all my students, she’s the only one who doesn’t tattle when Booger Boy eats his boogers. She has the air of a child who already understands that the world is full of mostly-not-good people. She keeps her hair short and braided. She wears sneakers and high socks so her shins won’t be scratched when she crawls through an air vent or scales a brick wall.

            One day when I find a tissue box on my laptop, I know it’s from her. The tissues have been removed, and the box contains bird feathers, a large stone, a toothpick, a deformed charm abandoned from some bracelet. When I ask her what it means, she says she doesn’t know. She tells me what I tell her during art class when we’ve run out of paper, or when the pencil sharpener jams: problem solve. So now I watch her out the windows during recess. How she moves carefully over the surface of things. How she stoops, examines, picks up.

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            I’m a young teacher. Guessing my age is one of my students’ favorite pastimes. They leave notes on my laptop when I’m away in the bathroom. Miss Deal, are you twenty-seven? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? Miss Deal, are you thirty-two? Miss Deal, are you older than a mature alligator? Miss Deal, are you as old as Sacajawea was when she left with Lewis and Clark or younger?

            I press pastels to their fingertips, show them elementary watercolor technique, show them how to make a mobile, show them how to fold paper into cranes.

            I am still struggling with what it means to be a Teacher. I experiment with wearing knee-length dresses patterned with grinning 2-point pencils and frolicking dinosaurs. I experiment with wearing earrings shaped like radishes, like globes. I experiment with wearing short dresses with no leggings. I experiment with wearing leggings with no pants. I haven’t decided if I want to be Nice Teacher or Edgy Teacher or Fantasy Teacher or Bra-Straps-Are-Always-Showing-But-Not-in-a-Sexy-Way Teacher. 

            I spend my weekends chewing down my fingernails instead of painting like I said I would, thinking, How can I be expected to believe that everyone deserves to be happy because they are human? Thinking, If I were the Unicorns Twins’ mother would I put bows on their horns or grow their bangs out to cover them up?

            When I find a shoe box on my porch that is full of petals, I almost throw it into the air to see if I am Flower Child Teacher, but I am glad I don’t because when the petals push aside I see a flattened bird at the bottom. It looks like it might have been a finch, but I only ever pretend to know birds’ names. When I see Spy Girl on the playground the following day, she is sprawled out on her back, a fresh kill in a game. Why are children always killing each other in games? Why is there always lava, earthquakes, alligators? I watch Airplane Boy shake the wooden bridge while the children run across it screaming. I watch Airplane Boy get into his tiny him-sized plane at the end of the school day and take off into the air, as though it were nothing.

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            Sometimes I think of Spy Girl when I go grocery shopping. I imagine her hiding in the pyramid of limes, nose and cheeks painted yellow-green. When I reach for a carton of eggs, I imagine her on the other side of the shelves, eyelashes thick in the frosty shadows. When I go clothes shopping at the mall, I separate the hangers, the curtains of fabric, half expecting Spy Girl to be crouched at their center.

            Maybe that’s why when I bump into a man in the frozen food sections, I’m not surprised to see Spy Girl watching me from behind the shelf of chocolate sauce at the end of the aisle. The man makes me laugh, and I touch my hand to his arm as though I’m landing a plane. Spy Girl comes up to us and pokes her head around his body.

            “This is Lori,” he says to me, and I do the right thing just then: I act as though I have never met her.

            “Hi there, Lori. I’m Amanda.” I’m using a code name. I’ve decided I’m a spy girl too. Dave—that’s his name—asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a nurse. I tell him it’s been a long day drawing blood. I tell him a woman came in at three with a Lego man stuck up her nose. Spy Girl doesn’t bat an eye. I don’t bat an eye. I’m Amanda, the blood-drawing, Lego-removing nurse. And when he asks me out to dinner in the checkout line, I line up my lemons in rows and say, "Yes, of course, I’d like that." 

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            In art class we are working with plaster, and I bring in a dummy’s head to demonstrate how to cast a face.

            “First, you prepare your work area,” I say, but what I mean is: you are going to make a mess.

            We draw yards of protective plastic across the surfaces of tables, we spread newspaper on the floor, we don our smocks, we tie our hair back, all of us, and we get out the materials—the stuff dentists use to cast teeth.

            We don’t finish, of course, before the 50 minutes are used up—we’ve barely covered anything—only the curve of the nose, only one cheek. But Spy Girl wants to stay in from recess to start over. I tell her she can. I tell her anyone can change their face.

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            I live as though Spy Girl is always watching. I buy a coat with a hood just so I can duck into it. I wear concealer, conceal myself, even at night. I walk with the wind to my back. When I am not a teacher I am incognito, poring over racks of discount scrubs at Savers, wrapping gauze over imaginary wounds, lining my life with lies. Dave is coming over, and I’m boning up on anecdotes. I wonder what a nurse drinks, what she watches on TV. I set two electric candles on the table. I lavish stemmed grapes onto a plate. I leave kicked-off slippers near the sofa. What do nurses listen to? How do nurses wait? I decide to crack open the window, let the night air push in. When I push Dave down on the bed, do I need to be medical, procedural? Do I ask him about STIs? A nurse probably would. Although, maybe I’m the nurse who wouldn’t. Maybe I’m the reckless sort of woman who loves the blood and bone more than sewing it up. Maybe I’m always trying to get to the insides of things. Maybe that’s what I’ll say, when he asks me. When he says, I didn’t expect you to be this way, I can say, Neither did I.

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            Spy Girl stays in from recess, even though she’s already finished her plaster cast. She stays in to tell me that she is not really a Spy Girl. She made up the night school, the basketball teams. She made up the Case of the Missing 6, so she could also make up the solution. She left me boxes of stuff she found on the playground, so I would make it real with her. She tells me this expecting that I already know, but I don’t want to believe it. I tell her, Number 1 wants a complete report by sundown, no excuses.

            She stands on one side of my desk, and I stand on the other. She sighs and shakes her head like I’m the one who doesn’t understand. Spy Girl rolls her socks down her shins and tucks them into her shoes. When she leaves, I pull one of her assignments out from my hand-back pile. I leave a cryptic note in disappearing red ink.

            My friend, who is a teacher at a different school, says that she also has a Spy Girl. Her Spy Girl has a Spy Hideout in the janitor’s closet, and last month solved the Case of the Missing Fog Machine. She saved their theater department almost two thousand dollars. 

            I become defensive of my Spy Girl. I say that my Spy Girl is humble, keeps her cases small. She helps the individual, not the corporation.

            My friend tells me that sounds just fine, that everyone has their own skill set, but I can tell she’s judging my Spy Girl. I watch Spy Girl in the hallways, hoping she’s planning something big. But she’s stopped carrying around her notebook with her. She’s started growing out her hair.

            I try, in my ways, to reach out to her. I track in muddy footprints. I leave a file folder labeled TOP SECRET on the floor. Astronaut Girl picks it up and hands it to me. Astronaut Girl isn’t lying when she says she didn’t look inside. She fastens on her helmet before recess, smooths her silver suit.

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            Dave sees me on parent-teacher night. I am holding the microphone in one hand and a crayon drawing of Abraham Lincoln in the other. I have Ms. Deal in large letters on the name tag pinned to my blouse. I am wearing the skirt I wore to the supermarket when he met me, and I met me, the alternate-me, the Amanda. I don’t even notice him until the lights go up and splash across his cheekbones. Dave stands with a pamphlet over his heart. I spot Spy Girl poking up from in the shadows beneath the trash can lid, narrowing her eyes at me.

            When he approaches, I thrust my hand out at him. I am good at undercover now. I am good at making my hand feel like a stranger’s hand. "Amanda?" he says. And I tap my name tag and furrow my eyebrows. And I say, "Oh—with a smile—that’s my sister. I have a mole on my stomach, and that’s how you can tell. It’s so weird, being twins." 

            I know he’s supposed to meet me, the Amanda-me, later, in a theater, but I make no rush to leave the school. I make sure he leaves before I do. Spy Girl must be with him. I lift the trashcan lid, shake out the black bag, just to be sure. I tuck my hair behind my ears and fold my arms and leave.

            It’s hard for me, being a Spy Girl. At home I shower and strip off all my clothes. I can’t smell like a school. I need to smell like a hospital. I make a small incision across my ankle, use cotton balls and peroxide, bandage the hell out of myself. I splash my neck with peroxide and rub hand sanitizer over my hands. I pull my hair back into a ponytail, go outside and smoke. I’ve never seriously smoked, but it seems like what Amanda would do. Smokes between shifts, to keep her hands steady. I hope menthols are ok. I hope using my paring knife for an incision is ok. I wince when I bend my ankle. I tap the ashes off the porch. Inside I color the spaces under my eyes as if I just woke up, and I’m blowing off the night shift.

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            For days I don’t see Spy Girl. Her chair is empty, her cubby neat. It is like a ghost has moved in where she used to be. No one notices the mysterious way the Unicorn Twins have sharpened their horns, how Booger Boy sneaks a calculator out of his cargo shorts and punches numbers but no one can figure out what he’s calculating. The lights flicker when it’s lunchtime, and no one seems curious. No one notices when Manny passes a note to Almanzo, who passes a note to Nathan, who passes a note to August. No one notices that I’ve taped my toes together inside my shoes, that I’m experimenting with breaking and setting tiny bones, that my pinky is next. 

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            I am a popular teacher. The children shout my name when they see me in the hallway. They are always hugging. Walking through the hallway during class change is like walking through a field of nettles. Small hands clinging. They touch the fringe of my scarf. They grab my pinky. They reach for the pleats in my skirt. I’m not supposed to hug back. I have to be careful with the physical space. But I let them hug me, while resting a hand safely on the edge of their shoulder. They care more about hugging than being hugged.

            Not all of them are like this. Some of them aren’t babies anymore. Some of them have already grown tall, aware of their size and space. They don’t hug. They don’t reach for your hand.

            When Spy Girl returns, she’s like this. It’s like she’s taller now, it’s like she’s adopted a new identity, a quiet daytime persona. She joins the actual basketball team. She brings star-shaped suckers for a birthday treat. She plays clap-games with girls who don’t have horns, who don’t wear space suits. She calls herself Amanda, even though she isn’t.

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            Dave invites me to his place for a movie, and I decide to show up in my newest pair of scrubs. Purple, V-necked, with a tiny cactus print. I think about splashing some dyed corn syrup on the pants and calling it blood, but worry he’d think I’m a clumsy nurse, the kind who’d miss her patient’s vein or forget to dab a puncture wound with a cotton ball before applying the bandage.

            Dave lives in a first-floor duplex close to the school. He answers the door after my first knock, and I am breathless, all Sorry-I-Just-Got-Off-Work-Sorry-I’m-a-Mess. He says I’m exquisite, pulls me inside. The living room is classic bachelor pad, all Ikea furniture, all sharp square edges and black particleboard, scent of Clorox, freshly sprayed, in the air.

            “Where’s Lori?” I ask, and he says she’s with her mother.

            I want this to mean something. I want this to be a clue. While he pulls my scrubs over my head, off my hips, I look for tiny girl shoes kicked under the love seat, trails of crumbs on the coffee table, dog-eared magazines.

            “So weird you have a twin. I would’ve believe she was you,” he says, rubbing a thumb along the ridges left on my hip by the elastic waistband. He’s speaking into my neck. “Lori talks about her all the time. Your sister’s well-liked.”

            Who’s he more attracted to, I wonder, Sexy Nurse or Sexy Teacher? I think about picking him up as Teacher-Me, seducing him in my classroom under the plaster planet mobiles, starting a love triangle where two corners are myself.

            We roll around on his futon couch for a while, and when Dave finally puts on a movie, he falls asleep almost immediately, head tilted back against the cushions.

            I become a Spy Girl again. A Spy Girl in wrinkled-nurse disguise. I inhale and ease myself off the couch cushions. I’m barefoot, pad silent on the carpet. Dave’s duplex has only four rooms, and so I test doorknobs, peer into the dark spaces, wipe my fingerprints off the knobs with the sleeve of my scrubs. I find a room with a twin bed piled with stuffed animals and go inside. Shut the door. I use my cell phone to light up the corners blue. I’m depressed by how bare the walls are, how the animals on her bed are the animals you’d expect for a girl: bears, horses, frogs.

            I want to leave Lori something. A stethoscope or an earring hook or a tooth with its root still intact. I want her to know that things aren’t as they appear, there are people with secrets, people with broken toes hidden inside shoes. I want to save her from being Lori. Save her from being a girl with a girl’s name.

            Outside, in the hallway, the floor squeaks. Instinctually I drop, ease my body under the bed. I press my bare feet against the wall. Draw myself back and become tiny under the box springs. Lori’s door opens, and there’s Dave’s feet, sock-clad in the doorway.

            I haven’t had time to decide who I am yet, I think. I think, Please don’t come closer.

            Beside me, I feel breathing.

            It’s soundless but I feel it. And it’s soundless, but it’s her.     

 

 

Dana Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden's Ferry Review. Dana is the author of OUR DREAMS MIGHT ALIGN, recently released by Jellyfish Highway Press. Dana's fiction has previously appeared in Passages North, Booth, New South, and elsewhere. 

Melissa Goodrich received her MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona. Her stories have previously appeared in Gigantic Sequins, PANK, Artful Dodge, the Kenyon Review Online, American Short Fiction, and others. Her first collection of stories is DAUGHTERS OF MONSTERS, published by Jellyfish Highway Press.

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