Officially they were called foundlings. We called them freaks. They went to the same school as us, but we hardly ever saw them. They had their own classroom, on the other side of the building, which none of us had ever entered. They did not eat lunch in the cafeteria with the rest of us. None of them went home after school, or even seemed to have parents.
When we were younger, we stared at them openly as our class line passed theirs in the hallway. We gawked at the awkward way some of them shuffled, and at the way others were covered in enormous robes that covered their entire bodies. Many of them wore masks. Their teachers, wearing long white coats and carrying clipboards, herded them along back to their classroom. As we grew older, we turned away when we saw them, though we still peeked at them out of the corners of our eyes.
We told wild stories about them. They were the children of foreign royalty, being protected from assassins; they were vampires, cloaked to avoid the daylight; they were not actually going to school, but were being trained as top-secret spies. When we felt particularly brave at recess, we would sneak through the bushes at the back of the school until we came out behind their classroom. Then, we would dare each other to go and look in the window and see what was inside.
I got pretty close one day when I was ten. My best friend, Tegan, dared me to go and look inside the freaks’ room.
“You go,” I said, shaking my head.
“Scaredy-cat,” Tegan taunted.
“I don’t wanna get zapped,” I protested, sinking down into the bushes, despite the prickly leaves biting into my shins.
“Zapped?” she asked.
“Like Kelly said. If you look through the window, you get zapped with their super-powers.”
Tegan’s big blue eyes widened for a moment. Then, she frowned.
“Alatea, you are one big liar. Kelly never said no such thing.”
“She did too say so,” I argued.
“Well, what does Kelly know about it anyway? You are just too scared to look through that window, even without any zapping.”
“Am not!” I hissed.
“Alatea’s scared!” Tegan warbled. “Alatea’s scared. Scared, scared, scared!” Her voice began to approach a shriek.
I shoved a hand over her mouth.
“Ok, I’ll go, just shut up!”
She grinned, exposing her missing front teeth. She was too pleased at her victory to care that I had used bad language.
I slithered forward out of the bushes, onto the grass. There were about fifteen feet of yard ahead of me, then the whitewashed brick of the building. The window was high up. I would have to stand on tiptoes, or even hang by my arms to get a good look inside.
My heart pounded furiously as I crawled forward. Tegan always manipulated me like this. If I survived, I was not going to tell her a thing I saw, so there!
I reached for the windowsill and pulled myself up to look inside the room. The window proved to be tinted – I could barely see inside. But I was sure that the room was nothing like ours. There were no chairs, no desks, and no pictures on the walls. The chalkboard was covered with scribbled things I could not understand. They seemed like math, but harder than long division. Instead of books, the shelves held bottles and tubes. Pressing my face to the glass, I glimpsed a flash of white coat. One of their teachers was leaning over a shape, a syringe in his hand. I bit my lip. I hated shots.
Suddenly, a door in the front of the room opened. Startled, my weary arms let go of the window, and I toppled onto the ground. Terrified that I had been heard, my heart racing even more than before, I hurried back to where Tegan lay hidden.
“Ooh, I can’t believe you did it!” she whispered. “What was it like?”
I shrugged, and folded my trembling arms across my chest, hoping to look jaunty.
“Not much,” I said. “No big deal, really. Only they have their own doctor in there, too.”
“I guess they never need to leave the school at all,” Tegan said. “Is that really all you saw?”
That was my closest encounter with the freaks for another two years.
By seventh grade, we thought ourselves too old for crawling about in bushes. Instead, during our free time – of which we now had much less – Tegan and I would wander down to the track and watch the boys’ classes in gym. We didn’t know any boys very well any more, because our classes had been separated after fifth grade, but we remembered the names of some of them and gave nicknames – some kinder than others – to the rest.
Sure, we knew the freaks were still around, but our fascination with them had dulled over the years. By the middle of seventh grade, we hardly thought about them at all.
All that changed one morning when Ms. Hammell introduced a new student to our class.
New students had entered our class before. The teacher would stand with them at the front of the room and introduce them to us.
“Class, this is Lisabel,” she would say.
“Hi, Lisabel,” we would chorus. Then, we would go around the room and introduce ourselves one by one. Finally, Ms. Hammell would send Lisabel to sit at an empty desk and assign her a guide to help her until she knew her way around the school.
That day, in the middle of May, Ms. Hammell’s face was pale as chalk, her fists clenched on her desk.
“Class…,” she began. “This…I mean, today….” Her voice faded away.
We understood at once. Standing beside Ms. Hammell was a girl whose head was covered by a flowery scarf. Her arms dangled before her, long and twisted. Her legs were short, and her feet stuck out to the sides at awkward angles. Her hunched back strained against the loose uniform blouse we all wore.
A nervous giggle echoed from one corner of the room.
What words can describe the horror of that moment for all of us? A freak was wearing our uniform, joining our class. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. And poor, poor, Ms. Hammell, trying to pretend everything was fine.
“Class, this is…Iphigenia,” she managed at last. “You can sit over there.” She pointed at a desk at the very back of the room, off to the side, where it was hardly visible from the front. That was why none of us were currently using it, and, no doubt, why Ms. Hammell wanted Iphigenia to sit there.
Then, she did something that erased all my sympathy for her in an instant.
“Alatea will be your guide,” she said. “She can help you find the cafeteria later on and show you around during free time.”
My stomach lurched. Guide to…that? I glanced over at the freak and then looked away. All around me, my classmates were doing the same thing. Some of them were also giving me sympathetic (but relieved) looks.
As Ms. Hammell gave the lesson, I steeled myself. I would have to take Iphigenia down to the cafeteria and pretend she was ordinary. I would have to keep her from sensing my discomfort. I would have to be as unobtrusive as possible. Ms. Hammell had assigned me to be the guide – I hadn’t volunteered. Surely nobody would give me a hard time about it. And Tegan would be there, so it wouldn’t be so horrible.
When Ms. Hammell stopped the lesson and dismissed us, my legs refused to budge. I could not have moved, even if I had wished to. I sat like a statue while the rest of the class filed out of the room.
“Aren’t you going to go, Alatea?” Tegan asked, adjusting the pink ribbon in her hair.
I swallowed and nodded.
“Poor thing,” she said. “You don’t deserve it.”
I turned and glimpsed the freak, carefully sliding from behind her desk and tucking away her notebook. She looked up, and our eyes met. I wanted nothing more than to look away, but she held my gaze. For the first time, I was looking directly at her face.
Unlike her distorted body, her face was almost normal. Round and homely, but for an instant I thought there was a certain sweetness to it. Her lips, puffy and a bit lopsided, lifted in a slight smile. She shuffled towards me.
I had no idea what to say. I looked at Tegan, mentally pleading with her not to leave me alone with the freak.
“Well, see you later,” Tegan said and headed for the door.
I sighed and stared at the ground. Then, without turning around again, I said, “let’s go. I’ll show you where the cafeteria is.” I walked towards the door, hearing the freak’s heavy footstep behind me.
I led her down the hall, feeling even more awkward than when I told Marcus that I liked him the year before and been immediately rejected. Eventually, I felt that I needed to say something.
“Umm…I’m Alatea,” I tried.
“My name is Iphigenia,” she replied from behind me. Her voice was light and precise, as if she took great care in speaking every word. “I am sorry that your friend left you behind.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said, wanting to defend Tegan. “Probably I would have left her behind if she had been assigned to guide a freak…” The word just slipped out of me, I was so used to using it, but my voice faded away as I realized what I had said to her.
The sound of her feet faded. I stopped too.
“Is that what you think of me?” she asked quietly.
“No!” I exclaimed. “It’s just what we call…” I searched my memory for their real name. “It’s what we call the foundlings,” I finished, more uncomfortable by the moment. “Sorry. I guess I never really thought about it.”
“I understand,” she said, surprising me. She sounded calm, not angry at all. “You do not know anything about us. I imagine to you we would be quite strange.”
“We used to try to guess who you were,” I offered, hoping she would say more. “We imagined you were foreign royalty, or spies, or something like that.” I didn’t mention the vampires. One insult was more than enough.
She laughed a little, and then coughed.
“No, nothing like that. The cafeteria is this way, right?” She brushed by me, to lead the way herself. I followed her, forced to look at her hunched back and limping gait. I wondered if there was any hair under the scarf that hid her head. I was surprised she knew the way, but then realized that she had probably been in this school for as many years as I had.
When we came to the entrance of the cafeteria, I halted.
“So, here it is,” I said. “You don’t need me to show you any more, do you?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said. She sounded tired.
I fled, hoping I would be able to avoid her in the future.
The next day, I entered the classroom to find Kelly moving her books into my desk.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “We aren’t supposed to change seats for another three weeks.”
“Ms. Hammell wants you to sit over there,” she said, jerking her thumb towards the back of the room, where Iphigenia hunched over a book. Kelly’s desk had been the closest to the freak’s.
Clenching my teeth, I marched over to the desk and tossed down my backpack. “What did I ever do to her,” I muttered.
“Good morning,” Iphigenia said.
“Hi,” I said and busied myself with unpacking my books. Maybe if I ignored her, she would leave me alone. I didn’t want Tegan or Kelly accusing me of getting friendly with a freak. I had to make sure they knew this was all Ms. Hammell’s doing.
I didn’t talk to her again until later, when Ms. Hammell passed back the math quiz we had taken yesterday afternoon. I was wallowing in misery over the 54/100 marked in red pen at the top, along with an “Alatea-see me after class”. It wasn’t my fault. I just didn’t understand algebra – and I had been so distracted yesterday because she had assigned me to be the freak’s guide. It was all Ms. Hammell’s fault if I failed. It was Iphigenia’s fault!
“Could I please see your test?” she asked.
“Sure,” I growled and thrust it at her. “Go ahead and look.”
“I just wanted to use it to correct mine,” she continued.
I stared at her paper, free of any and all markings. There was not even a grade.
“Did she forget to grade yours?” I demanded. “Why don’t you just ask her to, then?”
“Look,” Iphigenia said, pointing to the first problem on my paper, her stubby fingers surprisingly nimble. “If you do this-”
Suddenly the equation made sense.
“Wow!” I said. “Okay, I get it now. Where did you learn how to do that?”
“Yesterday, in class,” she said. I gaped at her. I certainly had not gleaned so much from Ms. Hammell’s lesson.
“How do you do the other ones?” I asked, the prospect of improving my grades in math temporarily worth allying myself with a freak.
She smiled again, that shy little smile that made her face a picture of peace, and she showed me.
Over the next few days, a period of careful observation, I noticed how Ms. Hammell never seemed to grade Iphigenia’s work. She never called on her during a lesson, even when she was the only one raising her hand. In fact, she seemed to be pretending that Iphigenia did not exist.
As for myself, I was gradually abandoning that pretense. Iphigenia was a whiz at math, just as good at English and science, and while her knowledge of history and geography seemed poor, she never forgot anything she learned. She was as good as an encyclopedia! I found myself talking to her more and more, asking for answers or clarification. I also couldn’t resist that tempting possibility of learning more about the freaks. If Iphigenia wasn’t a proper student in this class, why was she here? Why had no one ever had a freak in their class before?
Still, when I talked to her, I did it very quietly, hoping that none of my friends would notice I was doing so.
“Alatea, you’re becoming almost friends with that freak,” Tegan commented one day during our lunch break. We were down at the track watching Prince Charming and his classmates run laps – after that first day, I never went with Iphigenia to the cafeteria.
“What do you mean?” I asked, feigning innocence. “I just have to sit next to her, that’s all.”
“Jen says that you talk to her all the time,” Kelly said. “So you must be great pals by now.”
“She knows a lot,” I said. “So sometimes I ask her for help with math and stuff.”
“You could ask us,” said Tegan. “We’re your friends.”
“Well,” I said, “What’s so bad about talking to her, anyway? Other than that she looks funny, she acts like a perfectly normal person. Tegan, you always ask Lisabel for help when you don’t get the lesson because she’s smart.”
“Are you kidding?” Tegan said. “Lisabel’s smart, but Iphigenia’s a freak. What kind of name is that, Iphigenia?” She and Kelly laughed.
I tried to stop talking to Iphigenia. I wanted her to leave me alone. I stopped asking her questions. I stopped saying hello in the morning. The problem was, she seemed to think that I was her friend. Sometimes she wanted to discuss the book we were reading in class or remind me of a theorem when I was doing a problem all wrong.
“Just tell her you aren’t her friend,” Tegan urged me. “Tell her to leave you alone.”
I imagined all the hateful things I could say to her, and all the ways I could mock her. “Freak, hunchback, cripple, monster!” I knew other girls whispered those words behind her back. Some used them to her face. I could imagine the hurt on her face if I called her those things. That would drive her away.
But I couldn’t bring myself to crush Iphigenia’s smile. It was the only beautiful thing she possessed.
I realized too late that I had come to think of her as an actual person. I knew nothing about her background and nothing about her life. But I knew some things.
Iphigenia loved to read. She was fascinated by the world and every little thing about it. She actually liked math. She used pink mechanical pencils and wrote in cursive. She nearly always saved a cookie from lunch and ate it during our geography lesson, cupping a hand to catch the crumbs.
Iphigenia was smart, generous, and forgiving. Iphigenia never showed frustration with her twisted body but treated it with the patience and care she gave everyone and everything. I wanted to be worthy of her trust and good opinion, because I knew she was a better person than me. I did not want to lose her smile, because it made me feel at peace.
So I offered her one of my own, pale though it was in comparison.
I found that Iphigenia was easy to talk to. She listened to me with more attention than Tegan ever had, though she offered less advice. She seemed genuinely interested in my ordinary, typical life. She never said anything about herself. Our friendship was unlike any I had known before, and for that, I valued it the most. After a while, I hardly minded being shunned by Tegan and Kelly, although I realized I must be regarded as practically a freak myself.
One day I was walking with her outside during our free time. Flowers had begun to blossom, and the sun was at its peak. We strolled behind the school, basking in its warmth. Iphigenia raised her face to the sky and inhaled.
The sound of a dozen small voices intruded on our solitude-some third graders, playing a game of tag and rushing our way. As they hurried past, they screamed taunts at us.
“Freaks! Freaks!” they called. One little boy aimed a kick at Iphigenia’s knee. Light though it was, the blow caused her to stumble and fall forwards to the ground. The scarf that she always wore slipped off her head to rest on her neck.
There was an audible gasp of horror from the group, and, I confess, from me. Instead of hair, her pale head was covered in swollen, reddish-purple growths the size of marbles, which sprouted from her hairline all the way down to the back of her neck. They stared at her for a moment longer, then shrieked and ran back the way they had come.
Iphigenia reached up and replaced the scarf on her head. Then, she pushed herself to her feet, not meeting my gaze.
“I wasn’t always so ugly,” she said. “I’m sick.”
We walked for another minute in silence, before I asked, “Can’t your doctors do anything about it? I know you have them – I saw once.”
“Our doctors?” Iphigenia sounded almost amused. “That’s not how it works, Alatea.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, terrified that I might.
“A long time ago people saw how wrong it was to destroy the lives of innocent creatures for the sake of science, so they started the foundling programs. We are sick so that the rest of you will be healthy. So that they can cure disease forever.”
The image of a doctor bending over something with a syringe rose to my mind, and I shuddered. Iphigenia spoke as if she had absolute faith in her cause and the purpose for which she was living her life. Did she want to suffer and die? And if she did, did the other foundlings? Were they really so happy to suffer for us? Was that really fair?
“They can’t cure you?” I asked, still hoping.
“No,” she said. “My case is a failure. They don’t expect me to survive the final round of testing. But they are kind to us. I am allowed to come here and study for a little while before I leave.”
She reached out and brushed away the tears that were running in rivers down my cheeks.
“Don’t be sad, Alatea. See, I found someone who would cry for me, and that is a gift I never expected.”
Throughout the spring, Iphigenia grew gradually weaker. I began to help her carry her books, and I brought her food from the cafeteria. She no longer had the energy to go for walks during our free time, so we remained in the classroom and talked.
I wondered if Ms. Hammell, or Tegan, or anyone else could tell that she was dying.
I could hardly think of anything else, although she herself remained at peace.
“Are you really okay with this?” I asked her one day.
She turned away, and stared out the window at the sky, bluer than it had been in months. It was almost summer, and the sun was shining.
“I picked my name myself,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She laughed quietly, the way she always did when she had to explain something to me.
“It’s from a story. A story about a girl who died so that her father could win a war.”
“Did he win?”
“It took a long time, and a lot of people died, but he won in the end.”
I wanted to ask if it had been worth it.
At the end of July, when I had known Iphigenia for three months, the doctors came to take her away. They came in the middle of class, knocking on the door and apologizing to Ms. Hammell for interrupting.
Iphigenia was ready. She rose and headed for the door.
I saw that she was leaving behind her books. My Iphigenia would never have left behind her books.
“Wait,” I shouted, and ran after her just as the door was closing behind them.
The doctors stopped, their faces expressionless.
“One minute,” Iphigenia said to them politely.
I threw my arms around her.
“Don’t leave yet,” I pleaded.
She embraced me in return, fiercely, but her eyes were already looking somewhere for away.
I had no words to offer, only tears dripping off my face onto her blouse. She cupped them in her hands like precious jewels.
Then, she was gone, and I was alone, curled on the floor of the hallway, soaking the carpet.
I found a note in my desk.
“In some versions of the story, the girl doesn’t die-a goddess whisks her away at the last second, before she can be killed. Maybe when I chose this name I was hoping that someone would save me too.
Thank you for everything, Alatea. As long as you remember me, I have been saved.”
I left that school, and now I go to a different one, without freaks. I found other friends, who are good people.
I won’t forget Iphigenia. But does that mean that she is saved?
There was nothing I could do to prevent her death. She made me feel so helpless. I don’t know what I believe, right now. But I can’t believe that what the doctors are doing with Iphigenia and the other freaks is right. Some day, I am going to stop it, even if the only way to do that is to cure every disease that exists, so that there aren’t any left to cure. I have to try.
And while I do, I’ll remember that tears can be a precious gift, and that something ugly can be incredibly beautiful.