Back then, they thought that power lines gave you cancer. There was a whole field of them on the other side of the road next to our neighborhood, sticking out of the ground like trees, threaded together. The field was off limits after Karen O'Hara and Gordon Knowles were diagnosed with leukemia the same summer, two months apart. Lydia, my sister, told me that Karen was wearing a candy necklace that snapped and caused bruises to sprout like mold under her skin. That was how they knew. Gordon was later that summer, after suspicion about the wires started and a blood test confirmed the rumors. Cancer wires. My mother held my wrist so tight it made me squeal and say okayokay, promising to ride my bike only in the cul-de-sac and down by the spillway.
The wires were the Truth or Dare trump card, the last-ditch effort used to break the kid who would drink any combination of kitchen condiments, ding-dong-ditch any of the creepy neighbors' houses, moon any car that drove by. The summer that Karen and Gordon were in and out of the hospital, no one would go under the wires, no matter how daring they might have proved themselves to be. I was nine, and completely fascinated by all things cancer. What happened to your body when you went under the wires? Would it be instant, like a bolt of lightning? Or a slow process, where clumps of your hair blew away in the wind until you had that bald, patchy, and sunken look everyone who went and saw Karen said she had. I thought the hair loss was symptomatic and panicked every time I lost strands in the shower. I stood in front of the mirror and lifted folds of hair to view my scalp, checking for spots of shiny skin that might have popped up when I wasn't looking. There was a two week period where I refused a hairbrush, sure that with each hair caught in the comb's teeth, I was becoming cancerous.
Lydia was eleven that summer, the same age as Karen and one year younger than Gordon, so she claimed their diagnosis like it was her own burden to bear. Using her sadness over their condition, she was able to get out of dish duty and excuse her inability to eat her vegetables, dramatically restating that she "just never thought it would happen to them." I reminded her earlier that year, she complained about having to stand next to Gordon at the chorus concert because he smelled like hard-boiled eggs. Lydia told me I wouldn't understand.
And then the summer ended and Gordon came home from the hospital and was still able to play on his soccer team that fall. Lydia and her classmates made Karen a get well video that showcased her new school locker, waiting for her when she was ready. I told my friends at the lower school that I knew people who knew people who had cancer, that my neighborhood was practically overrun with it, that I might even get it soon. I repeated the words the adults around me used to talk about Karen, saying chemotherapy and bone marrow to sound like I knew more than I did. I asked too many questions and my parents told me it wasn't polite, made me promise I wouldn't ask things like that in front of Karen's parents when we brought casseroles to their house.
"Will her hair ever grow back?
"Does cancer smell like something? Do you think Karen smells like cancer?"
And then Karen wasn't in the hospital anymore and she wasn't home and she wasn't anywhere and I didn't ask any more questions. Lydia was in the school chorus that sang at the memorial service and I watched her like the whole performance depended on me mouthing the words along. The Neighborhood Committee bought stacks of white paper bags and tiny little candles and lined the street that led up to the O'Hara house and Lydia solemnly said that she thought it looked like the same road that had taken Karen to heaven. Months later, my mother cried in the grocery store when she saw Mrs. O'Hara and hugged her on the cereal aisle, squishing a box of granola against her chest.
It was the summer after Karen died, the summer I was ten, that I became brave. When no one was paying much attention—Lydia strutting around the pool in her first bikini, my mother running errands—I asked to ride my bike to a friend's house but rode it out to the field instead. I lined my bike tires up with the grass, just in front of where the power lines hung, and wondered if I was still safe up this close. I thought of all the kids who haven't played here since the last summer. I felt new and on the verge of something.
I held my breath. I kick-started off the ground with one foot and pushed down hard with my other leg. My feet spun around on the pedals and the bike bumped forward over rocks and grooves in the dirt. I was a blur—the tires split through tall grasses as I made my path across the field, the wires hanging over my head. I finally let my breath out when my bike hit the other side of the field and the tall poles were at my back. With frantic hands, I searched myself for tumors, pressing my finger tips under my arms and behind my knees, in all the folds and bends of my body where cancer could hide.
I crossed the field two more times and still no tumors. On my last ride, the ride that would take me back to the side of the road our neighborhood was on, my front tire hit something and I pitched forward over the handlebars. Stretched out on the ground, breathing heavy, looking up at the wires. It was too late. I could feel the tumors growing.
The next day, a bruise darkened my knee and rose with a lump. I poked at my body to see how quickly I could make blood collect under the surface of my skin, like Karen's candy necklace, but left only red marks. Weeks passed before I realized I didn't have cancer. I should have felt relief—I knew I didn't actually want to have cancer, but felt disappointed and didn't know why. I wasn't chosen.
When I eventually told Lydia about riding my bike under the wires and racing cancer, she called me a liar.
"I did so," I said. "I probably should be bald by now."
"See," she said and I knew I wouldn't be able to argue with her logic. "Maybe if you were bald, I'd believe you."
Karen wasn't so special, I wanted to tell her, but it would only be a few more months before people stopped talking about Karen altogether. It probably wasn't the wires, authorities finally said, to end the paranoia. I was never sure what to think.
BIO: Cortney Phillips received her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing from Hollins University and is currently finishing her MFA at North Carolina State University, where she is working on her first novel. When she isn't writing or reading, she is busy mothering a dog with separation anxiety and a very grumpy hedgehog. Cortney's work in reviews can be found on The Rumpus and The Review Review. This is her first fiction publication. To learn more about Cortney, visit her website: cortneyphillips.com.