Came and Went
June is born to Maria Benjamin on a Saturday, but it is only on a Sunday over a decade later that Maria knows, all at once, that June is different. Her little girl grows up just as the others do, quick and clever and with a tongue that could cut glass, and she hits twelve with an intelligence beyond her age, two grades skipped, a circle of friends that are as fiercely loyal as herself – but then she is thirteen, fourteen, and her mother stares at her over dinner barely a week before her fifteenth birthday and realises that she looks no different than she had at twelve. And she stares and she stares and she stares.
She brings it up later, hesitantly perched on the edge of June’s bed, and June just sighs and gives her a smile that looks false, like the expression painted on a doll. Her face looks so young.
“Ma,” she says, gentle, like she’s breaking some kind of awful news and it suddenly occurs to Maria that her girl has always been cleverer than her. She cries, which is so stupid because she’s the one who’s supposed to be doing the comforting. But June just hugs her and they stay that way, curled into each other, until Maria gathers herself and they begin to talk plans.
That is the first year they know.
“I love you no matter what, Junie.”
They move often. People are curious, and it doesn’t take long for a prying colleague or too- observant neighbour to catch on. June stays young, frozen in a child’s body with eyes that grow older and older to match Maria’s own greying hair. The impressed expressions that other parents get when they learn of June’s age turn into looks of disbelief, and then comes the day that Maria sits her down and asks her to consider pretending to be a little younger.
She could still move up through school, for a time; a clever twelve year-old is more believable, after all, than a seventeen year-old with the face of a child.
June becomes bored quickly and easily. She turns eighteen and going to university is simply not possible – she looks too young, too out of place, and Maria is terrified of scrutiny from unwanted places. A month passes, and another, and another, and June begins to spend long hours staring into the mirror, running hands over her unblemished face, pushing herself up onto her toes and trying to imagine a young woman in the mirror.
The young woman never appears and June finds herself hating the child that stares back at her.
Maria takes her to see another doctor. It’s the fifth one in just as many years, all paid generously from Maria’s own savings to be discrete. They aren’t, always.
And they move and they move and they move and June tries to tell herself that they aren’t running. Maria presses a kiss to her forehead as they sit surrounded by their belongings on the bus.
“It’s okay, Junie,” she says.
The doctor confirms what the last one had, and the one before that. June isn’t aging and they come home from the appointment and she screams and cries and breaks the mirror in the bathroom, cuts her hands on the shards. And Maria holds her and they stay kneeling on the floor, curled together like they had been on that day so many years ago. So many years. Another year and June drops out of school. She’s been through high school three times over, and she’s gone through it with an older mind every time. It’s the place that she is made most aware of her false youth.
“Baby,” laughs a boy behind her with a cracking voice and spotted acne. Baby, June thinks, and she knows that’s all she will ever appear to be.
Kids can be so cruel, sometimes.
At June’s request, they remove all the mirrors in the house.
June is hyper aware of the wrinkles that are appearing on Maria’s face and the grey that is taking over her hair. Maria’s eyesight begins to decline and she gets glasses that she can’t stop fiddling with.
“They make you look classy,” June reassures her, but all she can think of is if her body will ever get the privilege to age as well. Will she be given that? Or will she be destined to wait as her mind rots, withers away into insanity-
June pushes the thought out of her mind. Her hands shake and she pushes them against her mouth and cries, silently, in her bedroom that night.
“I think. I think that, perhaps… perhaps we should start saying that I’m your grandma, Junie.”
June stills with her spoon halfway down to her bowl. She chews very deliberately on her mouthful of cereal and tries to calm her pounding heart in fear that Maria will somehow hear it thumping in her chest. Maria places a hand, hesitantly, on top of June’s.
“It’s okay to be scared.”
“I’m not,” says June, immediately.
Maria cards her fingers through June’s hair like she used to do when June was young. The floor is littered with neatly stacked boxes. It takes less than a day for the pair to unpack their belongings, now. Practice makes perfect.
“I’m not,” June says again, even though there is something heavy in the pit of her stomach that is consuming her from the inside out. It seems as though that’s what this will all become. Her mind, eating away at itself inside its perfect shell. A death without the comfort of death.
“Okay,” says Maria, softly. She doesn’t believe her, and June knows she doesn’t believe her but she just nods and hunches back over her cereal and Maria turns back to her book. Maria knows June won’t respond to pressing at the matter. June doesn’t want to be pressed. So that’s that. The first time Maria places her hand on June’s shoulder and says, “My granddaughter,” June bites the inside of her cheek until it bleeds, but she smiles at this stranger she’s getting introduced to – inconsequential, just another person that June will have to watch die – and says nothing. What’s there to say?
So much. So much to say, so little time.
Maria’s hair is nearly completely white, silky thin strands that hang loosely around her face.
And yet- and yet- the words just become stuck between June’s teeth before she can spit them out.
Maria’s hands shake when she tries to open jars and there has been too many a time that June catches sight of her leaned over the counter, hands placed against temples, eyes shut and just looking so tired. And yet there is an equal amount of times that June will catch Maria watching her with concern set deep in the wrinkles around her eyes and the set of her mouth and god, how stupid is that? June’s the one that will apparently live forever and yet she’s the one being worried over.
June tries to shake the feeling of despair that trails behind her but it only digs its claws deeper into her heels and holds tight.
June finds Maria on the floor when she comes back from the bathroom one evening. Maria is admitted into the hospital in the dead of the night and June has never felt more terrified because this is everything she’s ever dreaded coming true in the snap of a finger.
But you should’ve known, right? This is what is was all coming to.
“Ma,” she says, throat tight. She holds Maria’s hand and for once doesn’t try to hide the fact that her hands are shaking.
“Ma, I’m scared.
Maria looks delicate in the stark whiteness of the bed but still so strong when she smiles and places a hand on June’s cheek.
“I know, Junie.”
Maria Benjamin passes away on a Saturday, in her sleep. By the time child services arrive, her granddaughter is nowhere to be found by the hospital staff. And years – decades, centuries – later there is a trail of people who will speak warmly of a young girl with a mind far beyond her age that came and went from their lives in the blink of an eye.