When George and I were kids, sometimes I felt like she was the only person who made any sense, even though we always came at the world from different directions. We always knew we were kinda messed up from our parents and basically everything about how they raised us, and that we each had some weaknesses when dealing with other people, but between us we could just about cover our social bases: she could figure people out better than I could, and I could usually get along with them.
That tag-team approach was complicated by the huge gender divide in the school we went to in our early teens. There, it really stuck out that George and I hung out together all the time--even beyond the thing where we were siblings and at an age where we were expected to suddenly find each other's company uncomfortable for reasons no one's ever been able to explain to me. Most of the other guys were tongue-tied and just weird about girls. All girls. No exceptions, even though half of them had sisters of their own.
It's not like our parents were perfect about gender roles--a glaring example is how Mom always wanted George to wear curly pigtails and big smiles for the camera when we were little, even though the first didn't much suit her and the second was just never gonna happen. And "don't hit each other" is a decent rule, but as often as not, if our parents were tired, what I got was "don't hit girls" and George got "it's not nice to hit people, sweetie."
But at least Mom and Dad raised us to think about a lot of society's bullshit, including at least some of the gender crap. I didn't really get most girls other than George, but it still weirded me out how so many guys I knew talked about girls like they were aliens.
I usually kept my mouth shut when that happened, but I was still honestly taken aback the first time I was hanging out with some of the other boys at lunch and someone said something about girls and periods, and everyone got really, really awkward and loud about it. I looked blankly at José and Rob, who were being the most obnoxious, and said, without thinking, "C'mon, it's not that weird. Everyone bleeds."
Suddenly they were all staring at me. I didn't know how to take back what I'd said, even if I'd wanted to, but I added, with unrealistic bravado, "Blood's like anything else--learn how to deal with it right and you don't die."
That got me a different kind of look--a kind I was more used to. They'd just remembered who my parents were, and that I spent my spare time doing things like learning how to survive deliberate zombie encounters. That meant I was a lot more aware than they were of the fact that we were all walking meatbags that were only temporarily capable of abstract thought. Blood was always a risk, but it came with the territory.
They chewed on that for a minute, and then Aaron, who was a year older than me, said, "You and your sister ever talk about that kind of shit?"
My grasp on some social cues may suck, but by thirteen I was already hyper-aware of when people were about to start being any kind of weird about George, or me and George as a unit, or anything. I tried to keep from bristling visibly, and I gave him an out.
"What, dealing with blood?" I asked. "Sure."
He scowled. "You know what I meant, Mason. You two are all up in each other's business."
"Yeah, and George's business is none of yours." I said it flat and cold, already sizing up how to grab him if he pushed any harder. I usually went for wrists, but sometimes shaking it up was good. I wanted the only predictable thing about me to be that I'd fuck people up for messing with George.
Aaron backed down. But after that I kept noticing how most of the other guys were total idiots about girls and the shocking fact that they had bodies that were messy and complex, same as ours.
Not long after, Mateo, the one guy in our class who was strictly into other dudes, chimed in when somebody else made some bullshit comment about how girls could just start bleeding at any minute. Mateo shook his head--with exaggerated phony admiration, like banging girls was sooooo brave--and said, "Total biohazard. Glad I'll never have to deal with it to get laid."
It was a shitty thing to say, and it reminded me enough of Aaron being nosy about George that I almost shot back, "Yeah? You'll be a biohazard if I break your face."
Almost. But I'd already been in a fight that month, so I stayed quiet.
George made a face when I mentioned those conversations to her. "My best guess?" she said. "They're so embarrassed by getting boners at bad times that they want to blame someone. Most of them can blame us." She wrinkled her nose, dragging out her words for mocking emphasis. "Poor babies, stuck breathing the same air as those mysterious girls. How can they possibly be expected to think about anything but sex? And what if the girls notice?"
"You're kinda making fun of them for thinking girls might make fun of them," I said.
"But not because they're horny teenagers," George noted. "I'm making fun of them for thinking we're any different. We're just taught to put more effort into hiding it and you get to act like cavemen." She shrugged. "Fake it 'til you make it. That's what we're expected to do. Why shouldn't you?"
She had a point. She usually did.
The truth was, I'd wound up talking more with the guys at school about that extra-inconvenient part of puberty than I ever had with George. It came up with them just often enough to keep me thinking about how it was gonna happen to her sooner or later--at least, I was pretty sure it hadn't happened yet, and since the two of us shared a bathroom, I didn't figure she'd be able to hide it even if she wanted to.
Usually I'd voice any thought that crossed my mind, but this particular topic seemed like one I should leave up to her. In the meantime, I found myself paying closer attention to whether anything seemed different in our still-new little bathroom, or if George was taking painkillers when she didn't have a migraine or anything. Nothing stood out.
There were days here and there when growth spurts made her ache all over, but that we did discuss, comparing notes. It was one of the few things about puberty that was equally likely to hit either or both of us. When she gained an inch of height on me practically overnight, leaving her grouchy with pain and rubbing her joints, she leaned close and took one of my hands between hers, frowning thoughtfully.
"I bet you'll be a lot taller than me," she said. "Look, your hands are bigger than mine already."
Discussing height was okay. Height was about growing up, but not about sex or the messiness of biology or any of the countless little things that were supposed to drive us apart.
Then all of a sudden we had no choice about talking about periods and how to deal with them--and doing more than talk--because when George first got hers, a few weeks after school finished for the summer, she didn't realize that was what was going on. She woke up in the middle of the night with a lot of pain in her gut and lower back, and she'd had the impression that it was normal not to get cramps and stuff the first few times, so it didn't occur to her. She was half asleep and just knew she felt like crap, so she stumbled into my room and woke me and asked me to crash with her.
I followed her back to her bed, and she slept fitfully even with me there, making tiny whimpering noises that she'd never, never have allowed herself if she were awake. I dozed on and off and rubbed her back, comforting her as much as I could.
Maybe most girls are luckier. Maybe they don't get bad cramps first time out of the gate, and maybe when they start bleeding it breaks them in gently--spotting or whatever.
But George? Not so lucky.
When her alarm went off in the morning, she was curled up in a knot of pain, swearing drowsily under her breath. She turned the noise off and her lights on--the black lights she'd started using exclusively once we had separate bedrooms.
The same black lights we'd been using all our lives to check for traces of blood or any other fluids that could carry live Kellis-Amberlee.
All that experience meant we both knew exactly what we were looking at when she pushed the blanket off so she could get up, and we discovered that her body was really fucking committed to its new bleeding trick. We'd both gone to bed in shorts and t-shirts because of the heat, so there was no missing the blood streaking her inner thighs.
George freaked. She wasn't really awake, and she hurt like hell, and blood is bad, no matter how blasé I acted with the other guys. She let out a choked little scream, going rigid and still beside me.
For once I caught on faster than she did--my brain wakes up a little quicker than hers, and I wasn't the one in pain. But she clued in before I could figure out how to say it. Some of the panicked stiffness left her body.
"Goody," she said, trying not to sound embarrassed. She didn't do a great job of it. "Either I'm unexpectedly hemorrhaging to death, or I'm a woman now." She spat out Option B in the same snarky sing-song she'd used after the time we watched some ancient sex ed. videos for laughs, one of which had featured a serious middle-aged lady droning about the wonders of a girl's blossoming womanhood.
Slowly, so she could see exactly what I was doing, I sat up. I raised my arm from where it had been tucked between us as we slept, and--after checking it over carefully to be sure there was no trace of blood on my skin, and making sure George saw me checking--slid it around her shoulders.
She was shaking.
But her voice was almost steady as she said, "You should probably get up first."
"Got it," I said. I tightened my arm around her. "I'm clean, okay? We're fine."
George made a frustrated sound; that was better than her sounding scared. "We don't know that yet."
"We will in a sec." I let go and edged away from her, watching where I put my hands on the bed as I levered myself over her and found my footing on the floor. I didn't see any suspicious glow under the black light as I looked myself over, but I took all the precautions: I yanked some plastic sheeting from the dispenser on her wall, stood on it, and pulled off the t-shirt I'd worn to bed. It was sweaty, but there wasn't any trace of any other bodily fluids on it.
I didn't think twice before shucking my shorts. A few seconds later I was naked in her room for the first time since it'd been our room, and it was too late to get weird about it. So I just studied myself again in her full-length mirror, then hopped off the plastic sheeting, and said, "Be right back." I bundled up my clothes in the plastic and managed to not make a break for my own room so I could cover up.
George hadn't budged when I came back after a couple minutes. I'd put on clean shorts, dumped the plastic and worn clothes into a sterilization bin, and grabbed a testing unit. She didn't need a test--you can't catch a live infection from your own blood unless it's been lying around for a while--and being the only one to jam a finger into a testing unit, when she was right there with me, felt weirder than being naked in front of her had.
The lights cycled and settled fast. Not surprising, since there hadn't been any blood on me, but George's sigh of relief was audible.
"Good," was all she said about it. "Can you put some more plastic down for me?"
I did. Then I waited for her next move...but there wasn't one. She stayed motionless in her bed, the blanket still tangled around her feet, and stared at the plastic on the floor.
Finally I said, "George?"
She grimaced, jerking her gaze up to my face, but not quite to my eyes. "Sorry. It's just--I can feel it. I'm scared it'll be even messier when I get up."
"Can I help?"
Obviously the answer was no. It was her own blood, in her own room, and me getting close enough to come into contact would just be a fresh contamination risk for no reason. I was still glad I'd offered; even in the dimness, I could see her shoulders relax a little.
What she actually said was, "Mom and Dad would kill us if they knew you were in here overnight. They'd start trying to talk to us about boundaries again."
My stomach knotted almost as hard as it had when we'd first seen the blood, this time from anger at our parents' insistence that "boundaries" was a word that should mean anything for me and George.
She must've seen the look on my face, because she added, "Oh, there is something. Can you check the hall closet? Mom stashed 'hygiene products' there for when I needed them." That singsong sarcasm was back into her voice, in jarring contrast to how her hands were clenched in her lap.
"Want painkillers first?"
I went and grabbed her meds from the bathroom, tossing them to her from a couple feet away. But since there was a water bottle already in reach, that exhausted what I could do. George nodded thanks, and I left her alone to start dealing with it.
From habit, I went out into the hallway from my room, not George's, and investigated the closet. Finding the stuff George needed took long enough that I was glad neither parent came upstairs while I was at it--doubly so since the reason it took that long was because Mom had put it in a closed box behind the towels, probably out of yet another notion about boundaries or modesty or something. I rolled my eyes, but at least that made it easy to grab the whole box and take it into our bathroom, leaving it on the counter by the sink for George to investigate.
She was still in her room, so I went back into mine and lay down, picking up the book on my night table.
It was a relief to find reading helped me chill out after our rude awakening; I'd half-figured I was too wired to cope with sitting still. But apparently I'd slept even worse than I thought with George tossing and turning beside me and making those awful little sounds of pain. I was used to feeling helpless when her migraines rolled in and filled her skull with knives, but her restlessness through the night had made my stomach churn on top of keeping me awake.
But she was okay. This new development in our lives was obviously gonna be a pain to deal with, and harder on her than I'd expected, but she was okay.
I told myself that a few times, and I started to feel like I could breathe again.
The more I calmed down, the heavier my eyelids got. I only made it through a few pages of my book before I fell asleep.
I woke up when my mattress creaked; George was sitting at the foot of the bed, dressed for the day. A bleary glance at my clock said I'd been asleep for nearly two hours.
"Hey," I said, rubbing my eyes. "How you doing?"
"Fine, I guess." Her voice was low and subdued. "I had to talk to Mom about it. She was fine too."
That wasn't surprising. Mom and Dad are worse than useless when it comes to most aspects of parenting, but they're pragmatic about physical stuff.
George kept talking. "My blanket's okay. The sheets should be too--they're getting an extra-long bleach cycle."
Her hands and arms were bare, the skin raw despite the lemony smell of moisturizer wafting off her. "Looks like you did too," I said, wincing. Whether it was from extra bleach or rough scrubbing, she'd obviously done a number on herself.
I tried not to imagine how hard she might've scrubbed the skin I couldn't see, where the blood had been.
She pulled her knees to her chest, resting her head on them. "I threw out everything I wore to bed."
That seemed like even more overkill than the extra washing, but if it made her feel any better and didn't hurt her, I was all for it. Hell, if she'd announced she wanted to ritually burn those clothes in the backyard, I would've been right behind her with a lighter.
I sat up and put a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened. "George." My voice cracked, but I barely noticed. George was definitely getting the harsher puberty deal at the moment. "Hey," I said. "It's just me."
"I know." Her hand landed on mine, not letting me pull it back. "Sorry. I mean--" I heard her swallow. "Sorry for flinching. I'm trying not to apologize for the rest of it." She sounded miserable now--miserable and angry. "Turns out I'm socially conditioned to apologize for my body being gross and out of control."
"I'm not." She lifted her head abruptly, staring at me from behind her sunglasses. "I'm not."
I didn't know how to tell her the rest of what I was feeling: that to me, the only gross thing was that I was supposed to be revolted by her body and fine with mine. It sucked that she was gonna bleed sometimes, but it was no grosser than all the messy crap all bodies did. And yeah, it was dangerous, but less so than if someone tripped and got a bloody nose.
As far as I was concerned, things were simple: George's body had George in it, and that made it pretty much the best thing ever.
Outside my window, I could see a perfect summer day. It might as well have been another world from where George was curled around herself, furious at being betrayed by both her own body and feelings.
She might as well have been in another world, one I could touch but not share with her.
It made me want to grab her and hold her close enough to erase the chasm between our experiences--close enough to feel everything she felt, leaving no room for any pain we didn't share.
Instead, I squeezed her shoulder in invitation. "Hug?"
"Can't hurt." The smile that crept across her face was brief and small, but it was something. She leaned in, tucking herself against my side as I slid my arms around her.
I tried to keep the embrace loose, not wanting to smother her with my need to offer comfort. What she needed was what mattered, no matter how much my instincts were saying tighter, closer...
Without warning, George pressed way closer. If she noticed the jolt of surprise that went through me, it didn't show.
"I'm still a little freaked out," she said, talking into my shoulder like muffling the words could mask the vulnerability in them. "I didn't expect it to be so dramatic."
It took me a sec to respond. Especially given how our day had begun, I was hyper-aware of her body: how the heat and smell of her skin radiated through her clothes, and the shallow, aching way she was breathing.
But that awareness was only natural. There was nothing strange about my sister turning to me for comfort when she felt awful, or about me wanting--needing--so badly to give it to her.
"Makes sense," I said finally. It was a flimsy reply, but I couldn't think of anything more helpful than letting her know I was listening.
Silence stretched between us after that--electric instead of awkward or relaxing, because George was thinking. There's an unmistakable, taut way she holds herself when she's mulling something over.
When she spoke, it was with a careful precision she rarely uses on me. "You weren't supposed to be there. I thought what would happen is one day I'd go to the bathroom and there'd be a little blood, and I'd deal. And maybe sometimes after that it'd be difficult or unpredictable, but I'd know to be careful." Her voice wrenched in on itself. "I didn't know to be careful last night. I didn't know I had to be."
"Life is what happens when you're making other plans," I intoned, quoting one of Dad's pet sayings in my best imitation of him.
George pulled away.
She headbutted my chest.
Then she settled right back where she'd been. "It wasn't a plan, dumbass. But it's--"
"Do not say 'dangerous'." This time I pulled back, making her peer up at me over the frame of her sunglasses. She opened her mouth, but I cut her off. "I get it, okay? I do. But if you'd scraped your arm or something and I happened to be right there, we wouldn't be talking about it like this. And the reason I 'wasn't supposed to be there' is 'cause Mom and Dad would lose their shit, not because people don't share beds." My cheeks were uncomfortably warm. "People sleep together, Georgia. You're not a fucking hazard zone."
"I need you to be safe around me." The words were barely audible.
I dragged in a breath through a painful twinge in my chest. I could handle George being embarrassed, even if I didn't like it, and we were both going to have to get used to her taking precautions when she had her period.
But we knew that now, and the danger was hours in the past...and she still sounded scared. Scared of touching me. And that, I couldn't begin to imagine being okay with.
"I'm fine," I said, speaking as quietly as she had. I didn't trust myself with any more volume. "I'm fine, and so are you. We're both safe."
George was still leaning into me. I let my arms tighten around her just a little bit more, with just a hint of the ferocity I'd managed to keep out of my voice.
Nothing in the world was going to drag her a single damn step away from me. Not ever. Not unless she wanted it to.
I couldn't see her eyes, but familiarity told me when she closed them. Our bodies were touching enough that I felt the heave of her ribcage as she breathed.
Don't be scared, I thought, unsure whether to say the words aloud.
As if she'd heard, she sank more deeply into my arms.