Winner's Curse

By Nora Sun



Winner's Curse: when a prize is won at too great of a cost.


*


Fey is dancing in the middle of the road. Her lips and nails are painted bright red, and her edges shimmer under the noon sunlight. Her movements are beautiful and feverish. Her long limbs stir up a storm of dust as she spins. Her twinkling laughter sends a breeze through the sea of grass on either side of them.


It’s a red light, but there’s no one around, so Jan presses hard on the gas. Fey dissipates into heat and dirt and the grey Chevrolet’s angry hiss.


*


Jan met Fey in fifth grade, when Jan was still Jane, and Fey was still Freya. They were sitting on opposite sides of the same wooden desk and shared the same blue plastic box of markers, but everyone loved Freya because she was beautiful and charming, and they hated Jane because she was dirty and angry.


Then, Jane changed her name to Jan, and they all made fun of her for it, until Freya changed her name to Fey, and shortening names became something of a trend in that classroom.


Fey doesn’t know, but Jan changed her name because her father finally went to prison that year, and her father always called her “Sweet Jane” before hitting her, and she couldn’t bear to hear the name anymore, and Fey doesn’t know, but she made Jan cry.


Jan fell in love with Fey in eighth grade. Maybe it happened earlier, but eighth grade was when Jan first realized it. They were best friends by then. Jan spent more time at Fey’s house than her own because Jan's mother was always drunk, so Jan had started asking Fey if she could stay the night, and Fey had always said yes, and then Fey started saying yes even when Jan didn’t ask.


They tied each other’s hair into braids with many small ribbons. (Fey’s fingers were forgiving as they pulled Jan’s frizz into elaborate patterns.)


They spent summer collecting seashells by the beach. (Once, they waded into the waters with their clothes on, and it was dark by the time they got out. They held onto each other for warmth the entire walk home.)


They slept in the same bed because the Songs always had relatives over in the guest room. (Fey wore a little pink slip with a v-neck that dipped over her chest. They talked about the future in hushed voices after Fey’s bedtime. Fey wanted to be a teacher like her parents. Jan wasn’t sure what she wanted.)


But Jan always knew that love was a line that she could never cross. Even the thought of confessing to Fey made her heart shiver with guilt and fear. Fey wouldn’t be angry if she knew; she would just look at Jan with wide sad eyes that told Jan that Fey didn’t reciprocate those feelings but wished she could.


And Jan wouldn’t be able to survive that.


In the end, no matter how close their bodies were in that bed, Fey had always been leagues above Jan, and Fey would find someone else who was meant for her up there.


So, Jan kept a cardboard box in the back of her locker where she released every little detail of loving Fey onto little yellow post-its:


“Today you spoke at the student government assembly, and you were so eloquent. The applause for you was the loudest.”


"I wish I could say it to you. I wish I could announce it to the whole world. I can’t. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. I wish I wasn’t such a coward.”


“You let me borrow your phone today, so the high schoolers wouldn’t make fun of me. I wish I told you how much that meant to me.”


By December, it had become a strange and exciting game for Jan to conceal her love for Fey. She would innocently slip in details, suggesting that she had a crush on someone else or pretending that the small things Fey did for Jan didn’t affect Jan as much as they did. She kept her emotions in check while neatly depositing their memories into a safe inside her heart. When she was alone, she retrieved those memories and relived them to experience their joy over and over.


What a thrill it was to love someone in secret.


Fey found Jan’s box in tenth grade. Jan had been trying to wrestle an algebra book from the back of her locker when the box came tumbling down. Fey picked it up curiously. She turned it over and saw her initials in Jan’s messy handwriting: FS. She also picked up a small post-it that had fluttered out of the slit that said, the one that said: “I wish I could say it to you. I wish I could announce it to the whole world. I can’t. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. I wish I wasn’t such a coward.”


“What’s this?” She asked, her voice sweet and bright.


When Jan turned around and saw her brown box pressed against Fey’s green dress, her heart almost pounded out of her chest. For a moment, Jan’s mouth went dry, and she couldn’t say anything. Then, the words burst out of Jan’s lips before she had the chance to reconsider.


“I think I’m in love with your brother!”


Francis Song, Fey’s twin brother, was the darling of their grade. Francis and Jan had spent plenty of time together when Jan was at Fey’s. He was nice. Sporty. Smart. Sort of good looking. But he wasn’t Fey.


Jan had to admit that this excuse was rather perfect.


Fey’s eyes widened. For a second, Jan was terrified that she could see through Jan’s lie. But then, Fey burst into laughter.


“Oh Jan, why didn’t you tell me?” Fey said, pulling Jan in and already starting to talk about what Frances liked because Fey would give Jan anything.


And Jan should’ve felt guilty, but Fey’s arm was around her waist, and she could smell Fey’s perfume, and there was no space between their warm bodies for guilt.


In eleventh grade, Jan realized that pretending to be in love with Francis was the perfect way to be with Fey forever.


Jan was sitting in Fey’s living room when Fey asked, “Do you really love Francis? Like really really love him?”


Jan found it adorable that Fey was such a protective sister.


“Being with him is like being home,” Jan said. She had always wanted to say those words to Fey—being with you is like being home—and she knew that this was the closest she would ever come to saying them.


Fey smiled back brightly. “Then we should go to college together,” she said. “We’re going to the same college next fall. If you come with us, you can spend more time with him.”


Fey’s perfect smile made Jan's heart wild.


Jan had won this game. Here was the secret: Fey was hers forever, and Fey didn’t even know.


*


Jan’s far enough out of Miami that there’s nothing more than yellow grass and brown farmhouses on either side of the two-lane highway. The road’s so poorly paved that Jan feels like she’s driving in the middle of a small earthquake. The sky in front of her stretches on forever, the kind of forever that makes Jan understand why they used to believe that the earth is flat.


The dim grey numbers on the dashboard say that it’s 103°F. It’s probably one of the hottest days of the year, and the car’s air conditioning is broken.


*


Their first semester of college was so perfect.


Midnight dinners in their dorm, just her and Fey. (Jan ate greasy French fries from Fey’s fingertips and licked the grease clean for her. Then, Fey crawled onto Jan’s chest as they lay on their dorm floor to watch TV on Fey’s phone.)


Partying on the grass lawn and running away from security. (Fey had left her jacket on the lawn, so she was just wearing a strappy backless dress, her skin glowing orange beneath the streetlights as they ran barefoot along the sidewalk. Jan gave Fey her hoodie—the hoodie smelled like Fey for weeks afterwards.)


Breaking into the pool during Thanksgiving. (Their bodies were two pale fish under the water, folding into each other in the deep end whenever they suspected someone was walking by the pool.)


Even the awkward dates with Francis were eased by the fact that they often ended up talking about Fey. (Jan thought Francis might like her. She really did feel bad about it, but that guilt was incomparable to the joy Fey brought her.)


Everything was red with passion and white with Fey’s innocence and beauty. Fey filled Jan up to the brim with seas of brilliant emotions that Jan never imagined she could experience. Jan added so many notes to her box that the cardboard bulged at the edges.


But this fever broke so quickly. One day the next spring when Jan came back to the dorm after class, she found Fey's side of the room empty. Her bed was cleared, her books gone, and nothing was in her closet except for a few plastic hangers.


Fey had vanished, and all that was left of her was the letter on Jan's desk.


Jan—


When you read this, I’ll be on a plane to Africa. One of the professors told me about an opportunity to teach girls there. You won’t ever see me again. That’s why I finally wrote this letter.


I love you.


And you’d say it’s impossible, but I swear I’ve loved you since I changed my name for you when we were ten.


I know it’s not wrong for me to love you because you are a girl, but it is still wrong; it is wrong because you love my brother, and he loves you back, and even if I loved you first, you once told me that you think of him like home, and that’s exactly how I think of you. And I know you’ll think that it must’ve been hard for me to help you get with him, and that it was so good of me, and I can’t stand the idea of you thinking that because it was all selfish. It was me who wanted you. It was me who used my brother to spend more time with you. It was me who lay awake in our room at night, thinking about your lips, even though you and Francis belong together.


When I see you, I feel so awful, and I can’t stand it. I'm anxious all the time thinking that I might not be able to contain my feelings, and I'll do something or say something and ruin everything for you. But when I don’t see you, I feel awful too. My thoughts are always drifting towards you. I feel so disgusted with myself. I think that I am sick.


I followed you to that yogurt shop the other day, and you were holding hands with him under the table. You looked so happy together. And for a moment, I got so mad, and my thoughts were cruel. I think that was the breaking point. I don’t know what horrible person I’ve become, and I’m too terrified of what will happen if I stay.


I can’t be with you, but I am made of memories, and all my good memories have you in it. So I guess I’m leaving to see who I am in a world without you.


I hope you and Francis will be happy together. I’m sorry.


Fey


*


Jan doesn’t dare stop until she crosses into Alabama.


The sky’s turning a lukewarm navy when she gets out of the car. Outside it feels like a windless sauna. The rest stop is not much more than a rusty white hut on a grass hill off the side of the highway.


Jan enters the convenience store. It’s barely three aisles wide with only half the LED lights working. There are bags of chips, pain medicine, tobacco, bottles of water, and not much else. A man with a beer belly sits behind the counter.


Jan grabs a bag of chips and a bottle of water and tosses a five-dollar bill onto the grimy counter. She doesn’t stay for the change.


She eats slowly in the car. She is hungry, but each bite demands a painful amount of effort. She takes small sips of water. Each sip makes her want to throw up.


Her stomach churns. A pounding headache sets in.


After she’s done, it’s already pitch black. Jan curls up in her seat, trying to think. Maybe she should get more gas. But then she remembers that she spent her last five dollars on this meal. She wonders if the man will mind if she stays here for the night. He probably won't, but she doesn’t really want to sleep.


Jan drives off into the night.


*


Fey never went to Africa.


Three days after she disappeared, the police found her body in the bathtub of an abandoned home in Jan’s neighborhood, bloated and floating in a blue-grey sea of small white bottles and stale water.


They said it was antidepressants. Jan read online that overdosing on antidepressants was agonizing, like being boiled alive and starved to death at the same time; the heart spends thirteen or fourteen hours beating at 300bpm before finally dying. (Jan didn't know when Fey had started taking antidepressants. Fey had seemed so excited to be in college.)


A neighbor’s cat had smelled the body. Otherwise, it might’ve gone unfound and rotted beyond recognition.


Fey wasn’t even very thorough with her last lie.


*


By sunrise the next morning, all the adrenaline has left Jan’s body. She drives to every other rest stop on the highway between Montgomery and Birmingham.


She’s hungry again. It’s not the dull aches of before but a menacing hunger that claws at her insides until she feels hollow. She’s out of water too. Her mouth is sticky with heat.


She starts seeing Fey more and more often. Sometimes, Fey’s in the passenger seat of a passing car. Sometimes, she’s standing by the roadside, waving like she’s calling a taxi. Most of the time, though, she’s standing in the middle of the highway, arms outstretched like a bird, just waiting to be run over. Once, when Jan saw Fey like that, she forgot that Fey wasn’t real and almost swerved into a car in the next lane. She wonders who would’ve died in the crash, wonders if she would’ve killed another person or if she'd be in hell right now awaiting condemnation.


That’s what this entire drive feels like—one of those car chase scenes in the movies. She’s going to be apprehended and sentenced any minute.


But there is no one coming to punish her.


*


Later, Francis found the box. Jan didn’t bother trying to lie to him.


“You’re not my sister! You’re not my sister!” Frances shouted afterwards, half mad with half a bottle of beer in his hand and the other half in his stomach. “Get out!”


Jan had nothing to say because she fell in love with Fey in eighth grade, and all she’d ever really wanted to say since then is “I love you.” Now that Fey was gone, she didn't think she would ever speak again.


*


The car runs out of gas somewhere in rural Tennessee.


Jan gets out. Her knees collapse against the burning asphalt. She crawls like a dog to the middle of the road and lies long and flat on her back. She wants to stay here forever, where the colors are simple: The grass is green like Fey’s dress the day that she found the box. The dirt is dark brown like Fey’s hair when it's wet. The sky is blue-grey like the last color Fey saw from under the stale water before she died.



 


Nora Sun is a Chinese-American writer currently living in Chicago. She loves language, iliac crests, and brevity's talent for breeding mystery.