Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

“A garter snake,” she’d said. “I found it in the garden when I went out to pick tomatoes. I think it was hunting beetles. That’s what they eat when they’re this little. Beetles and baby mice and sometimes grasshoppers. Do you want to hold it?” She’d thrust her arm out then, the snake still twined like a ribbon through her fingers, beautiful and somehow otherworldly at the same time, each scale like a glimmering jewel.

Laurel had recoiled and slapped the snake out of Heather’s hand, a disgusted “ew” escaping her lips. Regan’s gasp had been swallowed by Heather’s cry of dismay as she lunged to recover her prize, followed by a squeal of pain when the snake, feeling ill-treated, bit her finger. She’d let it go then, turning to Laurel as it escaped into the waving grass of the kickball field, cradling her hand to her chest. Beads of blood had welled up on her index finger, and Regan had stared at them, transfixed.

This is what it costs to be different, she’d thought, the words clear and somehow older than the rest of her, like she was hearing the voice of the woman she was eventually going to become. She’d shuddered then, still unable to look away.

“Why did you do that?” Heather had asked, voice small and wounded. “It was just a little snake. That’s all.”

“Girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” Laurel had snapped. “Regan, come on. We’re going.”

And she had grabbed Regan by the wrist and pulled her toward the school, leaving Heather alone with her blood and tears. Regan had looked back once, and that night she lay awake in her bed for hours, shivering with shock. She hadn’t known what to say or do in the moment, or how to stem the tide of Laurel’s rage, which had been so primal, so fundamental, that it was impossible to question. She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer a part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.

That impression had been confirmed in the days to come, as Laurel walked through classes and recess and even lunch hour without seeming aware of Heather’s presence, her hand locked firmly around Regan’s wrist, tugging her into a future that had no place for girls who got their shoes muddy and played with snakes. Heather had tried, at first, to remind her old friends that she was still there; she had worn her prettiest dresses, the ones Laurel had approved of in the past, she had brought her nicest dolls to school, she had cajoled her mother into baking boxes of brownies which she offered to the other girls with shaking hands. None of it made any impression on Laurel, who had looked through her former friend as if she wasn’t even there, tightening her grip on Regan’s wrist like she was afraid Regan might also rebel against the box Laurel had drawn for them to share.

Eventually, Heather had given up on approaching them, her eyes going dull as the immensity of her transgression sank in. They had been a closed unit for so long that none of the other girls their age were looking for new friends—or if they were, they were also sensible enough to fear the wrath of Laurel, who had a way of destroying anyone who got in her way. Even some of the boys were afraid of her.

It was almost three months after the snake incident when the doorbell rang and Regan bounded down the stairs to answer the door. It would probably be the mailman with a bunch of bills and advertising circulars, but there might be a letter or a postcard or even a package, and even when those things weren’t for her, it was exciting to be the first one to touch them. “I’ve got it!” she yelled, and wrenched the door open.

Heather, standing miserably on the front step with her mother’s hand on her shoulder, blinked at her. Heather’s mother was less visibly miserable, but her mouth was set into a thin, hard line, like she disapproved of everything around her. “Regan,” she said in a tight voice. “Are your parents home?”

“Um.” Regan took an involuntary step backward, away from the door, as if that would protect her from whatever was going on. She didn’t like to attract the attention of adults who weren’t her parents. Too many of them had strong ideas about how children were supposed to behave—stronger even than Laurel’s, and Laurel left no room for negotiation. She looked down rather than facing Heather’s anxious, unhappy eyes or the judgment in her mother’s face. “I can get them. Do you want to come inside?”

“That would be for the best,” said Heather’s mother, and then she was inside, and then they were both inside, and Laurel was never going to let her hear the end of this. Regan took another step backward before spinning on her heel and fleeing down the hall, to the porch where her parents sat, sipping from tall glasses of iced tea while they talked about whatever boring things adults had to talk about when their children weren’t around.