FICTION: Terrible Powers, by Ingrid Nelson


Terrible Powers


When Hannah passed me the note in English class, I was staring at our teacher’s giant and horrible boobs. They sat unevenly in her cornflower blue tee shirt, heaving as she tried to explain some type of punctuation to us. She looks like she produces tons of milk, or she can’t anymore I guess, because I know that she’s at least 55. I also know she is divorced, but that she introduces herself as “Mrs,” and her last name is still her ex-husband’s. I know this because everyone here knows everything about everyone. If there’s something you don’t know about someone, you can just ask another person. That’s what it’s like to live here.

So Mrs. Shiflett turned to write something on the board, and Hannah reached forward and dropped a neatly folded square of paper onto my open notebook. That’s how I found out that Evan had fingered her the night before in the back of her parent’s old Volvo in the parking lot of the carnival. I read the note and heard loud fuzzy sounds in my ears and looked up and saw Hannah smiling at me. He stuck his finger inside of her vagina. I smiled back at Hannah, a smile like I’m a normal friend who is happy for her and she smiled back bigger.

“Okay,” said Mrs. Shiflett, turning back around. “Can anyone show me where the direct object and indirect object are in this sentence, and then transcribe it into the passive voice?” We were practicing for our AP English Composition Exam again. Hannah can’t figure out the difference between a direct object and an indirect object, and I can, but Hannah seems like she has fun all the time.

Mrs. Shiflett stared at us for a long time as we sat waiting bored in our desks. I felt like I finally had to do something and so I raised my hand.

“Yes, Grace,” said Mrs. Shiflett, beaming at me. I went up to the board and began labeling her sentence with “D.O.” and “I.D.O.” Everyone was staring at my butt, I thought, and they were all wondering why I care so much about answering all of disgusting Mrs. Shiflett’s pointless and boring questions. Or I don’t know, maybe they don’t even notice that I care so much. I can’t tell if all the stuff I care about is a big deal to everyone else, or if it’s all only a big deal to me.

When I finished with the sentences I made eye contact with Will Lang, who sits in the front of the room, but then I looked away. The dry erase marker in my hands, I looked out the window in the back of the classroom for half a second, and saw trees and rolling hills. I think this is just the beginning of the many curious and happy fingers that will go inside of Hannah’s vagina.

“Very good,” I heard Mrs. Shiflett say.


Evan is Hannah’s boyfriend, Hannah is my best friend. Hannah and I met in seventh grade, after our mothers met through a mutual friend at a dinner party and then introduced us. I guess we didn’t get along amazing at first, because I was best friends with Alice Hunt at that point. But then Alice just sort of stopped texting me back, so eventually I stopped trying to talk to her and now she’s only friends with girls on the soccer team, and that’s when I became friends with Hannah.

Now we’re juniors in high school, and Hannah and I are definitely best friends, I think, by most standards. At least, I think we appear to be best friends to someone watching us. I think we play the parts. But I don’t know what’s inside of her. I am secretly not having fun. On Friday nights we go to the outdoor mall and I watch boys looking at her. Hannah used to be really shy, and have giant red pimples all over her face, but this year she started taking Accutane. Since then, she’s not really shy at all anymore. The pimples are just tiny brown marks in her skin, you’d never know they were even there in the first place. I wish so badly that I could be happy for her. She does the school plays now. That’s how she and Evan met, in the school production of Guys and Dolls, two months ago. Evan played Nathan Detroit. Hannah has her driver’s license, but I don’t.

While Hannah hangs out with Evan, I read all the novels for English class, and outline the History textbook and I’m in Mr. Cooke’s infamously difficult AP Bio class. If I just sit still and be myself something horrible will happen. We live in a small city in Virginia that is known for being beautiful. People come from all around to see how beautiful it is. These past two weeks have been the Spring Dogwood Festival, which is why the carnival is in town, the carnival where the fingering took place. Dogwoods are a type of pink tree. There’s one outside my window, and when the wind blows through it, it just kind of looks like brightly colored rain.

Will Lang is Evan’s friend. At lunch that day, the day of the fingering, I made him laugh twice. We made eye contact, and for a second I felt like I didn’t have to think everything through, like I could just look at him and be happy. That why I like him, because it’s easy for me to make him laugh. I sit with Hannah at lunch, and also Evan, now that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. Some people and things hold the most terrible powers over me.

The carnival is in McIntire Park, which is kind of close to my house, but you have to take the highway to get there. Evan and Hannah could have invited me and Will, but they didn’t. I guess it doesn’t matter, probably, because my Mom almost definitely would have wanted me to stay home so I could study for the SAT or something like that that night.

Everyone is going places, except for me. Things are happening to them, exciting things, but they are acting like it is no big deal. I am growing worried that I am worried about the things no one else is worried about. At night I have figured out how to cry in a way that is very, very quiet, so my mother doesn’t wonder what the noise is. The worst feeling in the world is when she catches me crying and she asks me why and then I have to tell her that I don’t know. She never believes me, but it is true, really true, I don’t know why.


In my experience, there are thousands of girls who make Youtube videos about the makeup they use. People tend not to know about these videos. If you buy the right products, and follow their tutorials, you can look like they do. It’s simple but you have to get every step right. My mother pays me ten dollars a week for my allowance, and I save it, for months, and then I finally spend it all on the exactly correct piece of makeup. Sometimes I have to wait around for forever, but then my mom will finally have time to take me to the mall so I can go to Sephora. You can use your own hands to make yourself into what you want to be. It’s a matter of doing the steps exactly right, of finding the lipstick that is exactly your own My Lips But Better shade, the blush that makes you look like you are actually alive.

A few weeks ago, when we were lying on the floor of her room, painting our nails, I tried to tell Hannah about how much I like the beauty videos, but she acted like I was an idiot and then she smiled at me in a way that hurt the inside of my stomach.

“Those are so stupid, I can’t believe you actually like those. Those girls seem kind of dumb,” she said, smiling. “Are you insane?”

“Haha,” I said. I pretend to be interested in the things she’s interested in, I thought that’s what friendship is all about. Sometimes she’ll do something that just makes me so angry, but then I’ll wait a while and I won’t feel angry anymore. I thought maybe we could watch the videos together, and I could feel like we were normal friends who never thought horrible things about each other, or I don’t know, she probably doesn’t think horrible things about me. I wish I didn’t feel this way, like I want to ruin her life, her cute and happy life. There is something dangerous and terrible inside of me and I can’t control it. I want to be her best friend, her real best friend, not whatever it is I am. But Hannah doesn’t even need to wear makeup, I guess. She can just be here and be her. I wish someone would look at me the way Evan looks at her, like they fit together. In the mornings before school, Hannah always picks up Evan but sometimes she gives me a ride too, and when I’m looking out the window, waiting for her car, in the second after she pulls up but before she honks the horn for me to come out, I’ll see them sitting in the front seat the way they really are, smiling at each other, unaware that someone is watching them.

Last week, on the car ride back from the mall, I took my new eyeshadow out of the box, and held it on my lap. “Grace, there’s something I need to talk to you about,” said my mom. That’s like my least favorite sentence in the world.

“Yeah,” I said. I looked at the eyeshadow and smiled at it.

“I’m worried about how interested you’ve become in shopping.”

My mother wants me to go to a good college. I could never get into Harvard, but she marked Bowdoin and Northwestern with little post it notes in the college guide she bought for me from Barnes and Nobles. These small things add up until they control my entire life. The book is very boring.

“It’s your choice,” my mom said, “You can be all about shopping and those makeup videos if you want. I’ll still love you if that’s who you want to be. But sometimes I think that maybe the makeup is just filling a hole you have in your life. You could be doing other things, other hobbies.” I don’t think that she realizes that the makeup is fixing my problems, that the makeup can help me change something that is horribly wrong. If I can concentrate hard enough on it, maybe I can fix myself. I’m not shallow, I want to tell her, I’m doing what I can to hold myself together. I don’t say anything.

“Wow,” said my mom, when she saw me silently crying in the passenger’s seat. “You are so emotional.”


I also tried to tell Hannah about feeling horrible all the time, the Friday before that, but it didn’t really work, I guess. It’s hard to explain what I mean by “horrible.” “Horrible” stands for a large and unknowably complicated system of pointy knives inside of me that are straining to stab out. I only say “horrible” because I have nothing better to call it. When I said, “Do you ever feel horrible? Just like so, so horrible?” I said it while grinning, because I couldn’t not, because some things are so sad you have to say them like a joke.

“Evan takes antidepressants,” she said when I tried to tell her. Her face looked serious and offended.

“Oh,” I said. She smiled and put down her slice of pizza, like she was thinking Poor, brave Evan.

“His parents are divorced,” she said.

“That’s so sad,” I said. I guess he probably feels worse than me, I said, to myself. I could feel my chin start to wobble on its own, and my stomach began to hurt, like there was a terrible snake living inside of it. I pinched myself on the leg, but I made sure to do it at an angle that Hannah couldn’t see. I don’t even know how one would go about getting such things anyways, and plus I heard that antidepressants can make you fat. We didn’t talk any more about it, and we won’t ever again.

“Thank god it’s finally spring,” I said. I am the way I am.


“I really liked your essay, Grace,” said Mrs. Shiflett after English class as I was walking out that day, the day I found out about the fingering. I could see Hannah waiting for me outside in the hallway. I wonder what it’s like to see yourself in the mirror with boobs like that, like Mrs. Shiflett’s. I wonder if she ever thinks about how they got to be so big. I counted my steps as I walked away from her, so I wouldn’t have to think.

Sometimes I wish I were blind, or rather, I wish I were capable of blinding myself. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I expect to see a twelve year old, but I just see these boobs.

Out in C Hallway, Hannah turned to me and said, “Oh Grace, I wanted to tell you so badly. I had to wait to do it in person, you know?” She looked so happy, I guess, from Evan’s fingers. She hugged me really tight, tight in a good way, I think. “You’re my best friend in the world, you know that right? I love you so much.”

I smiled the biggest smile I could, my mouth stretching and stretching. It scares me that you can tell someone something and it doesn’t necessarily have to be true.

“I love you, too,” I said.

“It was so amazing,” said Hannah.

“Hey Will,” said Hannah. I look up, and there he was.

“What’s up,” he said. Everything was blurry and dark, except for his head, backlit against the window. I love him, I love him like a perfect and electrifying lipstick. Oh, I’d love to get out of here.


INGRID NELSON is 21 and just graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Creative Writing. She lives in Manhattan and hopes one day to become a Professional Writer. Her short fiction has previously been published in Slice Magazine. She tweets @ingridabyss. 

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