Elsewhere in Pennsylvania / by Anna Swartz

Jillian Hepner was one of those perfect members of a fantasy race who walk among us but are very, very rare, and only glimpsed briefly from across the cafeteria or in passing in the hallway or in a tiny square black and white photograph in last year’s yearbook that you can look at as much as you want when you’re alone in your room, but it’s not as good as the real thing. Her skin was completely smooth and all the same color, and her clothes fit her body exactly like they were supposed to. Clothes always looked very, very weird on me, thick and bunchy in places where there weren’t supposed to be any bunches.

Jillian Hepner had freckles under her eyes and her voice was sleepy-sounding, and she was also so nice that it was almost unfair for her to be so good. I’m almost positive that no one didn’t like her. Her hair was shiny and she pulled it up on top of her head and tied it together in a messy bundle that was so many different colors of gold that calling it blonde seemed unfair to Jillian Hepner’s hair.

I was intensely jealous of whatever future boyfriend Jillian Hepner would have someday who would actually get to touch her and kiss the freckles under her eyes and hear her sleepy voice all the time.

She was so perfect that whenever there was a possibility of actually being in close proximity to her, I hoped very, very much that it wouldn’t happen. And although it hadn’t happened yet, the idea that we might one day be some situation in real life where we would have to talk to each other was entirely terrifying and intensely undesirable.

In my head though, it was not terrifying at all. I had imaginary conversations with Jillian Hepner while I walked to the bus stop, while I waited (as long as there was no one around), while I was in my room. Sometimes I played Tetris on the computer and talked to Jillian Hepner for an hour or so. In my imagination I was always very funny and made lots of jokes that I imagined vaguely, and whatever I said made Jillian Hepner laugh hard and bend over and put her hand on my arm. Stop, she would say through her laughter, You are too funny.

And we didn’t just talk, in my imagination. I liked to imagine situations where I needed to rescue Jillian Hepner. Like if a terrorist held the whole school hostage and made us all go into the gym and sit on the floor, and aimed a machine gun at us and said he would kill one of us every hour until his demands were met, then I would make eye contact with Jillian Hepner, who would be crying softly, and I would say with my eyes, I’m going to save us, don’t worry. And her eyes would be all red from crying but she would signal back to me No, don’t try to be a hero, just do what he says. But I would stand up and the terrorist would aim his machine gun right at me but I would make an impassioned speech (this I also imagined only vaguely) and he would drop the machine gun and beg for my forgiveness and Jillian would come right up to me and take my face in both of her hands and say, out loud, You are amazing.

Or I imagined a pipe might burst in the basement and they would call us all into the cafeteria to keep us safe from the rising waters and someone would shout out, Jillian Hepner is missing! And then someone else would shout out, I think she was in the basement! And I would slip away in the commotion and hurry down into the basement where I would see Jillian Hepner, her messy bun all wet strands, holding on to a light fixture for safety and I would swim through the rushing waters to save her, and she would hold on to me and gasp in my ear while we swam back to safety. And also, by the way, the reason she couldn’t just swim by herself was because in the flood something had floated by and hit her very hard on the kneecap. I added that part in later.

Jillian Hepner wasn’t usually in my Biology 1 class, but she had missed her Biology 1 class during an earlier period because she had a doctor’s appointment, which I learned because when she was there at the start of my Biology 1 class someone asked her why she was there and that’s what she said. One of the things I didn’t like about Biology 1 was that it was taught by Ms. Cheever who liked to assign pairs herself instead of let us pick. If she had let us pick then I would have been with Karen Yim every time, because Karen never talked.

But Ms. Cheever chose our pairs that day, and we were supposed to be cutting planarian in half to turn them into two planarian, and every pair had to come up together and get their little dish, and of course Ms. Cheever called me up with Jillian Hepner. And right away I started sweating and I felt like I had drunk about a hundred cups of very, very caffeinated soda because my heart was racing so much, but Jillian Hepner just said This will be fun in her sleepy voice and smiled at me. She carried our little planarian in its dish back to a table and we sat there with our heads close together and I watched while Jillian Hepner sliced it in half with a tiny blade. I took detailed notes in our lab journal and Jillian Hepner laughed about how small our two brand new planarians were, sloshing around together, suddenly startled to be different when they used to be the same.

It wasn’t at all as bad as I thought it would be, except that the smell of her shampoo was very sweet, like a box of pears, and whenever it came floating over to me I wrote extra good notes in our journal. But I laughed at the right times, and always said yeah or no to what Jillian Hepner asked me. The bell rang faster than I thought it would, but when I left Biology 1 I was exhausted.

Then, exactly twenty-one hours later Jillian Hepner and I were standing in the same line for milk in the cafeteria and she said Hey, how’s it going just like we were friends, now that we had made a new planarian together. And I said Good just like we were having a normal conversation. And then I got a rush of energy and excitement and I felt like it was my chance to say something perfect to Jillian Hepner so I started talking but I hadn’t really thought it all the way through because what I said was Well it’s going okay considering we’re probably just in a computer simulation of Earth.

And Jillian Hepner said What?

And I said Well if you think about it there can only be one Earth but there can be infinite computer simulations of Earth so the odds are that we’re probably in one of the simulations and not the original Earth.

And then Jillian Hepner said Okay then, and laughed and we both looked straight ahead towards the front of the milk line.

When I got home that day I ate eleven Oreos and got to level thirty-nine in Tetris and thought very, very hard about what I wished I had said to Jillian Hepner. 





Anna Swartz is a writer living in Brooklyn. She channels her painful adolescent memories into short fiction. She hopes to one day compete on a reality TV cooking competition. Find her on Twitter as @Anna_Snackz.