It was surprising how something so seemingly small could be the catalyst that would send her life into a downward spiral. It was so miniscule and somehow it held the strength to tear away the only person she ever loved. It wasn’t fair, but Juliette’s life never was. With an alcoholic father and a mother six feet under, she was practically labeled “unfortunate” from birth. In fact, many living in the small town of Hayesville assumed that the young girl would grow up to be an outlaw or a floozy. However, her friendship with the sweet McClay girl was what many deemed as her saving grace, and Juliette would never deny that Gigi’s support and understanding was what kept her head above water. But, somehow, that made the whole screwed up situation even worse, because what could Juliette do when Gigi was now the one who needed help? Was she supposed to just lie down and watch her best friend disintegrate into oblivion?
All it took was three stupid letters for Gigi to be taken from her, not even a word or a phrase.
She knew that Gigi wasn’t an imbecile, truth be told she was actually the most perspicacious person in the entire state. However, there was one topic she wasn’t an expert at. Sure, Juliette knew plenty about sex. She’d had that conversation with her father a long time ago. I mean, when your dad comes home every night with a new woman, questions are bound to arise. But for the rest of the teens in religious-centric Hayesville; the cat was still in the bag. And, sadly, Gigi wasn’t immune to the townspeople’s perpetual avoidance of the subject. The church and Father Christopher would occasionally mention the intimate acts, but only to remind the children that ‘Celibacy is what God wants from you!’ and ‘Satan will try to tempt you, but do not be fooled!,’ and plenty more trauma-inducing mantras. But if the adults really didn’t want the kids to have sex, than maybe they should’ve just educated their children. I mean, fatal diseases and childbirth seem a lot more menacing than the wrath of God. Maybe if Father Christopher would’ve stopped evangelizing and started explaining, Gigi wouldn’t have had to suffer.
“You did what?”
“Jules don’t make me say it again. I…I did the deed, okay?” Gigi said as she pulled the covers of her bed up to hide her blushing face.
“With who? You don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“Well you left the party, and Rex offered to take me home so I—”
“Seriously? Gigi, you did it with him? Of all the people in town that you could have been with, you choose the guy who equates sex to a handshake? You’ve got to be kidding me! How could you do this G? ” Juliette shouted.
“Shhh! Keep your voice down! You’re gonna wake up my mom, and then we’ll both be in for it.”
“G, you’re supposed to be better than this.” Juliette replied, in a much softer, more defeated tone.
“Look, I’m sorry Jules. I just wanted—he made me feel special, okay? And I just wanted to try it. Why are you making me feel terrible about myself? I tell you something super personal, and you scream in my face about it? We’re supposed to be friends.”
“G, I’m not mad at you. And nothing you ever do will make me stop being your friend. I just—did you guys at least use protection?”
“Protection? Jules, we weren’t playing tackle football. Was I supposed to wear shin guards or something? Oh great, now you’re gonna lecture me about how helmets must be worn during intercourse, aren’t you?”
“Oh my god.” Juliette sputtered out as she stared at her blissfully ignorant friend.
Thoughts were racing through Juliette’s mind at lightning speed. But one word kept pounding in her ears, flashing bright across her eyes like a neon sign. It’s funny, because it wasn’t even an actual word. It was only three letters.
Her legs wouldn’t stop bouncing up and down. She felt like her calves were competing to see who could jump the highest and knee her in the face. At least a broken nose would be more enjoyable than just sitting in this cold, dank waiting room. The overhead lights added an eerie ambience to the room, and Juliette couldn’t help but wonder if this is what hell was like. Looking down, she stared at the random lines and colors that decorated the carpet below her. She couldn’t tell which markings were parts of the original design and which were added by other artists, latched on to their mother’s sides whilst sucking on their tiny thumbs. This was the only clinic that was, both, far enough from Hayesville that no one would recognize the teens and offered testing for minors with no parental supervision. Juliette had forced Gigi to come, despite her insistent denials that nothing was wrong. A nurse had called Gigi’s name about a half an hour earlier, and her best friend had disappeared behind a large, wooden door. The longer Juliette waited, the more her mind became a ‘what if’ wasteland. She was so zoned out that she almost missed the door creak open, allowing Gigi and the now-frowning nurse to enter the waiting room.
“Hey, are you okay? What’s going on? Are you pregnant? Is she pregnant? Are you gonna answer me? Wait, why are you crying? Are those happy tears? Sad tears? Gigi, answer me!” Juliette rambled looking towards her friend and the nurse for positive responses.
“Well, the pregnancy tests came back negative, so Gigi is not carrying a child.” The nurse calmly explained.
“Oh, thank god! G, this is great news! Why aren’t you smiling? G?” Juliette questioned her mute friend.
“Unfortunately, we did find antibodies in Gigi’s blood sample.” The nurse chimed in once again.
“Antibodies? Wait, what does that mean? What are antibodies? Are they good to have?”
“The presence of antibodies in the bloodstream means that Gigi tested positive for HIV. Now, remember, this is just a preliminary test. We’ve sent her sample to a lab to be tested again, and we should receive those results in about three weeks. However, the rapid test we just performed is very accurate. So, it is very unlikely for her results from the lab to come back negative.” the nurse supplied, with a pitying look in her eyes.
“Okay…um so what’s the um—the best plan of action for us?” Juliette tried to form a proper sentence, but she felt a lump in her throat and the back of her eyes starting to tingle.
“Well, we’re going to need to contact Gigi’s regular doctor about our findings today. However, you’ll need to bring a parent or guardian back with you so that we can get all of Gigi’s information. Look, I know this seems like the end of the world right now, but from the looks of the test, we caught it early. There are plenty of people living a normal life with sexually transmitted diseases.”
There it was: the official proclamation that her friend was ill. It felt as though the ground beneath Juliette had just crumbled away and she was now free-falling. The clinic was most definitely like hell, after all. It only took the nurse three seconds to confirm her worst fear.
Telling her mom was probably the hardest part for Gigi. Juliette knew that Mrs. McClay and her daughter had a very close relationship, but it would never outweigh the relationship Gigi’s mother had with Jesus. The night Gigi finally found the courage to confess, no one in Hayesville got any sleep. Screaming, crying, fighting. The noises of despair echoed through the town, chilling even the most rebellious thug to the bone. Naturally, everyone at school found it to be hilarious. They would taunt and nag Gigi until she burst into tears. They would tell her that she was a sinner, and that she deserved to burn. The irony was that the bullies were more sinister than Gigi would ever be. People egged her house and went as far as to throw rocks at her. All of the harassment contributed negatively to Gigi’s grades, and the overly-opinionated teachers weren’t much better than the students. One even subtracted fifty points off of an exam and wrote in big red letters, ‘BECAUSE YOU’RE INFECTED WITH THE DEVIL’S POISON.’ The worst part was that Gigi was actually an avid follower of Christ, so all of the insults really hit home. However, after a few months she developed a thicker skin and stopped listening to the persecutors around her.
“Gigi are you in here? Gigi! Look, no one’s around. I promise, it’s just me.” Juliette said.
“I’m in the third stall, door’s open.” Gigi replied, but her voice was shaky and raw.
“Hey. I thought we were over hiding in the bathroom? What’s up?”
“Some kids were calling me some names.” Gigi answered, her eyes glued on the tile floor.
“Okay… What did they call you?”
“They…they said I was like her. And they’re right. I’m—I am like her, just like her. I went against the church and God. I-I ate the apple! I listened to the serpent—I took a bite and I…I’m her.”
“Gigi, I don’t understand. They said you’re like who?” Juliette asked slightly confused, but knowing deep down what Gigi meant.
“YOU KNOW WHO! I’m going to hell, Juliette. I’m a despicable human being.” Gigi screeched out, her words turning into sobs.
Never had Juliette hated religion so much in her life. It was because of religion that her friend was uninformed about fornication. It was because of religion that she was now ostracized. It was because of religion that Gigi was at her breaking point. Yet, as she held her weeping friend, all Juliette could do was pray. Pray to God that her friend didn’t shatter in her arms. As she beseeched the Lord for help, she repeated ‘You are not her. You are not her,’ into her best friend’s ear. Her. A word that was once biblical, now being used as an insult. That word. That name. So short, and yet so powerful. It was only three letters.
It was rough, but the two girls got through it. They both graduated high school, moved on to college, and went onto get jobs. Juliette got married, and had a few kids. Gigi was taking her meds, and working as a motivational speaker. Life was good. Somewhere along the lines, Gigi and Juliette started floating farther and farther apart from one another. It started when Juliette moved to California, and escalated to no texts, less calls, and pretty minimal communication in general. They were just on different paths, but they never stopped thinking about one another. About 20 years from when Gigi was diagnosed, Juliette got the call. She flew back home and spent about three months with Gigi in the hospital. It was nice for the two to be able to see each other again. However, good things never did last long for Juliette.
“G! Gigi! Stay with me, G! I can’t lose you! Nurse! Nurse!”
“I’m going to heaven, Juliette.” Gigi whispered serenely, staring upwards at the ceiling.
Gigi please! I can’t lose you yet…” Juliette whimpered as the ominous beep displayed a flat line on the monitor.
It wasn’t enough time. Gigi passed away too soon. She only got spend three months with her best friend.
The funeral was short and simple, just the way Gigi would have liked it to be. Only a few close family members and friends attended the procession. Juliette didn’t cry. She just stared at the tombstone on display. There was no coffin, because Gigi had never liked the idea of being buried. She always said that she wanted to donate her body to science. Juliette was grateful for that, now. Seeing the orifice that would conceal her best friend from the rest of the world was not something on her to-do list. No, she just stared at the slab stuck halfway in soil. Juliette stood there staring for hours after the funeral had ended and everyone had left. She stayed until nightfall, and eventually the groundskeeper came to tell her that the cemetery was closing.
“I’m real sorry to do this ma’am, but I’m gonna have to ask ya to leave. The gates gotta be closed, and I can’t lock ya in here.” The groundskeeper politely said, with a slanted accent.
“Oh wow! I’m sorry. I—I didn’t realize how late it was. Um, I’ll go.” Juliette said embarrassed, as she turned to leave.
“Uh wait, Miss! I’m…uh—I’m real sorry for your loss.”
“Me too.” Juliette replied.
“What was she like—uh Gi-gi?” The man called out to Juliette’s retreating figure, squinting at the tombstone to find the name.
“She is—was a beautiful person. She saved my life. Without her I’d probably be dead—not here right now.” Juliette answered, having been intrigued by the groundskeeper’s interest. Most strangers could care less about someone else’s life. Or lack thereof.
“Well, she sounds like a stand-up girl. Really wish I coulda met her.”
“I wish you could’ve too.”
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking, that’s a pretty interesting inscription on that there stone. What does it mean?”
“Um, well, let’s just say it has sentimental value.”
“Alrighty then, Miss. You have a goodnight, okay?”
“Okay, I will. Goodnight to you, too. And… thank you” Juliette replied and then walked out of the cemetery.
The groundskeeper was right; the engraving on Gigi’s headstone was fairly unique. When Juliette was asked what the inscription should say, she had to think long and hard about it. She knew that she didn’t want to put ‘Rest in Peace’ or ‘In Loving Memory of’ on Gigi’s memorial. They just felt too distant. They wouldn’t communicate how caring and spectacular she was as a human being. She wanted it to say something that was theirs. Something that no one else could take away from them. So maybe Juliette just wanted to get back at the universe and say ‘Hey, it took just three for you to take her away, but guess what? It took us less than three to fight through it and love each other!’ The world could tear Juliette down over and over again. It could deal her the worst cards in the deck, but she’d pull through. It might have been childish, but looking at that tombstone, Juliette felt like she’d finally won.
Less than three.