By Mark Joslyn
Morning was her favorite time. Her window faced East, and she always left the curtains open so the dawn would wake her. When the light washed over her closed eyelids, she gave a small, wincing smile, and rolled on to her back. She threw off the covers and let the light warm up her bare legs.
Five minutes of basking, and Jodie was ready to get up. She cracked her windows to let the cool morning air sweep into her room, and took a deep inhale, letting it invigorate her lungs.
She brushed her teeth, showered, and combed her hair. Once her outfit was selected and her hair was on point, she grabbed her phone for a morning selfie. She still posted one every day, even though no one liked them anymore. Well, sometimes her mom. But she liked the way she looked. She almost always did. And it was one of the only times of the day when she was in total control of her image.
Downstairs, her father sat at the counter with a steaming cup of coffee and an open newspaper. He raised his head at the sound of her socked feet padding down the steps.
“Morning, Dad. Pot still fresh?”
He nodded his head towards the French press, still half-full of warm, inviting liquid. Jodie poured herself a cup and breathed deep the aroma.
“You find out if they are sending you on that trip to Kansas City?”
Her father shrugged. “Maybe me, maybe Brett. I mean, they are sympathetic to our situation and everything, but they want other partners to have face-time with clients, too. I can’t be the only one building relationships.”
“Yeah, but you’re the only one with a compelling reason to go. You gonna press them on it?”
“Maybe,” he said, putting aside the paper entirely and looking at his daughter. At seventeen-years-old, she was now taller than her mother, and almost as tall as him (taller when she wore heels). But her slight frame and baby cheeks still made her seem so damn fragile and small. “But I see where they are coming from. And truthfully, I don’t love leaving you alone.”
She gave what she hoped was her strongest smile. “It’s fine. Nothing you can really do anyway. It’s better for everyone if you are out of range. Especially if they let you take mom as your assistant again. She’s not doing so well.”
Her father nodded. It was true. His wife had many strengths that he loved about her, but adaptation wasn’t one of them. She had a hard time dealing with the garden variety changes of life, like moving house, or getting a new in-law. And the current situation was far from the garden. She would wake from nightmares regularly. Sometimes, he would reach out to hold her, to lull her back to sleep. Other times—times he was ashamed of—he pretended to still be asleep, and shut his eyes tighter when he started hearing her softly cry.
“Well,” he said, draining the last of his coffee, “I better be on my way. Hopefully the roads stay normal, and the car doesn’t-GAH!”
The grunt was followed by the sound of a mug shattering, and Jodie, who had been looking out the window and studying the lawn for any overnight changes, whipped her head around. Her father was nowhere to be seen.
She rushed around the kitchen island to the spot where he had been standing. His suit, shirt, and tie lay in a pile on the floor. She reached down for them, but recoiled when they started moving.
No, it wasn’t that they were moving. But there was movement inside them. Something quite small. It was like watching a puppy struggle out of blanket.
The clothes rustled some more, and a tiny creature emerged from between the pants and shirt. The thing looked like a cross between a basketball and a turnip, with limbs that were like dry twigs.
Jodie looked at her watch. 8:15.
“Shit. He’s usually still sleeping in around now.”
The round freak at her feet looked up at her with eyes that resembled two rabbit droppings, and spoke with her father’s voice. “Ah, well. My fault for dawdling with that second cup of coffee. And watch your language.”
Jodie gave a smile that wasn’t entirely forced. She was glad that her father kept his own voice, no matter the body. Tyler never thought to change stuff like that.
“Well, driving is out,” said her father, as he waddled unsteadily on his new legs. Jodie averted her eyes. She wasn’t sure if this new form even had private parts, but if it did, she didn’t want to see them.
“I’ll order you an Uber.”
“That would be great, honey.”
Her father raised what passed for his face as best he could. “Not your fault, Jodie. Really. Not your fault.”
After she made sure her father got picked up okay (remembering to give the always reliable Adebesi five stars for not making any remarks), she put on her shoes, grabbed her backpack, and started towards school.
As usual, the changes started the moment she got outside. Her sneakers tightened and her book bag tripled in weight. Those were his standbys, the ones he used most every day. The grass screaming at her was a new wrinkle. Most of it was just a general shrieking, like pigs being tortured. Occasionally, she thought she could make out a more specific obscenity amongst the cacophony. She pressed her ear buds in and cranked her music. It was only six blocks. She could make it alright. She always did.
Two blocks from the school, Lindsey Baker started trying to get her attention from across the street. Jodie kept her eyes forward and pretended not to see her. That was harder to accomplish once Lindsey ran over and stood directly in front of her.
“Do you know what he did this morning?”
The accusing yelp cut through her tunes, and she yanked out her headphones.
“I said, do you know what he did this morning?”
“Something awful, I’m sure,” she said, as she tried some evasive maneuvers.
“He turned my father into a goddamn lawnmower!”
Jodie stopped trying to get around Lindsey. “He…what?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Lindsey screamed, flailing her arms. “This morning my dad was out mowing the lawn, and all of a sudden, he doubled over the thing. When he straightened up, his legs were just…gone! The whole bottom half of him is just the lawnmower now! He’s still out there! He’s going in circles and spitting grass out of his mouth! I tried to get him to stop, but he can’t even look at me or blink or anything.”
“Jesus, Lindsey. I’m so sorry.” Jodie tried putting her hand on Lindsey’s shoulder, but got it slapped away instantly.
“Screw your sorry! I want you to make this stop!”
“I can’t. Not how you want me to.”
“It’s been three months!”
“Just say yes, already! We can’t live like this.”
“You really think that’s the answer? To just give him whatever he wants? That’s not going to work. That’s not going to make things better.”
“It’s worth a shot! Because saying ‘no’ sure as hell isn’t working.”
“I…can’t. I just can’t. It can’t be like that. We can’t let it be like that.”
“You’re a selfish bitch! If it was me–”
“But it isn’t you. It’s me. So, I get to decide. Look, you know he’ll just turn your dad back eventually. Deep down, he hates change.”
“Oh, I guess that makes it alright?”
“I’m not saying that makes it alright, I’m just saying…” Before she could finish the thought, Lindsey was stomping away. She was so upset she almost let herself get nabbed by one of the concrete claws that were reaching up from the sidewalk, grabbing and scratching anything that came too close.
Once at school, the day followed its usual routine. She had a wardrobe change every period. In English, it was a clown suit, complete with floppy shoes that were nearly impossible to walk in. Next, she endured Communications with an itchy sweater that felt like a legion of ants were burrowing into her skin. She sat in the back row in each class, making it easier for her peers to avoid looking at her, and reducing the chances of being called on by some substitute who didn’t know better.
Some days brought new outfits, some days he just recycled, but lunchtime was always the same. The moment she stepped into the cafeteria, she was naked, nothing left on her but her backpack. She used to have this nightmare when she was little. Of course in the dream, all of her classmates pointed and laughed. Now that it happened in real life, they all made a concentrated effort not to look at her.
The first few times this happened, she had tried to cover herself with her book bag, but now she didn’t bother. She marched to an empty table and took out her lunch from her bag. She laid out the turkey sandwich, bag of baby carrots, and chocolate chip cookie, and stared, waiting for a change. When a full, uneventful minute passed, she reached for the cookie. The moment her fingers touched it, it turned to maggots. She shrugged. No sugar today.
Jodie ate the rest of her meal with confidence. Tyler usually only screwed with one item. One week, he had ruined all her meals, but when she started to look too sickly, he eased up.
She ate slowly, not trying to rush. She, and everyone else in the cafeteria knew what was coming. Sometimes he came to his classes, sometimes he didn’t, but no matter what, Tyler would show up at lunchtime.
Jodie was half done with her sandwich when he walked through the door and took the seat across from her. He was the only companion she had at lunch anymore. Some of her closer friends had tried to stick it out, but the third-degree burns they got from the seats of their pants being turned into hot coals had chased the last of them off. She missed them, but she didn’t blame them.
Tyler had nothing in his hands when he approached the table, but a plate appeared in front of him as soon as he sat down. The steak on it was plump and covered in a luscious sauce, with crispy potatoes and blistered shishito peppers piled all around. The smell wafting off the plate was intoxicating.
Tyler started to eat (using a fork and serrated knife that generated in his hands), without looking at her. He was half-way through the filet when he first spoke.
“It’s call steak au poivre. I saw it on the cover of some gourmet magazine.”
“It looks really good.”
“We could eat like this. Every night. Together.”
“I don’t want to do that, Tyler.”
Tyler turned back to his plate, sullenly pushing his food around.
“I’d like my clothes back.”
“Oh, so you want me to be nice to you when you won’t be nice to me?”
“I’m always nice to you, Tyler.”
“Bullshit!” Upon Tyler raising his voice, the boy that had been hurrying past them liquified. “You’re not nice to me. I do things for you all the time. I always have. And you don’t even care. You never even wore any of those diamonds I got you.”
Looking at the puddle on the floor that used to be a person, Jodie could hear Lindsey’s voice, blaming her for all of this. At one point, she had thought she could just spare everyone by not going to school anymore. But on the third day of skipping, when Tyler figured out what she was doing, he sent an entire gym class…somewhere.
When they reappeared a week later, none of them wanted to talk about where they had been or what they had seen.
Jodie hadn’t even risked being tardy since then.
“I’ve always cared. I’ve always appreciated you and thanked you.”
“I didn’t do it so you could thank me. I wasn’t looking for some socially-mandated response. I did it so you could see how I felt about you. So you would realize that I’m the kind of guy you should be with. I’d treat you right, if you would just let me.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
Tyler’s lips quivered in response for a moment, but then he just returned to his steak. He was far more occupied with skewering it than actually eating it. Every time he jabbed his knife down, the lunchroom collectively flinched. No one headed for the exit, though. Probably because a small lightning storm had started above it.
Jodie waited for Tyler to finish his meat before she spoke again.
He looked up, his face twisted into a pout.
Tyler waved his hand, and a yellow sun dress draped itself over her.
“This isn’t what I was wearing.”
“I know. This is better. You look good in yellow. I don’t know why you don’t wear it more often.”
The reason was she hated yellow. She couldn’t remember if she had told him that or not. In any event, she didn’t think it was worth bringing up. She returned to her sandwich and carrots, eating leisurely, so he wouldn’t think she was hurrying.
After about three minutes of silence, Tyler looked up at her sheepishly.
“I didn’t mean to get mad. I shouldn’t have lost it like that.”
Jodie nodded. “It’s okay, Tyler. But that kid, I think it was Ben Larch, could you…”
Tyler gave his fingers a quick drum on the table, and the melted boy sprung back up from the ground, fully solid once more.
“Oh, I guess it was Hal Simmons.”
Hal gave himself a quick pat down and then, apparently satisfied that everything was in its right place, ran to the farthest table in the lunchroom.
Jodie went back to munching on some carrots, and slowly became aware that Tyler was focusing an intense stare on her.
She shrugged. “What?”
“Well?” He repeated, loud enough that several people at the nearest table felt the sensation of being punched in the face.
Jodie looked at him confused, until Tyler jerked his head towards the recently recombobulated Hal Simmons, who was eating his lunch with a panicked fervor.
“Oh. Right. Thank you, Tyler.”
“You’re welcome. Anyway, since that’s over with, I was thinking we could do something tonight. It should be nice out. I could get us a convertible to cruise around in. You like Corvettes? Or maybe a Lexus?”
“I don’t think so. But thank you for asking.”
Tyler’s face started to twitch back into his pout. She didn’t know if he was going to cry or give half the room shingles again. “Why not? Are you seeing someone else? Is it that dick Gabriel you have History with? He’s always staring at you.”
Behind her, Jodie heard a sharp, painful shriek. She had never heard Gabriel scream before, but she was confident it came from him. She couldn’t bring herself to turn around and see what exactly Tyler had done to him. Four weeks before, he had thought she was dating Malik Jones. She still hadn’t been able to shake the sight of his eye sockets growing sets of gnashing teeth.
“I’m not seeing anyone. I don’t have plans. I just don’t want to go out with you, Tyler. It’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s just a choice I’m making.”
A small tremor started moving through the room. At first, Jodie thought Tyler was causing an earthquake. But it was more than that. It wasn’t just the floors and the walls that were starting to shake. It was everything. The sunlight, the words being spoken, even the air that she was breathing started to tremble. The only unmoved thing in the room was Tyler, who spoke through clenched teeth.
“Why are you being such a bitch! I’m offering you a good time. I can do more than any guy in this town! Any guy on the planet!”
Tyler slapped his hand on the table and Regina Leachman (whom Jodie had done gymnastics with in the fifth grade) flew against one of the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far side of the room. From the corner of her eye, Jodie watched as Regina slid a bloody trail down the glass, like a bug being scraped off a windshield.
Tyler was still fuming, not registering what he had just done. He wasn’t even looking at Jodie anymore, talking more to himself than her. “I gave you a ride when you needed one. I was there for you whenever you were having a fight with one of your friends. I…” Tyler clenched his fists, and the room shook harder. “I became like this for you.”
“I’m grateful. And I’m impressed. But that doesn’t mean I want to be with you.”
“Do you know what I had to go through to make this happen? Do you know what this took?”
“I don’t. I can’t imagine–“
“No! You Can’t!” Tyler took quick, snarling breaths through his nose. The exhale was slowly melting the table beneath him. “Maybe I should have just been a selfish jerk. I guess that’s the kind of guy you want to be with, right?”
Jodie kept her focus on Tyler, but couldn’t help hearing what was going on around her. Some kids had started to pray, others quietly cried.
“That’s not fair, Tyler.”
“Fair!?” At that, Tyler stood, his eyes locked on her once again. “Don’t talk to me about fair! I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do! I did everything right! And you won’t even give me a chance. How is that fair? That’s all I’m asking for. Just a chance. After everything I’ve done, I deserve a chance.”
Jodie rose, gripping the table to steady herself. “No. No, you don’t. You can’t. That’s not how it works–”
“Stop saying that!”
“That’s not how it works! I don’t want you!” The scream was out before she even realized it was building inside of her. It was bad. She knew that. But it felt so damn good.
Tyler closed his eyes, and the quake in the room became so intense that it was like the world was having the most violent seizure. Jodie’s knees went out from under her, and she crashed back into her chair. She clenched her jaw, trying to stop her teeth from rattling out of her head. The only clear thing in the world was Tyler’s voice.
“Do you know what I can make happen? Do you know what I’m capable of?”
The air started to rip. Jodie could see colors that didn’t exist, that she knew she was never supposed to see. Her tongue desperately wanted to go down her own throat.
The soft weeping of her classmates had become uncontrollable sobs, and the prayers had become cries for mercy. Spears with scorching-hot blades shot from the walls, and the exit had become a cavernous tunnel into an impenetrable darkness. Some of the kids tried to break the windows to escape, but swarms of glass shards enveloped them.
Tyler was floating above her now. There were tiny rings of fire whipping around his feet. He went higher and higher until he was just below the ceiling. Despite the distance, his voice came as if he were whispering in her ear.
“I’m the most amazing person you’re ever going to meet. There’s literally no one in the world who can take better care of you. Why are you too stupid to get that?”
Jodie could feel her kidneys trying to process alien liquids. Around her, kids were trying to walk on knees that bent the wrong way. Tyler hadn’t stopped talking.
“You pretended to be nice, but you’re really just like the rest of them, you just wanted to walk past me. Well, no one does that now. I don’t get ignored anymore.”
Something slithered around Jodie’s feet, something that didn’t have an end or a beginning. The monsters she had seen in the closet when she was five started to dance around her retinas.
“Don’t you know what I can do?”
Jodie shut her eyes before her vision drove her insane. With some effort, she opened her mouth and took a deep breath, ignoring whatever it was that made her lungs crackle.
“I know what you can do,” she rasped, the inside of her mouth so raw that her own words were like razors. “But more than that…” Her attention faltered. Something was reaching down from the ceiling, singing a song in a dead language. “More than that…I know what you can’t. And what I can.”
The room shook harder. Jodie squeezed the table so tight it should have broken. The agony was like she was being pulled apart. She could feel, literally feel, Tyler’s gaze on her, a hot, slimy weight on the top of her head. She could hear the sound of his panting breath, so fast and labored that she was sure one of them would be dead in the next moment.
She wouldn’t look at him. Past the pain and the darkness, past every screaming nerve in her body wanting her to say the opposite, she pushed her words. “No. The answer…is still…no…”
And then it was over.
The room became still. Steady, gloriously uncorrupted air flowed into her lungs. Her bones rested comfortably inside her skin. Light entered her irises without violence, and the only living creatures in the cafeteria were frightened (but relieved) teenagers.
Tyler was sitting across from her again. His meal was gone as if it never existed. In front of him on the table now were just his hands, which he studied intently.
Jodie quietly finished her meal, gathered the scraps into her paper bag, and crumpled it up. Tyler still wasn’t looking at her. When she started to rise, he stood up so quick that his chair clattered to the ground. She stood rigid and hoped he hadn’t seen her flinch.
Tyler shifted from foot to foot for a moment, still keeping his head down. Then he quickly spun and stomped towards the door. Just before he was gone, he yelled, “Slut!” without turning around.
Jodie waited, and when she was sure he wasn’t coming back (he occasionally decided he had more to say after one of his dramatic exits), she picked up her book bag and threw away her trash. As she left, she could see Regina rise to her feet. The sound of her neck snapping back into place was somehow more unsettling than hearing it break.
She stopped by the bathroom before her Econ class and saw that Tyler hadn’t just screamed the insult at her. The word “slut” was printed across her forehead in bold, black letters. She tried some soap and water, but it wouldn’t come off. For a minute, she tried to see if she could style her hair over it, but couldn’t without blinding herself. Something inside of her wanted to cry. She left it inside of her and walked to class. Walking through the halls, she caught snippets of her classmates’ conversations about the events in the cafeteria. The collective wisdom was that she shouldn’t have made him so mad.
The sartorial torments continued throughout the day (hazmat suit, smelly boots, a comically puffy ballgown that she kept tripping in), but after the last bell, she was back in her original jeans and blouse. Her new face tattoo was still there, though.
Her route home (which changed every day, depending on what streets Tyler set on fire) took her past Mr. Samuel’s house. He owned the hardware store in town, and his son had been on Jodie’s tee-ball team when they were younger.
Mr. Samuel was on his front lawn when Jodie walked by, beating the grass with a shovel. Upon looking closer, Jodie could see that he was trying to kill something with six legs and two heads. Jodie stopped, and was going to offer a hand, when the creature scurried back into a hole it had made in the ground.
Mr. Samuel leaned on the shovel, trying to catch his breath. When he looked up and saw Jodie, his lip curled into a snarl.
“Little bastards have been tearing up the garden all week. Couldn’t you just go to the damn movies with the boy, or something?”
Jodie made an effort not to return his nasty look. “Couldn’t you just move?”
Mr. Samuel snorted. “Move? Let me explain something to you, little girl. This is my property, understand? I own it. No one tells me what to do with it.”
Jodie waited, wondering if there was more wisdom coming. But he just spat on the ground and marched to his porch.
About an hour after she got home, Jodie got a text from her mother. She and her dad would be both be late, as she had joined him at the office to help him finish his work. Apparently, the body he had been given made typing extremely difficult.
She ordered a pizza, which was delivered by a terrified young woman who was only slightly mollified by the 30% tip. When she left, Jodie stood in the street and watched her taillights fade for three blocks, just to make sure she got away safely.
She ate at the kitchen counter, no TV or music. She didn’t feel like any noise that evening. She concentrated on the sensation of taste, the sweetness of the tomato sauce, the buttery crust, the exquisite oiliness of the melted cheese. She meant to save some for the next morning (she loved cold pizza for breakfast), but ended up devouring the entire thing without thinking.
She tossed the box in the recycling and went upstairs. She got undressed and looked at herself in the mirror, the “slut” imprint still on her forehead. She looked at her image for a time, then put her palm to her head, covering the word, and stared at her unmarred reflection. After a minute, she brought her hand down again. Then up again. Back and forth, she went like that.
She studied the two girls she saw in the mirror, comparing them to one another. Who was pretty? Who was ugly? Who was strong? Who was weak?
She did this until her shoulder ached, and then she just let her arm hang limply at her side. She kept looking into the mirror. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. And then, without any fanfare, the word was gone. It didn’t even fade away, it just vanished in a blink. Jodie smiled at a satisfied-looking girl in the glass.
Jodie slipped between the sheets of the bed and nestled into her pillow. The world outside was quiet and still. In the dark silence, she listened to her soft breath, and brought her hand to her chest. Her skin was warm, her heart was steady. After a little while, she closed her eyes and slipped into the landscape of her own dreams, where anything was possible.
© 2020, Mark Joslyn