|This story is a work in progress.|
|Paradise story universe|
|Constructive criticism and in-depth critiques are welcome|
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Skylar hesitated when she saw the two older kids already waiting at the bus stop, then took a deep breath and forced herself to keep going. They can't see it, she told herself. Just act normal. Sure enough, they only glanced at her―or rather, at the empty air above her head―and then ignored her.
Skylar wouldn't have believed it three weeks ago, but now starting high school wasn't the biggest thing in her life.
Skylar turned to see her best friend, Brandi, hurrying up the street. She fought off an urge to run and hide, fixing a smile on her face. Just act normal. Behind her, the school bus was just coming around the corner. "Good timing," she called out.
"Haven't seen you since you got sick in August," Brandi said as she caught up. "How are you? How was the rest of your summer?"
"Sucked," Skylar said. The understatement of the year. No, the century. That was when it had happened, three weeks ago―she'd been sick for days, with like the worst flu ever, and then just when she was feeling better, bam! She'd woken up to find herself halfway through being transformed into a giant rat-person.
A giant rat-person no one else could see. Her parents, her bratty little brother, hundreds of people at the mall during back-to-school shopping―they all saw the girl she used to be. That had scared her at first, made her think she was going crazy. But she didn't think a delusion would be this vivid, this lucid. She could feel her fur. And besides, there were things about rats she hadn't even known about until she became one. How could she hallucinate bruxing, for instance, or the need to gnaw, when she hadn't known rats did that?
So she didn't think she was going crazy. Most of the time. But she couldn't talk about it either, not without other people thinking she was crazy.
Not even with her best friend. Before Brandi could ask any awkward questions, Skylar turned the conversation around. "What about you?" The gambit worked; Brandi chattered on about her own summer while they boarded the bus and found seats.
Which brought her to her first rat-form challenge of the day. She'd taken to wearing skirts exclusively since her transformation, since there was no way she could hide big holes in her jeans from her mom. But that meant she had to sit on her tail all the way to school.
She'd tried on some low-rise jeans during back-to-school shopping, but they hadn't been quite low enough. For her tail, that is―they had been low enough for Mom to take one look and say, "Forget it."
Nope...no matter how she sat, her tail felt pinched. At home she could slouch forward a bit and make it work, but there wasn't enough room here.
Brandi was looking at her oddly. "Ya got ants in your pants?"
Skylar froze inside, and forced herself to sit still, no matter how uncomfortable it was. "I'm fine," she said. Gotta say something quick, she thought, change the subject. "So, um...are you gonna do band again this year?"
"No," Brandi said sarcastically, patting the black plastic case by her hip. "This is just for show."
"I didn't notice it," Skylar said lamely. She managed to keep the conversation going for the rest of the trip, but it was awkward. And it bothered her the way Brandi looked at and spoke to her forehead. Before her transformation, they'd been about the same height, but now Brandi was nearly half a head taller. She'd gotten accustomed to her new height at home, but seeing her friend looming over her brought it back.
Then there was her enhanced sense of smell. Like her height, she'd mostly gotten used to it around the house, but now she was surrounded by new scents. Everyone on the school bus had their own unique odor, accented by different soaps, shampoos, and other additives. Several of the girls were wearing cheap perfume, one of the seniors used the same bodywash Brandi did, and a boy up near the front was a smoker. Two of the girls had their periods. Then there was the diesel fumes from the bus, the food scents of various lunches, and the cork grease from Brandi's clarinet. And the bus driver needed a shower.
Skylar was glad her mother had forced her into that back-to-school shopping trip the week before. She'd turned into a hermit after it happened, and Mom had to twist her arm to get her to go, but the experience stood her in good stead now. She'd spent the first half hour or so at the mall completely disoriented by all the scents assaulting her nose, but somewhere along the way, she'd somehow gotten used to it. Now she just registered different scents the same way she saw different colors. It was kinda cool, actually.
The bus finally pulled up at Jefferson High School, and Skylar catapulted up out of her seat before it stopped moving, earning her a glare from the unwashed driver. The base of her tail ached. I'm gonna walk to school from now on, she thought. It isn't THAT far.
Everyone else was getting up too; she stood in the aisle and shouldered her backpack, waiting for the crowd to start moving. Then Brandi moved out behind her...and stepped on her tail. Stars of pain shot up her spine. It hurt so much it was like fireworks exploding in her head. "Brandi!"
"Move your foot to the left!" she hissed.
"Just do it!"
"Okay, okay, jeez." And then the pressure was mercifully gone.
As soon as her muscles unlocked, Skylar crouched down, awkwardly in the tight confines of the aisle, and picked up the end of her tail. The tip looked red and swollen, and pain radiated out from it in pulsating waves. It felt exactly like getting a finger caught in a slamming door.
The bus was finally emptying, and she started moving up the aisle toward the door, still holding her tail up.
"Hey, are you crying?" Brandi said. "What the hell?"
She wanted to snarl. Tears of pain, bitch, she thought angrily, and then immediately felt contrite. It wasn't Brandi's fault she couldn't see her tail.
The bus driver hadn't forgotten her, either. "Stay seated until the bus comes to a complete stop," he snapped when she reached the door. Feeling dogpiled from all sides, Skylar just nodded submissively and hurried out, blinking tears from her eyes.
"Asshole," Brandi said. "Are you okay, Sky? What's wrong?"
"Never mind. It's nothing." They were passing through the front doors of the school now, and Skylar just wanted to get away, before Brandi asked her something she couldn't answer. "I―I want to find my locker before first period."
"Me too," Brandi said. "Catch you later." And then, thank god, she was gone, disappearing into the crowd.
Skylar moved carefully down the packed hallway, checking locker numbers and doing her best to shield her tail with her body. She had to let go of it for a minute when she found her assigned locker, to fish out the slip of paper with the combination from her backpack, but she kept a close watch around her and managed to keep it out from underfoot.
She made it to her first class just before the bell rang, sliding into the first empty desk she found. The backs of the seats all had a hole at a convenient height for her tail, but she was still worried about getting stepped on. Besides, it would tent out the back of her skirt, and the last thing she needed was more attention.
The knee-length skirt was loose enough that she was able to slip her tail around her hip, laying it along the outside of her thigh. Wish I'd thought of this on the bus. Maybe I won't hafta walk home after all.
The tip still throbbed, and she began to get seriously worried. What if it's broken? she thought. How's a doctor gonna treat it if he can't even see it? Crap, what if I get hit by a car or something?
In another classroom, senior Erik Metzger sat at his desk, doodling in his notebook. He smelled his friend Jeremy coming up behind him, but didn't look up...until the ziploc bag of oregano landed on his desk. "Ha ha," he said. "You could at least use real catnip."
"Don't want to be an enabler," Jeremy said, deadpan. "Besides, your mom loves Italian cooking." He sat down in the next desk over, slinging his backpack over the seat back. "Listen, I think there's one of your people among the new frosh."
"Seeing through the Veil now, are ya?"
"If only. No, she was holding something invisible in her hands. Saw her getting off the bus, and she looked like you do when you're supposedly playing with your tail. She also looked pretty freaked out, but that's probably just cus she's a freshman." He gestured toward the bag of oregano. "Better hide that. Teacher'll think it's pot, eh?"
"From what I hear, the new teacher's more likely to ask me to share than confiscate it. Point me at this freshman when you get a chance, willya?"
The new teacher in question walked in at that point, and despite his breezy assurance, Erik did scoop up the bag of oregano and stuff it in his backpack.
"Hello, class. My name is Ms. Rodriguez. I just transferred here from Boston, so you're all going to go easy on me, right?" Various hoots and catcalls greeted that, and she grinned. "That's what I thought you were gonna say. Let's do roll first, and then we'll start handing out textbooks." She picked up a clipboard. "A lot of Scandinavian names," she mused. "Is that a Minnesota thing?"
"The Vikings didn't pick their name out of a hat, ya know," one of the guys said. Everybody laughed.
By the end of third period Skylar was starting to feel really frazzled. Sitting with her tail to the side was a partial solution, but it wasn't perfect. She still had to sit forward a little, without the support of the seat back, or else slouch down. And the Phys Sci teacher had gigged her for it, too, telling her to "sit up straight." At least he hadn't thrown chalk at her, like that asshole Mr. Lang in eighth grade.
Her tail wasn't hurting as much, but it was still sore, and her teeth were beginning to ache too. She had a bag of popsicle sticks in her lunchbox, but finding the privacy to gnaw was a problem she hadn't solved yet. It's only my first day, she thought as she trudged out of Civics into the hall, and it's only half over. How am I ever gonna manage four YEARS of this?
"Hey frosh, want some cheese?"
Skylar whirled around with a squeak. Right behind her was another animal-person. He towered over her, almost as big as a grownup, with a feline face and a grin full of fang.
Frightened out of her wits, Skylar backpedaled into someone, who shoved her, and then she was running, hurtling down the hall in a blind panic.
"Hey, wait," the cat-man called after her. "I was only kidding!" But she didn't hear him.
She ended up in an empty girls' bathroom at the long end of the L-shaped main hallway, hiding in the last stall and shaking like a leaf. Her heart was going a mile a minute. She heard a chattering noise and realized she was bruxing.
The door creaked open, and a male voice said, "Hello?" She recognized the cat-man's scent, and froze.
"Hey, don't worry, I'm not gonna hurt you. C'mon out; we've got a lot to talk about." Skylar stayed silent, sitting as still as possible. "My sense of smell is just as good as yours, ya know," the voice continued, sounding a little impatient now. "I know you're in there. Look, you're not in any danger. Despite appearances we're still mostly human. No predator/prey shit, I promise."
After a beat, he added, "Besides, you'd probably give me heartburn." Skylar still couldn't bring herself to move, but she smiled a little at that.
When another minute had passed without her saying anything, he sighed. "Okay, I'll leave you alone. You can find me later if you wanna talk. There's a lot more of us, ya know." She heard the click of his claws on the tile floor as he walked off, and then the sound of the door swinging shut.
Skylar realized she was being silly. She hurried out the bathroom and saw him walking back up the hall. "Hey!" she called out.
He turned and smiled. "Glad you changed your mind." He came back over, offering his hand, "I'm Erik."
"Nice to meetcha, Skylar."
Despite the needle-sharp teeth, his smile seemed just friendly now, not predatory. He was a calico, mostly white fur with orange and black patches that clashed badly with his blue and silver letterman jacket.
The bell rang, then. Erik jerked his thumb toward the gym. "Ya got lunch this period?"
"'Changed', huh?" Skylar mused. "That sounds better than 'rat-person', I guess."
They were eating lunch in a corner of the empty gym, instead of the cafeteria, which gave Skylar some privacy. Erik had been filling her in on what had happened to her while she gnawed. Her and over 500,000 other people, apparently.
She fished another popsicle stick out of her lunchbox and went to work on it. The bruxing she'd done in the bathroom had taken the edge off, but it was still a relief. "We won't get in trouble for eating in here?"
"I never have," he replied. "Nobody cares as long as we don't leave a mess. Clean up your splinters when you're done, by the way."
With her free hand Skylar caught hold of the end of her tail and looked at it. The redness had faded to a purple bruise, and it was still tender to the touch.
"That'll give ya hairy palms, ya know," a new voice said. She looked up to see another senior walking over, lunchbag in hand. Unlike Erik, he was still an ordinary human.
"Jeremy," Erik said, "palms are the one place we don't have hair. Well, palms and tail, in her case―she's a rat. Jeremy, Skylar, Skylar, Jeremy."
"Nice to meetcha," Jeremy said, sitting down across from them. "A rat, eh?"
"Yeah," Skylar said shyly. She looked at Erik. "He...."
"He's Known," Erik said.
"Known for what?"
"Lots of different things," Jeremy quipped, waggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Skylar giggled.
"I guess I walked into that," Erik said. "No, the Known are what we call people who know about us, but aren't Changed themselves. Bass-ackwards, I know, but it rolls off the tongue better than 'Knowing' or 'Knowers' or whatever."
"I voted for 'Know-It-Alls', myself," Jeremy put in.
By the end of lunch hour Skylar felt a lot better. Jeremy was obviously one of the senior class clowns, and he kept her in giggles, with Erik as the occasional straight man. And just knowing there were other people out there, that she wasn't alone, made her feel so good she was almost floating.
Brandi was in her English class, and had gotten there first and saved her a seat. "Missed ya at lunch," she said as Skylar slid into it. "Where were ya?"
Skylar froze, not sure how to answer. "Um...."
"Wow, Sky, didja meet a guy already?"
"No! I mean, yes...I mean, it's not like that. He's a senior―"
Brandi's eyes bugged out. "You got hit on by a senior?"
Fortunately the teacher came to her rescue by starting the class. But she could tell Brandi was giving her the side-eye as the period wore on. She castigated herself for not having anticipated this and come up with an excuse―she'd been so wrapped up in the revelations Erik was sharing that it never even occurred to her that her absence at lunch wouldn't go unnoticed.
At least, judging from the processed-cheese smell on Brandi's breath, she hadn't missed much. Cafeteria pizza, yuck.
I'm gonna hafta be more discreet, she thought to herself. Otherwise Brandi's gonna figure it ou― Her thoughts skidded to a halt as the obvious solution presented itself. Wait, why keep it a secret? If Erik's friend Jeremy can be a―what was it? A 'Known'? Then why can't I tell Brandi? The more she thought about it, the more perfect it sounded.
When the bell rang, she turned to Brandi and said, "Okay, I did have lunch with a guy. Two guys, actually, but it's not whatcha think. I'll tell ya the whole thing after school, if ya don't mind walking home with me."
"Walking home? Why?"
"Because I want to tell you, not the whole bus," Skylar replied. As she slung her bookbag over her shoulder and stood up, she couldn't resist adding, "Besides, I don't wantcha stepping on my tail again."
Of course the last two periods dragged on forever. Worse, her last class was Gym, so she had to change clothes afterward. Fortunately they hadn't actually done much, it being the first day, so she could skip the shower. She made a mental note to ask Erik what to do about gym showers in the future. Even with her short fur, getting dry took awhile.
Brandi was waiting at the exit. "Okay, so what's this big secret?" she asked, after they'd been walking a few minutes.
Skylar hemmed and hawed a bit. Now that the moment was here, it was surprisingly hard to actually say the words.
"C'mon, Sky, spill aready."
"Sorry, it's just―"
Skylar sputtered. "No, I'm not gay."
"No, I'm not pregnant!"
"I'm a giant rat."
There, it was out.
"Uh...what was that again?" Brandi asked.
"I swear ta god it's true. Remember when I got sick in August? It happened then. I thought I was going crazy because no one else could see it, but it's too real to be a hallucination. I look like...oh, an animal character in a Disney cartoon or something. Mostly still human-shaped, but with a sorta-ratlike face, and big ears and a tail. And fur.
"And then today I found out it isn't just me. There's thousands of people this has happened to. Hundreds of thousands. The number doubles every year. Next year it'll be over a million. Nobody's noticed because they're all invisible. Like me. Um, except to each other."
It wasn't going well. She could tell from Brandi's expression. "Thousands of giant rat-people running around?" she said skeptically.
"Not just rats, all kindsa animals," Skylar said. "Well, not all kinds. Only mammals. No birds or frogs or anything. But the guy today was a cat. And he told me there's dogs and sheep and horses and deer and foxes―the very first person this happened to was a fox, supposedly." She sighed at the look on her friend's face. "Brandi, I'm telling the truth, I swear. I wish I could show you, somehow. Make this stupid Veil drop, just for a minute."
"The thing that makes us invisible. That's what it's called. Well, one of the things it's called. I gather there's other slang terms in other regions. Field, mask, whatever."
They walked on in silence for a bit. Skylar felt frustrated and cross. This wasn't going at all like she imagined. How had Eric done it?
"What's that noise?" Brandi said abruptly.
Skylar realized she was bruxing again, and forced herself to stop. "It's my teeth," she said.
"You're grinding your teeth?"
It's called bruxing. Grinding my incisors together. It's...a nervous habit, I guess."
"I never heard of it either before this happened. That's one of the things that convinced me I hadn't just gone off the deep end. I mean, how could I hallucinate something I dint even know about?"
"Sounds like ya know a lot more now."
"You betcha. I did a lot of googling after this happened. Didja know a group of rats is called a 'mischief'? Also, my fur color is classified as 'Berkshire Pearl' by the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association. Before three weeks ago, I never woulda imagined there's such a thing as an American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association."
They were at their neighborhood now. "I gotta get home," Brandy said. She was looking everywhere but at Skylar.
She sighed. "Yeah, okay. Brandi, please, don't tell anyone. Not our parents, not friends at school, not David Renner―especially not David Renner." They'd known David since kindergarten. He'd pulled on her pigtails at Brandi's 7th birthday party, and hadn't noticeably matured since.
"Sure, Sky, you betcha. After all, who'd believe me?" She headed off toward her house.
Skylar wanted to bite something. What did I do wrong?
Wednesday, September 6, 2006