I changed shape at school again. I know I promised mom that I would stop doing it. But part way through choir practice at lunch, my notes started singing out shaky and scratchy, and I felt this crawling on the back of my neck like I didn’t fit in my skin anymore.
So I hopped down off the stage and told Ms. Leavenworth quickly that I needed to use the bathroom, and she nodded absently at me.
I was still clutching an empty sandwich bag of goldfish crumbs when I leaned my head against the cold bathroom tile and felt the world growing around me, and seconds later I was blinking through cats eyes at a sharp smelling world. I slunk out around the corner as a boy was entering the bathroom, and down the mostly empty hall. Everyone was somewhere else right then, out on the recess yard or in the library at practice or at home eating lunch.
A girl carrying a lunchbox and a book looked at me in surprise as I hurried down the hall towards the classroom. I felt her eyes on me as I slipped in the door and I waited for approaching footsteps but none came. I slunk through the legs of the desks and chairs, pushing my body against backpacks hung off the back of chairs and dangling sweaters. Then I made for the back of the room where the small bookshelf stood, and I wedged myself into the space between it and the back wall, curled up small and tight.
I felt like I needed to be safe from something. I don’t know what exactly. Mom is always asking me that. The therapist, a woman with a nice voice in a sparse office, asked me too. Everyone wants to know when I’ll stop changing and hiding. Other kids who change shape don’t do it at school, except to show off.
Other kids my age are already good at controlling it. They don’t feel like their skin isn’t fitting. They aren’t looking for somewhere to hide.
“What are you scared of, Ricky?” my mom asks when she’s tucking me in and suddenly the blankets go loose, and I am a tiny lizard, watching her with wide black eyes. I see, from a distance, the creases in her face deepening, as her expression becomes a frown—no, a look of disappointment. Is she disappointed in me or herself? I don’t like either answer.
Curled up into my little space beside the bookshelf, I tried the question again. What am I scared of? Why don’t I like being me?
I heard footsteps finally in the doorway, and wondered if it was that girl who saw me in the hall. But then I heard them approaching the corner where I was hidden, and Ms. Harris knelt down.
“Ricky?” she asked, like she wasn’t entirely sure it was me in there. The only person who always seems sure is my mom. She looks down at the squirrel on the counter and somehow she knows that it’s me. “Ricky?” Ms. Harris asked again. So to give her some indication, I uncurled a little, enough to dip my head down. She sat back, dropping from her heels onto her butt, sighing.
“Ricky, what happened? Ms. Leavenworth said you asked to go to the bathroom and didn’t come back.” I blinked at her once, and twitched my whiskers. Ms. Harris is a good teacher. She’s stern, but fair. Ms. Leavenworth is a little less predictable, but a nice choir director. She has patience for all the younger kids. I still feel like a younger kid. I worry that for me, her patience will become exhausted. My mom and the therapist are not mad at me, they’re just confused. They’re waiting for an answer. Ted C. in the grade above me, shifted into a horse once by accident, and he laughs about it all the time. He’s not scared of anything. I worry that my mom and the therapist will get tired of waiting for an answer. I promised mom I wouldn’t slip out of choir anymore. Or class. I promised her if she let me quit basketball, I wouldn’t change into anything small at recess, where I could get trampled on. Most other kids don’t have to negotiate this with their parents. Even other kids who can do what I do.
I crawled out from my corner and changed back into a human, and like pressing a reset button, my skin didn’t feel too small anymore. I didn’t feel all tingling and sweaty. I was still clutching the empty goldfish bag. Ms. Harris sighed again, giving me a smile that was sad, like she was trying to puzzle me out.
“It just happened,” I said. Ms. Harris nodded.
“It’s okay, Ricky,” she said.
“Are you going to tell my mom?” I asked, feeling my heart clench tight in my chest.
“This time, maybe we can say you just took a long bathroom break,” she said. Can you go back to choir practice for me?” I nodded, walking quickly through the mess of desks and chairs for the hallway. When I arrived at the door of the library I lingered still a moment outside, and I could hear the voices rising for the skylight inside the room, high soprano of youth ringing out in the room of worn paperbacks, metal shelves, rough carpet underfoot.
I imagined for a moment, a new shape for myself, a small songbird with emerald green feathers, the rich sweet tone my new voice would make. But I pushed open the door with small human hands and I walked into the room on human feet, sneakers with no laces. I watched Ms. Leavenworth’s eyes fall on me, and like a well-conducted choir, the student’s eyes followed. And I took my place back in the row of students, and the song soon started again.
When my skin grew tight, voice ringing up to the skylight and back to me, I stayed standing where I was, and I stayed human shaped and the songbird I had imagined in green and gold with a voice like small bells crying out, I let him fly on without me. I let him become something separate from what I am.
Penelope Evans likes writing more than any other kind of work. She studies at the University of Toronto, and edits for her college newspaper. She believes that, generally speaking, the key to good writing is adding more bears.