Vari woke up and did the first thing she always did, the thing she hated most: she looked down.
A second later, she felt to make sure. Thank God. No extra bits today.
It was a good day to be a girl. Smooth legs, soft skin, long brown hair. Excellent. If she got lucky, she would stay a girl all day long, and the kids at her new high school wouldn’t notice anything strange about her.
It’s not a school for the blind. They’ll notice. But maybe....
She hopped out of bed and glanced at her toenails. They were polished in a glittering shade she’d never seen before. Grackle’s wing black. Maybe they would just think she was goth.
Why am I even worried? Vari admired her toenails as she walked to school, her flip-flops slapping the sidewalk. The polish changed from black to red to electric blue with each step. The first day of high school is supposed to be hell.
Still, what fresh hell would public school be for someone like her? Her polish inched up her ankle, looking for higher ground. “Settle,” she hissed. The polish crept back down, a sullen gray.
I can do this. I’ve planned for anything. Her clothes were plain and oversized in case she gained weight in class. Once, she’d plumped up forty pounds in the middle of the grocery store. The buttons on her pants had pinged across the aisle, hitting a lady in the eye. “An allergic reaction,” Vari’s mom had explained. She was good at making excuses for Vari’s strangeness.
Her mom had wanted to homeschool again this year. “Let me try real school, just once,” Vari had begged. “If it’s bad, I’ll quit.” She turned a corner and saw the school. It had all the charm of a meat-packing plant, all the welcome of a high-security prison. Homeschool was looking better every minute. A bell rang. Too late now.
She pulled her sunglasses over her eyes, her scarf over her hair. It made her look like a terrorists’s girlfriend, but it was better than anyone seeing her hair grow in class — or worse, shrink.
Today was a good day, though. Only her skin changed in the first hour, growing slightly darker. Her leg hair, hidden under baggy jeans, disappeared, grew wooly, and vanished again during third period science. Time for lunch.
The cafeteria throbbed with the agony of first-day seating decisions. Freshmen like her bobbed about, loose as corks on the ocean current. No one made eye contact with her. Vari felt her hair begin to shrink, and wished she could shrink, too, grow smaller and smaller until she could creep mouse-like away.
Her toenails vanished under excess denim. She was shrinking.
Had anyone seen? Her breath came faster. What would they do? They would tell their parents, and her life would turn into a B-grade movie like The Fly, with a Jeff Goldblum look-alike starring as the mad scientist who vivisected her.
She felt cold, curious eyes on her. Vivisection couldn’t hurt any worse than the stares that slit her, gutted her, right there on the patchwork tile.
“You new?” A voice at her elbow. A pimpled face, a gangly boy, a t-shirt that read Some days it isn’t even worth chewing through the restraints. One of the social outcasts, the kind who would welcome a new girl without hesitation. He had nothing to lose, right?
Vari laughed at the shirt, but didn’t answer. Her throat tickled, and she had a feeling she would sound like she’d been sucking helium if she said a word. The boy answered his own question. “Yep, new. Don’t know where to sit?”
She shook her head. The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Pretty. You could be ones of the Populars, if you weren’t dressed like that. You got pom-poms in your backpack?” He looked suspicious. Vari didn’t know what to say. Yes? No? What was the right answer? She got so nervous, she forgot to keep her eyes down.
The boy looked... and froze.
What were her eyes doing, she wondered, as the boy’s face grew slack, disbelieving. Were they whirling in rainbows? Flashing strobe-like? Morphing into long oval orbs? From the way the boy stared, it was a distinct possibility.
Vari reached up, pulled her sunglasses back down. “I’m not a cheerleader,” she whispered. The boy didn’t answer, just walked a few steps away, toward a table populated by kids like him: wearing back braces, sporting a few hundred extra pounds, shorter, uglier, stranger than normal. He was leaving her behind.
Not even the social rejects wanted her. Her stomach churned. Why would they? No one understood her condition. Even if she told the truth about why she changed, they wouldn’t believe it. A nineteen-year old hippie mom stumbling around on the outskirts of the Burning Man festival, peyote on her tongue, a baby in utero? That baby born during a lunar eclipse, in the shadows of petroglyph-stained sandstone, her first cry heard by the kangaroo rats in the sands and the old gods of a sacred place turned hospital ward?
Had she been cursed? Blessed? Born... or made? Named in a drug-induced vision quest on a holy night, the baby became what her mother had mumbled: Variation.
“Hey,” the boy called out, startling her. “You coming, Roswell?”
She smiled. She’d worried for nothing. There was a group of freaks in every school, a group that welcomed new outcasts, no matter how weird she was. Or he was, Vari thought, feeling a bulge grow under her jeans.
Some things never changed.
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About the Author
Nikki Loftin writes in the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small, loud boys. She studied fiction writing at the University of Texas at Austin (MA, ’98). Her first novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, will be published by Razorbill/Penguin in Summer 2012. You can find her at nikkiloftin.com.
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Copyright © 2011, Nikki Loftin.