Hell or High Water
It was more of a memory than a dream. At least to begin with. I was fourteen, andi, and about a head shorter than everyone else in my class. Nearly everybody had bloomed by then, the most recent of which had been pulled from class just the week before. But I wasn’t thinking about them, my mind was on Skylar. He’d been out of school a whole month, and today was his first day back. I’d barely gotten to speak to him in that time, just the odd message online here and there. He’d told me a little after it happened, but it still felt weird thinking of him as a “him”, since I didn’t have any solid image to pair the concept with. As far as my brain was concerned, Sky was still a “they” until my old andi image of them could be replaced with something new and irrefutable.
We didn’t share any morning classes, so irrefutable came when the lunch bell rang. He found me first, waiting in the courtyard with his book-bag slung over one shoulder. I almost didn’t recognize him till he called my name and waved.
“Holy shit, Sky!” I couldn’t help but stare. It was a complete transformation. Where before his face had been somewhat of an oval, now it was an angular cut of jawline and cheekbone. His hair seemed thicker, but it was hard to tell on account of the cut. It had been shoulder length before, like mine except straight, but now the base of his head was buzzed and faded, with the longest bits falling only as far as his earlobes. Even his voice had dropped a couple octaves.
“Tada~” He grinned with a measure of unease. Who knew how many times he’d had this exact conversation already, but that wasn’t something that my younger self would think to consider. Instead I just blinked and stammered.
He cringed a little and tucked a lock of it behind an ear. “Does it look bad?”
“N-no, it suits you!” I took a step back to better evaluate him. He was slouched in a plain white tee and olive trousers that were far too short for his new stilt legs. On top of that, he had on a baggy denim jacket that seemed to fit him in the shoulders mostly, but nowhere else. I squinted at his dual length of exposed ankle with an appraising eye. “Well, maybe except your pants.”
“What’s wrong with my pants?”
“Depends. You predicting a flood there, bud?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up. Models crop their pants all the time. I’m trendy!”
“It’s only trendy if it’s on purpose.” I snickered. “Those aren’t cropped, Sky, they’re just high-waters.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever! It’s all hand-me-downs anyway, you jerk. Quit talkin shit.” He laughed and gave me a friendly punch in the arm. It didn’t hurt of course, but I was still taken aback by how big his hands were now. It was no wonder his pants were so short. He’d grown like a foot taller. I mean, he still had some filling out to do, of course, all of us did, but it was still jarring to see just how masculine and gangling he’d become.
More words were exchanged between us, but it was all noise. Then we pushed into the crowd, but the details beyond the basic shapes and colors were fuzzy at best. Students and structures alike were amorphous yet fixed in that dreamlike way, where you know the physics don’t really add up but you accept it anyway, unquestioning as your brain fogs over the stuff that doesn’t really matter. The next thing I knew we were in the cafeteria, queued up and holding trays. Sky was behind me in line, and everything was just a little too bright, the colors too saturated.
“So how’s your mom taking it?” I asked.
He heaved a sigh. “She’s disappointed, no matter what she says otherwise. Sometimes I catch her staring at me like she’s holding a funeral in her head.”
“Oh god, for real?”
“Yeah. It’s awkward. I’ve been avoiding her mostly.” He said it all nonchalant, but he was gripping the tray hard enough to turn his knuckles white. I pretended not to notice. Soon we were slowly shuffling down the line as the faceless cafeteria workers dished us up one by one.
I didn’t know what to say, so I chewed my cheek instead. That was stupid. I shouldn’t have asked. Sky had four brothers before him, so he had been his mother’s last hope for a girl. She was a nice lady, but it was no secret to anyone how much she wanted a daughter. And with gentle, soft-spoken Sky, we’d all just kind of assumed that that was his destiny. So when he bloomed male instead, everyone was stunned. Even me.
“So, uh, how’s the team been? I saw we won the last two games,” Sky said as we left the line and searched for an open table. I groaned in response.
“I… stopped going to practice. Honestly, I think I’m just going to quit.”
“What, why?” Sky asked, his face aghast. We’d been playing soccer together since the fifth grade, after I’d convinced him to sign up with me.
“Well, I mean!” I shrugged in an attempt to articulate my feelings in as nice a way as possible. “At least until I bloom too, you know? I just can’t compete with all you monsters anymore. It’s no fun when you’re slow.” It had been tons of fun to play, keyword ‘had’, but that fun had dried up real quick once everyone around me hit puberty and shot up like weeds. It was like I’d gone from being a star player to a wheezing sack of potatoes overnight.
Skylar rolled his eyes. “Pfft, that’s bull, you’re faster than me.”
“Not anymore I’m not. Have you tried sprinting or anything yet? Guarantee you’re a beast now. Better, faster, stronger! You look like you could hurdle a truck, for Pete’s sake!”
He chuckled at that. “Doubtful. Anyway, if you’re quitting, I’m quitting too.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Do that and I’ll never speak to you again.”
His smile faded. “Uh..?”
“Seriously. I know you like soccer just as much as I do. And you’re good at it too. So only quit if that’s what YOU want to do. Not because of me. Don’t you ever do anything just cuz you feel sorry for me.”
“Jaime, I—” But whatever it was my friend was going to say to me in that moment was lost forever, because it was in that exact moment that Dakota Mason decided to pants him, underwear and all.
Sky’s lunch tray clattered to the floor in a mess of smokies and Spanish rice. He scrambled to pull his pants back up, dropping to the floor in attempt to minimize the view. But it was already too late. His junk had flopped out, in full frontal for me and anyone else who might have been looking his way. There was a howl of laughter, and I turned to see Dakota’s clique losing it at their table as Dakota himself sneered in annoyance.
“Damn, there really is a dick in there,” he said with a grimace. “Maaaan, I just lost ten bucks because of you!”
“Fuck off, Dakota! What is wrong with you?” I glared at him, despite the fact that he was twice my weight and more. Dakota had always been a piece of shit, but blooming early had only made him worse.
“Can it, squirt. Unless you wanna pay me back for him, then I don’t wanna fuckin hear it.” He stared down at Sky expectantly, who was crouched by his bag, adjusting his clothes with shaking hands. His head was down, so I couldn’t read his face. Between us, Sky’s upturned tray lay discarded. Dakota kicked it at him, spraying food across our sneakers.
“Tch. Thought for sure this pussy would grow a pussy. Well, let’s GO, pussyboy! Cough up a ten—” But the only one to cough up anything was Dakota, as Sky whipped up and cracked him across the face with the plastic tray. Dakota staggered back and fell on his ass, his mouth bloodied where his lip had split. But Sky wasn’t finished yet. In the blink of an eye he was on him, straddling Dakota and punching his face in to the roar of the whole cafeteria. Dakota fought back at first, but one good blow from Sky left him dazed and defensive, until eventually he stopped moving altogether. It was over in an instant, but Sky kept going.
“Sky!” I screamed over the noise. I wanted to rush over, to push him off, but my feet wouldn’t move. “Sky, stop! He’s out. He’s done! You’re gonna kill him!”
And then the dream became a nightmare. The people watching stopped being people, and suddenly they were animals in clothes. Jackals and hyenas and other things with big long teeth. They howled and screamed and beat their paws against the tables. There was a splash of red, and when I looked back at Dakota, his face was a bloody mash of ground beef. Sky hung over of him, but it wasn’t Sky anymore. It was a hairy beast with a long head that was all snout, the mouth of which opened vertically, unlike any animal I’d ever seen. It opened wide to either side, all jagged teeth and flying spit. No eyes were visible within its cavernous maw, but I knew in my heart that it was looking at me. That Sky was looking at me. And then it snapped forward and shut on Dakota’s head.
That morning I woke up confused, sweating, and sick to my stomach. For a terrifying moment I had no idea where I was, just that the bed I was in wasn’t mine, in a room I didn’t know, with a body that didn’t feel like me.
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