A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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The moon casts a pearl-colored path, and I, ducking into shadows, carry a platter of beef roast, so raw I can smell the blood, to the edge of the backyard swimming pool. Already Dad has reached the shallow end, and my younger twin brothers, Michelangelo and Leonardo — my mother had a passion for art — are not far behind. I coo to them; their tails move from side to side in anticipation. I sit on the cement and carefully — I have learned to be careful — extend the beef into Dad’s open, hungry jaws. Michael and Leo scramble over, snapping teeth and hissing. I scold them as gently as I can. I understand their impatience. Then, while Dad is rolling in sheer ecstasy with his meal, I drop two large steaks into their mouths. They grip their treasures tight in their teeth and move away from each other, reptilian eyes darting suspiciously. Dad buries his teeth in his roast, drippings smeared on his snout, his eyes golden even in the dark. He is happy in this moment: being fed, remembered, tended to. Only when I feed him does he come close; once his jaw is clamped on the meat, he dashes away. I watch them, my family, until they have finished eating, and I swear they smile.
It has been three months now to the day since Mom died. On the table a pile of unopened mail collects dust, the red postmarks at the bottom of the stack a reminder of when time stopped for us. At first I tried to keep up, but on top of taking care of Dad and my brothers, it got too hard. Now I open only the bills that are in my father’s name. Anything with Mom’s name on it goes in the pile, a burial mound of catalogs and advertisement circulars.
Mom’s stuff is still everywhere: clothes in the closet; shoes lined up in rows, ready to slip onto her feet, which were so small she had to special-order every pair; collectible plates, purchased from magazine ads, along the tops of the cupboards in the kitchen. Dad hated the plates — especially the one from Gone with the Wind, a frozen scene of Rhett and Scarlet, maybe or maybe not about to kiss. But I can’t take them down, and if Dad knew they were still here, I don’t think he would mind.
© M.N. Surratt
I get up at six every morning, dress in whatever is clean, brush my hair and teeth, eat toast and sometimes eggs, then go outside and feed my family again. Chicken, hamburger, steak, maybe lamb chops for a treat, but only when they’re on sale. Dad, Michael, and Leo know this feeding schedule like they know every inch of the pool, which is filled with floating leaves and plants I’ve thrown in to help them acclimate — and for camouflage. The neighbors can think we’re filthy for all I care, as long as my family remains unseen. My father and brothers know better than to swim unconcealed during the day. They glide soundlessly beneath the plants, sometimes only the tips of their snouts visible.
A tall fence surrounds the backyard, and trees stand close together beyond it. Still, I feed them only at dawn and at night, when darkness hides all of us, and I do my best to clean up their unpleasant messes. Sometimes I see the neighbors nonchalantly holding their noses — as nonchalantly as one can hold one’s nose — and casting a curious glance at our house. They cannot deny that the front yard is pristine: bushes with bright blooms, the lawn always trimmed to perfection, thanks to my endless efforts at disguise. On weekends I don gloves and weed the beds of vibrant flowers Mom planted last year: pink and red tulips, yellow daffodils, white-and-orange-striped nasturtiums, which Mom used to add to my favorite salad. I mow the lawn, roll the garbage can to the street on Wednesday mornings, trim the hedges just like I saw Dad do a hundred times; Mom would bring him a cold Dr. Pepper and a sandwich, kiss the side of his grizzled face.
I suppose I have gotten used to the backyard smell, as I have gotten used to the scales on my father and brothers’ bodies, a symmetrical pattern fading from earthy browns and greens on top to the smooth pale yellow of the belly. Alone I let my hands wander over my own skin, wondering: Will the scales come for me too?
Dad got sick first. I noticed his face shifting, growing sallow and stretched. After a moistened washcloth, chicken soup, and a visit from the doctor — who reminded me to let Dad mourn in his own way — Dad fared no better. Michael and Leo watched from the doorway, silent, their expressions anxious. I told them Dad would be fine and made them dinner. But I was wrong. Over the next few days Dad got worse. And then the fever came to Michael and Leo. They burned in their beds, twisting in agony. At night I heard them cry for Mom the way they had when they were little. There was nothing I could do but pretend our lives were the same: I cooked, cleaned, took temperatures. Then the tails grew, and the scales split their skin.
Mom had taught me to cook. In the kitchen she’d play disco music and show me how to make her special macaroni with three cheeses. We made banana bread from blackened bananas; Italian soup with stale bread and vegetables; chocolate-chip cookies so soft they crumbled in my hands. Mom banned the boys from the kitchen while we baked. They’d try to sneak a bite, impatient and hungry, and Mom would give them the imperfect cookies if they promised to stop stealing. Donna Summer crooned “MacArthur Park” while we slid on the kitchen tile and sang off-key, “Someone left the cake out in the rain. / I don’t think that I can take it / ’cause it took so long to bake it / and I’ll never have that recipe again!” We dropped spoonfuls of cookie dough to the beat, laughing while Dad rolled his eyes and Michael and Leo begged us to “turn it off, please.” Mom and I bumped hips, bending to pull cookie sheets from the oven, twirling toward the refrigerator. After dinner we’d serve our cookies and soak up the compliments like greedy sponges.
At school I sit alone in the back of English class and finish my math homework from the night before. Ms. Duncan begins by writing a quote on the blackboard in her almost unreadable script, something by Rudyard Kipling: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” She asks the class what the quote means to us, and I go back to my work, having five problems to finish before next period. I never have time to do my assignments at home. My grades are declining when I should be thinking about applying to colleges. I see Ms. Duncan regarding me sympathetically sometimes. My shirt is stained, and none of my friends talk to me anymore. I haven’t bought myself anything new to wear in months. I pay the bills with Mom’s life-insurance money, sign Dad’s name on checks, stock the extra freezer with bulk meat, ribs, thighs, butt roasts. My friends are focused on fashion trends and the latest movies; they have no time for someone who can’t leave home on the weekends. Or maybe it is the scent of meat that follows me, or the animal look to my hands, which are covered with scratches and bite marks, bandages scattered along my forearms. In my bag is a collection of papers marked with Cs and Ds; I used to get nothing below a B+. Dad would have been angry before. Now his only concern is mealtimes, when he waits for me with serpentine eyes, his nostrils quivering above the water.
I write the answers to the remaining problems quickly, not caring if they are right or wrong. The other girls twirl their hair, doodle the names of attractive boys, and send text messages beneath their desks. Their fathers are all at work. Their younger siblings have human teeth and pink human skin. Their mothers are alive.
When I returned to school after Mom died, the school counselor paged me to her office. I sat in her uncomfortable chair and stared at her bifocals and too-red hair. She clasped her hands in her lap and looked at me with concern.
“How are you, dear?” she asked.
She dipped her chin, peering at me above her lenses. “Artemisia, you know you can tell me anything. The loss of a parent is a very traumatic event. Anything you say will be held in the strictest confidence. That’s my job.”
I cringed at the sound of the name no one called me, the name printed on my birth certificate only. My eyes scanned her desk, which was littered with files and magazines, a bowl of sugar-free candy next to her computer.
“It’s OK to have these feelings. You may be angry or upset or sad.”
I balled my fists and stood up. “I’m fine.”
On my way out Miss North, the school receptionist, asked when my brothers — “the twins,” she called them — would be coming back to school. “They won’t be,” I said. “They transferred.”
She looked like she wanted to say something more, but I ducked my head and left the office. Students glanced my way as I navigated the hallways. Suddenly I was the girl whose mom had died, and that was it.
I sit outside with Dad at night. He is well-fed; the constant grin of his jaws makes him seem happy somehow. He watches me with slitted eyes, lying so still I can’t tell if he’s breathing. When Mom was here, Dad would take long naps in the striped armchair, his large hands folded solemnly over his stomach. Sometimes Mom would poke her head in to make sure he was OK. Dad was older than Mom; he was forty when they married and forty-five when I came along. Mom said Dad’s cholesterol was sky-high. She told me his father had died from a heart attack. So I worried about him too. I would watch him while he napped, peering up from my book to wait for his belly to lift and then settle again. He’d look peaceful but sort of sad, and I’d think of my aunt’s funeral when I was little: how she looked more peaceful than she had ever looked in real life, so much so I didn’t think it was real; I asked Mom why she was playing a joke on us. Sometimes Dad would open his eyes and catch me watching him and smile, and I’d pretend to be reading, immersed in a new plot twist.
My brothers are sparring in the far corner of the pool, locking jaws and turning and rolling, like they would in the living room, calling each other names and grinding mud into Mom’s favorite rug. Mom isn’t here to scold them, and they wouldn’t listen to me even if they were still human. I look at Dad and shake my head. He opens his jaws and hisses at them, the sound echoing across the water. Michael and Leo retreat from each other, bodies sinking almost sheepishly into the pool, their yellow eyes studying me: tattletale.
Mom found the first lump in her breast sometime before school started last year. She knew about it when she took me shopping for clothes. We filled bags with new shoes and pants, tops, a skirt with tiger-lily print. At the end of the day, our feet sore, I saw a sweater hanging in a window display: chartreuse, beaded at the cuffs. Ninety-eight dollars. I gaped, and Mom slipped her American Express to the salesgirl. “I’m going to wear this Monday,” I said. “Emma won’t believe it.” Mom held me against her hip, her hand lightly on my waist. Later she told me she hadn’t seen any price tag, only felt the hard lump pushing up through her skin.
One of the first times I fed Dad, his teeth sliced my arm as he jumped for the cube steak I held above his snout. I shrieked and held my arm to my chest, staining my shirt; the blood flowed out thick and fast. Dad swallowed the steak in one gulp — I could see my blood on his raised nostrils — then lowered his head and sank beneath the water. For days he ignored me when I brought food. Michael and Leo relished theirs, but Dad turned away when I bent to the pool’s edge with dinner. He was a bulky shadow in the corner, a moss-covered stone. I threw the meat in his direction, but he refused to take it, didn’t even growl when my brothers rushed over for the extra food. Not until he grew gaunt and sluggish did he eat, and then only after I’d gone inside; I saw him from the kitchen window.
Lately when I feed Dad, he is like a dog taking a treat gently from my fingers.
I was the one who answered the phone, home alone while my parents were out grocery shopping: “Mrs. Reynolds?”
“No, this is her daughter.”
“Could you tell her Doctor Phillips called? It’s urgent.”
I sat in the stuffed armchair until I heard them at the doorstep. Dad carried brown bags of groceries, and Mom held a bouquet of lilacs. She crossed the room to kiss my forehead, and their heady scent reached me before she did. “Dad bought these for me. Do you like them?” She went to search for a vase beneath the kitchen sink.
“Dr. Phillips called,” I said. “He said it was urgent.”
Mom rose slowly with a dusty, orange-tinted vase. Dad’s brow knotted.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
She told me it was nothing, that it would all be fine. “Help your dad with dinner.” She headed toward her bedroom and closed the door gently. Dad cleared his throat and handed me four celery stalks and a knife. “Can you chop these? I’ll work on the onions.” His voice sounded like it was muffled by a pillow. I sat at the table, put the celery on a cutting board, and crunched the knife through the stalks. I tried to listen for Mom’s hushed voice through the bedroom door but could hear nothing except the snap of celery skin and metal hitting scarred wood.
At school I eat lunch alone. I can see my old friends huddled together only a few tables away. Emma sits in the middle, where I used to sit. She looks different: Older. Prettier. Happier. She balls up a candy wrapper and tosses it across the table at a girl I do not know. She looks up, catches my gaze, and holds it for a moment, then looks away, her hair falling into her face. I swallow a mouthful of ninety-nine-cent peanut butter smeared on white bread and remember months ago, when my only concerns were school dances and sleepovers and science fairs and study sessions. A dad at the barbecue. A mom reading on the porch swing. Brothers to tease.
When I told Emma my mom was sick — really sick — she said she was sorry, but she stopped coming over once she saw the row of medications in the kitchen and Mom skeleton thin, a scarf wrapped around her head. Emma stands with her new friends and tosses her leftover food in the trash. I stare at her back, willing her to turn around. She walks away without a glance.
The first time Mom said the word cancer, we were all seated around the dining-room table for dinner; we usually ate in the kitchen with mismatched cups and plates. My brothers exchanged worried glances over the white china and tall glasses. Dad examined each of us carefully. “The surgery should go fine,” Mom said. “The doctor has done this dozens of times.” I looked at Mom’s shoulder-length blond hair and tried to picture her without it.
In a matter of weeks the cancer had spread to her bones. I watched her fade like the doll I’d left outside by accident one summer — my favorite doll — its blue eyes turned empty gray, mouth erased. Mom couldn’t walk by herself. I brought her food. I helped her to the bathroom and washed what remained of her hair with her favorite lavender-scented shampoo. I tried not to look at the scar on her chest where her breast had been, the skin puckered and dented. I avoided that spot and soaped the stony line of her back, saying nothing.
I’ve been reading every book on reptiles in the school library, studying each drawing and full-color photograph meticulously: A crocodile crushing a still-moving zebra in its jaws. A rattlesnake striking with dripping fangs. A snapping turtle, its jagged fossil mouth full of fish. None of them looks familiar; none of them has those eyes.
About a month ago, when my father and brothers were napping one afternoon, I visited the zoo on free-admission day. While children clamored around the monkey cages and clapped for the penguins, I pressed close to the glass walls of the Reptile House. The Komodo dragon watched my movements, released its forked yellow tongue — detecting odors in the air, the plaque outside the cage said. His neck was creased and folded like old letters, his body long and squat. Beside him the gharial (native to India, usually found in fast-moving rivers) lay in shallow water, unmoving. His snout was too thin, the crocodile’s neck too short. I walked past eye-twirling chameleons, tree-climbing iguanas, and snakes coiled on rocks. Nothing. I turned, defeated. Parents pushed strollers, held the sticky hands of children, promised cotton candy after the giraffes and elephants.
I never wanted to see my father cry.
In the hospital bed Mom looked too delicate, like the porcelain figure she’d given me for my thirteenth birthday: a pastel-painted princess sitting sideways on a unicorn. She looked like she might break. Hooked to tubes and humming machines, she lay with her mouth open, her sparse white-blond eyebrows fading into her skin. Dad held her hand so hard his own hand turned red. Michael and Leo stood solemnly at the foot of the bed. I watched my father’s body start to tremble along his back. The hand holding Mom’s shook, his face broke, and his chest collapsed. I looked down at the hospital tiles, searching for patterns in the equally spaced black diamonds. My brothers looked at him, stunned. Michael turned away. Leo went to Dad’s side.
Alone before bedtime I stared at myself in the mirror, naked from the waist up. I hated my body. I hated the breasts, growing every year, taunting me. I saw scars bubbling beneath the surface: rippled flesh, mother to daughter.
I wanted to be a girl again. Wanted to think only about myself, to tease my brothers, to paint my nails Arctic Blue, Purple Lightning, Asphalt Gray, and Pumpkin Pie Spice. I wanted someone else’s mom to die slowly, poisoned from the inside.
I picked up the duct tape I’d stolen from the clutter of Dad’s toolbox, and I rolled it around my chest, pushed down hard, stuck it to my skin until I was silver and flat: before training bras and tampons, a time of plaid skirts and pigtails, melting ice cream and brownies, school plays, Mom and Dad in the front row thinking: That’s our little girl.
I picked the dress for Mom to wear in the casket. Helped my brothers with their ties. Led Dad to the car. Accepted meals and pies from well-wishing neighbors. Thanked the preacher for his sermon. Hugged family friends as they offered their sincerest condolences: She was such a great woman. Your poor brothers. My brothers sat in matching suits, faces tear stained. After the funeral Dad locked himself in the garage in a T-shirt and sweats.
A week later Dad and Michael and Leo burned in their beds while I heated soup and took temperatures. When the first scales appeared, I was nearly useless from only a few hours’ sleep. I missed a week and a half of school, ignored phone messages from the office notifying my parents of repeated absences. I wiped my brothers’ foreheads to cool them. When I saw their tails beginning to grow — a protuberance of spiked flesh gliding from their spines — I did not call the doctor.
I slip off my socks by the pool. Dad’s eyes are on me, unblinking. I scoot to the edge and dip my feet in, one by one. Dad does not move. I submerge my calves; I can hear my pulse pounding in my head. The water is warm and murky, like an old blanket that’s been in the basement.
I close my eyes and see my mother, smell her cookies baking, feel her arms holding me to her. My body trembles, my bones vibrating inside my skin. I shake my head, try not to remember the sound of her voice.
Before Mom died, she held my hand in her bony grasp and brushed her dry lips against my cheek. “Take care of your brothers,” she said. “Take care of Dad. They need you.” She smiled, her fingers stroking the underside of my wrist.
I try not to see the doctors and nurses surrounding me. My dad’s head in his hands. I try not to.
But I do.
Tears slip down my cheeks and along my mouth. Dad ducks beneath the water in one motion, no splash. I hold my hands in my lap and wait. I can feel his pebbled skin on my feet, the edge of his serrated teeth. And then Dad reemerges, stretches out his neck, lays his cool head in my lap, and blinks. He nudges his nose into my stomach and makes a strange sort of purr; reflexively I run my hands across his wet head. I have not touched my father in months, but in some strange way his skin is familiar. My brothers swim to us, poke their heads up curiously, their tails making patterns in the water. I look back at the house, the light in the kitchen, where I will prepare their breakfast tomorrow; then I’ll get ready for school, hand in half-finished assignments, walk invisible and friendless down the hallways. I scoot to the lip of the pool, press my palms on the concrete, and lift my hips. Dad retreats, and I slip like rain into the water. Underwater I open my eyes and see my family waiting for me: Dad and Michael and Leo in a circle, me in the center, hair floating and curling. I grasp my father’s back, my head on his, and, with my brothers beside me, glide seamlessly into the darkness.
Sarah Rakel Orton
I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Rakel Orton’s short story “Scars and Scales” [January 2010] and was surprised that the only printed letter about it was negative [Correspondence, May 2010]. Flo Kellogg requested that instead of publishing this type of “science-fiction” tale, The Sun publish more “down-to-earth fiction packed with humor, drama, and human emotion.”
It is difficult for me to think of a more down-to-earth description of a young teenager coping with the death of her mother and holding a grieving family together than Orton’s story, in which the narrator’s father and brothers gradually turn into thick-skinned, giant reptiles, and she continues to care for them. Part of the appeal is the author’s insistence that we take the reptiles in a literal manner, not just as a metaphor for the protective imagination of the young protagonist. The reader is forced to experience the child’s fractured state of mind as she becomes alienated from her family.
Fiction allows us to expand our empathy for people in circumstances we have not experienced ourselves, and fantasy often provides the best access to the complexities of another person’s mental state.
When I began reading Sarah Rakel Orton’s short story “Scars and Scales” [January 2010], I thought I had picked up the wrong magazine. This story makes no sense whatsoever: When Mom dies of cancer, the remaining family members turn into crocodiles? Come on!
Some readers may enjoy tales straight out of a science-fiction movie, but I don’t. Please, more down-to-earth fiction packed with humor, drama, and human emotion.