Trigger Warning: This story may contain sensitive content.
The most popular girl in school is braiding my hair in gym class, and I am too nervous to speak.
I was sitting on the benches, trying to force my thick curls into a neat ponytail like Miss Kentworth had insisted, when Hannah sat down behind me. She’d placed her hands on mine and pushed them away, then ran her fingers gently through my hair. My scalp tingled, my skin felt charged. Goosebumps rippled along my arms.
“Here. Let me do it,” she’d said, and I couldn’t say no. Struck dumb by insecurity.
Now, she chatters behind me as if we’re old friends. We’re not. I hardly know her.
She taps me on the arm and I pass her my hair tie. She finishes the plait and gives it a gentle tug. “There you go,” she says. “That’s cute.” I don’t know how to respond.
Hannah Burnley; tall, slim and devastatingly beautiful. Long, auburn hair almost to her waist. Brown eyes with a flash of emerald. She has perfect teeth and flawless skin and a delicate aroma of roses that follows her wherever she goes.
I’ve adored her since I first laid eyes on her. Since I caught a hint of her scent.
I shouldn’t think like that. It’s dangerous. I can’t risk a repeat of Broadmoor. Of Emily…
No, that’s all in the past. I won’t jeopardize my future for a stupid crush.
Oh, God. I can’t slip up again.
Miss Kentworth barks an order and we take our places by the vaulting horse, waiting our turn to jump. Hannah leaps first, a perfect spin, and lands in the middle of the crash mats. I follow her and land a little heavier. I’m not as poised, but my form is good. Miss Kentworth approves. Hannah grins at me and flashes me a double thumbs-up, then skips away to mingle with her friends. I watch as she engages in an animated conversation with four other girls. Her gang. Her posse. The popular crowd.
Dani walks over to me, her eyes wide, mouth agape.
“What the actual fuck was that about?”
I shrug and stay quiet. I still don’t trust my voice.
Dani flicks my braid with a finger and turns to me, her face deathly solemn. “You know, you can never take this out now. You’ll have to keep it like this forever.”
I scowl. She can’t stay serious. Her face cracks and she laughs.
“Yeah. Nah. Only kidding, Skye!” She spins and grabs the braid again, slips the hair tie from its end. My heavy hair untwists and splits. The braid comes loose. Hannah’s work destroyed.
I feel like crying. But I don’t.
Three days pass before Hannah speaks to me again. I stand at the sinks in the girl’s bathroom, soap suds on my hands, staring straight ahead. A printed sign in Comic Sans warns me the tap gets very hot. It’s stuck with sellotape to the tiles, the edges yellowed and peeling.
I see her in the mirror as she leaves the stall. She catches my eye in the reflection and flashes her flawless grin. I try to respond, but my lips feel stuck. I can feel myself gurning and flush red.
“Hi, Skye,” she trills. “How you doin’?”
There’s a lump in my throat that doesn’t want to move.
“I’m okay,” I manage.
“You did so well in Gym the other day. Like, that handspring was aah-maze-ing!”
I smile weakly. I know it wasn’t. But I appreciate the compliment. Especially from her.
“Do you take cheer class? ‘Cause if you don’t, you really should. You’d be so awesome on the school team.”
She’s lying. She has to be. Absolutely no-one on the team would want me there. I could be Olympic standard, it wouldn’t matter. I’m not part of that tribe.
“I used to rep for my old school,” I tell her quietly. “I won a few medals.” My face feels like it’s on fire.
“Oh! I knew it! I told Lacey you must have been on a team. She didn’t believe me, but Tilly pointed out how good your landing had been and I was just like, I know, right?”
I stand there awkwardly, letting her babble. I feel like I’m floating, unstuck from reality, pulled away like a piece of old sellotape. The water from the tap begins to steam. I yelp as it scalds my hands. She reaches behind me and pulls out a paper towel, passing it to me before taking another for herself. I focus on her hands as she dries them. Her nails are tipped with sparkling red, shimmering with flecks of gold. Like fresh blood reflected in a dying sun. I’m struck with shame at the thought. Like I’d said something awful out loud.
She throws the paper into the bin and turns to leave.
“It’s always so good to talk to you, Skye. Come and find me if you want to join the cheer team, okay?”
I nod awkwardly and move to put my used towel with hers. I watch her mirror-image slip through the door. It seems… wrong. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. I’m sure I saw something, like an echo or a likeness, superimposed. My head floods with fractured images, thoughts I can’t quite catch. I rub my eyes and try to wipe them from my memories.
Please, God. Don’t let me go back.
At lunchtime, I sit with Dani in the cafeteria. We push damp macaroni around our plates. My eyes drift to where Hannah sits with her friends.
“So, what’s with you and the future Prom Queen?” Dani asks. She’s not jealous, she just loves gossip.
There’s a hierarchy in schools, everyone knows it. I’m somewhere in the middle. Never cool enough to rise to the top, not quite weird enough to scrape the bottom. I’m mostly ignored but occasionally acknowledged. The bullies don’t bother me here. People always say it’s the outcasts who are invisible, who slip through unseen. That’s not true. It’s the middling, average, outwardly normal ones who roll with the tide and float into mediocrity. I don’t mind. I’ve worked hard to keep that image. It’s an easy place to be.
It’s different from Broadmoor, that’s for sure.
Dani flicks pasta at my face.
“Hey? You in there?”
“I don’t know, Dani. It’s weird. She wants me to try out for the cheer team.”
I shrug. “Doubtful.”
“You did alright at your old school though, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. And Dad would love it if I went back to it, but I don’t think that’s really me anymore. If it ever was, you know? The competition stuff was so hard.”
Dani nods like she understands, but I know she doesn’t have a clue; about cheerleading, or my old school. There were other things that I hadn’t told her. Things that I did.
She points her fork in Hannah’s direction.
“Have you told her that?”
“Not yet. She’ll probably forget about me soon anyway.”
Dani makes a face. “Well, you know you got the skills if you wanted to.”
“Yeah,” I say, but I’m not convinced. “Maybe.” But I won’t, I think. I can’t take that risk.
School life is classes and homework and tests. I don’t see Hannah much. Sometimes we smile as we pass in the hallway or wave across the yard. Every so often, I’ll smell roses. Her unmistakable scent.
Weeks pass. I get an ‘A’ on an end of term exam, and my dad takes me out for a burger that evening. His idea of a reward. We sit in the window and watch the light fade. Half-way through the meal, he stops mid-chew. I notice his eyes are damp.
“You’ve come a long way, kiddo,” he says. “I’m really proud of you. This time last year…” He trails off. No need to finish. Moving schools changed both our lives.
We’re on our way back to the car when I see her. Or at least I think it’s her. Standing in the shadows, a few feet away from the streetlight, embracing another girl. I can’t see their faces, but their bodies are so close, it seems like their limbs are entwined. I feel awkward and embarrassed, but totally thrilled. I can’t seem to look away.
“Hey, Skye. You okay?”
“Yeah, Dad. I was just…”
I look back into the darkness. I can’t see them anymore. Perhaps I’d been mistaken and it wasn’t Hannah anyway. I pause at the car door. The streetlight reflects bright lines on the window. I think I see something moving in the glass. I turn my head in time to see a shape run into the bushes. A figure. A girl? What looks like Hannah’s dress. She flickers like a glitch in an old home video. Too many limbs, her spine all curved and sharp. I blink and she is gone. If she was ever there.
The nightmares are strong that night.
Long hands reach out to tear at me. Stiletto claws. Webbed skin between the fingers. Knuckles cracked and raw. They catch my hair and pull me down. They slit my eyeballs and split my cheeks. They slice at my gums and tear out my teeth, and ram hard fists down my throat.
I spin and I see the carnage at my feet. Familiar faces, their bodies broken, their skin flayed from their shattered bones.
I wake up screaming, drenched in sweat.
Oh, God. Please. Not again.
It’s Miss Kentworth who persuades me to stay after school and watch Hannah and her crew perform. They spin and flip and lift each other up to form a fabulous human pyramid. Afterwards, she asks me to join in.
I’m not as good as they are, I’ve grown rusty, and I falter many times. But every girl smiles and is supportive. It’s not too long before the movements come flooding back.
Strong hands lift me and send me soaring. I fly through the air and feel amazing. I feel no fear as I plummet to the ground, those same hands waiting to catch me. They never let me fall.
Miss Kentworth calls out her approval and throws in a few words of praise.
At the end, we hug and share our elation. Sweaty and riding endorphin highs. In the changing room, I peel myself out of my damp shorts and tee, get re-dressed as fast as I can. The others laugh and talk amongst themselves. It seems strange not being excluded, like I am finally a part of their world.
Hannah comes and sits beside me. She’s showered and I smell roses again.
“How was the burger?” she asks.
I’m surprised. “That was you I saw?”
“A girlfriend?” I ask, and immediately I feel stupid.
She chuckles. “No. Just a friend who’s a girl. I’m not dating anyone right now.”
“Okay.” I bend over to pull my socks on. She moves even closer and I feel awkward. I’m not sure what she expects me to say.
“I know all about you, you know,” she says quietly.
Oh, fuck! I can’t get up, my muscles are frozen. My heartbeat thumps in my head.
“I know about what happened at Broadmoor. With those other girls.”
I feel her hand rest on my back. Here it comes, I think. The backlash. I should have known it was too good to be true.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she says. “No one should be hurt for who they are.”
The cheer squad have left the changing room. It is only us now.
I force myself to meet her eyes.
“You know what they did?”
“And you know what I did?”
How? I wonder, but the words tumble out before I can stop them.
“They said I was a monster. An abomination and an affront to God. They set me up and they filmed me. They showed the entire school! And Emily, I thought she was my best friend, but …
“Principal Higgins kicked me off the cheer team. He said I made people ‘uncomfortable’. I was so angry! So… ashamed. I wanted an explanation, but when I found them all after school that night… I didn’t realize my own strength. I never meant to break them. I just wanted to make them hurt.”
“Oh, Skye. People always see what they want to see. They use names and labels to try and destroy you, but their words have no power over you if you don’t let them. They’re afraid of people like you, you see. People like us.”
“Like us?” I begin. “What do you-”
And I watch as the skin on her head splits open, as it peels from her face in two halves. Her mouth expands and her teeth grow into points. Her pupils constrict and shrink. Her tongue is a pink cat-o-nine-tails of flesh, she flicks it like a whip. I’m not afraid. Like, somehow, I’d known the truth all along. Her smell, the roses. Oh, God. She is truly beautiful.
I put my hands to my cheeks and dig my nails in. I tear the unwanted flesh from my bones. I slide from the confines of my body, discarding it like an old suit.
It feels good to tear the scabs away. To feel fresh wounds and new blood.
We touch and explore and weave ourselves together, lost in our passion and our need.
Afterwards, I look in the mirror. I feel changed, but not how I expected. My reflection looks exactly the same.
Hannah holds me from behind, both hands around my waist.
“Look there, what do you see?” she asks me. I wriggle in her arms and face her.
“I see something amazing. Something powerful and mighty. Gorgeous and confident and passionate…”
She puts a finger to my lips and shushes me.
“No. Not me. In yourself. How does it feel to embrace what you are? To know you are beautiful and strong?”
I pause and let my mask slip. I show her my wide mouth and razor-sharp teeth. My eyes turn black, my cheekbones splinter. The face I’ve kept hidden for so long. Oh, God. It’s good to be back.
I take her hand in mine and smile. “I feel free.”
By Tabatha Wood (she/they)
Tabatha Wood lives in New Zealand and writes weird, dark fiction and uplifting poetry. Despite her obsession with the strange and unusual, she considers herself mostly harmless, although she does take great delight in shocking people with her stories every chance she can get. A former English teacher and library manager, Tabatha’s first published books were non-fiction guides aimed at people working in education. She now teaches from home while writing in her spare time.