This story is credited in part to the author BreakawayRepublic, for slight use of his setting, and former author Fizzshire. Shortly after the latter’s desertion from the website, I had obtained his permission to revise & re-upload a now removed story of his that had really captivated me at the time despite its flaws. As I worked on revising and expanding upon it, the story grew so much that it took on a life of its own. That is the story you are about to read and despite its disparities to the original I still dedicate this to him.
Darkness envelops this room, broken only by a fluorescent spotlight beaming down on the center. I am seated in a cold, hard metal chair, one of many assembled around that ring of light. Each of the chairs hold a nebulous figure, chattering gibberish between themselves. Shapes can be made out among them, but they are all composed of a murky mist. Like shadows that have been stretched out to have depth and solidity.
There is a pang in my chest, a feeling of confinement overtakes me. I have such a profound desire to escape my chair, from the room itself, but some force is keeping me affixed. All the shadows are staring at me now, their expressionless faces offering nothing that can be discerned. Then, in a moment of lucidity, one of them call out my name, “And how about you Olga? You have been so quiet. How about you share something with the group?”
Initially, I attempt to hide my face, but I could sense their grisly gaze piercing through. My throat feels inflamed, clasping shut. Talking feels like a tremendous effort, larger than any obstacle I ever encountered during training. I want to keep my words locked up, yet I know that an outlet is needed. However, allowing myself to be vulnerable – it flies in the face of everything I know and terrifies me to no end.
As tension fills the room with obscuring layers of smoke, with a scent faintly reminiscent of phosphorous, my mouth begins to loosen. Finally, I break the silence, my voice vigorously paddling against an invisible current, ”Sincerely, I believe that there isn’t any string of words that can come close to describing what goes through your mind when everything around you is shouting that death is a stone’s throw away. I for one have never been able to find that magic combination of words – part of the reason any attempts at therapy have been hollow. Though sometimes I wish I could, since it would mean one less failure haunting me. Tonight, I can feel that incident so vividly…”
As the haze dissipates I can feel the room expanding before me, the mass of darkness giving way to a sweeping expanse of sand. I can feel my chair moving and cool desert wind gently blowing on my face. The once dingy ceiling over my head is now a clear night sky dotted with an assembly of glimmering stars. I observe the atmosphere around me as being serene, yet also tense, as if a storm could roll in at any second. I am still muddled as to where I am, that is until a man slaps me on the shoulder from behind and shouts, “What ya’ doing Olga? Daydreaming or somethin’? And here I thought you were our team’s stern heavyweight!”
Laughter fills what I now recognize to be a HMMWV, driving down sloped uneven dirt roads. At long last everything around me clicks into place and I go about remembering that this is still early in the war. The three other combat engineers in this Humvee with me all make up one of three reconnaissance fireteams that have been tasked with surveying this route for a future operation. We are ahead of the rest of our unit and revel in this chance to goof around, sharing a sort of teasing camaraderie. Soon my attention drifts away from the men as I catch sight of a rotting camel corpse situated on the road ahead of us. I call my corporal’s attention to it, but he just brushes off my concern and continues pushing forward, determined to power through it.
Once we make it over the corpse a resounding blast drowns out all noise, slicing through the serenity of the desert. The concussion rattles through the Humvee and causes it to skid for a short time before toppling over. The seatbelt buckle of one of the men bent from the blast and unlatched itself, leaving him defenseless against inertia and allowing him to be thrown out a busted window. Most of my body is too heavily armored to be injured by the mere force of this vehicle rolling over, but a handful of shrapnel from that concealed IED managed to lodge itself within my abdomen. I feel nauseous and something remarkably foul soon fills my nostrils, choking me like a thick dorome. This scent assaulting me feels so familiar, haunting even.
Turning towards the source of that stench I find the body of my team’s corporal laying outside the overturned Humvee, his head caved in by the vehicle’s hood and pooling blood along the windshield. Though my ears are still ringing from the explosion I can make out voices from the exterior of the vehicle. My body trembling from pain, I manage to force the jammed side door open, casting dust into my eyes. None of this is enough to cloud my resolve.
The other men in my fireteam are standing beside the Humvee, visibly battered but firmly standing. One of them is using a manpack radio to contact the rest of our convoy. Before I can call out to them a pair of pincers burst out of the sand, grip the ankles of the soldier holding the radio, and drag him down under. Subsequently, two girtablilu swiftly emerge from the thick desert sand like a pair of specters, one restraining the second soldier’s limbs as the other injects him with her horrendous tail’s paralyzing venom.
Either I haven’t been noticed or they underestimate me – it makes no difference; I must keep this man safe until the convoy reaches our destination. I lunge towards one of the girtablilu and tackle them to the ground, toppling their body over in the process. I wrap my broad serpentine tail around her carapace as my claws clasp her throat. I can feel her friend pummeling away at my tail as I squirm around to avoid her stinger, marginally chipping and denting my scales with each strike. But whatever pain she inflicts is trivial compared to the field of barbed wire I trudged through a week earlier.
Unbridled adrenaline courses throughout my body, the rage over my loss boiling so intensely that I ignore the look in the eyes of the girtablilu beneath me. It’s a harsh forlorn look, one that speaks volumes of hopelessness and regret. Gritting my teeth, I focus all my strength into constricting her throat. Eventually she ceases her thrashing about and the body goes limp. It was only then that I noticed the other girtablilu had stopped beating away at me and that my fellow soldier was no longer wailing.
Whipping around, neither of them are anywhere in sight. The adrenaline still coursing through me, my mind is a minefield of mixed emotions with sorrow and fury grappling for dominance. Spying the manpack radio on the ground, I settled on slithering towards it. The next thing I know a high-pitched beeping fills my ears, then an explosion goes off before me. A barrage of hot metal slams my body, intensifying the slight pain I had been enduring and decisively breaking my resolve. Scales searing, flesh slowly melting, blood steadily pouring out. But the worst of all is the incessant beeping, echoing in my ears and ridiculing me long after the detonation. My vision blurs as the beeping gets louder, I can’t make out the soldiers crowding around me, and soon enough everything goes dark.
I wake up in a pool of sweat, my tail curled around my waist and the beeping taunting me from beyond the past. Incoherent and enraged, I pound a balled-up claw at the noise’s source – my alarm clock fractures into a jumbled mess of broken electronics. The nightmare happened again, the fifth time this month, and all I can do now is to feel embarrassed as I stare up at my slowly rotating ceiling fan. My eye hazily tingles, just as it burned that day.
Inside squirms a desire to dig my claws into my skull and let out an ear-piercing roar, but instead groggily slither out of bed. Passing by a mirror, I catch sight of my reflection. An Icy blue eye staring back at me, I let out a sigh. My body was a disorderly mess that the military would be ashamed of – from my disheveled black hair down to my cracked and scarred body. Hard to believe I’m just twenty eight years of age.
Wiping the surge of tears from my face, I swallow down the memories and slither into the kitchen. The local Arizona news station blathers on in the background – something about a former porn star Filipina running for mayor – as I put coffee beans into the grinder and brewed myself a pot. The wonderful aroma they give off elicits a tired smile from me and I savor it as the black-gold liquid gradually pours into a mug. The thick, sweet roast goes down leisurely, enveloping my senses with a tangled rush of caffeine that brings me to shudder. With my conscious at last roused enough to notice the time – I have overslept. Downing the rest of my coffee, a manic scramble to make myself presentable ensues.
Everything is alright. Just calm yourself Olga – utilize the tactical breathing technique that the rehab counselor taught you. Stare at the cyan painted walls and then on the count of four – breathe in and out the nose, in and out the mouth. Just remember your rehab counselor’s mantra – bend the software, manage the hardware; you are in control of the situation, you are in control of yourself. Relax and cleanse your mind of those negative thoughts burrowing their way through your cortex; you cannot afford to feel anxious today. Two months ago they were not even hiring here, but fortune has shined a light.
I have been sitting in this waiting room for an hour or two now, and only five other women have gone in before me. My arrival was not as late as I initially suspected it would be, considering that this place is all the way on the outskirts of the city. By all accounts, I still have a chance to nail this interview. But isn’t that what I thought at the last five interviews I had this month? What if they too buy into the stereotypes and don’t want me either?
I mean, admittedly they never say why I am not right for the job – but that is because they do not want to risk a lawsuit. Everyone I know has had some sort of stereotypes floating about their subconscious, especially regarding wurms. So when employers look at me, at my species, surely all they see is someone who is brawny and simple-minded. If that is not enough, then they will take notice of my eye patch. This undoubtedly makes them uncomfortable and reinforces all their negative preconceptions of my character. Then lastly, they look at my previous profession. Suddenly I am ‘volatile’, an ‘unpredictable explosion’, no longer viewed as a person but a liability.
Besides that, are my clothes way too formal for this interview? All those other women were wearing rather casual dresses, so is this suit going to make them think that I am stern and rigid? I already attract those presumptions enough with my background alone. They wouldn’t want someone like that working with such young children. Maybe applying here was a mistake, maybe I should have tried applying for a career expected of wurms, like mining or construction. I should just go and –
“Hello, are you there Ms. Wald? I said we are ready to see you now,” someone with a matronly Midwestern accent calls out, interrupting my latest torrent of anxiety. Shit, I have been so distressed about this interview that I zoned out. Guess I better head on in and show them what a big soup sandwich I am.
To my surprise, the woman waiting in the office for me is a middle-aged wurm, wearing a cream button-up blouse that complimented her frosty blond hair. I must admit, the atmosphere of this room is far more tender and uplifting than that of any previous interview I have had, though this does little to help ease my nerves. After slithering myself into a comfortable position on the chair opposite of her, she spoke up in that same Midwestern accent, “It’s nice to finally meet you in person Ms. Wald, my name’s Rosalynn. I must say, among the modest handful of resumes that I’ve received for our newly opened caregiver positions, yours particularly stood out to me.”
Experience tells me that the way Rosalynn phrased that is setting me up for an amiable rejection – dammit no, stop that! It’s just the anxiety talking again. Everything is alright, stay cool, just keep your hands firmly on your lap and return her smile. “Pardon me for derailing you ma’am, but my surname is actually Wyrmwald – though you may refer to me as Olga for convenience sake.”
Rosalynn’s smile has not wavered yet, so at the very least, my appearance must be acceptable to her. “Don’t fret dear, I’m the one who should be apologizing. But your full name has me wondering,” she says, before pausing to pour herself some tea from a thermos on her desk, “by any chance did you immigrate here from Germany? On your resume you listed West Point, but also a ‘Ansbach American Middle School’ as well as ‘High school.’ The first was rather easy to find, but my husband wasn’t able to find the latter anywhere in the US.”
I did not anticipate this being the first thing she interrogates me about; why are my old middle school and high school even listed on there anyways? I asked my counselor not to include that detail in the resume while we were re-writing it last month! We will need to have a talk about this after I have fumbled this interview. For now though, I must keep myself composed, “Sort of, I mean it’s a bit complicated – but in brief, I have been a U.S. citizen since birth.”
From there the rest of the interview flies by with little tension, the two of us going over the sort of questions that you would expect from an interview. I do my best to highlight the set of transferable skills I have, thanks to my five years in the military, trying to mentally steer her away from any preconceptions she might have. But then she abruptly stands up from her chair and with a piercing gaze asks me, “Alright Olga, so tell me, what makes you want to work at this daycare facility?”
Leading up to this interview, countless hours have been spent preparing myself for a question like this, but much like that harrowing dream my body is rendered speechless and cemented in place by her words. There must be something I can fire back at Rosalynn with, maybe I could – no, no, no! That speech sounds too contrived, surely she would not consider it to be sincere.
Though, with every second my mouth lays silent another ration of chance is burned away like Willie Pete. I cannot stand idly by, arguing with myself over whether or not I can justify my convictions to her. My shoulders are squared, my body is now reared up on my tail, my mouth is ready to speak up with as much confidence as I can muster given my anxious state.
“My apologies Ma’am, for I can’t remember exactly when this began – you see, whenever I was stuck at the FOB while stationed overseas I would take up work as an in-home childcare provider or babysitter. Away from the unbridled battlefields, caring for those military brats in that controlled environment burned this fervent sense of purpose and cheer within me…”
My body is starting to tremble, the anxiety is clawing away at my throat. Need to take a deep breath and stand firmly by my conviction, “I have seldom felt that way from other activities. Then I came back to America, found a nation in the midst of a domestic plight. So many fractured or struggling families, and children not receiving the support they need. Therefore, when I heard about the open position here I felt obliged to audition. That is what I have to bring to the table, my experience with the work, but foremost my passion for it.”
There, I said it. Having not stumbled over a single word or phrase, the aroused relief urges me to let out a heavy sigh, but I stop myself. However, in the wake of that, silence follows. The old wurm only looked on, eyes piercing with a sense of overwhelming judgement. This alone turned it around entirely, that little sense of relief and confidence I was feeling – as rare as it seemed to be for me – into a wrenching pain. I might have messed up. No, not ‘might’, I definitely must have messed up.
Finally, Rosalynn’s eyes turned aside, humming in thought as she looked around the room. Her inner thoughts are an utter mystery to me. However, for each second that passes, I grow ever more certain that whatever it is she’s contemplating it cannot be anything good. And regardless of how many times I have gone through this same ordeal, my heart is racing and thumping hastily. My eye-socket gives off that same hazy tingling sensation that I experienced this morning.
Where, oh where did everything go wrong? Had my speech become too preachy towards the end? Was it over me calling them ‘brats’? Oh no, what if she thought I would be far too rough on the children!? The way I look, the way I talked about it; oh god, What if she thought I would be capable of hitting them? A wurm of all things, hitting a child! Of course anyone thinking that would be terrified and try to avoid such a hazard.
Suddenly, with a sharp snapping of her claws Rosalynn breaks the silence. Turning towards me, she adjusts her glasses before stating, “I see. So then, is there anything else that you would wish to tell me Ms. Wald? If you have nothing further to say, then I shall deem this interview to be concluded.”
Savaged by the shrapnel of a well-hidden explosion, left with a burning sensation sweeping across the skin. That is how severely this question pierces through me. Her words are a crushing confirmation that my efforts have rendered defeat, if nothing else. Feeling very little left in the way of determination, my response practically falls out of my mouth, “…No, Ma’am.”
Aaaah, just let this end already! The old wurm sits back down at her desk and reads over my resume one more time, although I already know how this is going to go down. If only there was someway to improve my luck in life. Maybe I can’t change my species, or the eye that I’m missing . . . well, I suppose I could look into getting a glass eye, though the idea sickens me. Maybe there is something else-
“Well Olga, can we expect to see you here next Monday?,” Rosalnn blurts out like a swift cannon.
Once again, she shatters my internal bout of flogging and lamentation, but this time my body is left limp in the wake of her words. Slumping back down into my chair, I struggle to lift myself up and show some form of gratitude. Eventually settling on the most slack-jawed of responses, “…Ehh?”
For the next three days I feel as though my body is trapped inside a foxhole at the Kasserine Pass, surviving off of rations of patience as the anticipation incessantly bombarded my defenses. The days on the calendar are marked off one by one, each seeming longer than the last. But the day for deployment finally comes, thus when the alarm from my new clock goes off in the morning my body is overcome with such a rush of exhilaration that I just roll out of bed. I feel a sort of jittery excitement akin to when I had first learned that I was accepted into the military.
I start this day off with a quick MRE breakfast, followed by some home-brewed coffee and sixty push-ups. I then go on to roll my hair up into a standard-issue donut bun and set about the business of dressing myself. Some women would be astonished at how sparse my wardrobe is and admittedly I am now regretting that I have barely gone clothes shopping the past six months I have been living here. At the very least, I should have done laundry yesterday instead of letting my clothes pile up. Seeing few other options, and not wanting to wear gym clothes to my first day at work, I throw on my discontinued olive drab battle dress uniform before rushing down through the apartment to catch the bus.
The Arizona sun is beating down hard today, harder than it did back home in Germany or North Carolina, but it still can’t beat the heat of an active war zone. The bus slowly pulls up to my stop, the chupacabra bus driver looking drenched in sweat and her white top practically see-through. As I slither on into the bus, the driver wipes their brow of sweat and gives me a stink eye grin before bluntly asking, “Damn lizards, always unfazed by this hot weather – hey Olga, you are looking awfully happy today. In fact, I dare say you look happier than I’ve ever seen you. You heading to yet another big job interview? You know, my brother has an opening at his construction company, I could put in a good word for you…”
Still beaming with positivity, I hand her my bus fare and plop myself down in the front seat before proudly proclaiming, “I’m afraid your brother will have to find another wurm Carmelita. Things are looking up and those days of looking for work are finally behind me.” This elicited a hearty chuckle and a thumbs up from the chupacabra.
As the bus starts moving again I can’t help but think that, knowing Carmelita’s brother, I would likely be underpaid even if I did get hired. Staring out the window, watching all the construction work and happy couples pass by as I await my arrival on the outskirts of Phoenix, it suddenly starts to dawn on me just how little I know about this city. I have been living here for six months, yet I only ever leave my apartment for groceries or Goldy’s Gym. Much to the chagrin of my rehab counselor. Hopefully one day this place can feel like home to me, but it’s just so different from the military bases I grew up in.
By the time we get to the stop nearest to my work I do not bother to check what time it is. instead, I bolted out of the bus and, with my experience in disarming minefields, slither across the pavement at a breakneck pace. With a stroke of luck, my arrival at the Paws and Hands daycare manages to be at 0700, just an hour before we are set to open for the day. Taking a deep breath, I shake off any lingering nerves ahead of opening the door. Immediately upon entering the building, I am greeted by a very cheerful, Asian fox spirit who came up to chest height, wearing some white and pink asiatic floral dress. Behind her swayed two long, bushy red tails tipped in white.
With a voice that exudes pure glee she greets me, “Oh, you must be the other coworker that Rosalynn mentioned over the phone to me! It’s so nice to meet you Olga. My name is Phạm Vân Hồng, though you can just call me Hong. We were not sure when you would come into work today, so I figured it’d be best if I just arrived here very early.” Hong then gripped one of my claws with her comparatively smaller hands and pulled me further into the dark, empty building. No sign of Rosalynn anywhere. After rummaging through some files in a leather tote bag around her arm she nonchalantly informed me that Rosalyn was home sick.
After that, Hong shows what little is left for us to clean up in the back and introduces me to our third co-worker, a kikimora by the name of Feruza. Apparently she had been hired a few months before us. Feruza is a very quiet woman, so silent in fact that I did not notice her standing in the room with us until now. She has tanned skin, thick eyebrows, brilliantly blue eyes, and wears some sort of light green headscarf. Based on her features, I would hazard a guess that she is Central Asian, although it’s probably best I keep that to myself.
Shrugging off this unexpected absence of Rosalynn on my first day, I go ahead in helping her and Feruza with the final arrangements. While cleaning the cubby area an abrupt thought comes barreling out of my mouth, “You know Hong, you neither look nor sound very Japanese for a kitsune.” Immediately, I feel a small pit form in my stomach from those words – why did I blurt that out? So much for making a good first impression. Is she mad at me? She looks more shocked than upset, her vulpine ears flared back, but maybe she’s just trying to keep a straight face. I should apologize for being so blunt before things get worse. I barely force out an, “I’m sorry! I just meant-“, before she coolly interjects with that same cheerful grin from earlier.
“It’s quite alright Olga! You ain’t the first person to ever say something like that to me. I am actually Viet-American and what’s known as a hồ tinh, not a kitsune. Many people seem to be under the assumption that multi-tailed fox spirits only come from Japan. And if we’re being honest with each other, after what Rosalynne told me about you I didn’t quite except someone so…“ Hong abruptly stopped what she was doing, glancing over at me with an all too familiar anxious look in her eyes, before swiftly returning to her paperwork in a sing-song tune, “I didn’t expect someone so robust and handsome! Especially not one with such an ample chest.”
After that I kept myself quiet while I worked to lay down the last of the little chairs and tables, though her words garnered a “Humph!” from Feruza. Hong may try to act all polite to sweep what she was thinking under the rug, but I have a feeling that she had wanted to bring up my veteran status or maybe even my mental condition. I mean, who would not want to bring that up? Especially when said coworker is being entrusted with the care of young children – and what kind of half-assed compliment is “robust and handsome” anyways? To say little of her comment on my breasts, is she trying to imply that I look masculine? My femininity should not be diminished simply because I am physically active. Or maybe it’s because…
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, trying hard to calm my rising irritation. This is my first day on the job, so I cannot afford to lose my temper with a coworker. Especially when the children will be arriving in a few minutes. And besides, giving in to those feelings would do nothing but confirm her biased view of me. I just need to stay focused and make it through this. As this thought runs its course I feel someone patting me on the back and turn around to see Feruza giving me a reassuring smile.
Still humming to herself, Hong danced across the room with elaborate twirls as she made her way to the front windows and opened the blinds. Clearly she was in far higher spirits than me on our first day of work, yet her personality is just so thoroughly bubbly and airy it comes across as slightly unnerving to me. Any musing over this behavior would have to come later though, as through the windows one could plainly see that many cars were pulling up next to the building. Hong was all ready to open the door and greet the arriving families, but it abruptly swung open and in ran three hyperactive jinko cubs yelling incoherently. A man who I presume to be their father just shrugged and gave me an apologetic smile before stepping out of the way of the other parents dropping off their children.
Following that dramatic opening, a whole menagerie of various little monsters came forward along with a few humans – walking, scuttling, trotting, slithering, oozing, and gliding through the doorway. Looking back over the list of children that Hong gave me, I ascertained that there was eighteen children in all. Remembering daycare procedure, this means that we will have to split our duties among them, with each of us supervising six children. A small smile creased my face at that thought; it has been a long time since I last had the opportunity to care for so many children and never have I cared for such diverse groups before.
My first day at work pans out quite well with nary an issue, the children behaving themselves quite nicely despite some of them being new to the facility like us. Hong and Feruza both prove themselves to be soft women, well versed in dealing with children, yet rather distinct in their conduct. Hong came off very matronly in the way she interacted with the children, though the way she talked to them often felt patronizing. The ever quiet Feruza on the other hand, she gave off this vibe of wisdom that seemingly commanded respect among her charges. Her feathers always looked prim and not once did any child dare attempt to pull off her headscarf. Whenever Feruza did speak it was always in a soft tone, tinged with an accent that evoked Turkish but I couldn’t quite place it.
Out of all the children in the daycare, however, it appears that my bunch is the most rambunctious. When necessary I intervene, but for the most part I decide to be rather subdued and just watch the children play together – it did not feel appropriate for me to join in their game of War. Along with a giant antling, the jinko triplets were running around our corner of the room making all sorts of silly gun sounds. Meanwhile, behind me stood an anubis who was acting as a general and issuing commands. While the jinkos are busy making explosion sounds I faintly draw my attention away to a little cheshire arguing with a wurm, saying, “A dragun! You have to be kidding me. You aren’t a dragun, just a lamia with thick scales and an even thicker skull. Who ever heard of a dragon that can’t fly…”
Eventually the battle spills over to Feruza’s play area and the children she was in charge of wanted to join in. She seems a bit rebuffed by the whole situation, but thankfully is willing to play along. Throughout all of it I manage to keep my anxiety well under wraps. However, I was so busy watching over this little game of War, keeping my emotions in check, that I lost sight of that unfolding argument. Instead of dissolving, as I had naively hoped the little quarrel would, the cheshire kept egging the wurm on until her resolve pushed her into climbing atop a wooden cupboard. From this vantage point she shouted down with headstrong pride at the feline, “I am too a draygoon! Just watch, I’ll show you I can fly like one.”
With a swift lunge I am thankfully able to catch her in time and a stern expression unconsciously creases my face. As I prepare to let her down gently on why she should not do that, she reacts in a way I did not quite expect. The child begins frantically squirming in my claws, before long bawling persistently, “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go you big cyclops meanie!” The child almost seemed on the verge of tears. Off to the side, the young cheshire who instigated all this chuckles at the situation and quips at me, “Did your eyeball fall out Miss? Did you poke it? I thought grown ups knew better than to do that.”
While I am distracted by the cheshire’s jeering, Hong plucks the child from my arms and carries her over to the rest of the children she is overseeing. Along the way, reassuring her that she did nothing wrong. This leaves my body in a stunned state for a time. I am taken aback by everything that had just transpired, unsure how I should be feeling. But this does not last long, as Feruza kindly snaps me out of my daze and asks me to help her with telling the kids a story.
No matter how long my eyes gaze fixedly at the ceiling above I cannot stop thinking about what happened today at work. How that child reacted to me, then how she went out of her way to try and avoid me the rest of the day. Even watching episodes of my beloved “M*A*S*H” has proven to be ineffectual in distracting me from dwelling on it. I remember when we were on break, Hong told me that if I didn’t look like a drill sergeant then maybe the child would not have been so frightened. Hong seemed prepared to say even more, but Feruza staved her off with a slap to the shoulder.
Feruza then reassured me that overall I performed well with the children today and that the little wurm, Bree, probably did not mean anything malicious by it. Also, noticing my curiosity regarding her accent, she informed me that she emigrated from Uzbekistan a few years ago after meeting an American man through an international marriage agency. In a way, I already knew the child meant no harm – children aren’t just born with empathy after all. They can be very blunt. Yet still, that child’s words and those of Hong struck a chord with me deep down. What if my appearance is standoffish? What if it has not been discrimination holding me back all this time, but my demeanor? What if…
Head now spinning from anxiety, my eyes shut and some deep breaths are taken as I battle to control my thoughts. This needs to stop here. Anguishing over what happened and disparaging myself because of it is not healthy for my mental well-being. My ears perk up as I further assert my mettle over the anxiety; besides, brooding all day on my couch is not going to change anything. This is a time to take action, I need to stand up and make a change if I want to see any meaningful results. With a renewed fervor flowing through me I adjust my clothes and head out the door to the nearest strip mall, firmly determined to update my wardrobe for the better.
Once I stood at the parking crossroads of an assembly of stores, a pang of regret over my decision in coming here began to hit me. But as I made my way through the clothing store, “Bouncing Boudoir,” I began feeling this sense of accomplishment. Forging a new path for myself, while disregarding the strange glances I got from other customers, made the adventure all feel well worth it. Plus the scylla working there was very friendly and patient with helping me select the right clothes. Though I wish that store’s fitting rooms had mirrors in them, could barely get a proper look at myself – hopefully none of the clothes will look too risqué.
Now here I am standing near the entrance of an arts & crafts store, the name “Humble Hobbies” emblazoned on a concrete slab. Peering through the window, it seems to be relatively empty today. There is a large selection inside, making me feel a bit overwhelmed and unsure what it is I should be buying here. But I knew I had to push forward, if I held myself back then nothing would get better. I needed to see this through.
When I enter the store nothing immediately catches my eye, instead I just ambled about without a clear motive. Eventually, one of the employees approached me and the sight of them made my body go stiff. The employee was a girtablilu – carapace of a muddy yellow hue, skin of a dark sepia tone, and obscuring a set of curly golden locks was a headscarf in a most vibrant shade of red. This is the first time I have been face to face with a girtablilu since I was discharged from the war front.
Her words sort of drift over me as I fall into a daze, all other sounds suppressed by voices crying out from across the distant shores of time. The voices of those I have lost, of those who I failed. My claws now shaking, start to clench as I grapple to control the anxious rage that is surfacing within me. The prejudice I feel contradicts my sense of self, it conflicts with everything I believe. Yet this illogical hostility seething upward seems so – no, I cannot take my frustration out on this innocent woman.
My deliberation is broken by the sharp snapping of pincers, followed by a stuttering voice tinged with unease, “E-e-excuse me Miss? Are y-you alright? Can I h-help you?” Taking a deep breath, I simply nod at the woman’s words. Though I did my best to restrain my temper, it seems some of that must have been physically expressed. Need to be careful with my words from here on.
“Why yes, actually. I am looking for someway to enliven my eye patch, preferably something that’s stain resistant. The people I work with,” there was a pause in my story, thinking how best to word this. Soon enough I continue, “They seem to be a bit uncomfortable with my appearance, perhaps even anxious. So it has to be wholesome, nothing risqué.”
My rambling at an end, the girtablilu was absentmindedly clicking her pincers as she thought my request over. Presenting me with a weak smile, she finally spoke up, “I-I think I h-h-have what you are l-looking for Miss. P-Please follow m-me.” With sprightly precision her eight long legs tapped along the floor, completely turning her body around. Swaying behind her was that bulbous, segmented tail, yet it caught me off guard. For at its top the stinger was enveloped in a leather casing with straps around the tail, as though it were a sheath protecting others from the blade it concealed.
Leading me through a twisting array of aisles, we eventually come to a large display of various fabrics. The vast array of colors and patterns on offer brings a smile to my face. Reaching over my head, she pulls down a spool of bright blue fabric from a section labeled ‘micro-fibers’ and with mild enthusiasm she proposes, “If you w-want some-t-t-thing more f-feminine and welcoming, you can’t go wrong with sky blue t-turquoise nylon.” Running the material through my claws I discern it to be exceedingly soft, almost like velvet, and the way it stretches so firmly suggests that it’s quite durable as well.
Satisfied with the young woman’s selection I move to thank her. The words barely cross my lips before the customer service bell at the front desk starts ringing incessantly. With the same weak smile as before, the girtabillu gave a slight bow and excused herself. Now once more alone with my thoughts, doubt starts creeping in on my plans. Will a mere change in color really be enough to make myself seem less intimidating to the children?
Then inspiration strikes me from the least likely of places, that which drove me to go out shopping in the first place. Along the sleeves of my army fatigues was laying the answer to my dilemma – an embroidered patch. Of course, such a simple yet time-honored form of decoration. I feel certain now, this has to be what is needed to complete my ensemble.
Wandering around the aisles, it isn’t long until I come across a large display of embroidered patches on offer. Many of them have a risqué or flirtatious spirit to them, while others display what I can only assume to be tacky pop-culture references. Surveying the display, my eyes find the more appropriate patches to be near the bottom. Various little animals, encouraging phrases, and chibi figures populated the section most accessible to small children.
Taking in the wide array of options before me, many of them feel rather unexceptional. Ultimately, my mind settles on selecting a white stuffed-bear. This bear stood out to me the most, as it unexpectedly made me think back to one of the books on child psychology I read in college. It talked about how Theodore Roosevelt tamed the savage visage of bears, reforming them into a product now considered by many to be symbolic of childhood and innocence. With this lingering thought, a naive part of me wondered if it could soften my own visage in the eyes of the children.
The morning light shines down onto my face as I gradually wake up for the morning, ragged pajamas slightly falling off me. Looking over at my nightstand, it becomes evident that I overslept today. Groggily slithering off into the kitchen for coffee, I try my best to recall what happened the other night.
I remember working late into the night, my large claws straining tirelessly to sew the fabric and patch on to one of my eye patches. In the end I triumphed over that miniscule needle. This made me so overjoyed last night that my tired body jumped in celebration, inadvertently leaving two large indents in the ceiling where my claws rammed into it. I find the eye patch laying on my kitchen table, eliciting a small smile from me at the thought of how this day at work will turn out a success – it just has to.
After tying my hair back into its usual donut bun I strike my best confident pose in the mirror. Trying to psych myself up before I start hastily rushing out the door. Besides the eye patch, I would be wearing a whole brand new outfit around work today; a blue high-waist pencil skirt, a nylon undershirt, and a blue camouflage denim jacket.
Part of me wishes that the undershirt and new sports bra I bought didn’t hug my chest so tight. It tarnishes my relatively appropriate ensemble with a somewhat sexual undercurrent. However, there was nothing much I could do about it beforehand, that store I went to had no mirrors and finding clothes that are appropriate for my 38I bust is rather difficult.
Further flexing my arms, I think back to Hong calling me ‘handsome’ yesterday, testing how the clothes contort to my broad shoulders and the size of my seventeen inch biceps, flaunting the muscles hidden beneath their fabric. Nonetheless, I have to admit that altogether these clothes look fairly good on me. They don’t seem to make me look too masculine, nor too sultry, compared to my other clothes. All that is left for me to do now is chug down the rest of this now lukewarm coffee and pray that I haven’t missed my bus.
Arriving at work about thirty minutes before we are expected to open for the day, my entrance is not met with the warmest of welcomes. Hong initially greets me with a nasty scowl, but is presumably taken aback by my appearance. Following that, her expression softens as she states, “Well glory be, ain’t this a grand surprise. Your new ensemble is by far more flattering than that ratty combat gear you had on yesterday Olga.”
Then with the flash of a foxy smirk she turns her back on me, haughtily remarking as she walks away, “Now, it ain’t a perfect outfit, of course. For one thing, that hair of yours could stand to be more stylish. But I will congratulate you all the same for taking my advice yesterday to heart. If this be the reason you are late for work, then you have my blessing dear.”
Such a disconcerting blend of feelings are rolling around inside me at Hong’s reception. She has complimented me on my outfit, but then just as quickly belittled it. Part of me wants to give her a piece of my mind, claws balling up into fists accordingly. However, I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see Feruza beside me.
Giving off that warm smile she does so well, Feruza greets me in her usual subdued tone of voice, “As-salomu aleykum colleague. Come, hurry in, the children will be arriving soon.” She then proceeds to take hold of one of my claws and walks me further into the room. Off to the side I can hear Hong spitting some drink out, before softly cursing to herself over how awful our employee coffee machine is. Once we are fairly into the room Feruza releases her grasp from my claw and nods at me.
Still holding that same warm, welcoming smile, she says to me, “Olga, do not let her get the better of you. This new outfit is perfectly fine, it fits your personality well. Even with the…” She pauses, glancing down at my chest before continuing, “…the rather bold contour it gives off. Besides, I am confident that the children will be pleased by the little improvements you have done to your eye patch.”
With these words I feel reinvigorated, her little pep-talk freeing my mind of all sense of disarray. Finally, I am poised for today to go off without a hitch. Regardless of my lingering doubt, this day needs to be a resounding success. If it isn’t, then I am not sure what I will do.
Those thoughts concluded, the front door suddenly slammed open and in ran those rambunctious jinko triplets, followed by their anubis friend. The workday at last kicking off with breakneck pace, I move to greet the arriving families. Many of the children seem glad to see me again, a few even compliment my outfit. However, when it came time for Bree to enter she stood behind her father and clung to his leg, refusing to come inside.
The man shared a nervous glance with me before scooping his daughter up and poking her nose. He then asserts to Bree, “Sorry darling, but I’m afraid that you just can’t stay home today. This man has got to work.” And with that said he carried her squirming body inside, leaving Bree in the care of Feruza before walking back out.
From there the day plays out much like yesterday, albeit with many of the children more relaxed since they have gotten to know us. Feruza, along with Hong, were leading the kids in a group painting session, though some of my charges had no interest in joining them. In particular, the little anubis pup Anippe preferred to play building blocks with the jinko triplets and a giant antling.
Off in the corner of the room, I noticed Bree had slithered away from the group of painters and was all by her lonesome. Asking the responsible Anippe to make sure her friends continue to behave, I slither over to the little wurm. Sadness was evident on her face, though not reminiscent of someone being obstinate or punished for misbehaving. It seemed as though a true gloom was looming over her.
Stooping down, I gingerly pat Bree on the head before inquiring, “Why aren’t you playing with the others sweetie? You look so glum today – tell me, what’s wrong?”
At first she stubbornly turns away from me, telling me to go away. Once realizing that I am not going anywhere, Bree sighs and goes on to look up at me. “They are all making pictures of their families over there, but I only have my dad. Always have. All the other kids have two parents,” she cut herself short, beginning to whimper and tear up.
Gently running one of my thick talons across her face to wipe away the developing tears, I proceed to pat her on the head again. With a heartfelt care I remark, “I understand how you must feel. My parents were both lost to me a few years ago. So often I wish to see them one more time. But I am sure, your father has so much love for you that it’s equivalent to two whole parents.”
Sniffling, Bree slowly nods her head in agreement. Her emerald eyes now renewed in their vigor, she grasps one of my talons with her tiny claws and chirps up, “Y-yeah, I suppose so. D-Do you think we could go play together Miss?” Promptly beaming with pride at her reception of my words, I straighten my posture and nod in return to her response.
However, as we are making our way over to the rest of my charges Bree abruptly stops in her tracks and turns to me. Peering up, she asks, “Miss Olga, why is it that you changed your clothes so much?” The question strikes me as if it were a rogue bullet, so sudden and unexpected.
Having not prepared for this situation beforehand, I rub the back of my head as I think of what to say. Looking down at her with a bashful face, words soon find their way out, “Well, you see Bree, the clothes I wore yesterday are not what I would ordinarily wear out. But, even then, after seeing how you and all the other children responded to my outfit yesterday – improving my wardrobe just felt like the right thing to do. These are more appropriate and won’t unsettle anyone.”
She hummed to herself the rest of the way, remaining quiet for the most part. It’s only while we were in the middle of constructing a castle did Bree suddenly remark, “I like your new clothes, but I also liked your old clothes. Daddy told me that one should not change who they are just to appeal to others.” Her words elicit a forced cough from me, fighting back a tear that wants to unleash itself. The acceptance, nay, the empathy I have received from this child has been more than I could have ever imagined possible. Perhaps, these old scars of war, both physical and mental, haven’t utterly ruined me after all.