As it turned out, Harriet shared her lunch period with both Aiden and Francis. To be honest, discovering this fact had made her more than a little nervous at first. Francis didn’t really seem to like most people, and the feeling was generally mutual. At the same time, the hour and a half spent in gym class with him had been enough to make Harriet aware of Aiden’s love of sarcasm and playful insults, and while she found this aspect of him endearing, she couldn’t help but feel a little protective of her friend, who generally had a lot of trouble picking up on irony.
While getting dressed after gym (once more safely ensconced in one of the bathroom stalls) Harriet had mentally toyed with a variety of possible lunchtime strategies, from finding some way to ditch Aiden, to sitting down with him and letting the normally unsocial Francis decide for herself whether to join them (or not), to pulling him aside ahead of time and trying to explain some of what made Francis… Francis. In the end she realized that the only possible plan that wouldn’t make her feel like a total jerk was to simply introduce the two of them and hope against hope that they’d get along. As it turned out, she needn’t have been so concerned.
“Hey Francis, this is Aiden. I met him in gym class.”
Francis looked up from the intricate pattern of interlocking triangles she was drawing and gave him an appraising look, from his heavily sprayed hair down to his beat up black sneakers.
“Are you industrial?” she asked at last.
“I don’t know,” Aiden said placidly, making a show of eyeing the pair of faded overalls she was wearing over a bright green shirt. “Are you agricultural?”
For a long moment she just stared at him, her head tilted quizzically to one side. Then her face split into a wide grin, and she laughed.
“Okay Harris,” she said, going back to work on her drawing, “you can keep him.”
As the three of them ate Harriet and Aiden filled Francis in on what had happened in the locker room. At first Aiden was reluctant to talk about it, but he warmed up when it became clear that Francis seemed perfectly willing to accept the idea of a spectral jellyfish haunting the boys bathroom.
“Was that creepy kid there?” she asked Harriet.
“Wait, what?” Aiden said, sounding a little hurt and confused.
Harriet couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Not you. The kid that attacked me yesterday, the one who’s really a monster. Francis was around when he and his sister showed up after school.”
“Oh yeah. The one with no eyes?”
“That’s him. He has this really crazy orange hair. Have you ever seen him around?”
Aiden shook his head. “He must have gone to a different elementary school.”
“If they were ever anywhere but here,” Francis said.
Harriet nodded. “Yeah, exactly. Kasadya said they were born in this town, but what does that even mean? They’re supernatural monsters or fallen angels or whatever. How do we know they get born the same way we do? For all we know they could have been born middle schoolers.”
“Anyway,” she went on, turning back to Aiden, “This boy Azrael sent his jellyfish after me. He said it was because I could see him the way he really was.”
“And that’s when you turned into a fairy.”
She smiled. “Pretty much. I don’t know which was scarier, the jellyfish or suddenly starting to glow in the dark like a lava lamp.”
“The jellyfish. Definitely the jellyfish.” Aiden shuddered, rubbing the side of his face where the thing’s tentacles had been clinging to him. He looked thoughtfully at Francis. “You said you could see these Nefil-kids too, right?” She nodded. “Well do you think I could see them too now that I know about them?”
“I dunno. Why don’t you try? He’s right over there.” She pointed over his shoulder.
It took Harriet to get a second to register what Francis had said, but when she did she swiveled around in her seat so fast that it made Aiden chuckle – at least until he too turned around and saw what the other two were looking at.
“Holy crap,” he muttered under his breath.
“Language,” Francis whispered a little prissily, but he wasn’t paying attention to her. His eyes were fixed on the table three or four rows away where a slender, orange haired boy with no eyes was sitting in the middle of a group of kids. They were crowded close around him, seeming to listen closely to what he was saying. Harriet and her friends were too far away to hear what he was saying, but the kids were laughing and some of them glanced toward them from time to time.
As Harriet watched Azrael turned his baleful, empty gaze toward her and smiled. Then he tore a piece of paper from a notebook and scribbled on it for a moment. He folded the note into quarters and handed it to one of his little crowd of admirers – Amy Spaulding, a girl Harriet recognized from her sixth grade class. Azrael pointed toward Harriet she and her friends watched as Amy threaded her way through the tables and came up to them.
“Um, this is for you,” she said nervously, dumping the piece of paper in Harriet’s lap before turning around and scurrying back to her table.
Intensely aware that Azrael was still watching her, she slowly unfolded the note and gave it a good, long look.
“What does it say?” Francis asked, craning her neck to see. Silently held up the note for her friends to read. On it were scrawled the words:
“What the heck is a–” Aiden began, but Harriet wasn’t listening. Her eyes were locked on Azrael, who smiled again, gave her a little nod, then very deliberately got to his feet and made his way out of the lunch room, the crowd parting to either side as he went.
What little grace is hers was bought with pain
How well she knows to pay that currency
She tore her body open to sustain
Her vision of a self that none could see
And even though the blood pours from her still
The scars upon her body trace a path
She sees in it the trace of Heaven’s will
And opens up her mouth at last – to laugh
Where are you?
The voice of God asks and I
Struggle up through the depths of dreaming
And forgetfulness, groping for an answer
Hineini, is what I say,
Here I am
And it is night and I am me
And darkness heaped all around
Like snow drifts
And the only sound
Is the far-off hum
Of machines, cycling and re-cycling the air
They wash it clean, and I know
That this place is nothing but a no-place
On the way from here to there
I stir in my bed, suddenly afraid
As from my heart’s depths comes a truer answer
To the Lord’s unpitying demand:
I do not know.
We all know the feeling
Somewhere between here and Albuquerque
An unplanned detour has you poking your head
Up through the hole you were digging to behold
A new vista,
Its frantic lines bursting with some energy
More difficult to interpret than “TNT”
Stenciled cheerfully on the side of a wooden crate.
Such violence is a part of your world:
The hunter with his shotgun and a book of vicious recipes
Psychotic ducks with blood in their eyes
Martians and witches and robbers with moustaches
As long and as red as their anger
Singly and in groups
They have risen up against you
To the right a thousand
To the left ten thousand
As though all the world wanted nothing more
Than your fuzzy gray and white hide
What then can I say of you?
You, who have met them at every turn
With a thousand faces and ten thousand voices,
Met them with a sneer and joke
With a loud, wet, sloppy, transgressive red-stained kiss
You met them
Leaving behind nothing
But a frilly dress or a shower cap
As once again you vanished down the hole
And in your manic wake I’m left to ask
What every comic villain can’t reveal-
What is your form,
When form is but a momentary toy
In the game of survival
What is your face
For reasons clear only to himself the coach had chosen to start the year off with the least interesting of all known gym activities, the Mile Run. Mile Walk would have been a more accurate title, as few but the most enthusiastic of Phys Ed students were able to muster enough concern for the activity to do more than amble casually around the track, briefly picking up their pace to a desultory half-jog whenever they were singled out by the coach for not giving him “more hustle.”
On the whole, Harriet found she didn’t mind the Mile Run all that much. The walking students tended to form into little clumps arranged around the track in such a way as to keep away from other groups they didn’t like. This meant that Harriet and Aiden were mostly on their own, with a good amount of space behind and ahead of them. It was a beautiful, warm fall day, she enjoyed walking and as it turned out Aiden was actually pretty nice to talk to.
“So you think that thing sucking on my face was some sort of fallen angel?” He was asking as they made their way slowly around the curve at one end of the track, paying no attention to the baleful glare of the coach, who was standing, stopwatch in hand, some distance further down the straightaway."
Harriet shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. More like one of their pets. I really don’t know much about it yet. All I know is that those other kids – the Nefilim – they seem to know how to make those jellyfish kind of things do what they want.”
Aiden nodded thoughtfully as a group of kids who were actually running passed by, their sneakers clumping on the asphalt. He reached up to brush away the errant lock of hair that kept falling down over his eye, still wearing his fishnet gloves under the white and good T-shirt of his gym uniform. “What I don’t get is why the angels or whatever chose you. I mean, if they needed a princess you’d think it would have been easier to find an actual girl.”
For a moment Harriet just stopped and stared at him, blood rising to her cheeks. She wanted to shove him. She wanted to storm off. She wanted to angrily demand just what he meant by “an actual girl.” But she couldn’t do any of those things because in the real word, the world of everyday, normal life where things made sense and angels didn’t exist, he was right – no matter how every feeling she had told her otherwise.
Aiden caught the crestfallen expression on her face and it seemed like he was going to say something, but just then they were getting dangerously close to where the coach was standing and it became necessary to make a token effort to actually run for appearance’s sake. When they’d gone what seemed like a safe distance and slowed down to their usual stroll, Aiden stopped walking. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, um…”
Harriet shook her head, embarrassed. “No, it’s okay. This has all been really…” She cleared her throat. “Really confusing, you know?”
This time she really did give him a shove, but she also laughed. “It’s not that! It’s just… The more this thing, the more it keeps happening to me…” She lowered her voice so that Aiden had to lean in a little to hear her. “It’s getting harder to tell myself I’m not really a girl… you know, inside.”
“Hey Baum! McKinley! Pick it up you two, I wanna see some hustle!”
Harriet and Aiden started jogging again for a couple of seconds, putting some more distance between themselves and the coach before slowing down again. Harriet walked with her eyes fixed straight ahead of her, her heart racing.
At last Aiden spoke up. “You know, my sister’s friend is kind of like that.”
“Well, kind of, I think – just the other way round. I mean, they were in Girl Scouts together when they were little. Everybody thought she was just a tomboy. Then she went away to go to college and when she came back she said she wanted to be called James from now on. Or he, I guess, actually.”
Neither of them said anything for some time, thinking that over.
“I guess I never really thought about it that way,” she said at last, after looking around to make sure no one had come up behind them. “I mean I’ve always been… uncomfortable with some stuff, but you know…” She made a gesture that seemed to include the track, the other kids, the school and everything in general.
Aiden nodded. He understood. They were neither of them members of that elite group who had mastered the art of looking and behaving the way everyone expected them to. For kids like them, “uncomfortable” was not a feeling, it was a way of life.
For a brief moment she thought he was going to reach out to squeeze her hand, but of course there was no safe way for him to do that. Instead he smiled sympathetically – it was all he could do. They continued walking side by side for a while, until the corners of his mouth crept upwards and he began to laugh. “You know,” he said with a sideways glance, “you are some kind of superhero now. If nothing else solves your problem you could always try hitting it with a mop.” The two of them looked solemnly at each other for a moment before they both broke up, not paying much attention to the strange looks they were getting from a group of runners clumping by.
The previous day Harriet had spent the period during which she was supposed to be in Phys Ed lying unconscious in a disused hallway on the second floor of the school. She had no similar excuse today however, and therefore at 10:15 on the second day of seventh grade Harriet was to have her first ever experience of a school locker room.
Absorbed as she was with the tricky problem of her own gender, Harriet was not exactly expecting this experience to be a pleasant one, but it was not until she pushed open the door of the boy’s locker room and was immediately greeted by the sight of several boys in various states of undress playfully shoving each other against the lockers that the full awkwardness of her situation really hit her. She’d been expecting to be embarrassed, but at the same time she’d kind of expected everyone else to be as embarrassed as her, and the overwhelming din of boys talking and laughing as they changed into their gym clothes strongly suggested that this was not the case. For a moment, as she stood there in the doorway feeling the huge, overwhelming funk of sweat, mildew and unwashed socks wash over her, Harriet seriously considered making a break for it and finding somewhere to hide until it was all over. But by then she’d been spotted and it was too late.
“Baum!” bellowed a beefy man in a gray track suit. He’d been standing some distance away but as soon as he saw Harriet he began pushing his way through the crowd of boys to where she was standing just inside the doorway with a mortified expression on her face. Remember, she told herself, they don’t know anything about you. As far as they’re concerned you’re a boy. She tried not to look as a tall, lanky kid walked by in only his underwear. Yep, just a totally normal boy.
“Harris Baum!” barked the man as he broke through the crowd and came up to her. Or more accurately, towered over her.
“Yes,” she said, looking at her shoes. “That’s me.”
“You weren’t in class yesterday, Baum,” he said, looking down at her over the curve of his impressive gut.
“I was in the nurse’s office,” she replied. “I fainted.” She was uncomfortably aware that some of the boys nearest to where they stood were laughing and pointing in her direction. Though she couldn’t hear what they were saying, she felt her ears turn red.
“Fainted,” he said slowly, almost thoughtfully, as if he were weighing the word in his mind. He leaned down over her, the whistle around his neck bouncing against his chest. “Listen up Baum, I know your type. You kids think gym is some kinda joke you can just blow off whenever you feel like it. Well I don’t take that kinda crap in my class! You can spend the rest of your life playing video games or whatever, but you’re gonna give me hustle out there and you’re gonna like it. Capisce?”
Harriet nodded, not saying anything.
“Good. Now get dressed.”
Clutching her brand new gym clothes (still in their crinkly clear plastic packaging) to her chest, Harriet edged her way around the periphery of the locker room.
“Hey Baum!” shouted one of the boys who’d been watching her and laughing while the Coach was laying into her. “What’s the matter? Gonna faint again?”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” mumbled Harriet, and not waiting to hear his reply she scooted around the final row of wooden benches and headed toward the restroom. She figured here at least she might be able to have a little privacy while she changed, and afterwards she could stow her clothes in a locker on the way out. She could feel the eyes of the boys following her, and though it was too noisy to hear what any of them was saying, every time there was a burst of laughter she couldn’t help but feeling like it was directed at her. They know! she thought, somewhat irrationally. Her legs felt weak and there were goosebumps on her arms. Blushing bright red, she ducked into the bathroom as quickly as she could.
As the door swung shut behind her she stood there for a moment, leaning against the wall, her heart beating a mile a minute. The bathroom was small, quite a bit longer than it was wide, consisting of a couple of stalls and a row of urinals on one side and a few sinks opposite them. These looked as if they’d been installed sometime around the time Eisenhower had been president, and several of them were dripping incessantly. The sound of the dripping echoed weirdly off the abnormally high ceiling and the walls, tiled a particularly unpleasant shade of olive green.
She was so upset when she came in that at first she didn’t realize she wasn’t alone. The room’s other occupant wasn’t immediately visible, but she could hear them breathing – a weak, shuddering gasp that was amplified strangely by the room’s acoustics. At first she wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from, but glancing down at the empty space along the bottom of the bathroom stalls she spotted a pair of black converse sneakers belonging to someone standing on the other side.
“Hello?” she called out softly. “Are you okay?” The echoes of her voice sounded strange and metallic in her ears. When there was no response she took a few steps forward and peeked around the edge of the stall. She stopped short, her eyes widening at what she saw. The boy – he must be in her grade, but he was so small and slim – stood, or rather slumped, against the side of the stall, his eyes wide open but unseeing. The lower part of his face was obscured by the shadowy, amorphous thing clinging to him with its long, wispy tentacles. It looked much like the creature Azrael had loosed on her the previous day, but this one seemed much more substantial, less ghostly. Beneath its translucent gray skin floated a cluster of what looked like bubbles, glowing with a ghastly violet light that pulsed as the body of the thing slowly expanded and contracted.
A shudder ran through Harriet’s whole body. She could remember the way the creature had felt yesterday when it had tried to feed on her, the horrible cold as it had latched onto her, stealing her breath and her body’s warmth. Gritting her teeth, she reached out to grab ahold of it, meaning to pull it off the boy, but instead her hands passed right through it, clutching at empty air. She grunted, half in exasperation, half in pain as the remembered cold, tingly sensation crept up her arms. Pulling back, her hand automatically went to the pendant hanging around her neck, but it paused there, not quite closing around it, her eyes darting nervously at the door she’d come in.
What was she supposed to do? Clearly the boy needed help. His breath was coming out in shallow wheezes that made her wince just to hear them. But was she seriously considering transforming right here in the middle of the boy’s bathroom? What if someone came in? What was she supposed to do, shrug and say, “Sorry guys, I guess I must have taken a wrong turn?” Her eyes went back to the wide, staring eyes of the boy, to the pulsing body of the creature draining the energy from him, and she remembered the words of Nuriel the previous night – When the time comes, and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or to betray it utterly, you will act. She sighed and closed her hand around the pendant.
Again she felt that tremendous surge of power and vitality flowing through her, and the room was filled with a light brighter than the flickering overhead lamps or the creature’s sickly glow as her body unravelled only to reassemble itself in a different form. She took a step forward, her boots clicking on the bathroom tile.
“Get off of him!”
The thing ignored her, its body firmly attached to the boy’s face. Making a grimace of disgust, she reached out again to grab hold of it, and this time her gloves met with something apparently solid, if horribly squishy and yielding. Gripping its soft body as well as she could, she pulled with all her might, her arms straining as slowly, bit by bit, the creature began to separate from the boy, accompanied by an unpleasant sucking sound like the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner held too close to your hand.
Encouraged, Harriet braced one foot against the metal side of the bathroom stall and pulled harder. The tingling numbness running all along her arms and up to her shoulders was almost unbearable, but at least the magic of the pendant seemed to protect her from its worst effects. With one last, desperate yank the creature came away from the boy’s face, sending Harriet stumbling backwards into the wall behind her. Freed of its grip, the boy slumped to the ground as the creature did a summersault in the air, emitting a high pitched buzzing sound as it came flying now directly at Harriet.
Casting around for a weapon of some sort to fend it off, her hand closed around the handle of an old mop that had been carelessly left in a bucket of brackish water in the corner. Whipping it around she pointed it at the jellyfish, dangly end first. It dripped sudsy water on the floor as she shook it threateningly.
Undeterred, the creature made a dive for her, its tentacles reaching out to grab hold of her arms. Neatly sidestepping its attack, she took a swing at it. The head of the mop made a wet squelching noise as it connected with the jellyfish, sending it flying – splat! – into the wall. Buzzing angrily, it lashed out with a tentacle, slashing across her cheek with a sharp crack that made her cry out in pain. She brought her hand to her cheek, and when she took it away there was a thin streak of red on the back of her glove.
For some reason the sight of this filled Harriet with irritation. Not a common irritation, but nearly cosmic irritation, deep and vast, the irritation of the heavens. Yelling out an inarticulate battle cry she reversed her grip on the mop, brandishing the rounded end of the pitted wooden handle like a spear and advancing on the thing, jabbing furiously. In the midst of her righteous indignation she noticed with some surprise that the multicolored halo that surrounded her had crept up the length of the mop handle, and that it had begun to glow bright pink like a glowstick at a dance party.
Warily she and the floating, ghostly jellyfish circled one another, sizing each other up. It had no face, but she felt that if it had their eyes would have been locked in a mutual glare of enmity, and in fact it somehow managed to give that impression despite the fact that its only identifiable features were the cloud of glowing bubbles floating inside its gelatinous body. Suddenly struck by the unbelievable silliness of the whole situation, Harriet began to laugh uncontrollably, though her steely gaze never left her opponent.
“What are you waiting for?” she said, giggling. “Come at me, bro!”
Whether it could understand the taunt or not, the jellyfish chose that moment to make its attack, feinting first to the right, then bobbing quickly to the left as it swooped down on her, tentacles flailing. Harriet was too quick for it, though. Ducking under it she spun around and gave it a terrific thwack with the mop handle, causing it to fall to the floor with a loud plop. Before it could recover, she spun the mop in her hands like a baton and stabbed downwards, piercing its murky form and pinning it to the floor.
The jellyfish writhed, trying to get away, but Harriet held on, twisting the glowing mop handle inside it. With a last agonised spasm the creature went limp, its tentacles relaxing as its body collapsed inward on itself like a mishandled souffle, giving off an odor that reminded her of freshly laid blacktop.
Wrinkling her nose at the smell, Harriet pulled the mop from the creature’s deflated body, giving it a few pokes for good measure just to make sure it was well and truly dead. Letting out a sigh of relief she let the mop fall to the floor with an echoing clatter and turned to get a look at the boy she’d saved.
She had expected to find him unconscious after the ordeal he’d been through, but when she turned around she found him staring at her with an expression of fascinated astonishment that she couldn’t help but return. The boy was pencil thin, his hair dyed a vivid, glossy black and styled to hang down over one eye. His lips were so dark that at first she thought they might have been bruised when the creature was latched onto his face, but then she realized he was actually wearing some kind of lip gloss (Is he trying to get beat up? she thought). He was wearing a black T-shirt bearing a grinning yellow skull and the word “Misfits” in garish, horrorshow red. His tight jeans must have taken him days to rip up in precisely the right way.
“What the hell was that?” he asked after a long and uncomfortable silence, his voice thin and shaky.
“I don’t know,” Harriet said with a shrug.
“Well you sure seemed to know how to kick its ass.”
Harriet smiled. “I ran into one of them yesterday in the hallway. I managed to beat it off, but I ended up fainting. For all I know it might be the same one.” She turned around to get another look at the thing, but it had already mostly disappeared, liquifying into a foul-smelling puddle that rapidly soaked into the hard tile floor.
“Um, please don’t get mad or anything, but are you a boy or a girl?”
She turned back to face him, taking a long time to answer. “It’s kind of complicated right now,” she said at last.
“Fair enough.” The boy got up off the floor, leaning a little unsteadily against the bathroom stall. Seeing that he was having a hard time standing, Harriet came over and slipped an arm through his. “Thanks. And thanks a lot for saving me. I’m Aiden.”
“Harriet,” she said, and then clasped her hand to her mouth, suddenly aware of what she’d said. “No, Harris… or, um…” She blushed. “Look, can you please call me Harris when there are people around? It’s… it’s vitally important to my health.”
“Harriet,” he said, nodding, and then added: “And Harris in public.” He smiled. “Nice to meet you. I mean, you know, really nice since I’d probably be blob food otherwise.”
At the sound of her name, her real name, Harriet felt a warm feeling blossom in her stomach that spread throughout her whole soul. If she hadn’t been holding him up she thought she would have sunk to the floor. Furiously, she blinked back the tears. “Don’t mention it. Um, and actually, would you please not mention it? I mean, I know what just happened was really weird and all, but I’d really appreciate it if you could not tell anyone about it.”
Aiden raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll try to remember not to tell anyone about the flying jellyfish that attacked me in the bathroom. What, do you think I want to get beat up?”
Harriet couldn’t help giggling. “Well, I didn’t want to say anything, but…” She trailed off, making a show of looking him up and down.
“Look who’s talking, Glitter McSparklepants! You look like a fairy puked on you!”
This just made her laugh harder, and after a moment Aiden joined in, until the two of them were leaning against each other for support, giggling like loons. Suddenly there was a loud banging from outside, making them both clam up and glance guiltily in the direction of the door.
“Hey gaywads!” came a boy’s voice from outside, “Coach says get out on the track field! So stop blowin’ each other and get out there!”
“Coming!” Harriet called out, trying not to look Aiden in the eye to keep from bursting out laughing again.
“Seriously,” she said to him through the wall of the stall as she was getting dressed, “please don’t call me Harriet when anyone else is around. As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m Harris, got it?”
“You got it, Princess Fairy-Puke.”
They were still laughing as they exited the side door together and headed down the hill towards the track field.
In her dream Harriet was encased in rock from her waist down, and it was slowly growing upward to engulf more and more of her body. Even through the haze of dream-logic she could vaguely recall that the idea for this had come from a movie she’d seen at some point, but this knowledge did not ease her fear at all as she watched the thick layer of cold, gray stone creeping steadily, inch by inch, up over her belly.
All around her kids from from school were coming and going, apparently unconcerned with what was happening to her. Every so often one would glance in her direction and roll his eyes before going back to what he’d been doing. She wanted to call out for someone to help her, but she knew instinctively that what was happening to her was at the same time shameful and boringly commonplace, and she was too embarrassed to open her mouth.
Instead she watched with growing horror as the rock reached her arm pits and began to spread outward to cover her arms. She couldn’t feel her body wherever the stone touched, and she knew with absolute certainty that when it covered her head, she would be done for.
“You could get out of that at any time, you know.”
It was Kasadya, standing in front of her with her arms crossed over her chest and a look of pitying amusement on her face. Harriet tried to reply, but she found that her mouth was already covered up. All she could do was stare pleadingly into the purple-haired girl’s face, but Kasadya only stared back dispassionately.
“Sorry,” she said with a smile, the dark wells of her eyes seeming to grow until they’d consumed the whole world. “I don’t really read faces that well.”
Harriet awoke with a frightened hiccup, the scream that wanted to burst out of her not quite making it past her lips. Her pillow was damp with sweat, and her jaw hurt – it felt like she’d been clenching her teeth in her sleep. Outside her window the morning light was still pale and dim. The clock on her desk read six eighteen, almost time to get up for school.
She slipped out of bed and padded softly down to the bathroom. Soon her mother would be up to get ready for work, but right now the house was dark and silent. She flicked on the light switch and went to turn on the shower, giving the water a minute to warm up before getting in. As she stood waiting she turned around to undress, not wanting to see herself naked. It felt incredibly silly to be doing this, but somehow, with the memory of the dream fresh in her mind, she couldn’t bring herself to turn around. She remembered how cold and heavy the stone had felt as it crawled its way up her body, making her numb everywhere it touched, and she felt a little, hard ball of anxiety settle in her stomach.
Had being a boy felt this bad yesterday? Before she’d run into Nuriel and its strange little pendant that still hung around her neck? She couldn’t remember. And yet, the strange feeling of unease that had been with her this morning ever since she woke up, that sense of being disconnected from herself and everything around her – it didn’t feel like a stranger. She thought it had been with her for a while now, perhaps forever. Until recently she’d been able to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t there, but there was no hiding from it now. Her eyes had been opened, and now it didn’t seem possible to close them again. Yes, something was certainly different from the way it had been when she woke up yesterday, and she rather suspected that it was her.
It was early September, and though the summer heat of August still held on during the day, the morning air was cool and carried with it the first smoky hint of Fall. Harriet walked at a brisk pace down the sidewalk, hands stuffed in the pockets of her jacket. She had intended to leave early this morning, not wanting another tardy to her name this early in the semester, but somehow it had taken longer than usual to get dressed and had managed to get out the door right on time without a minute to spare. Now she was trying to walk as quickly as possible to make up for lost time.
It wasn’t as if it had been that difficult to decide what to wear. Harriet’s clothing was largely interchangeable, and it was likely that she did not own a single piece of clothing that did not go with everything else she owned. All the same she had wasted a good ten minutes just standing there in front of the closet, staring at the messy jumble before finally selecting a pair of jeans and a shirt more or less at random.
As she passed the row of unfinished houses at the end of her street she found herself glancing repeatedly over the fence, half expecting to find Nuriel floating above the patchy grass with some fresh incomprehensible revelation to make known. No angel appeared though, and the empty windows of number 302 stared blankly back at her as she passed.
It wasn’t exactly the strangeness of everything that had happened that she couldn’t deal with, she thought to herself as she turned the corner and headed up the street toward the playground where yesterday’s confrontation with the Nefilim had taken place. In an odd way, she had been expecting, almost craving for something out of the ordinary to happen, and it was kind of a relief to find that at last it had. All summer long the feeling had been there in the back of her mind – the feeling that change was in the air, that this year would be different from anything that had come before.
And now everything had changed, all in an instant it seemed, and the thing that was hardest to wrap her head around was how natural it all felt despite the serious problems she could already see looming on the horizon like icebergs lying in wait for an unsuspecting ship. She suspected that it wasn’t purely by chance that Nuriel had chosen her as the recipient for its strange gift. Her hand went yet again to the golden pendant around her neck, feeling its warmth. No, if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that the angel hadn’t picked her out at random. This is your destiny, it had said, and she thought that was probably pretty much the truth. As comforting as it was to imagine that if Nuriel hadn’t shown up in front of that abandoned house yesterday she would still be thinking of herself as a “he,” Harriet had a strong suspicion that this was only part of the truth, and a very small part at that.
The bigger part of the truth was that as the other kids in her class had started to mature around her, she had been increasingly uncomfortable with finding herself among “the boys.” She’d told herself that as a card-carrying geek she was above all that girl/boy crap, but on a deeper level it was getting harder every day to ignore the fact that, as the lines between girls and boys were being drawn more and more clearly around her, she had somehow, impossibly, found herself on the wrong side.
The problem wasn’t that a pushy angel had enlisted Harriet in its crazy quest to defend her middle school from the forces of evil. The problem was that while she’d been under the effects of the magical pendant she had felt alive and at peace with herself in a way she couldn’t remember ever feeling before. The problem was that the pendant currently hung inert around her neck, its transformative powers dormant, and yet the prospect of facing an entire day at school as Harris Baum, boy, had her feeling panicky and a little sick. That was the real problem, and as far as she could see it had no magical solution.
“Harris? Harris, are you up there?”
Groggily, Harriet sat up in bed, startled from a deep sleep by the sound of her mother’s voice drifting up from downstairs.
“I’ll be down in a sec, mom!”
A quick examination revealed that at some point while she was asleep her body and clothing had reverted back to their original configuration. His, she reminded herself firmly, his! But the words sounded hollow and unconvincing, even to herself. Hastily smoothing down her hair, which was sticking out at random angles from her nap, she hopped out of bed and went downstairs to meet her mother.
Lydia Baum was in the front hall, a couple paper bags of groceries cradled in her arms and a look of exasperated concern on her face.
“Harris, what on earth happened today? I got a call from the school and they said you’d passed out in the hallway.”
Harriet wanted to kick herself. She’d completely forgotten about her encounter with Nurse Andy in the health office!
“Um, yeah, kinda. It really wasn’t that bad.”
“Kinda? You kinda passed out!?” She deposited her bags on the wooden bench underneath which they kept their shoes and went over to Harriet to put her hand on her forehead, as if she might have a fever. “What happened? Are you feeling sick? What did the school nurse say?”
“He said it was probably nothing, just that I shouldn’t forget to eat breakfast.” This was not exactly true, but it was enough like the truth that it felt like a decent compromise between telling an outright lie and ending up in therapy. I’m going to end up there anyway if I don’t start thinking of myself as “he” again, she thought! but it wasn’t any use.
“He?” her mother asked in a surprised tone, causing Harriet to nearly jump out of her skin. Had she said that out loud!?
“Uh, what was that, mom?”
“You said ‘he’. Your school nurse is a man?”
“Oh, yeah. His name is Andy.” Harriet breathed a little sigh of relief.
“Wow, you know back when I was your age most men wouldn’t be caught dead working in a career as ‘feminine’ as nursing. I doubt most schools would have hired a man if he’d have applied for the job. I guess things really are changing.”
You have no idea, mom, is what Harriet wanted to say, but she just nodded, trying to look as unconcerned as possible with the question of what men and women could do. “Um, how was work today?”
“Work was fine,” her mom replied, frowning. “I’m still worried about you, sweetie. You’re a healthy kid. It doesn’t make sense that you’d just pass out, no matter how little you had for breakfast. I’m going to make an appointment for you at the doctor’s office.”
Harriet groaned. “Come on, mom! I told you I feel fine! There’s nothing wrong with me, and besides, then I’d just have to miss more school. I’m already gonna be behind because of this.”
Her mother seemed to waver. “I suppose if the school nurse said there was nothing to worry about then there’s no point in having you miss part of a school day. But now that the summer’s over and you’re back in school I want you in bed at a decent time every night. No more staying up ’till 1 AM playing video games with your friends online. Got it?”
Harriet nodded enthusiastically, ready to concede to anything at this point, if only her mother would drop the issue.
“And if something like this happens again, or if you start feeling strange or anything, you tell me or the nurse, promise?”
“I promise, mom. See, this is me promising!” She placed her hand over her heart and raised the other one, trying to look solemn.
“Okay.” Her mom sighed. “Other than that, how was your first day of middle school? Did your teachers give you any homework?”
“Just a couple of things to read.”
“Have you done the reading yet?”
Harriet shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Alright, why don’t you get that done while I’m making dinner?”
Harriet bounded up the steps two at a time, filled with relief at all the ways that conversation could have gone but didn’t. In her hurry to get away she didn’t catch the look of anxious concern her mother still wore as she watched her son disappear up the stairs.
Lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come, Harriet kept turning over and over again everything that had happened today. She wasn’t sure yet what to make of everything the angel had told her, but its final words kept coming back to her – Nothing can hope to win in a fight against its own nature. But what was her nature? In a way, she envied Nuriel, who seemed to have such a clear sense of what it was and what it was for. She tried to imagine what it would be like to go through life with a direct pipeline to some higher power, always telling her where to go and what to do. In a way, it was almost appealing. But what if you didn’t want to be or do what it told you? I should ask Kasadya what it’s like, she thought to herself as her eyes closed and she drifted off into sleep.
Unbeknown to Harriet, several miles away in the dark and silent middle school, a yellow legal notepad lay on top of a stack of old automotive magazines on Andrew Bell’s cluttered desk in the health office. It was opened to the page on which he had jotted down the details of Harris’s visit that morning. On the margin of the page, circled once or twice, were scribbled the words, “Am I still a girl?”
—End of Episode 1—
When Harriet got home there was no one waiting to greet her, and as far as she was concerned that was just fine. The long walk up her street had been embarrassing enough, dressed as she was. Harriet wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to the clothes she had been wearing when her transformation had taken place, but she certainly didn’t have them now. Given that she’d had them on when she woke up in Nurse Andy’s office, she assumed they would reappear at some point, but for now her brightly colored outfit, glimmering in the evening dusk with its own internal light, gave new meaning to the phrase “screaming for attention.”
As it happened, she was fortunate enough not to run into any of the neighbors on the way, and when she got to her house she quickly zipped inside, closing the door behind her with a bang before allowing herself a well-earned sigh of relief. She was so tired that she almost tripped once or twice on the way up the stairs to her room. With some fascination, she observed that when this happened her boots left little patches of light in the spot where they’d scuffed the wood of the stairs. These patches continued glowing for several seconds before fading away.
Her backpack landed with a heavy thud when she dropped it onto the floor next to her desk, not even bothering to turn on the light before collapsing into bed. She lay there for some time, staring up at the ceiling and wondering how long it would be before the transformation reversed itself. She’d been out cold the last time this had happened, and didn’t really have any idea what it would be like. A part of her wondered if maybe the first time had been a fluke. Perhaps the transformation simply took some time to “take” and this time it would be permanent. For a while her mind was occupied with the question of how to explain to her mother what had happened:
“Hey mom, you know how you were saying now that I’m getting older my body’s going to be going through some changes? Well…”
“So mom, do you believe in angels? Oh really? Well let me tell you…”
“How was my first day of middle school? Well I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news…”
After several minutes she had to give up. It was just too much to even think about. Would her mother even recognize her when she got home? Harriet didn’t know.
It dawned on her then that she had no idea what she actually looked like. Even without looking she could feel that the change she had undergone had affected much more than her clothing. At any rate, she guessed if it hadn’t then parts of her sparkly new outfit definitely wouldn’t be fitting properly. Francis had told her she didn’t look all that different, but she’d also said that she looked cute. Was she still the same person, or had she been turned into someone else? Did she (and somehow this thought was the most uncomfortable of all) look like a boy wearing girls’ clothing?
Suddenly seized by the urge to see for herself, Harriet got out of bed and softly crept down the upstairs hall, ears peeled for any sound from below that might signal her mother’s arrival home from work. At the bathroom door she hesitated, a little nervous about what she would see, but in the end curiosity got the best of her anxiety and, taking a deep breath, she pushed open the door.
Francis had been right, she didn’t look that different. The face she found waiting for her in the bathroom mirror when she flipped on the light switch was definitely her own, more or less the same one she saw every morning when she was brushing her teeth. Her cheeks were a little different, she thought, and there was a softness to the curve of her jaw line that hadn’t been there before. All the same, everything was there. Her rather pointed nose still had the slight upward tilt that, according to family members, made her look so much like her mother. She still had the same dark eyebrows with their tendency to almost meet in the middle when she was angry or confused. Same hair, same teeth, same everything – and yet some subtle but important difference had crept in somehow, and there was no denying that the face she saw looking back at her from the mirror was that of a girl.
She stood there for a while, looking at herself in the mirror. It wasn’t such a bad face, she decided. Here in the solitude and privacy of her own bathroom she could even agree with her friend’s estimation that she was cute, in her own quirky way. Had she ever seen herself this way as a boy? It was hard to say. She thought not. Somehow it seemed as if she’d tended to avoid looking at herself too closely in the mirror lately.
She was leaning in to scrutinize herself a bit more closely when her forehead accidentally bumped against the mirror, producing a hollow booming sound so completely unexpected that it made her jump. Blinding white light was erupting from the circular spot on the mirror where her forehead had touched, and the spot grew bigger and bigger until the entire mirror was shining like the sun. Harriet let out a surprised shriek, but before she had a chance to even cover her eyes it was gone, and there in the mirror, occupying the place where her own reflection should have been, was Nuriel, looking very pleased with itself.
“Oh good,” it said, its strange voice whispering in her ear, “I had assumed I would have to explain to you how mirrors work, but it seems as if you have figured it out for yourself. Well done!”
“Um, thank you,” Harriet replied, not at all sure how mirrors were supposed to work other than by showing you your reflection, which was exactly what this one was currently failing to do. “Look, do you have to do that every time you show up?”
It was hard to tell because of its weird, pupil-less eyes, but to Harriet the angel looked a little confused. “Do what?”
“You know, with the light and everything. I think it probably isn’t good for my eyes. Could you not do it please?”
“Oh, that. I’m afraid not.”
“Okay, fine. Nice to see you again. What do you want?”
“I came to make sure that everything is alright with you.”
“Well it isn’t. You could have told me a little bit more, you know. Like how now that I’ve got this little present you gave me there’s monsters that want to eat my soul or be my best enemy or whatever it is they want.”
Nuriel fluttered anxiously. “You have encountered the Nefilim already?”
“The Nefilim, the fallen ones. Messengers who have thrown off the yoke of Heaven and abandoned the purpose for which they were made.”
Harriet calmly lowered the toilet seat and sat down, crossing her arms over her chest, noticing to her slight embarrassment that this felt different now that her chest was a slightly different shape. “Okay, I get it. My life has turned into a video game. I’m the magical fairy princess and you’re my spirit animal. It is your job to show up during the cut scenes and tell me what the heck is going on. So get talking.”
Nuriel looked somewhat miffed at being referred to as a spirit animal. “Very well. You have been calling me an ‘angel.’ Do you know what that word means?”
“What it…means? Just, you know, an angel. Like with wings and a halo, right? Or I guess you don’t exactly have a halo, but…”
“Yes, yes. That is what an angel looks like, or more accurately, what some humans assume an angel looks like, but do you know what an angel is?”
At this Harriet was forced to shake her head no.
“The word ‘angel’ comes from Ancient Greek, and all it means is ‘messenger.’ The Hebrew word ‘mal’ach’ means the same thing. As I told you before, I am a messenger. That is what I do, and what I do is what I am.”
“A messenger from who? God?”
“That’s what we assume.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Nuriel sighed, a sound very much like rain falling on pavement. “It means that none of us really knows for certain, except perhaps for the very oldest of us, the ones who were around just after the universe had come into being, and they aren’t talking.”
Harriet considered this for a moment. She was just about to open her mouth when the angel interjected.
“And before you ask, no I do not know if what your religious books say about God is right or not. Throughout history there have been humans who claimed to have spoken with God. There are angels who believe this to be true, and there are others who think it is merely an illusion of the human brain. All I can say for certain is that if it is true, then humans are worthy of the highest respect.”
“Um, thanks, I guess.”
“I said ‘if.’”
Harriet rolled her eyes. “So your entire reason for existing is to deliver messages to people like me?”
“Oh no. Humans are generally seen as being complicated enough to take care of themselves for the most part. My ordinary function is to serve as an emissary to hail.”
“What, you mean like with devils and pitchforks and all that?!”
“No, hail. You know, little round pieces of ice that fall from the sky? I’m a meteorological diplomat.”
“You bring messages to hail? What would God need to say to hail?”
“Oh, quite a bit. You think the universe just runs itself? Someone has to keep an eye on things to make sure that water is still wet, fire is still hot, and that hailstones haven’t suddenly decided to turn some outlandish shade of pink simply because they felt bored that day. Sometimes the forces of nature get into fights with each other and we have to go in to smooth things over and persuade everybody to play nicely. It’s a never ending job.”
“So if none of you have ever actually seen God, how do you know what to do? Where do the messages come from?”
“We accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven. By giving up a part of our selfhood we open ourselves up to something beyond ourselves. It is that connection that gives us our purpose. So long as all of us trust in the greater plan and fulfil our function, the universe keeps working in more or less the correct way.”
“I see,” said Harriet, though she wasn’t really sure that she did.
“The Nefilim were angels who looked at humans and other sentient beings who pretty much do as they please and said that it didn’t make much sense for us to spend their entire existence running errands for a being we couldn’t even see or talk to, and so they disconnected themselves from the yoke of Heaven and now they do whatever they feel like.”
“That doesn’t… actually seem like such a bad idea,” said Harriet, surprised to find herself sympathizing with the kids who’d been terrorizing her all day. “I mean, it does sound like kind of a thankless job. Why shouldn’t you get to do what you feel like?”
“Because what they feel like generally involves infiltrating human societies and taking over! They’re still angels, after all, and we’re more or less made to be bossy. A thousand years spend wheedling, threatening and manipulating the forces of nature into doing what you’re asking them to is a difficult habit to break.”
Harriet couldn’t help but giggle at this.
Nuriel gave her a sour look. “The only thing keeping most of us from using our powers to make an unholy mess of things is that we have chosen to voluntarily submit ourselves to a higher power and use our abilities to benefit the universe at large rather than ourselves.”
“So what is it you want me to do?”
“You now have the power to see through the tricks and illusions they use to keep themselves hidden among your people. Keep watch on them and prevent them from carrying out their nefarious plans. We would do it ourselves, but we try not to intervene in human affairs any more than necessary.”
At this Harriet couldn’t restrain herself. She hopped up and took an angry step across the bathroom. “More than necessary? You realize that I almost got killed today, right? Twice! That those things traumatized my best friend? What makes you think I’m going to just go along with what you say?”
“Because you can’t help yourself.”
Nuriel shook its head. “Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Nothing can hope to win in a fight against its own nature. You are a caring person, and your eyes have been opened to a danger which threatens everyone around you. You have been given a gift which is only beginning to reveal itself to you – your own truest self, something that might have remained hidden for years. When the time comes, and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or to betray it utterly, you will act.”
With that, Nuriel vanished as abruptly as it had appeared, which was a good thing, since Harriet couldn’t think of a single thing to say.