Every year in January Cast of Wonders takes a break to catch our breath, plan out the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes from the year just passed.
We hope you enjoy Jeff’s favorite story from 2014, Shimmer by Amanda C. Davis, which originally aired November 30, 2014 as Cast of Wonders 148.
by Amanda C. Davis
Bethany Chow is shimmering in the cafeteria like the disco ball they borrow from the seventies for every stupid school dance. Her hair is shifting through a dozen shades of black and brown, a dozen patterns of highlights and lowlights, and her eyes are changing shape so fast she seems to be constantly winking. She’s only changing height slightly these days, so people must have figured out how tall she is. She’s really settling into her shimmer. If I guess right, she’ll be shimmering the rest of her life. She’ll never be without admirers, and lots of them, to think about her and remember her and shape her.
One of her adoring lunch buddies glances over her shoulder at me, and I feel my thighs expand. The seams of my jeans dig into my skin. I have to get out of here. I leave my lunch tray where it is, grab my backpack by the straps, and bolt.
Unfortunately I pass a table full of the track team on my way out of the cafeteria. That slows me down.
In the hallway my legs snap back to normal, but I feel a few pimples come and go as I pass a boy with one amazing case of acne. He must not have any friends at all. You can usually count on people not to remember the particulars of your zit pattern–unless it’s all they know about you, and then look out. Their memories will turn you into a gargoyle.
The lockers are plastered with the usual self-propaganda: self-portraits and headshots, lovingly Photoshopped into each kid’s personal ideal self. I guess they work. I don’t use them. I usually pass these as fast as I can, but one of them catches my eye and I pause. I grab it from the wall. I recognize the boy in the photograph but he’s not familiar. I mean I know who it is. But it’s not him.
It’s Benjie. He shrinks under my gaze–literally growing shorter–but just an inch or so. The poster lists his height as six-foot-four. It’s already working.
I give his poster a little shake. “I can’t believe you drank the Kool-Aid.”
He looks pained. “I knew you’d hate it.”
“I don’t hate it,” I say. “I mean, look at it, you made yourself look like LeBron. It’s good work.”
“But you hate that I did it.”
I hang the poster back up so that I don’t have to say “Yes.” The corners peel back. Benjie leans in and painstakingly presses it against the sticky tack until it stays.
“Listen,” he says. “I know how you feel. But I really thought about this, and I put a lot of work into it, you know? I’m not just screwing around like Jen Brown trying to give herself a rumor tattoo. This is–this is me. This is what I want to be.”
“I know,” I say. “I believe you.” I don’t say, “I thought you weren’t like everyone else. I thought you were like me.”
It would only make things worse.
When I get home, my little sister is an alien.
I wouldn’t have recognized her except for the clothes, and the fact that her height, build, and hair are exactly the same as always. She jumps off the sofa and bounds across the room to greet me.
“Boo! Guess what! I’m a Martian!”
I pat her hair between the eye stalks. “Just you, or everyone?”
“Just me,” she says. “But Greg and Laura were cats.”
“You must have really made an impression.”
“I’m best,” she says, without batting a swaying, yellow eye. She’s going to be a Bethany Chow when she grows up, I can already tell. “Mom says you got a letter.”
“In the mail?” I say, assuming that Grandma’s been into the stationery again, but then I remember and my stomach plummets. I beat feet into the kitchen.
There’s a letter on the table with my name on the front and an address in gold at the top left.
I grab it. It’s already been opened.
I don’t care. I rip out the letter as fast as I can. I just want the knife to plunge into my heart as hard and fast as possible; maybe I’ll die quickly. Maybe it’ll only hurt for the moment it takes to read the words “We’re sorry to inform you” or “Thank you, but” or “Unfortunately” or any of those fake soothing phrases that all mean the same thing: you’re not good enough. Not good enough for us.
After all the junk at the top, addresses and date and salutation, the first word is “We’re”.
The second is “pleased”.
I sit down on the floor.
Mom comes over. I kind of hadn’t noticed she was in the kitchen. Her shoulder bumps against mine, warm and genial, and I realize we haven’t sat like this, so close, side by side, since middle school at least. Since forever. I lean into her.
“It says there were forty thousand entries for the art exhibition,” she says–in a whisper like she’s telling a bedtime story. “They took the top five.”
I should smile. I should cry. Instead I sit there with the letter in both hands and Mom on my shoulder and then before long my alien sister comes barreling into my lap, and then the moment to cry has passed. This is part of me now, great, unimaginable success. I suddenly don’t feel like myself. Not at all.
I call Benjie because all I want to do is shriek that that I’ve won. He’s ecstatic, and we squee back and forth for a couple of minutes like we used to. Then I mention the art show, and his squees cut off abruptly.
“How many people are going to be there?”
“Five thousand,” I say. The number catches in my throat and leaves me breathless.
He is silent for a moment. “You are such a hypocrite.”
Suddenly I’m breathless for more than one reason. “What?”
“Are you gonna dress up?”
“So it’s not okay for me to hang a poster, but you can get dolled up for a huge crowd of strangers?”
His voice is bitter in my ears, and my throat gets bitter as I hear it. “It’s not different. The only difference is I have to work on people who already know me, and you can present yourself to all those people for the first time, however you want, and that’ll be how you are. The difference is it’s sure to work for you. It’s a crapshoot for me. If it works it’ll be a tiny, tiny bit at a time. But that’s dishonest. You wish I hadn’t done it.”
“Have fun,” he says. He’s cold as winter. There’s a click and a beep and white noise.
I hang up quickly in case he calls back. But he doesn’t.
Mom is taking me on the most important shopping trip of my life.
I’m choosing a wig. After the art show I won’t need it. My real hair will look just like it.
At the shoe store there are two, four, eight inch heels. I buy the four. I don’t want to fall over. But I do want to be taller.
The poster on the wall says, under an image of a smiling Megan Fox: Design the Perfect Figure with Corset Plus!
All I have to do is fit into this thing for four hours, I think, as I’m struggling to breathe. Four hours and then it becomes real, then and thereafter. I can be as thin as I can suck it in. That’s on the posters too.
“More padding up front?” says the fitting lady, stuffing foam down my chest. “How about in back?”
I start to say that my backside is padded plenty already, but I catch a glimpse of us in the mirror. I’m a lumpy mess. She’s perfect. “Sure,” I say. I have to trust the opinions of others. I can’t screw this up.
I have the day’s shopping spread out on the bed. Wig, corset, shoes. False eyelashes, nails, pigment. They nestle comfortably into the gentle shallows I’ve slept into the old mattress.
This is going to be me, I think, toying with the wig. Me.
The phone rings.
I lunge for it in case it’s Benjie. It’s not.
She’s so proud of me, she’s so excited. It’s the kind of thing I’ve heard over and over this week. I’ve been given such an honor. It’s wonderful that I’ve got such an opportunity. I must take advantage of it.
“You know,” she says, “when I was your age my father threw me a wonderful debutante ball. I got all dressed up and he presented me to society for the first time. I always thought it was a shame we don’t do that up north. It really adds something to your smile. But this will be like a debut, won’t it, dear? Only you’re presenting yourself.”
“Yeah,” I say. My stomach clenches suddenly with nerves and I don’t want to think about all those people, about how they’ll change me.
“So go on then, honey, tell me about your art.”
I’m thunderstruck. It hasn’t occurred to anyone else to ask about my art. “It’s an installation piece,” I tell her. “Mixed media. That means, like, not just paint. It’s kind of a mosaic. I painted this face, but in sections like a grid. So it’s about eighty different pieces of face all put together. And then over some of the sections I put this frosted glass so you can only just barely see through it, and over some of the sections I put little square mirrors. They’re going to mount it at eye level and have a line where you stand so your reflection matches up with the portrait. Well, as close as possible. I’d want to adjust it for everyone but there’s no time… The idea is to make the painting act like a real person. Everyone sees it differently because they’re seeing part of themselves at the same time. I wanted to give it a shimmer. Not with glitter or holographs. As real as possible.”
By the time I finish I feel like I’m making excuses for it, making apologies. I’m going to have to rehearse this before the show or I’ll sound like a moron.
“Oh honey,” says Grandma. There’s a moment’s silence and I realize she must hate the idea. She’s trying to think of how to tell me so. Then she says, “That’s just brilliant. No wonder you won.”
I’m so relieved to hear it that I say, “It’s kind of a statement.”
“The painting doesn’t actually change, it stays the same. The shimmer is fake. I’m kind of exploring what the world would be like if we just–looked like ourselves, all the time.”
“That’s very interesting,” says Grandma. “But who’d want to live in a world like that?”
“Well,” I say, “me.”
My gaze falls on the bed, loaded up with pieces of the new me, and my gut sinks so far that my feet feel heavier.
“I have to go,” I say, and I can hardly hear myself say it, and after she hangs up I let the dial tone ring in my ears for a minute or more.
Benjie is home.
He’s standing at the refrigerator. He catches me peeking around his mother’s side. His face gets hard. “What do you want?”
It’s exactly the right question to make me burst into tears.
He calms his mother and hauls me into his bedroom, with me bawling into his elbow and then into the pillow he hands me.
“Okay,” he says, when I get a hold of myself. “Lay it out for me.”
I sniff. “I know what I have to do at the art show. Only it’s really hard. It’s the only thing I can do without…without selling out, without being a hypocrite. Without ruining myself.”
“Hey,” he says. “You don’t have anything to prove.”
“But I do. My painting says everything I believe in. I can’t let it say that while I stand there doing the opposite.”
He leans back on his elbows. “So…you’re not going to dress up for your art show debut.”
“Kind of,” I say. “I have to do this my way. And I guess I just want to know…I just want to make sure you don’t mind.”
He laughs. “Why would I mind?”
I lunge forward and kiss him.
I can’t believe I’m doing it, but it absolutely feels like the right thing to do, and his arms find their way around me, and he makes no move to stop me. It’s different than I expected. I wonder if we’re doing it wrong. He shifts, just a little, and I realize we’re doing it right. Very, very right.
We separate. But not much.
“Uh, okay,” he says.
My heart lurches, but he’s still holding me, and he doesn’t seem to mind it.
He says, “I think I see the problem. But it’s okay. No matter what you do, you will come out of it different.”
“I know,” I say. “I don’t care how anyone sees me. I just want to make art.”
He kisses my forehead. “Then make art.”
He’s so close that I can touch his neck without even reaching, so I do, just resting my fingers where it meets the shoulder. “I mean I don’t care how anyone sees me but you. So I had to come and ask. Do you care how I look?”
Benjie shrugs. “It’s just gonna change anyway.”
He kisses me again.
It’s so poignantly now that my palms ache with anxiety. I’m upstairs at the art gallery, crammed into a powder room with cracking plaster walls and murals on the ceiling and a huge mirror surrounded in lights. I’m wearing the wig and the corset and the four-inch heels. My artwork is downstairs. So is my future.
The door creaks open and a tiny woman with anime hair pops inside. “The doors are open. They’re coming in,” she tells me, checking herself in the mirror. Her hair grows greener under our mutual scrutiny. “Come on down anytime.”
She makes a kissy-face at herself in the mirror and sweeps away.
I make a kissy-face at myself. It looks ridiculous. Remember this, I think. Remember what you’re seeing now. You’ll never see it again.
I pick up the last part of my outfit, the part Mom doesn’t know about, and settle it against my face.
A mirrored mask.
I am my artwork writ large. I’ll match the portrait I’m standing beside, and everyone who looks at my face will see their own. We’re going to reflect everyone we pass, my painting and I. The art extends past the wall to me. I’ve made art like no one else ever has. Even if I had to make it out of myself.
I don’t know what I’m going to look like after tonight, or if I’ll ever look like anything ever again.
But tonight, and forever after, in the mask or out of it–I’m going to shimmer.
I’m going to shimmer like the sun.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Lizzie works in data visualisation, and her work hours are consumed with thinking about data, how it fits together and how to visualise it in a simple manner for others. To escape this she is a keen gamer, writer and reader vanishing off into fantasy worlds for hours at a time. She currently lives with her husband and dreams of a time when they might have space to own a cat or a dog. You can follow her on Twitter.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.