Cast of Wonders 379: Philemaphobia
by Josh Pearce
“Amanda,” Mother said, as soon as she came in from school: “Amanda,” in that tone of voice that said she was so tired of being angry about this.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Amanda said automatically. She hadn’t even had a chance to drop her bookbag and search the pantry for a snack. Mother still had the kitchen phone in her hand, arms crossed tightly.
“Want to tell me why your homeroom teacher is calling me about your behavior, again? What was it this time? What did you say?”
“Nothing! I don’t talk in class anymore.” Maybe that was the problem? Mrs. Kennedy scowling at her whenever Amanda clamped her lips tight and shook her head in response to a question.
“What, then? You tell me, Amanda Bull, why you’re in trouble today.”
Amanda shrugged. She felt a strand of something in her mouth and pushed it around with her tongue until she could pinch it between her nails and draw it out. The thread was nearly invisible, and it was a long one today. Amanda kept winding it around the tip of her finger as she pulled, until it wrapped halfway past her second knuckle. It was a pale, pale white, not the black of her own hair. She would add it to her fairy floss collection jar—which was just about full by now—as soon as Mother sent her to her room.
“Mrs. Kennedy just told me to spit out my gum.”
“Did you give her the doctor’s note, like we talked about?”
“Stop mumbling! Open your mouth when you speak.”
“Yes, I showed her. She just said I couldn’t chew gum in school, ’cause then all the other students would want to.” If Mother was going to fish for incriminating specifics, then let her think the gum was the root of the trouble, the reason why the other girls had run screaming from the schoolyard, why Shawna Jackson wouldn’t come back to class after lunch at all and spent the next two periods in the nurse’s until her stepmom came to pick her up early.
Mother sighed and said, “Fine, I’ll set up a conference with her. Go rinse with your medicine and stay in your room until dinner.”
Upstairs, Amanda brushed delicately and ran the bristles under the tap to dislodge the captured fibers, then used her special mouthwash and spat into the sink. Like she did every day, Amanda opened her jaw wide and looked inside herself, probing between and around her teeth with her tongue until her breath steamed up the mirror. She dislodged two dried-up, brown husks that fell out of her mouth and clattered on the porcelain. She carefully wiped them up with a folded square of bathroom tissue and dropped it in the toilet. Flushed. Dad would be angry if she backed up the sink trap again with her desiccated carapaces.
She was nearly satisfied with the job she’d done, when she felt something gummy wedged behind her back teeth. This was new. She couldn’t see it, not even when using the little dental mirror, and couldn’t reach it with her finger. But she certainly felt it with her tongue. It felt soft, about the size of a pea, and slightly fuzzy. Amanda retreated away from it, afraid of puncturing it, afraid of chewing it, and definitely too afraid of swallowing it.
Dad came home and Amanda got through the dinner-time lecture without arguing back too much. She only had to get up twice during the night to wipe the webs from her mouth and put them in her collection jar.
When she dropped Amanda off in the morning, Mother said, “No gum today. Just do your jaw and tongue exercises in class instead.”
Amanda said nothing, but she sure wasn’t going to do anything—especially not dorky jaw calisthenics—that would get her teased even more. Shawna and her friends contorting their faces and sticking their tongues out and hissing, “Retard,” in Amanda’s ear every time they passed her desk to sharpen their pencils or get water from the fountain, their poison dripping directly from their lips into her head. Or worse, even, during silent reading time, when Shawna would raise her hand and say, loudly in the hushed classroom, “Mrs. Kennedy! Amanda is making weird smacking noises with her mouth again,” loudly enough that the other thirty students would look up from their books and focus on her and even chime in with their own complaints about what were, Amanda was certain, her completely silent lip stretches. And then Mrs. Kennedy would just say, “She has a medical condition,” which only made things worse. It was difficult to keep an emotionless face when the only adult in the room wouldn’t silence the mob.
Today, instead of gum, Amanda folded up a piece of notebook paper into a tight square and chewed on that, which made less noise and kept Mrs. Kennedy’s attention off of her. She said nothing during class discussion, didn’t raise her hand, didn’t even raise her eyes from the name she wrote over and over on the inside of her binder, using every color marker in the set. If she could just keep silent and avoid being cornered by Shawna’s clique anymore, then Amanda thought she could make it to the summer without Jeremy learning about it, because he was in a different homeroom and they hardly crossed paths.
But during lunch hour, she saw that the story was spreading, even to other classes. Kids she didn’t know passed in the walkway and hurled names like, “Pig-pen,” and, “Shit-breath,” at her.
(“I don’t have—”
“Then why are there always flies around your face?”)
Some saw her coming and hunched to whisper together, and wiggled their fingers on their lips to imitate creeping creature legs, pretending to be what they thought Amanda was. But they’d never really believe it, if she told them. Mother and Dad only believed the symptoms that they could see, and Mrs. Kennedy and Principal Leonard didn’t believe even that. Neither did the dentists, specialists, and pediatricians who shone lights into Amanda’s mouth, finding nothing because it always hid from them under her tongue or down the back of her throat until their questing fingers and tools went away.
Shawna hadn’t believed it either. Not until yesterday, when she and seven other vicious middle-school girls herded Amanda up against the softball backstop, not until Amanda gave in and opened her mouth and let the thing which lived within it crawl out onto her cheek, where it clung like a splayed hand, looking at them with a dozen eyes.
Amanda took her food to the far corner of the lunch yard and sat on her bench, brown bag spread across her knees as a placemat for her sandwich and fruit cup. From here she could pretend to not see the tables of other children, could turn her face away and eavesdrop on Shawna and the rest of the hot-lunch crowd. She could also watch, from the corner of her eye, Jeremy sitting under a tree, scribbling in a marbled composition notebook.
The girls at the table were whispering and giggling, and Amanda knew what they were talking about by their eyelines alone, sneaking glances at the tables on the other side of the court where the boys were piled over some sort of card game. Shawna declared, louder than the others, that Kevin Tran had kissed her at the movies on Saturday and that, “It had been pretty serious.” Amanda stared down at her bologna and Kraft single. She was overhearing the same shock gossip that she’d joined in at countless sleepovers. The secrets that she and Shawna passed back and forth last year when they sat next to each other in Ms. Emerson’s class.
Ms. Emerson had been their favorite teacher, and Amanda and Shawna could just tell that they were her two favorite students. But then this year they moved up to Mrs. Kennedy’s class, who strictly scolded Amanda’s constant chatter, and Shawna took no time to realign herself, imitating Mrs. Kennedy’s frowns and crossed arms. They no longer passed lists of boys they wanted to kiss. The last time Amanda had, Shawna and her new friends screeched with laughter over it, asking each other, “Who would ever kiss ugly Amanda? What a freak.”
Amanda crumpled up her lunch bag and stood, wiped her lips and marched over to Jeremy, feeling Shawna’s eyes on her back. He looked up when her shadow fell across his paper. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” Jeremy answered.
“Whatcha drawing?” It looked lumpy.
“Venom, from Spider-man.”
She could see it now. It wasn’t very good, but she watched him fill in the shadowing for a while. When the hour was almost up, Amanda pointed at his lunch trash and asked, “Do you want me to throw that away?”
“Sure,” he said, without looking up. “Thanks.”
She smiled broadly, gathered it all up, and crossed over to the garbage can. But when she turned to come back, Amanda saw Shawna kneeling down by Jeremy, and he had put away his pencil and was looking at her. Shawna said something, and looked over at Amanda. Jeremy did, too.
Amanda turned her back and breathed deeply, haltingly, through her nose for a few minutes, as the bell rang and the thunder of running children surrounded her. A teardrop slid down her face onto the quivering white thread at the corner of her mouth, and something darted quickly past her lips to seize it. It retreated to the darkness just as fast, cradling the tiny orb of water like a gem.
“You need to come down for dinner,” Mother said through the closed bedroom door that evening. Amanda said nothing, not, “I don’t feel like it,” or, “Not hungry,” but sat at the table obediently and held her fork, staring at the food on her plate. She moved her mouth like she was chewing, but she was actually feeling out the gummy thing behind her teeth. It was bigger now, about the size of an unshelled peanut. Every now and then a loose strand would work free, long enough to tickle her chin.
Amanda sat in her room and wrote in her school binder and thought about what it would be like to finally kiss him. Would it really be like everyone said? Would it feel soft, softer than the fibers that blanketed her mouth already? Mother’d had to empty the collection jar for her again. Amanda reached for an old magazine that Shawna had traded her the previous year, and turned to the article about the best ways to kiss, like using your tongue, or biting gently on his lip. She wasn’t sure if she could dare something like that the first time.
That night, when she awoke to find her lips sealed over, Amanda simply pulled the covers up over her head and went back to sleep.
She skipped breakfast in the morning, kept her face carefully out of the water when she showered, couldn’t brush her teeth. This was the longest she’d ever allowed the threads to grow, and some of them now stretched all the way to her forehead to tangle up in her bangs. She said nothing to nobody all through school, chewed nothing during class. Instead of eating lunch, she lay in the grass by the bleachers where no one could find her and closed her eyes in the sun. Something tickled her face and went away again.
Mother didn’t even call her down to the table, but Amanda could hear the tense worry in the tone of her parents’ dinner conversation, and she struggled to stay awake long enough to eavesdrop on them. Things were growing inside her. Amanda’s stomach felt hollow. She only woke up once that night, and then only long enough to roll over onto her side.
By the end of the week, there was a definite change about her, and kids at school noticed. They pointed at the pale gauze slowly occluding her features; her mouth had already completely disappeared behind it, and thick, woolly ribbons ran from her lips to her nose, her eyelashes, her ears and hair. Boys looked when she walked by, but the teachers just skipped past her faceless, thinning figure during roll.
Perhaps, she was finally starting to blend in.
Someone’s shadow fell across her face while she lay on the grass. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said back, sort of, through the threads sewing her mouth shut, and the swelling cotton ball that filled her right cheek. Her vision was cloudy, as if looking at everything through tears, but she couldn’t even cry anymore, because bees landed on her face and drank her tears, and were captured by the veil when they tried to fly away. Their bodies were quickly combed free from the threads and tucked under her tongue, where Amanda could taste the desperate buzzing struggle as the life ebbed out of them.
“Want some juice box?” he asked, and bent down to offer it. She poked through the layers of her lips with the straw and carefully drank exactly half of the box before passing it back to him.
“Well, see you later,” he called over his shoulder, running away back towards the classrooms. Something dissolved a little in her mouth, melted within her.
That night, she got Mother to help cut her mouth open with a pair of nail scissors. Amanda brushed the silk from her hair, washed her face, and cleaned her teeth. “Want something to eat?” Mother offered.
But Amanda shook her head because her insides still felt crawly. Like butterflies. Like she couldn’t stop thinking about a boy coming up to talk to her. Like she wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight.
And she lay in the dark for a long time without closing her eyes, running her tongue over her lips again and again to soften them, to keep them free of loose filaments. She felt movement in her cheek, and froze.
This was a different sensation than ever before, a pulsing against her palate. She sat up, trying to find the light switch, turning it on, opening her mouth to call for Mother.
And then the egg sac in her cheek dissolved and filled her mouth completely with small crawling creatures, thousands of legs tickling over her tongue, choking her. She screamed then, just to force them out, and they ballooned up onto the ceiling like black smoke. Her parents came running. Dad took one look, said a bad word, and hurried away to get a broom. Hundreds more flowed down her chin and over her shoulders. Mother wiped them and the tears and runny nose from Amanda’s face with a damp cloth and said, “Come on, sweetie, we’ll clean you up in the bathroom.”
There were some still crawling in her hair, so Mother brushed them out while Amanda puked up the remnants into the toilet. She felt it coming up out of her throat, large and brittle, and caught it as it fell out of her mouth—the dried, brown carapace of a mother leached dry by her offspring. All of the eyes had shrunk to leathery black pinholes. Amanda shuddered and dropped it in the water.
Mother hugged her close, said into her ear, “This is a big day for you. Your body is going through a lot of changes, but don’t worry, the worst of it is over.” She made up the couch for Amanda to sleep on until Dad could clean out her room. She woke up every half hour and ran her hands over her face, but there was never anything on it, and in the morning her mouth was free of threads or loose hairs. The nightmare was over. Mother made pancakes and let her stay on the couch watching TV all day.
On Monday, Jeremy smiled when he passed her in the hall, and she wasn’t afraid to smile back. Something was tickling her stomach, and Amanda pulled a long thread, the wrong cotton color, from the waistband of her panties. He found her at the bleachers during lunch and they ate together, leaning in close, knees touching. When he turned his head to look at her, Amanda licked her lips and felt a flutter in her throat, a tiny twitch in her thighs. Jeremy tilted toward her and she closed her eyes. A smile or something like it crawled across her face. She felt his mouth meet hers, and it was just like she’d dreamed it would be. Her lips parted.
He drew back quickly. “Ow,” he said.
About the Author
Josh Pearce is an assistant editor and film reviewer at Locus magazine. He has writing published in Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can follow him on Twitter @fictionaljosh.
About the Narrator
Nika Harper is a writer, performer, and geeky personality who spends long, solitary nights on the internet because her brain won’t shut up. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, where she houses her collection of magic wands and an overwhelming stockpile of empty journals. Her work is at ThisisNika.com but the good stuff (pictures of her cat) is on her Twitter, @NikaHarper.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.