Title: A Voice Inside Your Soul
Word Count: 4249
Rating: PG-13 for themes of depression and suicide.
Jonah was barely through the door when his mother called out to him. Can you sit down for a minute, we need to talk.
We need to talk. Nothing good ever follows those four words. He took a deep breath, jammed his hands in his pocket and said, “Sure thing.”
His mom was in the kitchen, bustling about mixing something in a saucepan. It smelled like hot chocolate. It was ninety-five degrees outside and his mother was making hot chocolate. She only did that for two reasons: It was actually cold, or she had something to say that required a cushion to soften the blow. Jonah tried to think of his school work; if there was anything he was slacking in bad enough to warrant a parental intervention. But no… No, he was fairly certain his grades were up to snuff. He wasn’t an ace student but he got by.
It couldn’t be anything outside of school. He didn’t participate in any extracurriculars—unless you counted the bi-monthly game of Dungeons and Dragons he played with his friends over skype because none of them were old enough to have a car and everyone’s parents worked weird hours which meant no rides anywhere. Which meant he was left coming home, making a show of doing his homework at the dinner table before disappearing into his room for the night. Very normal, very below the line of sight or notice.
She flashed him a watery smile long enough to ask him to sit down please and that’s when he saw them: multiple pamphlets in pastel shades of blue and green sprawled across the counter with titles like Draconism and Your Teen stenciled out in comforting comic sans while stock images of supposed teens smiled emptily in each other’s general direction.
Jonah’s stomach felt like it was in his shoes. It took everything he had to make it to the table. The spot just behind his left ear began to itch with a vengeance. He folded his hands and wedged them between his knees so he wouldn’t be tempted to scratch.
But she couldn’t. He had been so careful. Never writing his thoughts down where they could fall into the wrong hands, keeping a carefully cultivated list of music to play when she was home so he wouldn’t trigger this exact conversation they were about to have, making up a list of social events just so she wouldn’t be tipped off (which… they weren’t exactly a lie. Although Jonah seriously doubted his mom would consider “group chat while playing Overwatch” to be a fulfilling social engagement but she worked late all the time so what she didn’t know couldn’t land him in hot water.)
His mother approached the table, two mugs of steaming hot chocolate on a small serving tray and a fistful of the colorful pamphlets clenched in her other hand.
“Jonah,” Her voice was like hot steel cutting right through him. “Are you draconic?”
Jonah managed to dredge up a laugh he didn’t truly feel. “Don’t you mean to ask if I’m feeling flighty?” His mother pursed her lips. Growing the scales and wings and hungering for raw meat was borderline a mortal sin. Mentioning the flying away forever was a whole bag of crazy she apparently wasn’t really ready to deal with.
That spot behind his ear burned.
“I found these in your room,” She said, unearthing a box he hadn’t noticed before and now he really did laugh as his collection of Magic: The Gathering cards fanned across the table. “I spoke to the McCormick’s and they said all the experts told them hoarding was one of the first symptoms Michael probably exhibited before…” She trailed off and now everything was starting to make sense.
Their neighbors, if you could count the family who lived four houses down and only spoke to say hello to you in line at the grocery store as neighbors, had recently lost their son who was… had been two years older than Jonah himself. Michael had gone full flight in the middle of the night. There was no note; the parents insisting there had been no warning, not really, just them waking up to their son’s shredded pajamas and a handful of scales that had shaken loose in the transformation. DNA tests had come back positive, wherever Michael was now he was there as a great winged lizard.
“Mom,” Jonah said. “This is a card game.” He spoke slowly, knowing he was coming off as pedantic and maybe even a little mean. “I’ve been playing this game for years with Jake and Liam. You know this, you bought me a bunch of booster packs for a stocking stuffer last Christmas.”
His mother was edging towards tears. “All the literature says to look out for things like this.” Her voice broke although the floodgates were held back, barely. “That kids who show interest in the… The occult are more likely to go… go that terrible word and I just worry about you so much Jonah. I can’t even imagine what they would say if you went away in such an awful manner.”
Ah yes, the root of the problem: how would his mother handle such a scandal. Make no mistake about it, it was always a scandal when anyone from a “decent” sort of family such as theirs went full flight– just this week the things he’d heard his mother gossip about the McCormick’s over the phone… it didn’t bear thinking of. Jonah felt his smile go tight at the edges. He bit down hard on his tongue so he wouldn’t say anything to show his hand. Things like: those pamphlets are full of shit, or you can’t see the real hoards because it’s not physical, don’t you get it, that’s why it’s always so hard for people like you to understand. It’s not a thing, it’s a thought. Hard and beetle-like and scuttling through your brain at all hours and keeping you awake and you tell yourself to leave it be, to look away but there you are and there they are, and there’s so many and you pick them over even though you tell yourself not to because it’s three a.m. and you have school in four hours but the little thoughts are sharp and biting and you can’t be rid of them. No matter how often you think you are they always come scuttling back out of the dark corners and besides they’re too jewel bright for you ever to be truly done with them so you gather them close and let them fester and pinch and they stop looking so foreign, stop sounded like someone else’s voice in your ear and just become an echo of your own worst fears.
He smiled and said none of this and reached up, across the table with great restraint and took his mother’s hands in his own. “I’m fine,” he lied, smile tipping towards a grimace.
“You’ll tell me if you’re feeling… not yourself?” She sniffled and broke contact to sip at her hot chocolate.
“Of course.” Jonah returned his hands to his lap, tracing the seam of his jeans, focusing on the rough material, on the movement of his fingers, on anything other than the piercing burn behind his ear.
“Alright then, I’m sorry for the water works. You know how it is, this stuff is all over the news and I do worry. Now, get started on your homework and tell me what you’d like for dinner.”
He didn’t want dinner. He didn’t think he’d ever want to eat again, not at this table and not with his mother and her false sincerity seated across from him. “Whatever you make is fine, I’m too hungry to be picky.” More lies, they were piling up in a tidy stack in the corner of his brain. He’d pick through them later, all the tiny lies he tells throughout the day just to make it until the following dawn.
After, when night had fallen and he was excused and allowed to disappear into his room to do whatever mythical things teenagers his age did, Jonah found himself teetering on an edge. On one hand, the whole afternoon had circled the drain of surrealism. He thought about texting his friends what had happened but when he pulled his phone out found himself stopping.
What if they didn’t think it was funny? What if they shot back questions, concerns? What if he wasn’t hiding it all as well as he thought he was? Finally, in the darkness of his own bedroom, Jonah allowed his hand to travel up, up, brush against the edge of his hairline. Three scales had grown in, a fourth was pushing its way through. He had taken a picture the other day with his phone. It was badly angled and the third scale had been fresh, still slick with blood and when he permitted his fingers to touch the edges he found the scales to be razor sharp and fine as the edge of a single piece of paper.
He deleted his half started texts, shut his phone off for the night, and decided that sleep was what he needed.
Sleep did not come easily to him. The mean little brain beetles had multiplied and whenever he closed his eyes he saw them: small and scuttling and their tiny legs leaving sharp pricks of pain in his mental space. Jonah didn’t bother chasing them, laid in bed and let them crawl over him. There were more than enough of them if they chose they could destroy him right here and now. Eat away at his defenses and all the parts that made him and when they were done what would emerge? What would be left when he gave in to the beetles?
He knew the answer to that. He’d be scaly and winged and impossibly hungry and he wouldn’t be here, he’d be somewhere else, wherever the dragons go when they decide they’re done being people and trying to fight off the brain beetles.
It was tempting. He could do like the McCormick kid, just wander into the yard, close his eyes, and let the beetles have their way.
He sat up instead and went to do the dishes. He was tired but not sleepy, and wasn’t that a bitch? Fatigue with a side order of insomnia, this was just another long night in a series of long nights where he waited until his mother’s Ambien or Lunesta or whatever the sleeping pill of the month happened to be to kick in before he crawled out of bed and put his sleeplessness towards something productive: scrubbing dishes or folding laundry with the tv on down low, playing an infomercial for something or other.
Tonight it was for some sort of medication. He let the dishes soak while a tiny stick person slumping their way across the screen captured his attention. A voice over with an upbeat tone started in on the spiel saying things like you know when you feel the weight of sadness, hopeless and anxious and other buzzwords as the tiny stick figure grew fangs and claws and wings and went about, stomping and sighing back to itself back and forth across the screen. The voice over came back with facts and statistics about draconism. Try all new Lancelot, four out of five wizards found Lancelot to have a positive effect on people suffering draconism compared to other knights of the same dosage. Then the little half dragon held up a tiny man with a lance on a horse, popped him into its mouth and magically turned back into a person again. Abra kadabra, the dragon was slain. The voice over went on to give a litany of side effects but by then Jonah was turning back to the mound of dishes and the way the hot water stung his fingers and helped chase the little brain beetles away, back to their dark corners.
In the morning his mother is puzzled but shrugs, assuming she did the dishes before falling asleep and just can’t remember. Jonah doesn’t bother correcting her.
It was a little easier at school. The rigid structure of the day gave him something to focus on that wasn’t the handful of scales making an appearance behind his hairline. Two more had grown in overnight. John tried to tell himself that it wasn’t a big deal. That lots of people dealt with draconism. Heck, their history teacher wore her sunglasses inside all the time, rumor had it her eyes had gone slitted and lizard-like, and everyone knew Vice Principal Kramer ate only rare steak. Go to any nail salon and there was almost always a discreet worker with a pair of hedge trimmers trying to cut back someone’s talons.
It shouldn’t be a big deal. He wasn’t alone in this, he knew that and yet…
And yet the sky called to him. Some days when they were out in the courtyard for lunch and the noise of high school life dimmed just the tiniest bit he’d find his head tilted back, drinking in the blue. Wondering. Some days he could feel the wind beneath wings he did not yet possess and it felt so… right and free that it took everything he had not to leap into the air and give in right then and there.
But then the bell would ring for the next class and he’d blink, pulling his attention back to Earth and school and his friends smiling around him in gentle bemusement.
“You okay there?” Liam asked, thumping Jonah on the back.
Why can’t I talk to you? “Fine.” It was becoming such an easy lie that he didn’t even feel guilty about it anymore.
What would he say anyway? What could he say to these people that he spent every day with and still felt like an ocean divided them? Jonah looked at his friends surreptitiously throughout the rest of the day, wondering if any of them felt the way he felt. If any of them were growing scales or their teeth were becoming sharper or nails thicker and curling over their fingers. Even if he did see the signs, then what? What would he say? “Me too?” “Guess we’re miserable together?” Would he ask them the question burning in his chest: How do you deal with it, the aching emptiness inside when you know you have nothing to complain about, you know you have nothing to feel this way about? How do you not just give in, close your eyes and lean your head back and let the beast inside have what it really wants: your life.
He knew who he could talk to about this. Gracie would understand. Gracie would be sympathetic and listen and at the end, he would probably feel better and worse in equal measures because that was the magic of Gracie. This was exactly why he hadn’t called her since she moved. It was easier to hide behind text messages and emails. If she heard his voice she’d know because she always knew. Jonah wasn’t ready for that. He picked up his backpack, moved on to the next class, and put thoughts of Gracie out of his mind.
How long can he keep going? He marks the days on a calendar like a prisoner counting down to his release. Only there would be no release, that’s what he was avoiding. There was only the slow march of time and Jonah clung to every day he made it through. The scales kept pushing out of his skin and hair and he wouldn’t be able to hide it much longer.
A week. Two weeks. He wasn’t even sure anymore, had given up on the big red X’s on the calendar, had given up counting the scales as they sprouted. He was spiraling, he was outnumbered by the darkness and the beetles and the sharp piercing scales slowly taking over his scalp.
School was a distraction. A placeholder. A moment of reprieve for his brain to fuzz over with facts as he tried to commit dates to memory. But history was so far past and it was difficult to care about people when they were little more than words in a book.
The folded note hit square in the middle of his desk. Jonah blinked down at it, sure it was meant for someone else. He looked up, looked at the girl in the row next to him who simply pointed to the note, then to him, and nodded. It took some effort to unfold quietly, he hadn’t seen a note folded in this complicated a manner since elementary school and it threatened to crinkle loudly every time he loosened another edge.
Inside at the very top in a messy scrawl were three damning words: I see them.
Everything inside went cold and Jonah forgot to breathe and he didn’t want to look at the girl. Brittany, her name is Brittany and we’ve been in the same class since second grade. Still—he couldn’t make himself look at her—just stare down at the words until the world blurred.
“Hey,” she hissed. Jonah blinked, eyes watering and managed to twist his head a fraction of an inch, enough to see her in his peripheral. She was sliding one shoe off, eyes facing front to keep the teacher’s attention from zeroing in on them and it wasn’t obvious what she was doing until she leaned over and peeled the top of her sock down.
A handful of rainbow scales shimmered back in the dim classroom light.
Jonah blinked and then they were gone and she was sliding her foot back into her hi-top sneaker and he blinked again, finding the strength to look up, to meet her eyes. She smiled at him but it wasn’t a happy expression, it was the kind of smile that spoke volumes and reached across classroom aisles when everyone was silent. Me too.
Jonah scrawled back on the note, not bothering to fold it pretty like Brittany had. Why are you telling me?
The note returned to his desk not a minute later. You look lost. I remember what that felt like.
Heart in throat, he swallowed and turned a shaky pen to paper. How did you stop feeling lost?
I started by talking to people who I knew would care what was happening to me.
Class ended with a final note from Brittany. I care; if you need someone to listen. Then she was gone, swept along the tide of bodies into the next period.
School took a lifetime to end that day and yet it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. Jonah was careful to move like nothing was the matter when he got home. His mother had only just put away the pamphlets and “literature” and stopped sliding checklists under his door asking if he experienced an array of symptoms (the answers were mostly yes but he wasn’t ready to tell her that.) He sat at the table and made a show of doing his homework. Then he slid by his mother, into the backyard. “Going outside for a bit,” he called behind him. “Gracie wants me to call her.”
“Tell her I said hello and we miss her!”
The phone didn’t even finish the first ring before a familiar laugh came floating over the tiny speaker. “A call from Mr. I-would-rather-physically-mail-you-letters-than-talk-on-the-phone?” Gracie teased, a smile in her voice.
“Is that my name now? Man, how do I fit that on an ID?”
“It is, you should be getting an official letter from the government soon. So, what’s up?”
It’s easy to avoid things like this, closed off in his own little world with the familiar lilt of Gracie’s voice for company. They trade stories of school. Gracie fills him in on what life is like in her new home, all the way up in Idaho. “Fewer potatoes than I was led to believe. Very disappointing, I’m writing a strongly worded letter to the governor about false advertisements.”
She made him laugh and he had forgotten what that felt like, to really let go. Time slipped by and Jonah let the conversation meander until they fell into a companionable silence. The type only best friends can manage. Phone pressed against his ear, sky cloudless and impossible overhead. He stared up into the unending blue, a soft buzz of static the only thing keeping him tethered to Earth.
“Jonah.” Gracie’s voice on the other end of the line startled him into sitting up, into looking away from that blue, blue sky. “Where did you go?”
It calls me, he thinks but bites his tongue. “Gracie.” Her name is a prayer in his mouth, a lifeline he desperately sought. “How did you handle it? When Luna…”
“Flew away?” He could hear the tightness in her voice, could imagine her sitting up, tucking her dress beneath her knees as she pulled at the grass while gathering her thoughts. “I didn’t, really. I was angry at her. Angry for running like that, angry for beating me to the punch. I was growing wings, did you know? When it happened, I was growing wings and I knew what I wanted to do with them and I spent so long practicing letters. Because it’s rude to fly off like that and not at least leave a goodbye. I waited too long and Luna beat me to it.
“My wings stopped coming in for a while. They were still there, pressing against the edge of my skin, waiting for me to flex wrong and break free but I couldn’t let them. Not now, not in this world after Luna.”
Jonah swallowed. His throat made a dry clicking sound. “I didn’t know.”
A breath on the other end, Gracie finding her center. “I didn’t want you to. I didn’t want anyone to. I felt them coming on and would stare in the mirror; if I turned just right I could see them under my skin.”
“Is that why you moved?”
“No. Or…not entirely. Daddy’s job had an offer up here. He took it because of Luna. Everything is because of Luna now. I got help because of Luna, even if I didn’t want it in the beginning.”
“How did you tell your mom?”
Another pause and if Jonah closed his eyes he thought he could just about see the smile Gracie was trying to put on. “I didn’t really. There was one of those days where I was crying, you remember I used to do that a lot?”
He hummed, letting her know he was still listening.
“Right. We were coming home from school and I just started crying. Big fat tears rolling down my face and I was biting my tongue trying not to make a sound but she saw and she just… she sighed and said what is it? I told her I didn’t know. She slammed the brakes and pulled us over and shouted at me that I had to know, I was the only one who could know.” She laughed about it now but Jonah felt her hurt. “I tried to explain it, but how do you put it in words? The emptiness inside and the way it feels like nothing will ever fill it and it’ll just grow and eat you until there’s nothing left?”
Jonah let his eyes flicker up, just once, for a second to look at the sky again. “Stop looking Jonah. Your answers aren’t behind the clouds.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”
“Because I was scared. It’s one thing to feel all these things inside you but talking about it makes it real. You can’t take it back once it’s in someone else’s mind too.”
A silence. The wind shifted. Jonah did not look at the sky again although he wanted to so much it ached inside him like a physical thing. He did not touch the double row of scales growing behind his ear. “Hey, Jonah?” Gracie’s voice was tinny, far away. She probably had him on speaker phone so she could lay in the grass and not look at the sky either.
“Do you think you’re going to tell your mom?”
“I don’t know.”
“I hope you do. It would be terribly lonely down here on planet Earth without you.” Gracie changed the subject after that without being asked. Jonah didn’t think about brain beetles for the remainder of the conversation. They ended the call with promises to talk again, sooner rather than later.
“No six months between calls this time.” Gracie joked.
“You do know that phones work both ways right? You can always call me.”
It was strange. Once they hung up Jonah felt both lighter and heavier than he had in weeks. His phone was warm to the touch and he lay for a long minute, eyes closed with his phone pressed over his heart until it had cooled in the evening breeze.
The stars were out by the time he headed back in. The lure was stronger at night, with galaxies spinning dizzily overhead and the promise of somewhere, anywhere, away from here ringing out in the clear night air.Jonah sucked in a deep breath, opened the door, and called for his mom.
“We need to talk.”