“Sucker” by Sky White
A few hours before J Xu turns into an insect, she stands in her parents’ bedroom on the muddy brown carpet that so artfully camouflages cat vomit and examines herself in their full-length mirror. It’s the back-to-school dance at Central High, and J’s wearing a spaghetti strap black dress that hits her mid-thigh, black tights to hide the mosquito bites on her legs, and black ballet flats.
“You’re very covered up,” her mom says from the bed. “Don’t hide your battle scars. It’s not your fault your blood is too sweet.”
J was five when she got her first mosquito bite camping in the flat Illinois woods thirty minutes outside of Champaign. It was supposed to be a couples’ trip, but J cried until they gave in, packed a duffle full of Cheez-Its and Gatorade, and strapped her in the minivan.
“Happy now?” her mother asked and little J in the backseat, her eyes still raw from crying, gave a rare smile. Yes, happy.
That night J slept in her parents’ tent with a stuffed Dalmatian tucked tightly under her arm. When J woke in the middle of the night, everything was black. The type of black where your brain imagines white lines just to give you something to focus on so you don’t go crazy. J sat up in her sleeping bag and felt her face. Nose, ears, lips were in their proper places, but her eyes were foreign. Two ping-pong sized lumps had replaced them.
She woke screaming and clawing at her mosquito-bitten eyes. Her dad pinned her arms to her side and plugged her nose to keep her from scratching herself blind.
Now she watches a new episode of Jeopardy! on the forty-inch TV mounted to the wall directly opposite her parents’ headboard. J’s dad sits on his falling-apart blue pleather chair, his eyes glued to Alex Trebek who’s walking across the stage to interview the contestants. He starts with Gretchen, a retired elementary school teacher from Wichita, Kansas, and asks her what the secret ingredient in her famous apple cinnamon muffins is.
“Love,” Gretchen replies with a sweet smile. Both J’s parents scoff.
“Don’t listen to Mom. It doesn’t matter what you look like,” her dad says, turning to J finally. “Just remember that small talk is a skill. Like accounting or botany.”
J might believe this if it were coming from someone else but her parents are losers like her—they are friends with no one but each other. They met the first day of orientation at University of Illinois when they both found the least occupied table in the dining hall, sat down, and took out books to read: her mom, Anna Karenina; her dad, a differential equations textbook. They married at twenty-three, got jobs in the college town after graduation, had a kid, and never left.
“What is The Addams Family?” J’s dad yells at the TV screen so loudly their fat grey cat jumps down from the open window. J scratches at the bites under her tights, leaves just as Double Jeopardy! starts.
At the dance, J stands in the shadows of the bleachers and watches the disco ball bounce white and blue light against the concrete with the urgency of an ambulance. In the middle of the gym floor, right below the maroon and white streamers that zig-zag through the rafters, is Mike Wilson. He’s dancing alone, his fingers fluorescent red with the dust of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Mike lives on the same street as her, the one lined with black walnuts and bur oaks that change color without warning. A week before the dance, J salvaged Mike’s empty chocolate milk carton from the trash and placed it in her locker next to his forgotten Algebra homework. He’d only gotten six out of ten questions right.
He’s not the smartest boy in her class but J has studied his movements, the easy way he walks through the halls like a long-distance swimmer cutting through water. Mike doesn’t think too much. He knows when to hold the door open for someone and when to let go because the person is too far away and holding the door open would force them to run and catch it. Mike knows how to answer innocuous questions like, “What’s up?” and how to eat pizza and talk at the same time. When J looks at Mike, she sees an oasis. Not the desert kind, but the overpasses that stud I-74, the kind her dad drives by on the way to visit her grandparents in Chicago. Once she had to pee so bad that when the sign appeared on the horizon advertising restrooms and a Subway where every table was covered in sandwich crumbs, she cried. This must be what love feels like.
Over the summer, J got rid of the blunt-cut bangs that covered her face, started to pluck her eyebrows, and binge-watched Friends DVDs in the basement. She feels as prepared as she’ll ever be, certain that this is the best version of her current self.
By the end of the first song, most of the high schoolers are coupled up, with the girls cork-screwing their hips into the boys’ crotches. Mrs. Kay, the English teacher who can’t be older than twenty-five, stands on the perimeter looking horrified. A slow song comes on, some 80s ballad that J doesn’t recognize, and the girls either turn to face their dance partners or go outside to take sips from the flasks they’ve hidden under their dresses. Mike Wilson floats in the middle of the room.
J pushes off the bleachers and heads for him.
“You are hot stuff,” she whispers to herself.
When she reaches the first line of dancers, the edge of the gym floor, J’s hip starts buzzing. Ten feet from Mike, her mouth goes dry. Suddenly she’s thirsty. Thirstier than she’s ever been. This isn’t over, J promises Mike’s back, before she turns away and heads to the cafeteria.
In the kitchen area behind the blue plastic lunch tables, a few bored parents hand out packets of Skittles to a group of freshmen boys wearing hot pink button-ups and their dads’ ties. J’s third in line for the water fountain behind two senior boys who J has only heard of, never spoken to.
“She Snapchatted me under a fake number. Tricked me into telling her that I’d bang Jackie if I had the chance. How fucked up is that?” says Harper, the shorter one, who was very publicly dumped by Perrie Jacobs last week during AP Government.
“Fucked. You can’t trust anyone,” says Taylor, the taller one.
Harper bends down and gulps water from the fountain. Taylor looks back at J who’s pretending not to listen. She stares at a cafeteria sign to her left depicting the right and wrong ways for a person to wash their hands.
“Hey,” Taylor says to J. He moves his chewing gum to the left side of his mouth before smiling at her. “You’re Mr. Xu’s daughter right?”
Her dad is a computer engineer for the college, but he volunteers at Central High and occasionally pops up in the computer lab, never leaving before he’s talked to at least three kids.
J nods but adds, “I might have been adopted.”
“No shit?” says Taylor and J shrugs.
“I’m heading back out there,” Harper says, wiping water from his lips with the back of his hand.
“Catch you later, man,” Taylor says.
J doesn’t see Harper’s raised eyebrows because she’s too busy trying to avoid Taylor’s stare. Her eyes are trained on the white linoleum tiles. She knows something is happening, but she doesn’t know what.
“Hey,” Taylor says, forcing J to look up at him. “Come to the girl’s locker room with me for a second. I want to show you something.”
It would be easy for J to say no. Make up some excuse about an imagined friend who’s waiting for her in the gymnasium. A clingy girl named Marlene who hates oldies and flashing lights and gets upset when she doesn’t know exactly where J is. But by the time J’s thoroughly conceived of Marlene’s neurotic nature, assigned her three-dimensional motivations and childhood traumas, the silence has gone on for too long. Taylor taps one of his black dress shoes on the floor. Nothing she says now will be believable. And so she abandons the water fountain—how thirsty she is!—and follows Taylor out of the cafeteria.
The fluorescent lights in the girl’s locker room hum when Taylor flicks the switch. Through the closed double doors, TLC’s “Waterfalls” plays. The locker room looks different emptied of girls’ bodies, heart-patterned underpants, drawstring gym shorts with names written in sharpie on the hem.
“My name’s J.”
They’re standing between the lockers and the low bench where girls sit when they change, the skinny ones lingering to show off their Victoria’s Secret bras and flat stomachs. J catches her reflection in the mirror, her face is shiny with sweat. The blue eyeshadow from her mother has long since worn off.
“I know. You held the door for me once after lunch,” Taylor says.
“That wasn’t me.”
Taylor moves closer to J when she speaks. Part of her thinks Taylor might be in possession of a magnet that’s activated by her voice and if she just stops talking, he’ll stop moving. She closes her lips tight to test her hypothesis and still he continues inching towards her.
“I like your shirt. I thought it was sky blue, but really it’s more of an aqua? Where did you get it?” J asks. Taylor stops for a moment.
“Target,” he says. “In the clearance section, I think.”
“What did you want to show me?” asks J.
J’s not an idiot. She’s read enough stories to know what happens to girls who get lured into back rooms. And yet, still, she doesn’t believe it’s happening. Who would want to corner her?
Taylor moves in front of J, places his hands on the lockers directly behind her, each palm a few inches from either side of her head.
“Have you ever been kissed?”
J’s never even held a boy’s hand before. As a kid, she used to rub the plastic bodies of her Barbies together and hump her pillow until she screamed, but she grew out of it. The ridged metal slots of the lockers push into J’s lower back. She can’t hold Taylor’s stare any longer and her gaze moves to his mouth.
“You have really pointy teeth,” she says.
“You’re making me feel like the big bad wolf.” He smiles wider.
The inside of J’s eyelids burn. She doesn’t want her first kiss to be with an unknown element. Mike’s still out there on the dance floor; someone might have found him by now. Maybe shy Cassie finally worked up the nerve to ask him to dance; she could be resting her head on his shoulder, smelling whatever brand of laundry detergent his mom uses.
It’s time to leave—everything inside of her is trying to get out, but she can’t move. In the laboratory of her mind, the Bunsen burner has been left on and the room is burning down, but she, the scientist, has already washed her hands and left the building. She’s outside observing the flames.
Taylor’s breath is damp on her cheek. In the unforgiving light, J stares at his spiky blonde nose hairs, the black dots at the center of his pores.
“Um. You’re drooling,” says Taylor.
Taylor’s face recoils in disgust, his nose scrunches up, and he instinctively takes a step backwards. He moves in and out of J’s focus. What J sees is the glint of light off the metal handle on the locker. The grain of dirt between the white grout of the tile. Her ears are full of the buzzing of fluorescent bulbs.
What Taylor sees is a magic trick: the girl in front of him turned into a monster in an instant. Her face no longer a face, but giant black eyes made up of hundreds of lenses. Long flesh-colored legs sprout from her black dress. Two translucent wings brush against the lockers. The mouth he’d come so close to kissing is replaced with a series of needles covered in spiky black hair.
Taylor’s dress shoes squeak on the tile as he turns to run. He trips on the bench behind him, falls to his hands and knees, and begins to crawl. He doesn’t look back—her alien body and twitching antenna is imprinted in his mind. What did he do wrong, anyway? He’d never kissed an Asian girl before, he wanted to know if they tasted different.
Now he swallows his gum, chokes on spearmint, as insect legs the size of cornstalks pin his arms. On the back of his neck, he feels a prick and then nothing at all.
When J comes back into her body, Taylor’s unconscious, crumpled next to a garbage can full of used tampons and pads that J can smell from across the room.
When the locker room door opens and Mike walks in, J’s running her tongue over her teeth that have fit back into her mouth like Lego pieces. She sees the heat of his body pulsing, alive.
“Hi,” Mike says.
His face is so pale and bland, she wants to cry. She wishes him away from this scene, prays to every celestial being she can think of. She visualizes Mike turning around and leaving, but Taylor’s body is too close to where Mike stands, impossible for him to ignore.
“You’re not supposed to be in the girl’s locker room,” J says.
She winces at how she sounds, a goody two-shoes, teacher’s pet. Is she in shock? She looks down at her human hands and finds them unnervingly steady.
“I heard a noise on my way to the cafeteria.”
Mike’s voice hasn’t dropped yet and the words come out pure as wind chimes. His hair’s sweaty like when he plays basketball on the school courts opposite the big buckeye tree.
“That’s Taylor Schmidt,” Mike says. “He gave me the chickenpox in the second grade.”
J doesn’t know where Mike is going with this. He crouches down to examine the body like he’s on one of those medical dramas. At this point, his character might discover a strange new symptom or call a code and perform an emergency tracheotomy.
“He’s breathing,” Mike says.
Taylor’s head lolls to one side and Mike brushes the hair out of his eyes.
J doesn’t answer. Her dress is ripped at the shoulders where her wings were. Her skin feels paper-thin. She should’ve stayed home. Her dad’s probably dozing off in his recliner right now, an audiobook playing, a story unfolding that only his unconscious can hear. Her dad loves mysteries.
“I don’t know,” J says.
Mike looks from J to Taylor to J again. He has interacted with J only a handful of times when he asks for help on math homework, each time promising it will be the last time he does it. It’s humiliating, after all, and her quietness makes it worse. As Taylor groans, J moves towards Mike slowly, like she’s walking underwater.
“I’m going to go get help,” he says.
She sees his body tense to run—back to the flashing lights and sugary punch, away from J and her ripped dress—but he doesn’t move. J knows what it feels like to be a mouse in a glue trap. She likes this better, the movement of predator rather than the stillness of prey. She knows she can’t let Mike go. When J reaches him, she interlocks his fingers behind his neck. She kisses him, and he tastes like dried skin and chocolate.