Just the Way It Is Just Before It Changes

by Michael Horton

“What scares you most?” She is hugging her knees with both arms, her head slung back so far it looks like it should hurt.

After thinking and looking at her for any hint, he says, “Dying.”

“No,” she says and waves one arm like she is erasing his answer. “Too serious.” She sits up straight. “We’re twelve for-god-sakes (he just barely, she two months older.) I mean like a huge freaking spider or getting stuck in quicksand. Or being jumped on by a humongous black dog with eyes you can’t see behind all the shaggy hair.” 

He looks at her, shakes his head.

 “OK.” He takes a minute. “Alright. Old ladies with really red lipstick—and you’re talking about Justin’s Newfie. He’s not scary. He’s the best. Except for the slobber.”

“Yes!” She spins towards him. “That’s what’s scary. I dreamed Justin’s dog pinned me down and was hanging over me and I couldn’t see anything but his big head.” She swings her arms up like she’s holding a giant beach ball. “His paws were on my shoulders. He weighed a ton. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see his eyes, only his bangs–and these long strings of slobber sliding toward my face.” She jerks and shimmies her shoulders, shaking her head, making her reddish orange hair fan wide and her freckles blur. “Ugh!”

“You’re strange,” he says; it’s something they agree on.

They are sitting in her backyard. He can’t see his for the fence. It is mild enough to be summer, but leaves dot the lawn. A bumblebee discovers the pot of mums on the deck.

“You’re the one afraid of old ladies.”

“Real old ones with bright red lipstick stuck to their teeth. They wear black scarves and big sunglasses—and they’re Eaters.” He watches her face to see if this pleases her.


“They’re in the book I’m reading,” he says. “They visit children at night in their beds and eat their souls. Except not really their souls—their youngness.” He raises his eyebrows as high as he can. “While they are stealing it they smile and make clucking sounds and pat your forehead like your grandmother, only it’s like being patted with chopsticks and it drives you crazy. They say, good boy or good girl over and over again.”

“Jeez.” She nods and smiles. He relaxes back on his arms satisfied. 

“They sound like my aunt,” she says. 

Now he smiles, shakes his head. “You have an evil aunt?”

“She’s old. Actually, she must be my great aunt. Her lipstick is just regular red, but she puts rouge on. Overcompensating,” she emphasizes and he turns to look at her, “—for being old.” She nods then pauses, thinking. “She looks kind of like a clown. Clowns are scary,” she says and looks at him until he nods. “She’s nice, though. Just a little crazy, with bad makeup.”

He looks at her seriously, like she is a quiz question. “Do you think anybody we know talks like this?”

“Maybe,” she says and adds, “if they’re best-friends-for-life.” She grins at him then sits cross-legged, leaning back on her arms, making her shoulders push up. They look like doorknobs. Then she drops her arms, lies back flat and points the toes of her running shoes. He watches her legs rise straight over her head in slow motion, then continue arching backwards until her toes touch the grass behind her head.        

“Can you do this?” Her voice is squeezed.


She swings her legs over and sits cross-legged again with her hands on her knees.

“Try it,” she says. “It increases your flexibility.”

“I’m flexible enough.”

She’s skinny. He’s not. He stretches out on his side and props his head on his hand, looking at her. They’ve lived next door to each other since preschool. They have been thrown together so long they could be siblings except they’re not. They probably wouldn’t have become friends otherwise but they are. When his arm goes all needle-y, he sits up, but not cross-legged. He sticks his legs out straight and waggles his feet back and forth while both of them watch.

 “If you could look like anybody,” she says, “who would you look like?” She studies his face intently like she hasn’t seen it a million times and doesn’t know it as well as she knows her own.

He thinks about it but no new face comes to him. “I don’t know. Who do you wish I looked like?”

She frowns. Her scrutiny starts to make the skin of his face feel as prickly as his arm. His ears grow warm. Then her forehead smooths out. “You,” she says. “I want you to look just like you.” The light in her eyes shifts and her lips lift higher on one side.

“The same,” he says, relieved. “I want you to look just like you forever.”

She makes a loud, wet noise through her lips and dips her head down, staring at her lap, her hair curtaining around her face. “If I had to look like this forever, I’d die. I’d die right now.”

“Not fair,” he says automatically. “We’re twelve.”

 A moment passes before she leans back on her arms again and looks up, her hair swings back. In the late afternoon sky, clouds like lengths of gauze hang like they have been painted in-place on. There is just a hint of the smell of leaves.

“We won’t though,” she says.


“Stay the same.” She makes a face and frowns at the sky. “You won’t. I won’t either,” she says and looks at him with an expression he doesn’t recognize.

“We’ll get pimples—more pimples—and armpit hair; your chest will get hairy. You’ll grow taller than me.” She is only barely taller than him now. “Your voice will change,” she says. “You’ll probably act stupid.” He thinks it sounds like an accusation.

“It won’t be your fault,” she says to make up for it.

She scrunches her shoulders higher for a minute, then slouches back down.

“I’ll look different too,” she says. “I just can’t believe it’s taking so long.”

“Why do you want to look different?” A surprise breeze chills the back of his neck. He tenses his own shoulders, annoyed. The expression of pity she turns on him doesn’t help.

“Because,” she says, “I want to look like an actual girl—tall, sexy, with high cheekbones.” She tilts her head, juts out her chin, and sucks in her cheeks. “With perfect eyebrows.” She arches her brows at him. They are so light they look like shadows. “And lips that are more than just lines on my face.” She tucks her lips and makes them disappear.

“I want a body,” she says, looking away, “like Cindy Smather’s, that boys go cross-eyed looking at.”

He shifts his position, uncomfortable. Cindy is in 8thgrade, older than they are by two years. He doesn’t think of her as somebody like them. When he stares at her, it is an experiment that makes him feel blurry, closed-in—angry maybe.

“I hate Cindy,” he says. “I’d hate you if you looked like Cindy.” He is surprised by what he says. As surprised as she is.

He wasn’t, but now he is angry. He likes exactly how she looks right now. How he looks doesn’t matter either, so long as it doesn’t matter to her. His chin juts out and he glares at her, daring her to argue.

She stares at him long enough for him to hear his heartbeat in his ears, but she doesn’t say anything. She looks at him like somebody who has finished the race, looking back. She appears different than she did only a moment ago. Her lips (not thin as lines, regular lips to him) quirk up and her eyes get sharper and brighter. She grins at him, then tilts her head so her hair falls back down like she shuts a door and he can’t see her. A minute later she says, “What’s the grossest thing you can think of?”

He lets his breath out. He has been holding it and he lets it out. Now he breathes in. He breathes in a breath like he’d been swimming underwater for a long time. He just keeps breathing in. Like he is breathing in everything around him, just the way it is, just before it changes.

Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story