Free Fiction Monday: Chameleon

The kids at school call Wilhelmina “Cry-Baby Witch.” Kinda true. At least about the witch part. But they don’t know that, and Willi still struggles to control her magic.

So, when she gets caught using her magic to help one of the animals in Mrs. Anderson’s room, Willi fears the worst. Because creepy Craig Maddson now knows Willi’s secret. She knows he plans to tell on her. But she has no idea how to stop him.

“Chameleon,” by World Fantasy Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here

 

Chameleon

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

Wilhelmina crept inside Mrs. Anderson’s room, and sat there, with the lights off. Outside the windows, snow fell in big white flakes, faster and faster, so fast that Willi couldn’t see the teacher’s parking lot just across the sidewalk. The chameleon paced in its little cage. The mama gerbil had her back to the cold, and the papa gerbil, in his own glass world, watched the snow as Willi did. The snake cage was open—the boa constrictor was still missing—and the mice were crowding their own cage in its absence. The rabbit sat on a table up front, nibbling on a carrot and staring at Willi with beady eyes.

Willi didn’t mind. She felt safe here, in the humidity, with the smell of too many furry bodies. Even with the boa constrictor on the loose, popping out of the ductwork, and scaring the principal as it had done the day before.

Everyone else was waiting out the storm in the auditorium. Willi hated the auditorium. She would rather wait here, with the animals.

The snow had started that morning, after gym. The principal made an announcement, saying it was too dangerous to drive. The radios had already announced that the parents should not try to pick up their kids. Everyone would spend the night at school, if they had to, and Mrs. Bates, the cook, would make them something extra special. Lucky she did at lunch, because the electricity went out just before math. The clock behind Willi’s head still read 1:15.

Willi wasn’t scared. She knew her mom would come anyway. A storm would never stop her mother.

The animals didn’t seem frightened either. They liked the quiet, just like Willi did. She was glad to get away from stinky old Craig Maddson, and weird Dougy Spencer. The kids hadn’t stopped picking on her since she had come to school two months ago, just after Thanksgiving. They made fun of her clothes, and when she went into the bathroom and zapped herself into new ones, the kids stopped laughing and no longer even looked at her. Sometimes they called her a witch, and she couldn’t even tell them to stop because that was what she was.

She brought her knees up against her chest. When she had told her mom about it all, her mom had said that Willi shouldn’t want to be like the other kids. Willi didn’t agree until a week later, when the teacher took them to the natural history museum, in the history of science building attached to the grade school. (Her mom had enrolled her in a university lab school, thinking that smart kids would be kinder than the dumb ones Willi had studied with in Kentucky.) The kids laughed and pointed at all the dead animals, stuffed and frozen in their glass cages. The bobcat had moth holes in its fur, and just beneath the surface, Willi could hear a faint whisper of memory, begging to go free. She wasn’t powerful enough to free the bobcat, so she sat in front of the cage and cried.

And had been called Cry-Baby Witch ever since.

Outside the wind howled, and a bit of cold seeped in through the windowpanes. The rabbit’s fur ruffled. Willi whispered a protect spell and blew it at all the animals. They looked up at her, as if in gratitude, and she blew them a kiss.

She wished she knew where the boa constrictor was. It had always been her favorite. She liked its long slimy length, the power in its straight body, the alien coldness in its black eyes. Maybe, if she used dust magic, she could find it.

She whipped the dust into little particles, and sent them searching, but the snake wasn’t in Mrs. Anderson’s room. Willi slipped out into the hall. Maybe the snake did travel the ductwork like the principal said, and she would find it in someone else’s classroom.

The hallway was dark, darker than she had ever seen it. The lockers stood like soldiers at the Air Force base where she had lived with her daddy just before he died and her mother decided to stay for good. The window displays beside each classroom’s door had lights glowing on the contents. The hearts Willi had painstakingly cut with scissors because her mom told her not to show her powers glowed redly. Something moved in the fifth grade’s display case, and as she walked by, she saw the boa constrictor, its body flaking and dry, wrapped around a Peek-a-Boo doll.

It hadn’t been eating school mice as Mrs. Anderson had said. It had gotten itself trapped. And it was dying.

Willi glanced up and down the hall. She didn’t see anyone. In the distance, she could hear singing coming from the auditorium. They had been singing all afternoon in the fake generator lights, away from the storm. Willi thought that everyone would be hoarse by now. She saw someone cross the hall and disappear into the boys’ room. She was as alone as she could be.

She ran back into Mrs. Anderson’s room and got two mice, begging their forgiveness. She wasn’t too fond of mice—they ate their babies, just like the papa gerbil did—and that made her mad, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to kill them. But, as her mom would say, creatures ate each other. That was the way of the world.

Willi hurried back into the hall with the mice trapped in her pockets. She sat on the floor and raised her fingers, making a small turning motion. The thin silver lock guarding the display case clicked and the door swung open. The snake nearly fell out. Willi flattened her hands like a bed, and let the air carry the snake to her. She eased the snake down and put the mice in front of it. She made an invisible barrier so that the mice couldn’t run away. The snake looked up at her, its cold cold eyes actually seeing her for the first time, and then it snapped a mouse between its oversized jaws.

Willi stood. She couldn’t watch this.

Craig Maddson stood behind her, his face white as the bunny’s fur. “You are a witch,” he whispered. “And I’m going to tell everybody that you stole the snake and you’re killing mice.”

“I did not!” she said. “It was dying!”

But he had already taken off running down the hall, his Nikes slapping against the tile floor. She couldn’t let him tell. She couldn’t. The kids hated her bad enough. But if the teachers thought she messed with the snake, she would never go into Mrs. Anderson’s room again.

Never see the rabbit again, never hold the chameleon and watch its personal magic. Never be safe.

Without thinking, she raised her hand and bid the air to tie Craig’s feet. He tripped and skidded along the tile, finally landing outside the auditorium. He sat up and flopped his legs like a fish. Then he started screaming.

The principal burst out of the auditorium door, his short rotund frame crouching over Craig. Willi put a hand over her mouth. She had made it worse.

The snake had swallowed the second mouse and was slithering against the wall, trying to hide. Willi glanced around. The principal would see her. Anywhere she went, he would see her, and she had already used her magic quota for the day. She was trapped.

She turned and ran down the hall, past the doors to the gym, past the music room and into the narrow hallway where the grad students had their tiny offices. All the doors were shut and locked. They must have gone home before the snow hit.

The end of the hallway smelled of paint and formaldehyde. Willi burst through the double doors leading to the Natural Sciences building. She spun around the corner, and found herself face to face with a stuffed bear. She stifled a scream. The bear was so old, its fur had no whisperings at all. She ran past it and all the other dead animals, until she found the hall of the dinosaurs.

Her teacher, Mr. Hayes, hadn’t taken them in there. He had pointed at the dinosaurs and laughed. “Those models,” he had said, “were made in the 1950s, before I was born. They’re out of date and wrong.” But they had looked great to her, tall majestic beasts, with green skin and eyes as cold as the snake’s.

She didn’t hear anyone behind her. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and her breathing was coming hard. She hurried into the dinosaur room, and snuck around the big green dinosaur in the middle. The dinosaur had a long neck and a tiny head that was staring at the door. She touched its flank. The dinosaur was made of plaster of Paris. It was cold and hard.

She sank on her knees and leaned against the dinosaur’s leg, waiting for the principal to find her.

 

***

 

She didn’t know how long she sat there, in the dust and the dry-smelling heat. No one had walked on this side of the dinosaur in a long time. Her tennis shoes had left patterned footprints on the floor. Her jeans were covered with a white and green powder. It took a moment before she realized that the dinosaur’s legs were peeling.

Willi touched it, and more dust dropped onto her hand. She couldn’t imagine being so old and out of date that no one even tended her. Poor dinosaur. She leaned her head on the plaster of Paris, and listened, but heard no whisperings, no hope, no feeling of being trapped like she had gotten from the bobcat.

The dinosaur wasn’t dead. It had never been alive.

Somehow that made her very sad. She brought her knees up to her chest and tucked her chin against them. Ice pelted the side of the building, sounding like rocks thrown against a concrete wall. No one had come after her yet. Maybe they hadn’t seen where she had gone. She was used to her mother, whom no one could ever hide from.

Willi got up and dusted off her jeans. She wandered to the back of the dinosaur room. Other dinosaurs stood against the wall. A rounded one, with a big head and an armor-plated back, had lost all its covering on one side, revealing a mesh frame. The pterodactyl (her favorite and the only kind she had heard of) was missing one wing. Maybe Mr. Hayes hadn’t brought them here because the dinosaurs were in such bad condition, not because they weren’t up to date.

Maybe she would stay here forever. The dinosaurs didn’t care who she was. They were different from all the dead animals, just like she was different from all the other children. Her mom said she had to blend in, learn how to get along with humans. But Willi didn’t want to blend in. She wanted to save a snake without Craig Maddson telling on her, and she wanted to talk to the rabbit without people thinking her crazy. She wanted to free what little life she had found in the bobcat, if she could only find a way.

Her mom made it look so easy. Everyone thought her mom was normal. They didn’t know that she made dinner by pulling out the groceries they had bought for appearance sake, snapping her fingers and setting out serving trays. They didn’t know that she changed her hair color without going to a beautician. They didn’t know that she didn’t work for a living because she had all the money she had earned on horse races since gambling became a craze in Atlantic City.

No one could put anything past her mom, but her mom could put stuff past them. That, her mother had said, was what Willi had to learn.

What Willi had failed this afternoon.

She sighed, and coughed as dust got into her lungs. No one would come for her. She would rot in this back room with all the non-dead dinosaurs. Half of her wanted to get found. Half of her wanted the principal to kick her out.

The other half wondered who would take care of the animals if he did.

She wandered back to her hiding spot and touched the side of the dinosaur. This time she did hear whisperings, but like nothing she had ever heard before. Voices. Voices were trapped inside the dinosaur.

…is too. They get really big and they stomp all over everything and eat people…

…I’m going to get on its back and it’ll take me away, like Danny and the Dinosaur

…If only I was as big as you. Then they wouldn’t hit me any more.…

The voices were small, light. Children’s voices.

…It is too real. You just can’t see it. It comes out at night and watches us while we sleep.…

…and it was really hot, and all they got to do was eat and sleep, and hunt…

…I don’t know why I like ‘em. I just think dinosaurs are cool…

Willi moved her hand away. The dinosaur’s head had turned just a little. It seemed to be smiling at her. What lived inside it were fantasies, beliefs, fears, and it held them dear. She leaned her head against its side.

“I’m sorry that you’re flaking,” she whispered. “If they let me come back tomorrow, I’ll have enough magic to fix you.”

The dinosaur’s smile grew, and the voices swirled around her, almost too fast to catch. It took a few minutes for her to realize that some of the voices she was hearing were coming from the hall.

She let go of the dinosaur. The children’s voices disappeared. Only two adult voices remained.

“…saw her in the middle of the hallway, feeding the snake. We don’t tolerate theft in this school, Mrs. Ramsey.” The principal’s nasal voice echoed. Willi ducked against the dinosaur’s leg.

“Of course she fed it.” The voice was her mother’s. The tone was exasperation at a stupid human being. “The snake was dying. It must have been a hard choice for her. My daughter loves animals. She had to sacrifice mice to keep the snake alive.”

“We don’t know that the snake was dying, any more than we know that your daughter ran this far. This area is forbidden to children—”

“Mr. Caldwell, I have just about had enough of your prattle,” her mother said. “I know my daughter’s mind. If she’s going to hide, she’s going to hide well. And what I said about the snake is pure logic. You said it’s been loose for a long time—a fact I find appalling—and I assume there are no mice or rats in this building, except for the ones in cages. Now, I don’t know how long a boa constrictor can go without a meal, but it stands to reason that the thing would not be in good health.”

They stopped outside the door. Willi saw their feet swirl the dust. Her mother was wearing her black cowboy boots with their four-inch heels. The principal had on his good leather shoes, the ones without the scuffs.

“I must be frank with you, Mrs. Ramsey. Ever since Willi came here, she has not fit in. She spooks the other children and she does strange things like she did this afternoon. I don’t know what she said to Craig Maddson, but he was so frightened that he couldn’t move his legs for the longest time—”

“Mr. Caldwell, my daughter is brilliant and talented and unusual. I thought an experimental school like this one would be a haven for her, but you’re like the other teachers in this country. You only care about making her normal. Well, she’s not normal and she never will be. Perhaps you should concentrate on making the children better individuals instead of better clones.” Her mother took a step into the room. “Willi?”

The yell was for show. Willi’s mother knew where Willi was, and Willi knew better than to stay hidden. She snuck out around the side of the dinosaur, wishing it could protect her. But it could only listen and absorb her hopes and fears.

Her mother’s hair frizzed in all directions, and her leather coat hadn’t a speck of snow on it. The principal looked rumpled in his black suit.

Her mother said. “Willi, are you all right?”

Willi’s hands were clenched in small fists. “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. The snake was just trapped, and I was trying to help it, and Craig Maddson is so mean!”

“It’s all right, honey. You’re not coming back here.” Her mother held out a leather-gloved hand. “Let’s go.”

“I must protest,” the principal said. “There’s a blizzard out there. You may have made it here safely, Mrs. Ramsey, but you’ll never make it home, not with the child.”

“Try me,” Willi’s mother said. They started down the hall, Willi’s hand tightly wrapped in her mother’s. “By the way, you might want to catch that snake. It’s stalking Willi’s favorite rabbit.”

“How—?”

“No!” Willi shouted. She broke free. “Stop it, Mom. You’ve got to stop it.” She ran down the hall, around the corners, past the bear, past the offices, past the rooms, until she reached Mrs. Anderson’s. The snake had made its way under the desks to the table in the front. The rabbit was washing its face, all unaware. Willi scooped it up and hugged it to her chest, burying her face in its warm, musky fur.

“It won’t get you,” she whispered. “It won’t.”

She whirled and climbed on the table, leaning against the windows, against the swirl of depthless white. The rabbit trembled in her arms.

Her mother and the principal appeared at the door. The principal saw the snake, turned and hurried down the hall. “Willi,” her mother said. “You’re being silly.”

“No, I’m not,” she said. “This rabbit’s just like me. Nobody likes it and nobody protects it.”

“You protect it,” her mother said as she came in the room, gingerly stepping over the snake. She stopped by the window and tapped the chameleon’s cage. “You would do a better job if you became like this little fellow. Blending into your environment, but never losing track of who you are.”

“That’s what you yelled at him about.”

“Mr. Caldwell?” Her mother smiled, making her entire face look no older than Willi’s. “No, honey. He wants all children to goose-step in place, to be the same creature. In the real world, snakes, rabbits and mice all share the same plot of ground, but they have to be careful of each other.” Her mother glanced around. “You’re right. This is a very safe room. No wonder you like it here.”

Willi leaned against the window. The glass was like ice against her back.

“Here, let’s put that snake back so your rabbit is safe.” Her mother clapped her fingers and the snake floated across the air. The lid on the snake cage came open, and the snake lowered into it, gently. Then the lid went back on.

Slowly Willi set the rabbit down. The rabbit scampered a few feet away, then huddled, as if it still wasn’t over its fright.

“Let’s go home, honey.”

“No,” Willi said. “They’ll wonder how we did it.”

“It’s all right. You’re not coming back.”

This would be the fourth school she left in the past year, and the only one with animals. Willi glanced at her rabbit, at the chameleon, at the snake. The dinosaur in the next room needed her help, and the animals needed her protection. She didn’t want to leave them, no matter how mean Craig Maddson was.

When the snake had run away, it had nearly died.

“No,” Willi said. “I want to stay.”

“I thought you didn’t like it here.”

“I like some things,” Willi said. She liked Mrs. Anderson and the animals. She even liked that back room, filled with dust and dinosaurs. She especially wanted to see the dinosaur again. “Maybe I been too much like the rabbit. Maybe it’s time to see what the chameleon can do.”

Her mother smiled and hugged her. “Fitting in isn’t what matters. Being true to yourself is. You’re not a rabbit, honey.”

She knew that. But she wasn’t a chameleon either. She was a big green dinosaur, the kind that didn’t exist by human standards, made of strange materials, and filled with fantasies, beliefs and fears.

She put her arm around her mother, and they headed to the auditorium. They would stay. They would suffer through the singing and the cold food, and maybe Willi wouldn’t fit in, maybe she wouldn’t be normal, but maybe for a short time, in the dark, in the storm, the other kids would think she was one of them.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Dinosaur Fantastic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Daw Books, 1993.
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © outsiderzone | Depositphotos

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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