Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
I wait until 6:05 p.m. to make sure I’m late enough to further annoy Dr. Christiansen, and then I take off for the party. My new haircut is surprisingly easy to style. I’ve got a silver headband in it, and I’m wearing makeup—bright pink lipstick and a smidge of eyeliner. Black slippers on my feet. My dress is still damp, but I don’t even care. I’m actually excited.
The main buildings of the compound circle the planetarium/dining hall. Tonight, three limousines are lined up outside while several photographers snap pictures of the gathering guests. I freeze at the edge of the forest. There’s no way I’m flying through that crowd. Best to go through the back door.
I find an open window into the kitchen. The chef and her staff are milling around like angry bees, setting up dishes, chopping ingredients, and generally getting into each other’s way. They don’t even see me as I cross the ceiling and slip into the dining hall.
The hall is almost unrecognizable. The wood plank walls are draped with white, and hundreds of candles hang from the ceiling, along with white streamers and gold hearts. White and gold cloths cover all of the tables. The planetarium dome is all lit up with stars and planets.
It’s beautiful. It’s also nothing close to what I would have picked myself. But tonight is not really about me, is it?
I take a deep breath to equalize my rising frustration levels as the front doors open and guests begin to mill into the room. A confused-looking reporter and cameraman step inside and search along the walls. They must be looking for me. Too bad for them. I wait until they turn away, and then I fly up into the dark ceiling. There’s a lip around the edge of the planetarium’s dome and that’s where I intend to hang out until I decide how to make my entrance. I get up there without being spotted, then sit cross-legged, with my arms and chin resting on the smooth wood. It’s a good vantage point. I can see everything from up here.
I spot some of my parents. The last time I saw them I was ten years old. They came to see “how I’d turned out.” I guess they’re not so much my parents as they are my biological donors, but I still like to think of them as my folks. It makes me feel a little more normal, as if I’m a kid whose parents got divorced and remarried several times and now they have this big, weird family. I’ve even separated them into “real” parents and “step” parents.
Norbert Eisler is my “real dad.” I picked him mostly because his last name is the best. “Lina Eisler” has a nice ring to it. I’m told I got half of my looks, including my hair, from him. He’s a famous Germanic composer. I would never listen to any of his music for fun, but he’s got great blond hair (or did before he lost it all) and he’s talented. I guess.
I picked Natalia Chislova to be my “real mom.” She’s a Russian ballerina, and she had a miniature cross necklace made especially for me that I wear it all the time. She writes me letters now and then, but my Russian isn’t so good. When we met, she actually spoke to me like I was a human, a real person. The others treated me like a science experiment. I suppose I am both of those things.
There, by the lemonade fountain, is “step-mom” Corinne Albertson. She won a Nobel Prize for something math-related and boring. Well, boring to me anyway. Next to her is another “step”—Jimema Lopez, the daughter of the first female president of the South American Republic.
I scan the room for my favorite “step,” Philip Ford, and find him hanging out by the door to the men’s room. He has the world’s highest IQ and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. I caught him picking his nose around the corner during the speeches at my tenth birthday. I nearly flew right into his face, so I got a nice close-up of his clandestine activities. He was horrified, but at the time, I thought it was pretty cool I’d busted an adult for doing something gross. Four of the “steps” are already seated at the head table and ignoring each other. They’re all from the United European Republic, but I can’t remember all of their names. They were probably famous sixteen years ago but have since fallen into obscurity. One’s an Italian chef, another is a Greek Olympian, and Lord Anthony is the descendant of three separate defunct European thrones. Then there’s Hassad Jabir, who solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis the year before I was created. Unfortunately it unsolved itself shortly after that.
I don’t see Dr. Lee anywhere. He’s an entomologist from China. We don’t really get along because I hate insects with a passion. I was terrified of them as a kid. Most children are afraid of monsters or lions or something. Those never frightened me as much because all I had to do was fly away from them. But you can’t fly away from a bee—those darn things chase you.
It was Dr. Lee who created the Azure Megaloprepus Caerulatus Damselfly, the largest, most colorful damselfly in existence. He messed with its genetics so its wings have the blue coloring. Then he combined the resulting DNA with everybody else’s to create me: the first successfully engineered six-inch human with a twelve-inch wingspan. He picked the damselfly instead of the dragonfly because the damselfly folds its wings behind its back when it’s not using them. It makes it a lot easier to walk through the doors in my house.
Dr. Christiansen comes in through the side door wearing her pinched smile. Her eyes scour every inch of the place, but she still doesn’t see me. She snaps her fingers at Jane, who leans in like an obedient dog to receive her instructions before scampering away. I half-expect her to crawl on the floor and look under all of the tablecloths, but she slips out the side door that leads into the hall.
She’s probably going to my house. If she tramples my garden again, I will personally… Well, I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’ll think of something.
The flutter of small wings catches my eye, and I spot two of the Toms. They sit down at the tiny table on the center platform. I can’t make out any of their features other than their hair—pitch black and blond—but I’m suddenly curious. I lean forward to get a better look.
Light pierces through my retinas and blinds me. I shield my eyes, furiously blinking. I’ve been spotted. Literally.
The room breaks out in scattered applause. As my eyes adjust, I squint out into the audience. Dr. Christiansen’s got her arms tightly folded across her chest, and her nostrils are flaring like an angry bull’s at the sight of my hair and dress. Score one for me.
Jane’s voice echoes across the dome. “And…here’s Lina!” I guess she didn’t head to my house after all. There’s another smattering of polite clapping. A string quartet begins to play in the corner, and Jane starts singing “Happy Birthday” completely off-key. The room joins in gradually. I think it’s safe to say we don’t have any vocal superstars here tonight.
The song tapers off as Jane’s microphone picks up some reverb, screeching everyone into silence. A dozen camera flashes go off, blinding me yet again.
Dr. Christiansen’s voice replaces Jane’s. “Lina, please come down and blow out your candles.”
The guests remain quiet. You could hear a pin drop.
I hesitate, but I can’t resist her without looking petty. She wins this round. I descend onto the cake—a three-tiered wedding cake with a platform on top. I tuck my dress in around me and blow out each candle in turn. I’m so winded by the time I’m done that I can only stand there, dazed and seeing stars, as everyone claps.
Now Dr. Christiansen stands beside the cake wearing her constipated smile. In a painfully high voice she says, “And now there are some young men I would like you to meet!” She gestures toward the center platform where all of the Toms are standing in a line. I guess that’s my cue.
With a sigh, I fly over. The photogs follow after me, snapping pictures all the way. I’m going to have to meet them one by one while everyone watches. I come closer and their faces grow clearer. They all seem generically handsome. It’s so strange to have six guys near me who are the same size as I am. I’ve talked to people online with my scales adjusted to theirs, but these are flesh-and-blood young men and there’s really no comparison. Their features look sharper, and the entire effect is more immediate. I’m me, in the real world, in my own body, about to talk to six guys who don’t tower over me. It’s
I land right in front of the first one. He reminds me of a piece of overstretched taffy. When I shake his hand, he grips mine sincerely. His eyes are earnest, serious, and nothing like Jack’s. Tom2 has strawberry-blond hair, and he smiles so hard I think his face will break. Next. Toms3, 4, and 5 are forgettable and go by in a blur. However, when I get to Tom6, I’m completely startled by his vivid blue eyes. His hair is completely black and his features suggest his DNA is primarily Asian, but his eyes… Then I realize I’m not taken aback so much by their color, but the intensity that reminds me of Jack. Except Jack is not as serious. Jack would have me laughing by now.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” he says as he lifts my hand to kiss it.
He turns his eyes to my hand, breaking the spell. I give my head a little shake to clear the fog and then I focus on his jet black hair. It’s only hair. He’s just a guy. He’s not Jack. Still, I’m a little unnerved by my reaction. Maybe I should just avoid staring into his eyes for the rest of the evening.
The Toms turn to their seats, and I’m about to follow suit when I spot George hovering nearby. He’s got a guilty expression on his face which can mean only one thing: a new computer. The rest of the room has gone back to their conversations, so I shouldn’t draw too much attention to myself if I go and talk to him now.
“One moment, guys. I’ll be right back.” I fly over to George and hover right in front of his face.
“You’re quick,” I say.
He shrugs sheepishly. “Happy birthday.”
“You’re a peach, George. Thank you!”
“Shhhhh.” He ducks his head, sticks his finger into the black olive in his drink and then lifts the empty glass. “Time for more.”
“Enjoy.” I return to the table and suppress a groan when I see the Toms are all watching me eagerly, waiting for me to come and sit with them. There’s only one seat open and it’s at the head of the table. When is this party over? When do they all go home?
As I approach the table, they all stand up, and two of them reach out at the same time to pull out my chair for me. I bite my lip as a wave of guilt sweeps over me. This isn’t their fault. It’s not their fault that they’re not Jack, that I’m the only girl their size, or that Dr. Christiansen has put us all into this room together.
I take a deep breath. I can be polite and friendly and charming for one evening. I’m pretty sure that’s all I have in me right now. So I put on my game face and take a seat.
“Thanks for coming,” I offer.
“I bet we had as much of a choice as you did,” Tom4 says without looking up. Well, at least he’s honest.
Tom1, Overstretched Taffy Boy, clears his throat. “Shut up, Shrike.”
“Shrike?” I ask.
“Only the staff call us by our numbers,” Tom2 says cheerfully. “We’ve come up with names for each other.”
“That makes sense. What are they?”
“We picked the names of birds, and they’ve gotten shortened down over the years. Let’s see if you can guess what they stand for.” Tom2’s smile nearly cracks his face in two again.
Tom5 runs a hand through his fiery red hair and rubs his eyes. “Are we really going to do this?”
I ignore him and nod at Tom2. ”Okay, you start.”
“My nickname is Row.”
I squeeze my lips together while I think. “Short for Sparrow?”
I can’t help but smile at his enthusiasm. I turn to Tom1. “How about you?”
He unwraps himself from his dinner plate. “Sorry, but it’s Crane. I don’t have a nickname other than that.”
“Oh, well, at least it suits you.”
He stops chewing and gives me a sideways glance.
“I mean, you’re really tall. And sorta thin?”
Oh my gosh, Lina, stop talking now!
“I’m called Blue.” The deep voice snaps my head around. The blue eyes are staring through my skull again, but this time I manage to grab hold of my composure as it tries to flee the room.
“Hmm… Not Bluebird. That doesn’t quite fit. Bluejay?”
He nods but says nothing. Man of few words, that one.
“Well, you’ve got him pegged already!” Row says. “Very perceptive!”
I’m beginning to wonder if Row should be renamed Mark. Short for Exclamation Mark.
Shrike tosses his napkin onto the table and leans back in his chair. “My turn.”
“I don’t think I’m familiar with—”
“Tiger Shrike,” he interrupts. “It’s a small bird of prey. Eats butterflies.”
I raise an eyebrow. I suppose there has to be one bad apple in every group. Shrike would be attractive if his default facial expression wasn’t a scowl. He’s got medium brown hair, and he’s smaller than the others. Maybe he has something to prove.
“Charmed,” I say.
“Your turn.” Row elbows Tom6, a hulking boy-man with midnight skin.
“You can call me Al,” he says after swallowing his food. He would be a lot of fun to sculpt with his incredible inky skin and toned muscles.
“Al is for…Albatross? Let me guess—you fly the fastest.”
Shrike snorts. “Nah, just the longest. He floats like a feather. Perry’s the fastest.”
“And that must be you?” I turn to Tom5. He’s the one with the bright red hair.
“Short for Peregrine. Peregrine Falcon.”
“Does that mean you’re twice as fast as the rest of us?”
He winks at me. It is not a friendly wink. “Sure.”
Row leans forward, breaking the unpleasant connection between myself and Perry. “I have to say that I love your hair. I—we—were so worried you wouldn’t be, you know, normal. It’s very refreshing. Says a lot about you.” He takes a breath. “I’m sorry I’m so talkative. I’m not normally this talkative. I guess I’m nervous!”
He blurts out an awkward laugh, and I can’t help but join him. They’re all watching me, and every single one except for Row resembles a rapidly deflating balloon. Row made me laugh, and they didn’t. Their disappointment seeps into my own heart. I have to say or do something funny. I need to turn this ship around, and I need to do it fast.