I collapse onto my seat on the bus, already aching to get home. A sheen of oil lies heavily on my face – the curse of teenage-hood. My hair hangs limply over my forehead, greasy tendrils clinging to my skin. I lathered it up with shampoo only yesterday, but already it has degenerated into this. A boy claims the seat next to me, and I half-wince, half-smile in his direction, quickly turning back to the window. I don’t feel fit to be seen. All I want is to crawl into the shower and let the scalding water wash away the exhaustion, the boredom, the monotony that is my life.
Stop being such a downer, I scold myself. I know I have a good life – a school, a home, a loving family… But I can’t help but yearn for the wonder promised to me by the storybooks and movies of my childhood. Where are my magical quests? My mythical pets? My portals in wardrobes and enchanted weapons?
The scenery that goes by provides nothing for my imagination: wires tangled around telephone poles rather than vines entwined about ancient tree trunks; paint flaking off tattered houses instead of stones crumbling from Medieval ruins; smoke-belching cars in the place of fire-breathing dragons… Worst of all, I don’t feel like the hero of my own story. I’m a side-character, if not just a prop in the background. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life or where I’m going…
Hold on, where am I going? I realise that the bus isn’t taking its usual route. I look around to see if any of the other passengers seem confused. I manage to catch a girl’s eye. She smiles at me over the edge of her magazine, and her teeth—I jerk backwards. I could have sworn that her canines were unnaturally long and pointed. I look at the boy beside me – did he see it too? But his face is serene, and… and almost wreathed in glittering light. I blink hard, trying to clear the stars from my sight, but they won’t budge. For a moment, I almost dream the shape of wings fluttering behind him.
Am I hallucinating? I think back to all the food I’ve eaten recently. Did that cheese sandwich give me food poisoning? Even blue cheese wasn’t supposed to be that mouldy…
I realise how heavily I’m breathing when a man leans forward from the seat behind me, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You OK, kid?”
I begin to stammer out an affirmative when I notice his nails. Yellowed. Claw-like. His face is scruffy and almost wolfish. Words abandon my mouth and I’m left gaping, my jaw moving soundlessly up and down.
The girl from earlier chuckles, nearer now. “Don’t worry kid, Ace may look feral, but he doesn’t bite.” She traces her sharp teeth with her tongue. “Not like me, anyway.”
The lupine man snorts, “Oh give it a rest, Val. The poor thing will actually believe you.”
Val simply winks in response, tossing a lock of hair over one shoulder.
I continue to frantically search the faces of the other passengers. Each time I find one which could be human, I notice a shift of scales beneath skin, the arch of an ear or the red of an eye. And every one of those eyes is fixed on me.
Finally, I whisper, “I think I’m on the wrong bus.”
Laughter fills the bus, not taunting, but gentle and understanding, as if they know how I feel.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have gotten on the bus if you weren’t one of us,” answers the angelic boy, his voice lilting and sweet.
“Yeah,” chimes in a miniscule man with blazing red hair and green clothes from head to toe, “and we’re all here to find out what type you’ll be. There’s a representative from every race here for ya.” He beams, as if that clears everything up for me.
I’m about to ask more when the bus lurches to a stop and Val leads me out, the others following behind us.
We’re in a forest. Leaf litter crunches beneath my leather school shoes. A meandering zephyr ruffles my too-heavy blazer, but the weight of it fades away as the peaceful birdsong and scent of cedar seep into my senses. Dream-like now, I let these strange people lead me through the landscape until we enter a cave. As we walk, the sound of rushing water grows stronger until it is a bellow, roaring, calling me. A petite woman with diaphanous wings takes my hands in hers and explains, “We’re all going to go through now. If you want to find out who you really are, follow us through and see.” Then she flashes the purest grin I’ve ever seen and gives my hands a reassuring squeeze. “I hope you’re one of mine!”
The waterfall parts around her tiny body as she steps through, closing behind like a veil. Val prances through next, followed by a grumbling Ace. One by one, the others go, tossing encouraging smiles over their shoulders at me before they disappear.
Finally, I’m left alone in the dripping cave, faced with a thundering wall of rushing white.
Find out who you really are… The promise hangs in the air.
I take a deep breath…
and step through the waterfall.
It’s icy. My breath is knocked out by the sheer force of the liquid pounding down on my head, my back, my neck. I can almost feel my body being battered into a new shape. I’m changing, remoulding. I fight through, battling to bring my feet forward until—
I’m out. I blink against the sunlight that greets me, and my eyes slowly readjust. I can hear delighted gasps, words of welcome and congratulations. Val twirls her hair thoughtfully. Ace nods. The angel boy smiles. Finally, a girl draped over a rock reaches for a mirror beside her scaled, finned legs and turns it my way.
For the first time, I see myself as I really am, free of the tired body that had never felt right on me. Now I feel light, clean, right.
That, I think, is me.