The club only ever had two members: Eric and me. There were plenty of other weirdos at school – techno-geeks, nerds, gamers, Goths, those who went geocaching in the woods at weekends or played the glockenspiel in the school orchestra. There were even a couple of stamp collectors and a lone plane spotter. But we agreed that although they were all outcasts in their own way, they weren’t in our league.
Eric and I started partnering up in lessons, mainly because nobody else wanted to work with us.
‘We misfits have to stick together,’ Eric said.
‘We should start our own club. What shall we call it?’
‘The Odd Bod Club,’ he said without hesitation. ‘It’s how my mother explains me to other people. She ruffles my hair and says, “You’ll have to excuse Eric. He’s a bit of an odd bod.”’ He paused. ‘Sometimes I hate her.’
‘Should we have any club rules?’ I asked.
‘Only two,’ he said. ‘First, that we tell each other everything, and second, that we never tell anyone else.’
‘Can I tell you my deepest, darkest secret?’
One afternoon in early summer we were lying in the long grass at the furthest reaches of the playing fields, out of sight of the school buildings because we were bunking off double maths. It was our most hated lesson: Eric’s because Mr Pearson always picked on him and he never knew the answer, and mine because the class was too easy and therefore boring. Mr Pearson was probably relieved when he saw we were both missing because he never reported us, even though our exams were only weeks away.
‘Sure,’ I said, although I was slightly worried that Eric’s confession might be something I didn’t want to hear, like he was an axe murderer or a vegan or he fancied me.
He took a deep breath. ‘I’m really a girl. I was born in the wrong body.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. A tear rolled from the corner of his eye and ran into his ear.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said eventually. ‘That must be very hard.’
‘You have no idea.’
‘Actually, I do. I don’t think this is the right body for me either.’ I don’t know where that came from, but as soon as I said it out loud, I knew it was true: this was exactly why I was a misfit. ‘I don’t mean I think I should have been a girl,’ I added quickly, in case he got the wrong idea. ‘Just that I don’t feel like me. I don’t even know what “me” feels like.’
Eric rolled up his shirtsleeve and held his arm above my face to show me a network of lines, some red and angry, others brown and scabbed over, and some white and puckered or smooth and silvery with age.
I winced. ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ I asked.
‘Of course it does. That’s the whole point. It blots out the pain of the other thing.’
We stared at the sky in silence for a moment, then he said, ‘What do you do? How do you cope?’
‘I solve maths problems in my head.’ Even as I said it, I realised how pathetic it sounded. He gave me a long, hard look, as if he thought I might be making fun of him.
He shrugged. ‘Whatever works for you, I guess.’
That evening, I decided to try cutting myself. I placed the paring knife against my forearm and drew it across the skin. It didn’t go at all how I expected. There was no pain and no blood. The skin parted briefly then closed up again, but not before I caught a glimpse of something silvery underneath. The surface repaired itself so perfectly that there was no trace of any cut ever having been there.
That night I had a strange dream of a procession of two-legged lizard-like creatures with shiny silver scales marching down the main street. One of them stopped, turned to me and said ‘It’s not time. We’re not ready yet.’ After that, every time I cut myself – or rather failed to cut myself – I had the same dream and heard the same voice. I told Eric about the dream and the voice, but not about the weird cutting, even though it meant breaking the club rules. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘It can take some time to find out who you really are.’
We didn’t see much of each other over the summer break. I spent the whole six weeks with my family at our house in Brittany. I wanted to ask my parents if Eric could come with us, but I knew he’d refuse the invitation because he lived with his Mum in a small apartment above an antiques shop on the High Street and would feel guilty about leaving her on her own. I worried about him, though, afraid that he might “do something stupid”. He was terrified that he would fail his maths exam and not be allowed back to school in September. The idea scared me too. I couldn’t imagine going through another two years of school without him.
We texted each other several times – not too often and nothing explicit, in case his mum got suspicious and demanded to look at his phone. In mid-August he messaged ‘Surprise! I passed maths – just. See you next term.’
On our first day back, there was another surprise. Eric came to school wearing a dress, kitten-heeled shoes and a smudge of eye shadow. He’d let his hair grow over the summer, and it now skimmed his shoulders. She wanted everyone to call her Tallulah. The lack of ridicule from the other students was remarkable, but then most of the worst kids –the feral ones and the stupid ones – had dropped out at the end of the previous years and were now flipping burgers, stacking supermarket shelves or staring at a screen in the call centre.
Tallulah was a bit of a celebrity that day. During morning break she was whisked away by a group of girls and came back with her hair restyled and wearing pink nail polish. At lunch break, the same girls offered advice on wardrobe choices and which shade of foundation would be best for her colouring. I can’t pretend I didn’t feel a bit left out, but I was sure the novelty would soon wear off.
‘Why on earth did you pick a weird name like Tallulah?’ I asked her at afternoon break, when we she’d managed to escape her new fans and we were on our own. ‘Why not choose something easy to remember, like Erica?’
‘I want to be exotic,’ she said. ‘Erica is far too close to Eric, and I never want to be reminded of Eric again.’
She saw me looking surreptitiously at her chest, where incipient breasts were beginning to bud. ‘Hormones,’ she said succinctly. ‘I’ll go for the full surgery eventually, but this is good for now.’
‘What does your Mum think?’
‘I don’t know. We haven’t spoken since I started wearing proper clothes. Only two more years, then I can go off to college and start my real life.’
‘Have you stopped cutting?’ ‘Mostly. I don’t seem to need to do it as much now. How about you? Still dreaming of talking lizards?’
‘Yes.’ I paused. ‘But not just when I sleep now. I hear them in my head in the day, and sometimes I think I see someone in the street whose skin sort of shimmers.’
‘What are they telling you?’
‘To be ready. That it won’t be long. I must be patient. Our time is almost here.’
A couple of weeks later I was getting ready to turn in for the night, but I felt restless, twitchy, wired. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I took out a razor blade and drew it down my forearm. This time the skin didn’t close up again. I made another, longer parallel cut and pulled away a long strip of flesh to reveal smooth, shiny silver scales. I got to work, slicing and peeling, until I was free of my body. The relief was exquisite, like taking off a tight pair of shoes after a hot day on your feet. In the mirror I saw the lizard from my dreams. My eyes were amber, the pupils black vertical slits. I grinned, to reveal double rows of sharp, backward-pointing teeth, and flicked out my long pink tongue. My elation caused a silver frill to unfurl behind my head, like a massive Elizabethan ruff.
‘Come on,’ the voice in my head urged. ‘It’s time. We’re waiting for you.’
I let myself out of the house and strode down the road to join the rest of my kind flowing along the High Street like a stream of liquid mercury. As we passed antiques shop, I looked up at Tallulah’s window. She waved to me and gave me a thumbs up. I raised my frill to her in salute, and with that the Odd Bod Club was formally dissolved.
Hilary Ayshford is a former science journalist and editor, living in rural Kent in the UK with her elderly Labrador. She writes micro and fiction and short stories ranging from humour to horror and everything in between and has a penchant for the darker side of human nature. She is working intermittently on her first novella-in-flash.