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Body by Franz Kafka

Body by Franz Kafka
By Jennifer Lee Rossman

I found the chrysalis on a hot summer day when the world was losing its shit.

It had been going on for almost a week now, and I just couldn't take listening to it anymore, every radio station urging people not to panic at the same time they were reporting on stories with unsubstantiated facts practically designed to make folks panic. People calling in, hysterically accusing their neighbors of being pod people.

I especially couldn't take my mama hanging on every word the fear-mongering reverend said on the religious station, going on and on about the End Times. Telling me to pray for forgiveness for my sins so we could be together in paradise.

As if burning in hell wasn't preferable to an eternity spent with her.

At a certain point, it just became too much.

"I need some fresh air," I announced, pushing away from the bar at the diner where most of the town had gathered to "keep an eye on one another."

The incessant chatter stopped entirely, leaving only the sound of the radio and the struggling ceiling fans. I saw Mama suck in a sharp breath, her eyes flashing like neon warning lights.

I rolled my eyes and gestured to the giant, smudged windows at the front of the diner. "I am just going into the parking lot for a few minutes. I will never be out of sight, I promise y'all will see anything long before it gets me."

Without waiting for permission or argument, I stormed out through the jingling door, taking a deep breath of humidity and sunbaked asphalt.

One more year, I told myself. One more year, and I'd be off to college, free to make my own bad decisions, never have to set foot in that town again.

Assuming the pod people didn't get me first, I supposed.

"Pod people," I muttered. "Give me a break."

Don't get me wrong, there was definitely something weird going on. We just didn't know what, not yet. But to call it pod people… I don't know, it made it seem simple. Like we could expect it to be exactly like the movie, like we could pretend we had a damn clue what we were dealing with.

Nothing is ever that simple. I'd figured that out a long time ago.

I took a few more deep breaths, staring out at the packed parking lot and empty road, and decided I should go in before someone got antsy and decided I'd been replaced by an alien monster.

If only.

Mama and several others had their faces pressed up to the glass, watching me. Subtle.

As I headed in, I noticed something dangling from the decorative trim around the window. A milky green chrysalis—monarch butterfly, if I remembered right from childhood.

On a whim, I stooped and gently detached it from where it hung. My kindergarten teacher used to do that, bring them in and let us watch them hatch. I figured maybe it'd give the younger kids inside something to focus on besides their anxiety.

But like I said, nothing is ever that simple.

* * *

The following days brought more information and less knowledge.

Still no one had produced any sort of "pod," nor any actual, physical proof of anyone being replaced or altered. Anxious scientists came on the radio reminding us not to panic, telling us how there was no connection between the supposed cases, no reason to assume we had some kinda worldwide supernatural catastrophe on our hands.

I guess we were supposed to be content with the alternative: all around the world, folks just randomly started acting different, started going after their loved ones all on their own, no help from an alien virus or anything like that.

But even without proof, without any reason to believe their own words, they started telling folks the warning signs.

I did my best to ignore it, focusing all my attention on the chrysalis suspended in its old mayonnaise jar as the others listened to fake doctors like it was gospel.

The green had faded substantially, leaving a mostly translucent chrysalis through which I could see the orange and black of curled up wings. Soon she'd be ready to come out and show the world her beautiful self.

So would I, just one more year.

"Where did she get the wings from?" one of the Mason girls—Nadine, I thought, but they all looked alike—asked, peering into the jar.

"She made them," I said in awe.

People always made it sound like magic. Ugly little worm builds a chrysalis, and soon enough it's a butterfly. Completely different than anything you'd expect, but perfectly wonderful and natural.

The reality is even more amazing.

The caterpillars literally dissolve themselves. They break down their bodies until there's nothing left but a soupy mess, and then they put themselves back together bit by bit until they're unrecognizable.

Didn't seem fair to me, caterpillars having the innate ability to rebuild themselves into something better when I had to struggle every day in my little green worm of a body.

I wondered if they ever got it wrong, if they ever came out with the wrong number of wings or the antennae on the wrong end—

"… mood instability, sudden disinterest in usual activities, changes in sleep habits…"

"What bullshit!" I exclaimed, unable to ignore it any longer as they put targets on the backs of people with depression and mental illness.

"… angry outbursts have also been described…"

Several people turned their attention to me, narrowing their eyes as they looked me over, judging how much of a threat I might pose. Wondering if I was even the person they thought I was.

I wasn't, but then again, I never had been to begin with.

Remembering how many of our neighbors had come in with enough rifles and ammunition to supply a small army, I consciously lowered my voice and forced myself to sound calmer than I felt. "This is gonna get innocent people killed. Someone has a bad day, someone else panics, it's dangerous."

I see my mama start to say something, maybe even in my defense although history would suggest otherwise. And then the radio had to go and continue.

"… though most affected people—or, as some call them, replacements—go to great lengths to act as though nothing has changed, a small percentage makes radical alterations to their personality and appearance, sometimes going so far as to use a new name and claim they to be a different gender entirely…"

There was a warning in Mama's eyes, and her gaze dropped to the chipped black polish on my fingernails before I had the chance to hide them. The one bit of quasi-femininity I allowed myself, a tiny turn of the valve to release a fraction of that constantly building pressure inside me.

No one knew. Not for certain, although they sure always acted like there was something wrong with me, and all the folks at the diner stared at me, waiting. For what, I couldn't say; I only knew it wouldn't end well for me.

* * *

She was about to hatch when Mr. Dodgson told me to do a perimeter sweep, and I didn't dare say no, not since they added "lack of respect for authority figures" to the list of warning signs in adolescents that morning.

A witch hunt. That's all it was.

Maybe some people really did change—zombie parasite, pod people, plain old mental breakdown, who could say?—but not for a second did I believe the so-called symptoms were anything but a method of making trouble for folks who didn't conform. A defense for when someone shot that neighbor they never liked or tried to beat the gay out of their kid.

He was a pod person, your honor, he had all the signs. I was doing the world a service.

With me already on several people's radar, I just nodded wordlessly, took one last look at the chrysalis, and headed outside.

Still no traffic, still impossibly quiet. Not like the world had gone to sleep, more like it was hiding under the blankets from an imaginary monster.

To be honest, I wasn't entirely clear on what they expected me to be checking, but they already considered me borderline disposable, so I didn't question it. Just made my little loop around the building, grateful for the alone time, and went back in.

Except this time, something weird happened.

I'm still not sure what, to be honest. I didn't see anything, didn't hear anything. I just made my way round to the back of the building and… I don't know, I felt it, deep in my gut.


And maybe I should've been scared. Well, no maybe about it, I definitely should've been scared, because on some level I knew this was it, this was what the world was collectively losing its shit over. Not the paranoia and the witch hunts, whatever happened before the media took over the narrative.

Pod people, for lack of an actual scientific term.

But here's the thing. I could feel it in me, around me, part of me. I could feel it, I knew it was there, but it didn't feel dangerous.

It felt… right somehow. Like a little whisper in my ear telling me that soon I would be at peace with my body instead of war. That it would fix me. Wrap me up and give me my butterfly wings like I always prayed for.

I finished my loop of the building and went inside. People looked at me, scrutinized me, but when didn't they. I just ignored them. I'd be happy soon, I'd be myself.

The butterfly had emerged while I was out, and my excitement to see her in all her glory far outweighed the disappointment in missing her rebirth.

She perched delicately on the small stick I had provided, beating her wings in a slow, gentle motion to dry them. The striking orange and black patterning grabbed my attention and held on tight for a moment, and in that moment I still believed she was perfect and beautiful and everything I would be soon.

And then I looked at the rest of her. At the dozens of legs grasping the branch, wiggling helplessly down her pudgy, segmented back. At the proboscis rhythmically curling and uncurling at the tips of each wing. At her face. God, her face. If she had eyes, they were too small for me to see; the entire front of her head was instead dominated by a mouth and two large fangs.

I backed away from the jar so fast, a chair went crashing to the floor.

She was a collage of Picasso paintings, vague ideas of anatomy cut apart and pasted back together in the general shape of an insect while at the same time unrecognizable as a butterfly.

Suddenly the thought of that thing inside me made my stomach twist with dread.

* * *

My sleeping bag felt catastrophically claustrophobic that night, forcing myself to stay awake, the mayonnaise jar wrapped tightly in my arms.

I didn't let the children see the butterfly. I told them she was so smart, she opened the jar all by herself and flew away. To Mexico, I told them. I thought I remembered learning something about monarchs migrating to Mexico.

Lying was just easier.

I didn't let the adults see her, either, not that they asked about her. With the tension in the air becoming more palpable by the hour, with people's anxieties pressing on hair triggers, I knew what would happen if they saw something as unnatural as my butterfly, and they would make me clean up the mess.

So I lay there beneath the ceiling fans, nestled in among the rows of sleeping, suspicious townsfolk, desperately trying to slow my breathing. Mama lay just next to me, and she'd always had an uncanny knack for knowing whether I was truly asleep or just faking.

I like to think I'd gotten better at fooling her as I grew up. Sure did had enough practice lately.

I couldn't let myself fall asleep. I couldn't give up control. That's when it would happen, I convinced myself, the change or metamorphosis or whatever the hell it'd be.

I don't know what I feared more, the idea of turning into something terrible and hurting somebody—I'd snuck a bit of raw meat to the butterfly earlier, on account of her not eating anything else, and still couldn't get the image out of my mind—or what the others would do when they found out.

Would they kill me? Even if I didn't turn dangerous? Even if I was happy and didn't harm no one, would they still kill me for the sin of being different?


They absolutely would.

Their fear wouldn't let them do anything else.

* * *

Maybe I fell asleep, maybe it was a nightmare. Then again, maybe it didn't matter, maybe there wasn't a difference anymore.

I felt a pinprick in my neck, sudden and sharp like a hypodermic needle sedating a patient against his will. Only, in my mind, in my Picasso collage awareness somewhere between reality and nightmare, the needle was a butterfly fang. And it didn't sedate me.

Paralyzed me, kept me from crying out, but did nothing to dull the experience.

Pain washed over me in waves, each more excruciating than the last and each accompanied by that whisper in my ear, that soothing voice telling me it was worth it. All the pain, all the tears and screaming and hating myself, it would be worth it in the end if I could just hang on.

My body fell apart. Not literally, I could still feel the suffocating sleeping bag, the cool glass jar. But at the same time, I could feel each cell ripping apart, my bones slowly melting into the liquefied soup that used to be me.

That pain was nothing new. Existence had been ripping me apart every day since I hit the wrong puberty.

Building myself back up, though. That was a new kind of pain entirely.

I had thought this would be the easy part. I knew where everything went, exactly how I wanted my body to look and feel and work. For years now, I'd had the image of the perfect me all sketched out. I just had to paint by numbers and fill it in.

My bones stitched together first, calcium wrapping tightly around marrow and squeezing, compressing. I had no desire to be small and dainty, none of the women in my family were, but every little snap and creak of my shortening skeleton brought me closer to society's warped idea of normal.

My feet broke themselves to fit in those cute blue heels I'd seen at the mall, my hips and pelvis contorted to give me curves, to open wider so I could birth the children I never intended to have.

Still I floated in the burning chemical soup of my old body, of my discarded past, as my organs congealed themselves into existence. I could feel the new ones, the anticipatory pain of my cycle. Every month, part of me would repeat this, tearing itself apart and rebuilding.

My throat closed up the instant the muscles had formed. Instinctively, I tried gasping for air, but I still couldn't move. Couldn't breathe.

I couldn't do this, it wasn't worth the pain, worth getting killed when the others realized what I was.

Its hold on me snapped. With my skeletal hands, I clawed at the inside of my sleeping bag; I screamed for help as I thrashed in my soup.

But my voice.

Higher, softer. Like before it cracked, before I cracked.

And as my supple skin enveloped my hands, I watched as my nails grew longer than I ever dared let them, with delicate orange and black curlicues dancing beneath a shiny coat of iridescent lacquer.

I could have it all, the body and the life I'd dreamed of since before I'd heard the word "transgender." It could all be mine, if only I stuck with it a little longer, suffered a little more.

One more year.

No, just one more night.

I closed my eyes. I'm not sure how, seeing as they hadn't formed yet, my face still a blank slate of a skull, but I didn't question it. I closed my eyes, and I let it happen.

Rounder cheeks filled out my profile, hair pierced my scalp as it grew in gentle waves to tickle my shoulders. A comforting weight pressed against my ribs, my breasts new and tender and excruciatingly sensitive.

And as the rest of my body crawled up out of the primordial soup and built itself back up, a vision of a future so perfect it hurt found its way into my brain.

Happiness. Peace. Mama calling me her daughter, teaching me to do my hair. The world seeing me as I saw myself and giving me no trouble for it.

I prayed it could be that easy.

* * *

When I came out of my sleeping bag the next morning, everything was wrong. Not wrong like the butterfly, just wrong like always because nothing had changed.

I mourned the body that had never been mine, the future I would never have. It hurt worse than ever, having it in reach only to lose it, and I wished my tears could dissolve me like a little green worm in a chrysalis.

Mama shot me dirty looks all day, the men told me to man up. Like I said, nothing had changed.

Except this time, I didn't sit there and take it.

"I'm not a man," I told them all. "I never have been, and I never will be, and I'm going to need you all to understand that."

The silence was even more suffocating than my sleeping bag. A couple people reached for their rifles. I saw Mama mouth the words "pod people."

And just like that, it all made sense.

Nobody had changed, nobody had gotten replaced. They just saw their life and themselves as it should be, maybe more perfect than possible in the real world, but a glimpse of happiness only to have it taken away.

They saw what they could have, started acting like they deserved to be happy, and other people couldn't take it. People had to make up stories to justify their rage at someone else's happiness not lining up with their own.

Slowly, people stepped closer. I moved back, feeling the wall dig into my spine.

The radio played in the background, a man telling the horrifying stories of the latest victims.

I wondered if my story would make the news tomorrow, how they would frame my coming out as a threat that had to be dealt with.

Mr. Dodgson raised his rifle. But before he could use it, there was a shriek and the sound of breaking glass. Someone found the jar.

Everyone turned to watch the disfigured butterfly erratically crashing into walls and tables. She struggled, but finally found her way out the door, maybe attracted by the jingling bell, just before it closed behind me.

* * *

Jennifer Lee Rossman (they/them) is a queer, disabled, and autistic author and editor from the land of carousels and Rod Serling. They often still think about Cooey, their monarch butterfly friend who lived with them briefly 30 years ago. Follow them on Twitter @JenLRossman and read free stories on their website

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

Let it be weird.

Break the rules. Twist the clichés. Combine the genres.

Speculative fiction is, at its core, about the new and unexpected and unfamiliar. It's about
monsters and magic and machines that don't exist in our world, so why not just go for it?

Be radical in your creativity, reckless, even.

Give me ghosts from the future. Give me aliens that communicate in color.

Just let it be weird.