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“Paradigm Shift” by Julie C. Day

The Metallic Destroyer, they call me, the Nightmare. No blood-blushed lips. No quivering eyelashes. Not one follicle of hair. My pumps hiss at varying rates: thirty and ten and fifteen compressions a minute. Each system whirring with its separate sound: circulatory and lymphatic and so much more. I no longer speak, but I can hear: Little Miss Nightmare, they call me, just another teenage bad dream.

#

Skin cells don’t heal. The membrane tears, the mechanism stutters, organelles leak out beyond their lipid wall, and then finally the entire mess is subsumed by the body’s cleanup crew. The immune system, people call it. Killers are what they really mean as the macrophages enthusiastically envelope their prey. Even at the cellular level, human bodies have no problem killing their own. The goal, after all, is preservation of the whole.

‘Preservation’ is a word my Momma always unreservedly embraced. At sixteen, after a decade of waiting, I’m ready to crush it.

#

Golden-curled and five years old, it was only a matter of time until I figured Momma out: the costumes and makeup, the perfectly white teeth, all those hours spent rehearsing on our brown, matted living room rug.

All for Momma and her Little Miss Dream Team title.

Winners persevere, Momma told me. Survival is the key. By survival she meant poise and grace and cherubic unmarked skin. All those contest points piling up as I walked the well-lit stage. Judges, with their carefully maintained smiles, offered up their numbers on white rectangular boards. Five might be young, but even then I could smell it; somehow, Momma had gotten it wrong.

The city tasted foul through my unfiltered mouth. My eyes watered whenever I stepped outside. Still, I smiled across that wooden stage. Momma’s hands gripped mine as we stood together in our bleeding pink and lace. The spotlights hid all eyes but hers as we sang our duet.

#

The lining of the human stomach is replaced in less than three days. Skin cells only last a couple of weeks. Red blood cells don’t even get half a year. The body of a forty-year-old woman carries, at most, microscopic traces of the child she once was. Course, Momma had no idea what I was thinking. It wasn’t just age that separated Momma from me.

Despite the hair dye, the weight charts, and all the sprays that colored our skin, there were only a handful of ribbons above our mantel and one lone plaque—no trophy. Meanwhile, outside, the city’s welded, metallic Little Miss Nightmares roamed lipless and free. The truth was easy to dissect: transformation, not “survival,” was the natural order of things.

#

Sixteen is the age of no regrets. It’s also the age of consent. The light shone white across my naked flesh. “Count backwards from ten,” they told me. I could see their pink lips moving beneath the cotton masks. I breathed in deeply, closed my eyes. Only my feet felt the chill.

When I woke up the spotlight was gone. Strange violet shades filled my eyes, extra blues and a few more shades of red.

It was what they left behind that surprised me: the ribs, the irises and both corneas. Lines still ran wild along the palms of my hands. Despite all the money and the long hours of work, it was a patchwork job: the metal struts visible across my torso. My breasts were gone along with most of my skin.

Still, it could have been worse.

#

I used to be so sad at five and then at ten and finally at sixteen, despite the broad pouting lips that drew in the band boys with the puppy-dog eyes. Black t-shirts hung from their frames. Smoke trailed from their fingers.

I can smoke my own cigarettes now. No worries about tongue cancer or wrinkled skin. No lips, of course. I consume energy in different ways. Even my teeth are gone.

#

When I was younger, Momma wrapped my hair in those cheap, pink curlers, scrubbed my skin clean. So much unlined skin.

“Don’t touch,” she’d say, slapping my hands away from my face.

The makeup itched. My hair felt like lacquered straw. Momma and I wore matching dresses of cyber-pink and a shade of midnight-blue eyeshadow designed exclusively for the pageant floor. No matter the venue, our talent was always the same: the song “Don’t Know Much.” Momma sang the Aaron Neville part while I warbled Linda Ronstadt’s lyrics.

I got a mini marshmallow every time I got my words right.

#

I didn’t even tell my Momma before I headed out. Didn’t see the point.

Doves are the symbol of peace. That’s what the receptionist told me when I entered the Pagette Medical Center. I stood before her desk, staring up at the picture hanging on the wall. A soot-covered pigeon, or perhaps a crow, was reaching for the branch in a dove’s beak. The dove seemed unconcerned. Perhaps he was ready to let that branch go.

Living in the city, I know something about birds, more than the artist it seemed. The garbage pickers and the peace bringers are not all that different from each other. Dove, it turns out, is just another word for pigeon. We’re all garbage pickers in the end.

All willing to let go of our branches and battle for what remains.

#

I could hear the whispers from across the street: Little Miss Nightmare. I took a step and then another, resting for a moment on the concrete walk, listening to the rasp of all those shiny new pumps. Looking at more colors than I ever imagined.

I could taste the electric current running along the wires. I could smell the anger in the air. The colors of their sidewalk-screams as I strode forward were brighter than either cyber-pink or midnight-blue. I had my metal trophy, finally, shuffling across the concrete floor.


Julie Day recently graduated from the Stonecoast M.F.A. program. During the day she writes IT documents as well as documents of the more fictional variety. Julie is the host of Small Beer Press’s occasional podcasting series. Some of her favorite things include gummy candies, loose teas and standing desks. You can find Julie online at http://www.stillwingingit.com.

 

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