Medusa hurriedly yanked on her school uniform. She had slept through her alarm, again, and if she missed the bus her dad would strangle her for sure. Since he didn’t have any limbs, asphyxiation was his primary form of punishment.
Once her training bra was over her head, she had one of the snakes that made up her hair curl around the others and clamp onto its own tail to fashion the unruly mess into a sort of writhing ponytail. Looking in the mirror, she thought again and had one of the snakes slither itself free and instead dangle in front of her face.
While her hair was more or less fixing itself, her hands were buttoning her blouse. By some small miracle, Medusa didn’t miss a button in her haste and the tails were even. She tucked it into her skirt and cinched her beaded snake belt around her waist. It wasn’t technically kosher according to the school’s dress code, but none of her teachers had said anything, yet. And until one did, well…a girl has to find some room for fashion.
She very nearly dashed out the door of her room without her polarized glasses. If she had, detention would have been the least of her worries if she ended up accidentally turning the bus driver to stone again. She hated the glasses. They were super ugly–as bad as the ones they give you in a 3-D movie–but at least everyone in the school had to wear them. Of course everyone else’s were polarized perpendicular to hers. All the other students hated Medusa for being the reason they had to wear the dorky glasses, but she was just glad she wasn’t alone.
She dashed downstairs and glanced at the clock in the dining room. Her speed had paid off; she would have time to eat breakfast and still catch the bus.
As she was rounding the corner into the kitchen, her mom startled her by popping out of her bedroom, yelling.
“Medi! You are running late. Did you forget you are supposed to feed your hair this morning?”
“Ah, crap!” shouted Medusa, turning in shame to view her mother. Her dad was wrapped around her mom’s neck like a feather boa, only instead of being covered in feathers, he was an actual boa.
“Language!” was her mother’s automated reply. Then, “Well, you better pack up some mice to bring to school.”
“But mom,” whined Medusa. “The other kids will make fun of me if I have to feed my hair at school. Can’t I do it when I get home?”
“You know how hungry your hair gets if you miss feeding time. I will not be responsible for how you behave if your meal is late. Now pack your mice and get out the door.” Her mother met her glare and her father hissed and flicked his tail. Then the duo disappeared back into their room.
Medusa’s parents met in the circus, where her mother worked as a snake charmer. She was clearly very talented, as she charmed Medusa’s father right into marriage. When she became pregnant, the couple left the nomadic circus life and got a job teaching herpetology at the local university. Medusa had always been bitter about this, as she hated most of the kids at school but got along great with her parents’ old circus friends. But whenever she would complain, her parents assured her that it is for her own best interest and that is the end of that conversation.
Medusa scarfed down a bowl of Count Chocula and grabbed a bag of frozen baby mice from the freezer to stuff into her pre-packed lunch bag. Her hair much preferred live mice, but her dad wouldn’t let her raise them. He told her she needed to prove she was responsible enough to keep her goldfish alive first before he could agree to mammals, and besides, having to smell those warm, quivering bodies all day…well, he wasn’t sure he could resist swallowing the breeding pairs. So until her maturity was verified, it was frozen pinkies for her hair, and frozen rats for dad.
She stuck one arm into her jacket sleeve and backpack strap as she ran out the door, maneuvering the other arm as she sprinted. Once she rounded the corner of the house, Medusa was relieved to see that the bus with the tinted windows was not yet parked in front of her driveway, honking. Panting, she stood at the end of the driveway, leaned back against the ancient oak that her dad was always threatening to have cut down before it fell on the house, and took in nature, since her parents refused to get her an iPhone like all the other kids had.
Medusa’s hair was going crazy at the smell of something warm up in the tree. She straightened up and craned her neck, struggling to make it out among the leaves. Following the sensation from her hair, she was able to trace it to a clump of old, dead leaves and twigs clustered around one branch. As she watched, a squirrel emerged from the clump and started looking around, alert. Before she could react, the squirrel made eye contact and froze. Without polarized glasses of its own, the rodent had no protections against her paralyzing gaze. Temporarily turned to stone, it fell from the tree and landed among the other rocks of the driveway with a clunk.
As she moved to inspect the fallen squirrel, Medusa noticed that half the snakes in her hair were still obsessing over the nest. She knelt down and picked up the squirrel statue. The warmth in the nest indicated that there were other mammals there among the sticks and foliage, most likely babies. But at the same time, Medusa was salivating, the snakes in her hair desperately craving the easy nutrients provided by the creature in her hands. She scolded herself for not awakening earlier; her hair had learned when feeding day was and it was taking all her willpower not to break pieces off the mama squirrel in her hands and distribute it among all the little mouths attached to her scalp.
She knew her father held no high regard of rodents (except as a meal), but Medusa just couldn’t feel comfortable with the idea of orphaning an entire litter of helpless little pink babies, no matter how many of their frozen cousins were currently thawing in her lunch box. Resolved, she moved back over to the tree and laid the small sculpture among the roots, where it would be able to scurry home to its babies unharmed once it had become flesh again.
“This is why I need an iPhone,” she muttered to herself, still struggling with the intense urges of her hair. “Plus, it has an alarm,” she added, mentally appending that to the list of perks she could spout out to her parents when they asked what she wanted for her birthday the following month. She was relieved to hear the sounds of the bus approaching her street and gathered herself to the end of the driveway, trying to will her hair back into the loose ponytail she had practiced in front of the mirror before she was in sight of the other students already on the bus.
The bus ride was pretty typical in that Medusa sat near the front and tried to read her Collected Biographies of Circus Freaks and Sideshow Acts, fighting to focus over the roar of the other girls gossiping. Her hair provided her one advantage here: she didn’t get gum wrappers (and sometimes their chewed-up contents) thrown at her head like many of the front-of-the-bus crowd, owing to literally having eyes on the back of her head. Indeed, that added another layer to the issue of focusing on her book, as each snake of her hair was desperately trying to discern environment from potential predator or prey. And predator would be an apt description of many of the girls sitting behind her.
The morning periods at Madame Bovine’s Academy for Weird Girls also nearly passed without noteworthy incident. Finally the lunch bell rang and Medusa breathed a great sigh of relief. Her hair was getting hungrier by the minute and she could barely pay attention in her comparative religions class, between the snakes’ starvation and Mrs. Nosferatu’s disdainful monotone when discussing the numerous slights various religions had made against her kind. It didn’t help that the room was dark so Mrs. N wouldn’t fizzle in the sunlight, making Medusa’s hair all the more aware of the warm student bodies all around her.
But she had made it to lunch hour, and nearly fell over in excitement as she tried to disentangle herself from the uncomfortable desk-chair combos that the Academy had been using since its remodeling in the 60s. If you looked carefully at the graffiti (which every student of Mrs. Nosferatu had done at some point in her boring lectures), you could make out something penned by former students who were now mothers of current students. Medusa was one of very few first-generation students at the Academy, a fact which many of the popular girls belonging to ancient bloodlines would not let her forget.
As Medusa recovered from almost falling, she heard a snorting laughter behind her. Panicked, she turned to see Freki Fenrirsdotter grinning at her clumsiness. It was a nightmare made real. Freki was a cheerleader captain whose family had provided a large chunk of the wealth used to found the school when the ancient bloodlines were fleeing what their children still snobbishly called “the Old Country” around the time of the Witch Trials. On top of that, Freki was covered in a beautiful coat of sable fur, which her parents no doubt spent a small fortune to keep shampooed and conditioned to get it so silky and soft. Plus she had way too many teeth to grin with.
“Born in a circus and you still can’t stand up without almost face planting,” teased Freki. “I guess we can rule ‘trapeze artist’ from your already-limited selection of career options.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I could handle a tightrope, either,” Medusa said, hoping to diffuse the situation with a little self-pitying humor. She looked around the room, hoping to spot a teacher or sympathetic student. But in the dimly-lit room, all she saw were the two reflective discs of Freki’s eyes, glowing in the darkness even through the filter of her glasses.
“You know, I’ve always wondered what circus freaks eat for lunch,” taunted Freki, inching closer.
“Um, you know, just like a sandwich and an apple…regular food.” Medusa said, trying to back away but running into another desk-chair.
“No. Let me see your lunch. I bet there’s cotton candy and elephant ears,” said Freki. With unnatural speed she snatched the brown bag from Medusa’s grip and ripped it open, examining the contents. “Sandwich…apple…how boring. Wait! What’s this?” She pulled a smaller bag out and investigated it. She held it to her muzzle and sniffed, then said, “Mice! Baby mice! And you said regular food! I have to show the rest of the team, they will find this hilarious!”
Medusa tried to protest meekly, but Freki was bounding away with her whole lunch, giggling. Medusa sighed, dug her carnie book out of her backpack, and made her way to the library, stifling her rumbling stomach and the animal urges of her hair that had re-awakened at the scent of the mice when Freki had pulled them out.
The afternoon was crawling. The regular hunger Medusa could handle; having had breakfast it wasn’t even all that bad. But her hair…all day they could smell the warm students around her. Snakes weren’t used to smelling food and not at least trying to eat it. Medusa thought back to that mama squirrel she had handled while waiting for the bus and was disturbed to find herself salivating. She shook her head to rid herself of the thought.
“Did you find my mathematical process disagreeable?” said Ms. Dock, a grumpy mouse with one tail and the Academy’s least-beloved math instructor.
“Uhh…” stammered Medusa, who had been so consumed by her thoughts that she hadn’t even realized she was in math class.
Ms. Dock scurried down off her podium and over onto Medusa’s desk. As she continued, Medusa’s hair could sense her little heart beating faster and faster as she grew angry at being ignored.
“When I was your respective age,” Ms. Dock started ranting, “I was a regular, feral mouse. It wasn’t until I heard a clock chiming that I began to understand what potential I truly had. That is the power of mathematics.” Medusa was trying to listen, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at the refined rodent. She could hear the blood flowing through Ms. Dock’s veins. “You will look at me when I am talking to you!” shouted Ms. Dock.
“Fine!” shouted Medusa out of character, and turned back to look Ms. Dock in the face. But as she turned, a couple of snakes in her hair pushed the glasses off her own face. She saw Ms. Dock’s beady little eyes for the first time through the glasses the mouse still wore. Then there was an angry statue standing on Medusa’s desk, frozen in incredulity at the defiance of this youth.
And before Medusa could react, her hair sprang out of its ponytail and darted forward. Each snake began snapping off and swallowing morsels of the teacher, and the whole thing was gone before she even realized what was happening. The rest of the class took only a second longer, switching from satisfied schadenfreude at Medusa’s chiding to screaming and overturning chairs and running out into the hall.
Medusa put her head down on the desk and cried. Maybe I will run away and join the circus, she thought.
Jon James dwells in Lansing, Michigan, where he hopes to one day write something his mom can read. Today is not that day. Better luck next time, mom. For more of his weird shit, check out his website at jonjameswrites.com or his podcast at wewriteweirdshit.com.
Betty Rocksteady is a Canadian author and illustrator. Learn more at www.bettyrocksteady.com.