“I want you to know why story truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” - Tim O'Brien
Every once in a while, when the wind is just so and maybe the stars are looking a particular way in the sky, a child is born who's a little unusual. Sometimes they have a mark of some kind on their skin, sometimes there's just a certain feeling you get when you see them, but in one way or another, these children are just different.
Callie Felden was one of the babies born that way. When she came out of her mama and into the world, they say she didn't make a peep. Just stared around the room with those bright green eyes wide open, and looked each and every person dead-on in the face. Didn't blink once. They say the midwife fainted dead away, right there in the middle of the floor. When they washed her off and could see her nice and clear, they discovered marks all over her skin, these red rings big as silver dollars, perfect circles all over her arms and legs even one smack in the middle of her forehead. Looked like she'd been branded by an overzealous farmer.
And she had these shoulder blades that were two sizes too big for her body. Started at her arms and went halfway down her back. And on the shoulder blades there were these raised ridges, too, right on down the whole length of them. Just like little mountain ranges across the poor baby's back. She used to have to sleep on her belly on account of those big old mountains on her back; it's a miracle she never suffocated in her sleep. Her mama and daddy sure weren't expecting a baby with any marks or big shoulders or anything, but they wrapped her up in blankets just the same as they would've done for any other baby and treated her as much as they could like nothing was out of the ordinary.
When Callie got old enough to walk, those shoulder blades were always getting in her way. She learned to walk long after the other babies, and when she did learn, those things dragged her down like lead weights. She had to learn how to balance herself right, so she didn't fall over. Which meant that ever since she was able to walk, she did it all hunched over like a little old woman. Her mama and daddy even gave her a little wooden cane with a bird's head carved out of the top, to help her. But even with that, little Callie had to hobble around, and even when she went her very fastest she still couldn't quite keep up with them. Sometimes they'd just get fed up and carry her to wherever they were going.
As much trouble as her hunched back caused for Callie, though, there was one good thing it did for her. Since she couldn't too easily look straight out in front of her like folks normally do when they walk, she took to the habit of walking with her face facing the ground. And when a person looks around on the ground long enough, they start finding things. What Callie found most often were little animals, little baby things that couldn't take care of themselves, and she started bringing them into the house and fixing them up. She must've felt some kind of kinship with them. The first one she brought in the house was one of the tiny little brown mice that lived in the field. Its mama must have gotten killed by one of the cats, because when Callie found it, it was just huddling up against an oak tree all by its lonesome, squealing. When she brought that first one inside, her mama had a conniption. Stood on a chair shrieking like a banshee till Callie took it out of the house.
But Callie started rescuing these critters so often that soon enough her mama stopped yelling about it so much and just accepted it as a fact of life. Most often, Callie just brought in birds anyway, little fluff-covered things that had been pushed out of the nest too early and couldn't fly away yet. She kept them by the window in little open-top wooden boxes that her daddy made for her, and she fed them worms every day till they grew in some real feathers. When it was time for them to go, she'd hold them cupped in both hands almost like she was praying, and she'd bring them outside and open up her hands and let them fly away.
When Callie started going to school, the teacher gave her more than her fair share of whacks on the hands. At first it was for taking in little birds from the playground, but Callie learned pretty fast not to do that. More often it was just that she didn't talk much, even when the teacher asked her a question. And everybody knew you get a whack on the hand for not answering the teacher. But even so, Callie only spoke a single sentence maybe every couple days or so, and no matter how many times the teacher hit her with the big wooden ruler, she wouldn't say anything more.
As for the other children, they noticed pretty fast that there was something a little different about Callie. It didn't take a magnifying glass to see those big red circles on her skin, and within a couple days she got the nickname Bullseye. During lunch time, the other children would yell "Hey, Bullseye!" and when Callie turned around, they'd throw little scraps from their lunch at her, right at the circle on her forehead. And if they hit her smack in the middle of the circle someone else would yell "Bullseye!" and they would all slap each other's hands. Callie sometimes picked up the pieces they'd thrown at her and tried to throw them back, but she almost always missed, and that just made the children laugh even harder. There was this one girl named Rebecca, who blinked too much and always had her dark brown hair yanked back into twin pigtails, who for some reason seemed to particularly like to pick on her. Sometimes she would slap her on the back, pretending to be friendly; but really she just liked to see the face Callie made when her hand slammed into those big old mountains sticking out.
There were a couple other girls in the class who were quiet like Callie. There was Margaret, with eyelashes a mile long and nails always bitten down to the quick; and there was Hannah, whose face was always buried in a book, even during lunch. They got their share of whacks on the hand too, from the teacher; but they didn't have any humped backs or big red circles on their skin, so the other children never paid them much attention. Those two would look over sometimes when Rebecca and the other children started throwing things, and Margaret would gnaw on her nails like they were ears of corn, and Hannah would drag her big sad eyes away from her book and sometimes they would meet Callie's, which also looked so big and sad. But neither of those quiet girls ever got up from their desks.
Every day, the teacher would give the class half an hour of recess time after they'd had their lunch. The kids usually played kickball or some such game, which Callie couldn't play on account of her back making her so slow. Which was ok with her anyway because she didn't really want to play with those kids; she preferred to just take walks by her self. So on one particular day, she was meandering around the edge of the schoolyard when she spotted something over by the road. It was big and furry, and when she finally got over there, she found that it was a gray cat. The animal looked like it'd had its leg run over because it sure wasn't moving, and it had something dark and wet matting down the fur on its back legs, and it just kept making this sound like a crying baby. So of course Callie picked up this pitiable animal and lugged it all the way back over to the playground so she could sit down and take care of it.
When she got back to the playground, the other kids were still playing kickball. Rebecca was pitching, with all her attention on the other children who came up one by one in front of her; so it took her a couple minutes to notice Callie crouched over something in the corner of the schoolyard. But when one of the kids kicked the ball way into the outfield, she turned around and she did notice. Rebecca shouted, "Hey Bullseye, whatcha got over there?" And when Callie didn't answer, she stomped right on over, right through the middle of the kickball game, to go take a look. And as soon as she saw the cat, which was in pretty bad shape, with little clumps of fur hanging off its legs and exposing squashy-looking red stuff, and yowling its little head off to boot, she blinked a whole lot and started shrieking like the dickens. And that was when all the kids in the class started coming over to the corner of the schoolyard. They trickled over slowly, like a stream of ants, curious to see what the noise was all about. After a couple minutes, the whole class was standing around Callie in one big circle to try and see what was going on. And one by one they saw the dying animal on the ground.
"Jesus Christ, girl, you are the most disgusting person I ever seen!"
"Bullseye, that thing is dirty!"
A boy with blonde hair and buck teeth elbowed the boy standing next to him and said, "I guess that’s why she’s always so dirty -- she spends all her time with stinking dirty animals."
"Dirty disgusting girl," said someone else.
Callie looked up at them from her place on the ground, with her eyes narrowed and one hand balled up into a fist at her side. But the cat on the ground made that crying-baby noise again, and so tossed her head at those children and very deliberately turned her back away from them. And she hunched over the animal, petting its head and trying to get it not to sound so sad. The circle of children got tighter and tighter around her, and they yelled and yelled until their taunts became one nonstop stream of words. And through it all, Callie did nothing but sit there over the cat, petting it as it cried.
Soon Rebecca had the idea of picking up a pebble and throwing it at one of the big red marks on the back of Callie's arms. That one missed her altogether, so then one of the boys threw another one and that time he hit and some of the children shouted, "Bullseye!" And that was when a whole lot of them started throwing things at her, mostly pebbles, some little chunks of dirt. Callie clenched her teeth together and scooped the broken cat up from the ground. With her head bowed down, she rushed forward as fast as she could, and tried to break out of the circle. But she wasn't able to push herself too hard, and the children on one side of the circle put their arms out to stop her from getting through while the children on the other side circle kept throwing things at Callie. A few of them kept hitting her in the arm, but most of them aimed at her back since it was bigger and easier to hit. Not that it was too hard to hit her anyway, them being in a circle around her.
And Callie kept throwing herself against them, over and over, with one arm still clutching the cat to her and the other arm swinging out every which way at them; but every time it seemed like she might just about get through the circle one of the children pushed her back into the middle. With one of those pushes, the cat got thrown from her arms and onto the ground, and it stopped crying altogether, and somehow in the shuffle someone kicked it again, and then there was a little more blood on the ground where it was lying. So soon enough Callie wasn't hurling herself against her classmates anymore, she was just huddling on the ground with her arms shielding the mostly-dead cat and tears coating her whole face, and the kids just kept throwing things. And a dark spot appeared on the bright blue shirt she was wearing, which at first looked like maybe it was just some dirt but then looked like maybe it was some blood that she'd got on herself from the cat. But as the kids kept throwing those rocks, the dark spots continued to appear. And Callie, who hadn't opened her mouth at all the while time, now started letting out a high-pitched scream, almost like something needed to be making noise and now that the cat had stopped it was up to her.
And that's when a bunch of the kids let up, and some of them noticed the dark spots and even poked Rebecca and gave a quiet "Hey." But she just brushed them off, and she kept throwing and hooting at her friends, egging them on. When she ran out of little pebbles, she moved on to some of the bigger rocks that were lying around. And eventually Callie's blue shirt was purple all across the back, and she was screaming screaming screaming, and then she stood up as best she could. With her mouth still wide open and her bright green eyes wide open to match, she started turning around and around in the middle of the circle, searching for one friendly face. She looked every single kid in that circle dead-on, just like the day she was born. But most of the kids who weren't throwing things were just looking down at the ground. Margaret with the eyelashes looked at her hands and picked at the quick of her nails until they were raw. Hannah was the only one who looked at Callie in the face, with her big sad eyes, as if to say, I’m so sorry. But none of them, not even Hannah, moved from where they stood.
And then something happened.
Most of the kids didn't notice it at first, but the purple fabric was starting to stretch tighter and tighter across Callie's back, and those big old shoulder blades were straining against it so hard you could see the skin, all red now, underneath the stretched-out fabric. And then finally one girl threw a particularly jagged rock, and it landed on the fabric that was stretched tight between those shoulder blades, and with a huge zipping sound the shirt tore open. Callie let out a shriek so loud that most of the kids dropped whatever pebbles and dirt they were still holding and clapped their hands over their ears. None of them knew what was going on, and Rebecca went running and shrieking back into the school to tell the teacher that Callie was taking her shirt off. But the others stuck around, and none of them were throwing things anymore; they just stood and watched.
And what those kids witnessed was these two shapes starting to emerge from the red of Callie's back. Those long ridges of bone pressed out and out and out and it turned out they didn't just go halfway down her back but all the way down to the very end of the spine; they'd just been buried deeper in her flesh there. So these mountains of bone were pushing and pushing out against the skin and Callie was standing up taller and straighter than she had in her whole life, and then the things on her back just couldn't stay inside her body anymore and they pushed out and out till the bones broke right on out. They started at the top, near her shoulders, where they jutted out the most, but they just kept pushing till they made their way out right on down to the bottom of her spine, where they had to tear all the way through the flesh. And soon enough she was standing there with these enormous gashes all down the length of her body where the bones broke out, and these big masses of bone and wet pink membrane were just jutting like big skeleton hands all down her back. And the whole time, this scream never stopped coming out of Callie, this high-pitched wail that nobody would've believed could have come out of such a little girl except that they all heard it.
And then there was this other noise all of a sudden, mixing with the scream until it drowned it out altogether. It was like a thunderstorm or an earthquake, except it sounded like it was coming right out of Callie's body, right out of her chest, and her head was tilted back and her mouth was wide open and her eyes were shut tight. And then she threw her arms outward, and as she did that, the bones that'd broke their way out unfolded too, right behind her arms. When they were finished, these things were stretched like sails over her back, five feet across, no less, translucent and pink and dripping with blood.
And just as Rebecca came back out of the schoolhouse with the teacher in tow, Callie broke into a run faster than she'd ever run in her life, ploughed right through her classmates, right through the circle of kids who were by this time holding onto each other for dear life and screaming these whispery screams, ran right over the hill that they always used to slide down in the winter, ran and ran and ran till finally her feet weren't touching the ground anymore, and she just went up and up and up until all they could see of her was a little red dot in the sky.
And on the ground, the children milled like small insects around the bloody trail she’d left behind and the teacher raced around the school to see where Callie could have gone. And Hannah with the sad eyes knelt beside the broken cat and scooped handful after handful of dirt from the ground, trying to make a hole where she could bury it.