Anna Lisa L. Young is a History and Creative Writing major at Sweet Briar College. She is from Brooklyn, New York, and has written both short stories and novel length works since immersing herself in creative writing at age 12. Anna Lisa has participated in many open mic nights and has had some of her work published in Red Clay. She hopes to one day earn an MFA in fiction. Here is one of her short stories titled “The Paper Professor”.
The Paper Professor
The Professor had a predicament that is difficult to explain. Three days ago his hair changed from strands of red keratin to thin strips of red paper. Two days ago his nails became fragile half-circles of cellophane. Professor Milton Horace could conceal these changes under a hat or in a pair of gloves but it tended to damage his new attributes. His hair became a pulpy-wadded mess in the waterfall of rain yesterday and his nails melted and curled inward if his cell phone overheated. They always grew back at an alarming rate.
Footstep echoed down the corridor to his office. He again. Horace snapped shut the Tupperware for this three-bean and dried red pepper salad. The smell of garlic already melted into his hands and the essays he planned to grade. The professor pointedly eyed the door, settled further into his chair and waited. She no longer knocked so the door opened as soon as her footsteps ceased. In the doorframe stood Amelia, her cat-eye marble-like eyes appeared lighter in the rays of sunlight. Her face was framed by her lopsided violet hair. Splotches of paint in various colors and degrees of thickness covered her clunky black boots. Her legs so thin in comparison looked like they would snap. She said nothing before plopping down in the black wood chair before the professors’ desk. Amelia rummaged through her shoulder bag that was also covered in dry paint, and took out a partially crumpled piece of paper. There was nothing neat about the girl. The professor pushed aside his lunch and held out his hand for her paper.
It was covered in red marks, none of them his and small drawing in the margins indicating what she was trying to convey. In the upper right corner on the first page was a small old-fashioned television set with knobs, followed by a plus sign and then an equal sign all equating to a detailed drawing of a brain. On the bottom of the same page, floating on the footnotes were stick figures clutching one another’s ball-like hands and also clasped between the joined hands was a paintbrush.
“What does any of this mean?” The professor said.
“It’s about how television feeds our minds but art nourishes our connection to one another,” Amelia said.
“Is not television art?” The Professor said.
“It’s a formulaic art, therefore limited. It is difficult for people to show their creative work through this medium because it is for money and not all art is seen as profitable,” Amelia said.
The professor read the essay once, and then a second time. The words seemed to float on the page. Many lines were crossed out with read ink, leaving few survivors and many words in the margins with arrows pointing to the next thing to be read. It was dizzying and irritating to read, a kind of visual mental torture.
Benny blinked a few times before stretching his body out, scratching the essays with his outstretched hind paws. Amelia slapped her hands on her laps and Benny obliged, jumping off the desk and onto her lap.
“This paper is not there yet,” The Professor said.
“Hm,” Amelia appeared to deeply consider his words, edging her teeth over her bottom lip. She stroked Benny and he purred, swatting her with his striped tail.
“I wrote the first draft three weeks ago, and then I came here. I worked on the second draft for days after, and then came here. And now a third time,” Amelia said.
“Another try should help,” The Professor said.
Amelia lowered her head, her violet hair shrouding the left side of her face. Benny suddenly sat up, his head bobbing up and down like a preying snake before bolting across the office. Amelia stood and wiped the stray hairs from her green floral dress.
“I look forward to seeing the final draft,” The Professor said.
“Nice hat,” Amelia said.
It was faint, but he could read clearly the serif font word across his cellophane nails. They were slightly curled due to the heat reflected from the windowpanes. May was slowly encroaching overs Brooklyn but August heat had already smothered the narrow streets. The words, a deep onyx read imagination. The Professor rubbed the nail of his index finger. Neither the vigorous rubbing nor the oils from his fingertips could erase the imagination. Now words were coming off essays and onto him. He was wearing gloves when he looked over her essay but it was now plastered on his nail. Benny meowed. Hungry again. The professor has wasted ten minutes and had class in nine.
A day later Horace felt less bulky than usually. The warm stale wind for the D train pushed him a few feet down the narrow platform like a paper bag. A young girl wearing juice stained pink top, tutu, and rainbow striped tights gazed at him with soft gray eyes, mystified. The man Horace assumed was her father by the matching grey eyes shielded her, perhaps thinking Horace was trying to get attention from the young girl. The train finally clattered to a stop and the screech of metal on metal caused the girl to cover her ears with her hands.
It was not until he eased into a leather chair at the Lawyer’s office that he realized he lacked warmth. The warmth from the chair was like the prickly sensation of needles after submerging one’s ice-cold hands in warm tap water. Human skin stayed around ninety-eight degrees regardless of external cold or warmth. Horace was as tepid as a forgotten coffee. The thought of examining himself the next chance he got was competing with his focus on why he was at the office. Entwined in Horace’s beefy hand was his cell phone. Miranda called multiple times in the last hour, expecting him home a few hours earlier. She called once more and Horace was now annoyed. He squeezed the side button, suffocating the phone to sleep and placed it on the outdated copies of Self magazine.
Horace refused to sign the documents just yet; not entirely sure he would still be himself if and when he decided but still convinced all they needed was time. The divorce Lawyer opened the door to his office. It was the only enclosed office in the one-floor realtor agency turned lawyer’s office.
“Legal advice I can give, marriage advice I can not. It is normal for people in the process of divorce to seek counseling” The lawyer spoke very casually, more so than he did with Miranda.
“I’d like to see the documents,” Horace said.
“Did no one serve you the documents?” the lawyer said, concern painting his voice.
“No, she gave them to me. Something happened to them,” Horace said. The truth was he tore it in two once she left the bedroom. Miranda had an affair at the beginning of their marriage. If there was anyone that should be divorcing anyone it should be Horace.
“I’ll copy it for you now,” The lawyer said, looking at Horace’s hat rather than his face. Sweat was forming around the tight band of the wool hat. If he took it off he would be utterly embarrassed. His new hair was wet again.
It was nearly eight and an indigo curtain had been drawn across the sky. The wind bleated through holes in the blue boards shrouding the construction site for a new block of condominiums. Gray stratus clouds were spread onto the sky like worn gauze. Horace could not help thinking about the identical eyes of the father and daughter. Both like developing thunderstorms, with flecks of a shiny steel-like gray. Horace could not calculate the chances but still, the thought nagged him in a way that weighted down his core. Amelia looked nothing like him nor his wife, Miranda. Amelia’s deep serpent green eyes and white blonde hair clashed like shattered porcelain with Horace’s red hair, Miranda’s jet black hair and both their equally black eyes. The red hair came to mind; it was more recessive than blonde and that is what made him unsure.
He walked over the light from long windows that stretched onto the sidewalk, pausing a moment before going in.
Amelia’s leg was hooked over the arm of the chair, popcorn balanced on her thigh and her hand resting under her shirt on her bare skin. Miranda sat near her with Benny between them, the bluish light from the television flickering on her face. Horace was in the study, which was more of a nook in the living room; the three-walled area had his desk and a small shelf with books about grammar and formatting. The rule was for Amelia to not disturb Horace.
“Mom, do you think that he really did that much damage or do you think she just wants more money-like how could an old laptop be worth a thousand dollars” Amelia said.
“I don’t know, suppose the hard drive or graphics card perhaps, but she will get her money anyway because of what he did to her car,” Miranda said folding Benny’s ears down as she stroked his head. Benny kneaded his paws into the sofa, making small perforations.
“I don’t think she’ll win the cell phone bill bit though, it was a family plan and she can’t make him pay it all,” Amelia said.
“ I don’t know how you could watch such trashy television”, Horace said.
“It’s not trash; it’s our justice system at work,” Amelia said.
“It’s a television show; it must be staged to some degree,” Horace said as he flipped through papers.
“The stage is great. It doesn’t make it any less entertaining that it isn’t real. Even the most peculiar situations are entertaining,” Amelia said. Horace drew his complete attention back to his work. Amelia slid her leg from over the armrest; her foot thudded on the carpet.
“Why does he always do this,” Amelia said softly, leaning onto her mother. Miranda situated herself so she could hold Amelia against her chest. Under Miranda’s thick eyelashes was a glare in Horace’s direction. Horace could not help but to be hyper critical of what Amelia and Miranda liked, or for that matter life in general. Miranda was sure after all of those years of being an academic, reading book after book, the inhalation of all that old book glue had gone to his head.
Pearls of diluted canary yellow, pumpkin orange, glacier gray and coral pink slid down the left wall in Amelia’s room. The pumpkin skinned man was holding in his arms a blooming coral-colored bud. Entrapped inside was a gray child that grasped with both hands at the petals. Using varnish, the skin of the child appeared sickly and detached, almost translucent while the scene around connected like veins, pumping life into each corner. Seven varieties of flowers, both open and closed, gravitated toward the center and parsed out specks of flowers bursting around the edges like collapsing galaxies.
Amelia’s arm was bandaged in dry paint and the carpet below her new work stained with a long brownish blot. After spring break was over she would not be able to do any painting so Amelia had to do as much as possible before the vision evaporated.
There was a light tap at her door before a soft creek. Amelia sat up in her bed, eyes half closed.
“Honey, we’re about to leave for dinner,” Miranda said as she ducked her head in, her thin black hair swaying beneath.
Amelia patted her bed and Miranda waltz over and sat on the foot of the bed.
Amelia nodded and looked to the wall and waited for Miranda’s eyes to follow her own. “Amelia,” Miranda said. She glided to the piece and held both hands to her chest, the temptation to touch it very strong.
“Amelia”, Miranda said, reverently.
“It’s not done yet,” Amelia said as she slid out of bed.
“I want to take a picture of this; I’ll go get my camera,” Miranda said in a flutter.
She did not hear Horace come to her door only the low reverberating throaty growl. “What have you done?” Horace said through his teeth.
“I painted,” Amelia said.
“On the wall?” Horace said.
“Yeah,” Amelia said slowly.
“If move we’ll have to paint all over this and replace that dingy carpet,” Horace said pointing to the brown mess.
“But we aren’t moving,” Amelia said.
Miranda returned; her Nikon strung around her neck.
“Have you seen this?” Horace said throwing up his arms up towards the wall.
“Yes, I have. I have seen it, even if you don’t,” Miranda said.
“I see it; I see depreciated property values,” Horace said.
“We aren’t moving,” Amelia said.
“Are we moving?” Amelia said.
A silence fell over them.
“No, we aren’t,” Miranda said. Horace’s eyes widened.
“She makes a mess and you encourage it. She can paint on canvases. We can’t remove the wall to put in a gallery,” Horace said.
“You’re in one of your moods,” Miranda said as went to Amelia’s side.
“Why are you so angry? Why do you hate me so much,” Amelia said, blinking away tears from her cat-like eyes. As she fought back tears creases formed around the bridge of her nose as her mouth turned inward. There was nothing accusatory about her tone, only heavy exasperation.
A strong burning and squeeze sensation in Horace’s chest caused him to pause. It felt as if he swallowed a glowing charcoal briquette. He grabbed at his shirt with his gloved hands and looked as if he would rip off all the incandescent buttons. Miranda walked to him as Amelia stood perfectly still. Before Miranda could get a word out Horace was able to compose himself.
“Are you okay,” Miranda said. He nodded. The pain was gone. The thumping in his chest was gone. His heart had turned to paper.
Miranda stood by the window, the setting sun pooling around her feet. She had on a look sharp enough cause a sane person to slink away, everyone but Horace. Out of all the subjects Horace studied, Amelia was one he was unqualified to have an opinion on, according to Miranda’s reactions.
“The girl,” Horace began.
“Amelia,” Miranda said.
“She is out of control.”
“She needs to discover who she is,” Miranda said.
Horace muttered something inaudible as Miranda gated words she would regret behind clenched teeth. Horace ran his finger under the band of his hat to wipe of the droplets of sweat. It did little good.
“Would you take off that ridiculous hat?”
“I want to know.” Horace stood, stuffed his gloved hands in his pockets, his shoulders rising slowly into a shrug, “Is she mine?” His shoulders dropped quickly and he softly huffed.
“Why are you asking this now?” Miranda’s feet shifted in the puddle of sunlight.
“I thought her blonde hair was temporary, I though she would start to look like you or me,” Horace said.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Miranda said.
“Doesn’t it?” Horace said.
“Why do you want it to mean something?” Miranda said.
“I just need to know,” Horace said. He paused, “You want to take her, is that it? You don’t think I can take care of her?”
“This isn’t about money,” Miranda said.
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Let me finish. You don’t seem to like Amelia. Over the last two years she’s become the girl,” Miranda said.
“I can’t help the way I feel. I’m not the one at fault here,” Horace said.
“Whose fault is it? Amelia’s? Or mine?” Miranda said.
Horace shifted his eyes to the window, unsure of what to say. Tears slid down Miranda’s face.
“We’d been in here all day dividing up blame, I don’t want to get caught up in that. It’s not Amelia’s fault. I know that,” Horace said.
“You treat her like it’s her fault. You have no idea how much it hurts me,” Miranda said.
“It wasn’t even a month,” Horace said.
“It was a mistake, but she’s your’s. I’m sure of it,” Miranda.
“Scientifically? Orr is it a gut feeling?” Horace said.
Miranda didn’t respond.
“I want a DNA test,” Horace said flatly.
Miranda didn’t respond.
It felt like having a greeting card in a pocket, only the pocket was unopenable flesh. His newly transformed heart was irritating and he found himself wanting his lungs and the remaining muscle to transform. Maybe then it would no longer be irritating, he thought. Horace took a Bayer aspirin to appease Miranda before she had gone to bed and Amelia was watching television in the living room. A small stack of paper sat before him. It large block letters: FILED. The next page: FAMILY DIVISION. It had been signed by Miranda March. A blur of blonde fur shot across before hitting the table leg. Benny stood on his hind legs, with his front paws on the seat of the chair. Horace patted his lap and he scampered across the chair and onto his lap. Maybe he’d get to keep the cat in the divorce.
That’d only be if he were himself long enough. It had been nearly a week and four things had changed. His hair was red thin strips of construction paper; his nails fragile cellophane, his heart a thick cardstock and, his body lighter, though he did not know how or rather could tell the kind of material.
Amelia walked in with an empty glass and headed for the fridge before freezing in place. “Hello”, Amelia, Horace said.
Amelia’s features became a collage of confusion and sadness.
“I’m sorry,” Horace begun.
“What is happening to your face?” Amelia interrupted.
Horace touched his face and was greeted by a flat woven texture. He was able to feel the fine fibers in this new skin, finer yet stronger than his other attributes.
“You’re so pale,” Amelia said, her fingers shakily grazing the fabric of her loose fitting salmon pink sweater. Amelia gripped her glass tighter, perhaps out of fear or to keep it from falling, maybe a mix of both. Neither of them said anything for a while. Horace upturned the corners of the paperwork, the sound comforting while Amelia stared. Her personality made her nearly incapable of her actions causing offence. Her smooth and round baby-like face gently studying his.
“How?” Amelia said.
“I’ve changed,” Horace said, nervously laughing.
He had never been good at humor or even understanding it.
He flicked the upturned corners with his fingers.
“It’s been happening for about 6 days,” Horace said.
“It’s why you’ve been acting strange, isn’t it? Wearing hats and gloves in this heat,” Amelia said.
He turned over the documents,” yes, this is why among many other reasons,” Horace said.
Once the shock had subsided Amelia felt compelled to touch Horace’s skin. It was smooth, rose in other places, resembled dried plant fibers yet, it was warm and elastic like human skin. Amelia, like many artist, had an obsession with paper and ink. For her last Birthday, Miranda had purchased a few sheets of paper for her, the grand total being thirty-two dollars. Even that paper could not match it. Amelia wondered if she drew on it would Horace be able to wash it off. She did not ask but the urge to gripped her heart.
“You’re not disconcerted with me,” Horace said.
“No,” Amelia said.
Horace said no more as Amelia’s soft hands went over his noise that loss it’s roundness is was more like a halved pyramid.
A heavy guilt had risen in his flattened heart. He was not able to accept Amelia like Amelia accepted him. Even with his new attributes, even though she was scared and, even though he had upset her earlier that afternoon. Even though he was shattering her life though, she was completely unaware. Amelia simply accepted.
“What was the painting about on your wall about?” Horace said. Amelia stopped, poised her right hand in front of his face before letting it fall into her lap.
“It’s about birth of the person. Not merely being born but discovering who you are. You don’t have to be a child to discover it. I was not born knowing what I know now but I was gray. I had the potential to sort the black from the white. I did not have art in me but the potential was around me. It’s basically a colorful representation of blank slate. Kind of ironic, is it not?” Amelia paused, folded her hands in front of her.
“We are shaped by what is around us, like how mom can be scattered sometimes and grandma is that way. The world has a way of rubbing off,” Amelia said.
Horace knew that all too well.
“You understand Irony?”
“I understand many things. I’ve learned only from the best,” Amelia elbowed Horace on his arm.
They talked all night and only noticed its’ passing by hunger. Amelia got Horace to eat dried seaweed. He obliged and said it was tasteless and chuckled. As the sun peeked between the blinds, settling between the rows of brownstones and young oaks Horace’s eyes had become buttons. It did not affect the strength of his eyesight but rather now he had a total of eight holes in which to look though.
The attic was the only place Horace could stay with his predicament. When Miranda had looked around the house for him, Amelia told her he went to Hunter College early. Horace had new words printed on his skin. In addition to imagination, was divorce, custody, depreciated and trash. Thankfully divorce was in a place Amelia could not see. When she returned from class she had a stack of art books. Some of the books pushing the corners of her backpack too far out, the thread showing.
The attic was empty with the exception of a vacuum cleaner, boxes of Christmas decorations and a wrought iron canopy bed from Amelia’s princess days. When she walked in Horace sat in the center of the bed, his button eyes appearing attentive but she could not tell. She had five classes that day and much had changed. His paper skin was joined in two halves by a blanket stich and paper bag brown. His body flatter and like that of a gingerbread man but he was still able to maintain his posture. All of his fingers gone and only his thumb remained, the rest of his hand rounded out like a mitten. The most unsettling difference was his mouth was gone and replaced by a large stitched X.
“I think I can help,” Amelia said, speaking softer than usual.
Horace bent his head forward and back, no longer being able to nod due to lacking his longer neck. It was simple a juncture rather than a body part.
Amelia walked backwards into the bed, dropping the backpack by dipping back and letting it slide off. Horace watched as she dropped the landscaped oriented, coffee table sized and, oversized art books on the bed, one by one, each with a thud. Amelia discarded her backpack like it betrayed her and quickly opened the Humanist to Post-Impressionist era art book, placing Horace’s new hand on it as if he was swearing in a court of law. Nothing happened. Amelia continued to flip though the heavy glossy pages hopeful. Monet only made the colors on Horace richer but it did not change him back to a human. Van Gogh gave him evenly segmented texture, as if someone had drawn many brown dashes of varying shades but it caused no other result. After three books there was one large book of photography left. Horace patted it with his hand and Amelia took it to mean he wanted her to try.
In a strong ray of light stood a man taking a photograph of himself taking a photograph in front of a mirror. Nothing appeared to happen. The next photo in full color was a girl, with cotton candy blue and sea foam green hair. The stitches began to disappear, the skin rejoined front to back without an edge. The next photo was of a new baby, nude in a basket and Horace’s skin softened like the newborns. The button eyes remained after more than half the book before changing. Amelia smiled as tears formed in her eyes. Horace touched his face, there was a new youthfulness to it but it was back to human.
The only differences was one part of his red hair was cotton candy blue and sea foam green and his blue eyes were now a swirl of closely packed blue dashes like Van Gogh’s starry night. It was the price. Amelia could feel the warmth from his skin when their hands collided on the page.
Amelia and Horace waited to hear the car roll down the driveway and drive onto the street before coming down from the attic. Amelia held her backpack to her chest like a child as she walked down from the ladder. There was a strong silence throughout the house but it conjured a warm comfort, mitigating some of the remaining unease of possible failure of changing Horace. They both walked down the four steps to the kitchen hungry. Horace cooked spaghetti, the only meal he could make. The twenty dollars and Wing Hua menu Miranda had left on the counter he ignored. Neither of them spoke for a while and only worked in perfect synchrony setting the table.
Miranda returned with a 10-pound bag of food for Benny from Beastly Bites. Horace pretended to be deep in work at his study, enclosed by his invisible wall. Amelia was sitting on the couch when she came in.
“Mom,” Amelia called.
“Yes, honey,” Miranda said sounded tired.
“Can we talk?” Amelia said.
“Give me a moment,” Miranda said quickly before putting the bag of food on the small table beside the front door, nearly knocking over the key bowl. She walked briskly into the living room and sat beside Amelia.
“Yes, what do you want to talk about?” Miranda said.
“We did a makeover of sorts,” Amelia said.
“Makeover?” Miranda said. Amelia nodded.
“Well, let me see,” Miranda said.
Horace shifted in his seat before pushing it back a bit and standing up. Miranda looked on intently as he turned around. Miranda suppressed laughter. His hair looked ridiculous. Amelia felt something familiar but could not put her finger on it.
“Its art,” Amelia said, her voice rose.
“It is art,” Miranda said. The tone was not in agreement but only parroting what Amelia had said.
“He transformed because I showed him pictures,” Amelia said, the words tumbling out like acrobats.
Miranda took a short intake of air, forming a vowel before stopping cold. Her eyes more focused on Horace than before. His eyes were like waves. It was like his eyes were in a constant spin cycle. Miranda had avoided them these past eight months but was now intrigued yet mournful that she lost something else. Horace’s eyes shifted, noticing Miranda’s eyes to what appeared to be shame and embarrassment.
“Amelia and I worked on this together and I hope you don’t mind the change,” Horace said. Miranda’s eyebrows raised and flattered, reading in his face the sincerity and reverence in his voice. This was and was not the professor, husband and dad she had known and it both made her happy and unsure at the same time. Amelia sat with her hands in her lap and still, not wanting to break the bubble of time they were in. Horace looked over to Amelia and smiled.
Article by Rylee Runyon