Randi tried to be nice to people, but it backfired. Like a spy, she would stealthily listen to what other people said to each other, but then when she said those same things, Randi got a different reaction.

“Your hair is on fleek today, Catherine!” she once blurted out in class. Catherine’s attention turned to her, muscles in her face arching into a puzzle. “Thanks, Randi?” Catherine said as she looked her up and down, like a body scan searching for a reason to care. But then Catherine would turn away, unaffected. Her friends erupted in giggles, but Randi couldn’t tell if it was about her or not.

Randi felt like her body wasn’t hers after she’d get ignored like that. She rose up out of it to survey the situation, taking with her a secured box containing her embarrassingly fragile heart. “It was nothing,” she told herself. “It didn’t matter. At least I tried.” That’s what her mother always told her to do, to try.

Still, she listened to people. She watched. She read mountains of books. She spent hours watching TV shows. She accompanied her mother to the grocery store, and got close to people who were talking. She was a student of conversation. It was a language foreign to her that she could read, write, and understand, but just couldn’t speak, no matter how she tried. Speaking, it turned out, was not about the mouth saying the words, it was about the whole body. It was the face and the heart rate and the hands, and the shoulders, and everything about a person all coming together naturally in a way that for Randi did not come together naturally. It was not something you could just think your way into doing.

It didn’t help that Randi’s mother was a shapeshifter. At times she had the most beautiful face in the world, this cutting brightness in a life full of gray dull edges. She radiated warmth and light shot out of her face. She’d greet Randi with a smile, and make her food, and suggest things they might do together. She’d tell Randi stories about their family, and her own childhood, and sometimes go on and on about news stories and things she saw on Dr. Phil. She’d act out characters in different voices, and Randi would laugh, or be rapt with interest, and it was like there was a current flowing through them, connecting them with a force that could not be severed, not by any means.

But other times Randi’s mother was a beast, and that current between them turned into a prison. Her eyes glowed red and melted to black. Her skin was aflame and angry. Invisible thorns shot out of her presence and into Randi’s heart. It was a threat to go near her, you could almost smell a poison in the air. Her body seemed misshapen, her face contorted into a monster. You could not talk to her. Not at all.

Rand’s mother could scream for hours. She fought with Randi’s dad, their voices resonating through the house like a wounded chorus. Other times, it was Randi who displeased her. She towered over Randi, making Randi feel swallowed up. Randi did not know what to do, but this fighting feeling rose up in her and she would raise her voice to meet her mother’s, and they hung there together in their rage, suspended in a blind fury.

Afterwards Randi would be exhausted, she’d collapse and fold like paper into her bed, and she didn’t even feel like reading or watching TV. She would wonder how she would ever get up and out of bed again. Sometimes her mother would come in, sorry and soft, like a very small and pitiful creature, but Randi was too raw.

She’d ask for her dad, who brought her medicine and water. Randi cried until her tears dried up, and no matter how much water she drank, she would get a headache. She’d try to escape herself, but she was trapped here with this flesh and with her mind, which was off and not in tune with the rest of the world. She’d clutch her stuffed monkey Xavier, relieved that he never transformed into anything else besides what he was.