The amount of people able to fit within a middle school cafeteria is often underestimated. Tables and chairs had been hurriedly set up for the family to teacher discussion night of Freebeck Middle School, and both parents and teachers alike were milling about. The formal discussions had not yet started, and thus both parents and teachers tried to shy away from the children’s grades and classroom behavior.
While the adults talked amongst themselves, so as well did the kids. A group of particularly close friends huddled in a circle. The four girls, Becky, Jess, Olivia, and Tiffany were whispering to one another. They would make an inaudible comment, the others would listen intently and then they would all break down into giggles. Even with their tightly knit circle, a few whispered phrases would escape now and then.
“You did not! I could never!”
“I got real close thats for sure..”
“OMG no way!” And they once again broke down into a giggle fit.
Meanwhile, the parents of the four girls were talking by the refreshments table. Beth, the mother of Becky was telling a wild college story that elicited laughter from the others, the loudest laugh being Joanne’s, who happened to be the mother of Jess. Owen, who was the father of Olivia, was in the middle of sneakily grabbing a few cookies from the table for himself and Tristan, the father of Tiffany.
Beth was a younger woman with long wavy blonde hair. She wore a white top and black dress pants and her painted red nails flashed in the cafeteria lights as she extravagantly told her third party story.
Joanne was just a little older with natural red hair in a ponytail that bounced as she laughed. She was dressed in a simple navy one piece dress.
Owen brushed a few cookie crumbs off of his green sweater. He was a bit more of an overweight man with short gelled up light brown hair and very dark brown eyes.
Tristan accepted a cookie from owen. He smiled and pushed up his glasses. A bit of an older black gentleman, Tristan was the softest spoken of the group and also the best dressed, in a fancy very professerly corduroy suit jacket.
“Oh my goodness, Beth, you must have had a crazy four years!” Joanne said in between bouts of laughter. “Imagine what good a time Becky is going to have in college!”
“Mm,” Beth sounded in agreement through her sip of fruit punch. “I suppose. I try not to think about it now, I mean she’s only in the seventh grade.”
It was at this moment that a tap on the microphone system was heard throughout the cafeteria. The Principal of Freebeck Middle School, Angela Hyke was at the main side of the large room, along with assistant principal Gina Reed.
“Excuse me, families of Freebeck. I’m sorry to say there will have to be a further delay of the formal start to the family discussion night as the discussion sheets have still not been printed. We were having issues with it in the office but we have a repairman here now! If we still cannot get it working after half an hour, I’m sorry to say we may have to reschedule. But for now, fingers crossed, everyone!” Mrs. Hyke gave a nervous smile and placed the microphone back on its stand before hurring with Mrs. Reed in tow back to the office. There were a few interspersed grumbles of discontent at the idea of waiting another half hour to possibly even then have wasted an hour of their evening, but no families left. The conversations that had been occuring previously then continued.
“I mean, you’ll have to think about it eventually. College, that is,” Tristan said. “I always thought about how far away college was right up until my oldest daughter Julia went. It hits you out of nowhere.”
Beth shrugged and took another taste of her fruit punch. “That makes sense. I mean I always think about how Becky will always be my little girl but.. I don’t know.. Lately she’s been.. Different? I guess. She may be still growing up. I mean she’s my oldest and she’s going to be a teenager soon. I still don’t know how to raise a teenager,” she said through a nervous laugh.
Owen made a noise that signaled he had something to say, but still had a mouth full of pecan sandies. He swallowed his cookie and said “Teens go through a lot of sudden stuff at this age. Dennis just recently turned fourteen and let me tell you, the changes with the teen years hit you like a bus. Hooo boy you want to talk about unexpected stuff, Tristan, try and think back to Julia’s thirteenth, huh?” Owen nudged Tristan, who nodded in agreement. Owen cleared his throat and said in a mock regal tone “Tell us your qualms, Madam Beth and we, as fathers of teenagers, shall give unto you…. Our… advice…” Owen’s regal voice died out as he realized the joke had fallen short.
“Well she’s just been very… private lately,” Beth started. “She won’t let me in her room for reasons I don’t understand. It seems like her door is locked more often than not.”
Joanne perked up to this. “Jess has been doing the same thing! What about Olivia and Tiff?” she asked, facing Owen and Tristan.
Both the dads gave understanding nods. “Its normal as a kid grows older to want more privacy,” Owen said. “Although…. Olivia has been a bit more private than Dennis was at this age, to be certain. I haven’t raised a teenage girl yet though. Was Julia this independent suddenly for you, Tristan?”
“I can’t say she was. But that was quite a few years ago and my memory isn’t the best..”
“Well, uh, I can assure you that privacy isn’t super out of the ordinary at least,” Owen said, trying to comfort Beth.
“It’s not just the locked doors,” Joanne spoke up, now more dedicated to the conversation after realizing she had questions too. “About 7 times out of 10, when Jess is in her room with her door locked, I hear this…. Shuffling? I don’t know how to explain it.”
Tristan and Owen looked at her quizzically, then at each other, then back at Joanne. “I… can’t say I know what you mean there, Jo,” Tristan said. “Care to try and explain further..?”
Joanne fiddled with her purse strap. “It’s like… I hear her move around oddly and then I hear this sort of odd sound like the stretching of rubber and the shuffle of clothes and then she walks around a little bit.”
Beth looked at her, eyes wide. “I hear Becky doing the same thing! I can’t tell for the life of me what it is. What do you suppose it is, you two?”
Owen and Tristan were silent for a few seconds before Tristan spoke up. “I’m… not sure either. I hear Tiffany doing something like that too but Julia never did anything similar..”
Owen nodded. “Olivia too.”
They all stood in silence and confusion for a few moments before Beth said “Could it be some new fad? Some new thing that tweens do? Like maybe they’re doing some internet challenge like… walk with your feet covered in rubber bands or some other odd thing. If Julia and Dennis didn’t do it, it has to be something new right?”
This seemed to satisfy the others and they all nodded and gave small statements of agreement.
“Well uh, at least we have some semblance of explanation there,” Tristan said. “Care to share any other worries, Beth and Jo?”
“I mean oddly enough, Jess has been having… memory issues too.” As if the last confusion hadn’t thrown off Tristan and Owen enough, this just served to take them more aback.
“Yes she.. Well she didn’t seem to remember our dog’s name, Buster. Every day when she gets home she always says ‘Here Buster! Buster come here!’ but a few weeks ago I brought her home and she walked in through the door and said “Oh! A dog!” As if she had forgotten about him entirely!”
This time, Beth chimed in with a reassurance. “I mean I don’t know much about raising teenagers, but don’t you think it’s possible she may have a lot of things on her mind currently? I’m sure she didn’t forget the dog but she may have been just running on autopilot and forgot to greet Buster. You always mention Jess’s writing and her literature club after school I’m sure that could get on her mind at times.”
Owen snapped his fingers and pointed to Beth. “That sounds exactly right. She may not be having memory issues but a tweens mind is starting to be filled with a lot of things and other stuff can just get pushed out of the way.”
Tristan added, “and they’re always trying new things now too. My Tiffany always put her hair up in braids or anything else but she seems to always want her hair down now. Wearing scarves and other neckwear too. They just want to try new things and they’re thoughts are often preoccupied with discovering who they are.”
“Does that include…” Beth started. “Does that include asking for some frankly very… revealing outfits? I mean I know you said she may be trying to discover a new side of herself but Becky has been requesting I buy some very… harlot-esque outfits. The girl is only 12 and she wants to wear something that looks like its been designed for someone whose twenty! Its like something a sicko boy in her grade would ask her to wear! Do you think some boy put her up to this and she’s doing it to impress him?”
“No no, not at all,”Owen said. He thought for a moment. “Well that may be partially what Tristan is talking about. Going back to what we were talking about before, a girl goes through many changes during this time. She’s possibly going through puberty currently and wants to try new things as she realizes her body is going through new changes. And to me that seems like a good thing! A lot of kids are embarrassed by their bodies during this time. The fact that Becky seems to be proud of hers is a good thing!”
“I suppose…” Beth said. “On the topic of that puberty thing, its normal for a girls voice to get… deeper yes?”
Tristan laughed. “Of course it is! Completely normal for boys and girls. Didn’t you notice yours when you were growing up?”
Beth shrugged. “I guess but… it’s really odd. Some mornings When Becky wakes up and greets me she sounds almost like a boy, her voice is so deep! She usually coughs and rubs her neck for a second after that happens and then her voice sounds normal but.. I don’t know it’s just a little concerning is all.”
Joanne smiled “It’s definitely normal. My Jess has the same thing happen to her every morning. She blames it on a cold or something sometimes but it definitely happens a lot.”
Beth smiled warmly. “Well thank you Joanne that’s very comforting.”
Joanne smiled back and nodded before taking a bite of a cookie from the table behind them. She glanced at the stage and mumbled to herself “I feel like they should have been back by now.”
“And I mean… on the topic of being boy-ish I guess…” Owen said. “I mean Beth you mentioned that Becky’s voice sounded boyish and well this is sort of on a similar vein I suppose but perhaps it's also partially that well girls just seem to not want to be stereotypically ‘ladylike’ anymore. I mean, Olivia has been being very unladylike lately and I myself have no idea why. I mean.. I haven’t a girl teenager like Tristan. Only Dennis but he’s not the best comparison.”
Tristan gave Owen an inquisitive look. “How so? What has she been doing?”
Owen fidgeted. “Just very.. Unladylike things. Burping loudly, picking her nose. Just stuff that myself and my wife have encouraged her not to do as she’s been growing up. Very piggish things that I didn’t think she’d do. But I guess it could be just something like we were saying before. Discovering themselves and everything. I mean who knows? Maybe Olivia is more tomboy-ish than we thought.”
Tristan thought for a moment. “Well, Julia never did anything like that, that I remember at least, but Tiffany has been doing that lately.. In a sense? Its like she’ll do something like that but then very quickly catch herself and apologize a lot. Maybe she’s been feeling the same way as Olivia but thinks her mother and I would be disappointed? I’m not sure.”
Beth thought a moment. “That's so weird because it's almost the exact opposite for Becky. In the past few weeks she seemed to ramp up her manners in a sense. She’s been acting very ladylike and doing things more than what we taught her, like curtseying and odd things like that. It's like she’s suddenly excited by the idea of being girly and wants to try to be girlish at every opportunity. Almost like that boy- well girl I guess- I read about in the paper. The one that transitioned to a girl.”
“Right I read about her too,” Tristan said. “She was raising a lot of local awareness for gender identities and all that.”
Owen shrugged. “I mean if they’re all doing something to the effect of it, it's probably more of that self image thing we mentioned. Just trying to bolster her identity and really find herself. It is a bit odd though that all of these… accounts are at such extremes I guess?”
The others nodded in agreement. Owen just shrugged and grabbed another cookie. “Not really that much we can do though. Its natural for girls to have a bit of an identity phase and its unhealthy to intervene.”
There was a few moments of refreshment consuming before Joanne frowned. “I’m not sure if this relates much but.. When the girls had their sleepover a few days ago they did something odd that I’ve still been mulling over. They were sitting in a circle, whispering to each other… much like they’re doing now,” Joanne said as she glanced a few dozen feet away where the girls were whispering. “And Becky laughed and I managed to hear her say ‘take it off and talk to her I dare you!’ before being shushed by the other girls. Jess seemed to mess with something with her hands before she stood up and came over to me, the other girls all giggling. She just asked for a cup of orange juice and it was very odd because she and the other girls were all stifling giggles like there was a big joke I was missing. The whole while she seemed to be uncomfortable with her right hand. Like she kept switching between hiding it from view and flaunting it in a way. And her hand looked.. Odd. I didn’t see it much with how often she moved it but it looked paler than normal and not as dainty as I thought it was. It was just… a weird happenstance. I’m not sure what it means but I was hoping I could ask you all that.”
This put an odd look on all three other parents faces. They weren’t quite sure what it meant either. After a bit, Owen spoke up. “Perhaps it’s something that the girls wanted you to notice and you didn’t? Like maybe one of the other girls painted her nails or gave her a ring she wanted to show you and you just didn’t catch it at the time. I mean that’s the best explanation I can come up with.”
Joanne shrugged. “I suppose. That was my guess too. I feel bad for missing it if that’s what it was. I’m sorry that was quite off topic I just didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t think of another time to ask.”
Tristan laughed, relieved the momentary mystery was resolved. “It’s quite alright, Joanne. I mean we’ve been talking about the girls in general for quite a while honestly I think anything that has the word girl in it is pretty on topic as of right now.”
The other parents laughed, but Joanne still seemed a bit uncomfortable. Owen took notice of this.
“What is it, Jo? Are you alright?”
Joanne fiddled with the edge of her fruit punch cup. “I uh… well.. it’s just something that's been bothering me for a few days now. Pardon me for, uh, changing the subject twice now but it does still relate to the girls. It’s just… oh every time I think of it my stomach twists in knots…”
Tristan reassured her, “Joanne its alright, we all are here for you.”
Joanne sighed and gave Tristan a nervous smile. “The other day I.. walked in on Jess while she was.. Undressed and I happened to notice that, well… she was just staring at herself in her mirror. Naked and just staring at her body.” Joanne let out a breath as she seemed to let the weight off her shoulders. “Of course I immediately apologized to her and left but it was the way she was looking at herself that she seemed.. Enthralled by her body. Something I’ve never seen her do before.”
The other parents were taken aback by this but Tristan frowned and nodded. With a sigh he said, “Joanne, I don’t think you have much to worry about.. I can say from a.. similar personal experience that what you walked in on was part of a normal thing as girls begin to.. notice their bodies more and… do or see things they haven’t before. It makes me similarly uncomfortable to talk about but I… ah I don’t know if I should say… “ Tristan coughed and glanced over at the group of girls before continuing. “About a week ago I happened to walk in on Tiffany doing some… self… exploration. I’ll uh… put it that way. I can say though, Joanne, you have nothing to worry about. We all can tend to walk in on very normal and natural things.”
Joanne nodded, relieved that Tristan shared something similar. She patted his arm in a show of comfort.
Beth cleared her throat and glanced at the clock and the stage. “Honestly where are those damn discussion sheets.”
Halfway across the room, the tightly knit group of four whispering girls also noticed how empty the stage still was. Oliva nudged the others.
“It doesn’t seem like the principal is going to be coming back anytime soon. Do you guys want to go just take these off for a second? I feel like I need to cool off.”
Becky giggled, “Yeah and we can switch around! I haven’t gotten to be Tiffany in foreeeeeever,” she said, pinching Tiffany.
“Ow! Tiffany said and pushed Becky’s hand away. “Fine you can be Tiffany but you have to be more careful about saying stuff around Tiffany’s dad!”
“I just want to get a breath of fresh air,” Jess mumbled.
The girls looked over at where their parents were, made sure they weren’t looking, and they started to weave their way through the crowded cafeteria towards the girls bathroom. Becky swung open the door and let the other girls inside. They awkwardly waited a few seconds for people in the bathroom to leave before Tiffany discreetly locked the door behind them. She turned with a sigh of relief to the other girls, who were already engaging in a few bizarre acts.
Olivia started pulling on the back of her light brown braid and tugging on it. As she did so, her face moved with it. It shifted to her pulls and her face seemed to stretch out. As things like her eyes and mouth moved, they revealed themselves to be only holes that some other face behind hers was utilizing. As this mask stretched from Olivia pulling on her hair, she reached with her other hand and grabbed the bottom of her mouth. The stretching in two directions stretched her mouth open impossibly and a boyish face was revealed through her mouth. The hole stretched around this boy’s head and he pulled it back like a hood. Garrett wiped the sweat off of his forehead with his still girly and manicured Olivia hand.
Meanwhile, Jess fumbled around with her ponytail and she pulled the hairband off and parted her hair. It was shown that on the back of her head, kept held together by the tension of the ponytail, was a vertical slit along her head. She reached her hands in and pulled the sides of it apart, stretching her face and moving it in a similar way Olivia did. She pulled her face all the way around and off the head wearing it, and Bryce dropped Jess’s face for it to flop forward.
In one of the stalls, Becky pulled off her shirt and threw it over the top of the door to the boys that were wearing Olivia and Jess, who made joking calls of “take it all off!” Becky moved her hands to her bare back and fumbled with a small seam on the right side of her back. She pulled up on this and a velcro noise was heard as she pulled up the velcro holding her back together. With a large opening in her back, Becky put both hands inside and stretched it open for the boy on the inside to pull is upper body out of. The front of Becky, including her face, deflated as the wearer moved out of her. The boy inside had to pull on either hand to get his arms out and through the back opening, but after a bit of work, Becky had come off of Jake and the top half of his disguise flopped down towards his still girlish legs.
Tiffany pushed her hair out of the way of the back of her neck and held it up with one hand. As she moved her hair out of the way, a zipper was revealed on the back of her neck that she fumbled at with one hand.
“Tyler do you need a hand with that?” Garrett asked, who was still in the middle of pushing down the Olivia disguise.
“Yeah that would be nice,” Tiffany replied.
Garrett moved over to the back of Tiffany and put hand on her shoulder as he moved the zipper down. “Thank you again for including us in this,” Garrett said as he worked the zipper down Tiffany’s body. “I still marvel at how realistic these disguises are. You really are my smartest friend.”
Tiffany giggled in a girlish manner. “I mean I had a lot of help from my special effects worker cousin but thank you. And I mean we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off if it weren’t for you, Garrett. You’re the one that managed to talk to the real Tiffany Becky Jess and Olivia and convince them to let us take their place for a bit. Granted that we gave them access to some disguises of their own.”
Garrett had managed to work the zipper all the way down Tiffany’s back, and in a manner much similar to Becky, Tiffany pulled the top half of her body off. The head, arms, and chest of Tiffany flopped toward the floor as Tyler stretched and scratched his own chest. At this point, the other boys had managed to pull, push, and stretch the rest of their girl suits off. They were all red and sweaty as it had been quite a few hours since any of them had been out of disguise. They were also all in underwear, which was a bit uncomfortable for them when they first started this, but now it was nothing out of the ordinary
“Okay I want to be Tiffany!” Jake said, bouncing up and down., and starting to reach for the Tiffany disguise on the floor.
“We know, Jake,” Tyler said, putting a hand up, prompting Jake to stop reaching for the Tiffany disguise. “We have to decide who’s who though before we just start suiting up again. Garrett who do you want to be?”
Eventually, the boys all figured out who they were going to switch to. Jake was going as Tiffany, Garrett as Becky, Bryce as Olivia, and Tyler was going to be Jess. They had all started putting on their disguises and they were all halfway on when suddenly there was a pounding on the bathroom door. “Hey why is this locked? Open up!”
“Shit shit shit,” Tyler mumbled. He grabbed at the headpiece of the Jess disguise and pulled out a small device. He placed this device on his neck and when he spoke, Jess’s voice said “Just a second sorry!” And the boys started more frantically pulling on their disguises. But there was the horrifying sound of a key being placed in the bathroom door lock and turning. The door opened and Principal Hyke and assistant Principal Reed stormed in.
“What… is… this!!?” Angela Hyke said, stomping a foot. The boys all stammered, some went pale whilst others suddenly flushed a bright embarrassed red.
“Angela,” Mrs. Reed said, “These boys… are a bunch of SUCKERS!” The two women started laughing hysterically and the four half disguised boys glanced around at each other, not daring to say anything. Mrs. Hyke suddenly smiled as Mrs. Reed moved towards her back and grabbed something. The buzz of a zipper echoed, just as it had moments before when Garrett unzipped Tyler. Principal Hyke put her hands behind her back and pulled off a disguise, again much like the boys did. As the guise of Mrs. Hyke was pulled away, the real Jess and Olivia were shown to be inside, with Jess sitting atop Olivia’s shoulders. The two girls helped out Mrs. Reed, who was shown to be the combination of Tiffany and Becky, with Tiffany on top. The girls started laughing again and the girls that were on top were helped down by the counterparts that played the legs. They finally settled down and Tiffany flashed a devious smile. “What you didn’t think we were going to let you BOYS have all the fun, did you?”
The boys managed to laugh too, happy that the momentary heart attack was nothing to be worried about anyway. “God nearly scared me half to death,” Jake said as he started working on the Tiffany disguise again. “How did you even get those disguises? Those weren’t with the ones we gave you.”
Tiffany smiled again. “Well it was sort of amazing that your cousin didn’t recognize his own work as I used your face to ask for these two.”
Tyler opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and then said “Yeah I probably should have expected you’d do that.”
The girls started helping the boys get their disguises on, which was the least they could do after scaring them all so badly.
“Hey you.. you locked the door behind you right?” Tyler asked the girls.
“Uh… no…” Jess said.
The kids all heard a noise and suddenly the door swung open again. Standing in the doorway was Beth. Her jaw dropped as she saw the scene in front of her. As her heart was beating, she mumbled to herself “Well I guess that makes a lot more sense than Owen’s ‘finding themselves and body positivity’ bullshit.”