When the creature first began growing in Cassie’s armpit, she hid it with short-sleeved shirts and pretended it wasn’t there.
The creature’s emergence into the world was ironic in the worst way it could possibly be because it decided to make itself known on the day Cassie’s eleventh grade English class read Kafka. They were almost to the part after Gregor’s lifeless shell had been swept into the trash, and the family is happily on the train discussing their bright new future when the dinosaur-shaped creature attached to Cassie’s underarm began moving and stretching its wings. She wanted to hide it, but the creature made little snarking noises the way one would imagine a tiny dinosaur would sound. She kept her arm down and tried to ignore the calamity occurring with her own body, but soon a blue-grey wing sprung out from under her sleeve and there it was, flapping like a small bird. She gently lifted her arm and a tiny head the size of a hazelnut nodded and opened its eyes. Some boys laughed, but most of the girls thought it was cute, or that’s what they said in order not to hurt her feelings. Her teacher used the strange development as an opportunity to teach the class the meaning of the literary term, Kafkaesque.
“I hate Kafka,” cried Cassie, “I wish he’d never been born!” And she threw her head down on her desk and sobbed.
Cassie’s parents were notified, and when they arrived the school nurse lifted Cassie’s arm to take a look at the sleepy-looking creature. When it folded its wings up they covered its head and it was no bigger than a gloriously large grasshopper. The wings were smooth on the inside and covered with dewy soft down on the outside. When both wings were spread they were no more than eight inches wide, made of translucent membrane with dark veins. The school nurse gently ran her finger along the tip. “It’s quite delicate, and it appears that it’s attached by the spine to your daughter’s underarm,” announced the nurse.
“This is a private school,” hissed Cassie’s mother. “How could something like this happen?”
The nurse did not have an answer, nor did the dean of the school. He did, however, give them the name and telephone number of an excellent oncologist who happened to be his brother-in-law. Cassie’s parents demanded an emergency appointment which they were granted. The doctor lifted the girl’s arm, gazed at the sleeping creature for several seconds through his bifocals and announced, “This isn’t cancer, this is a dinosaur. Your daughter needs a plastic surgeon.” Cassie’s parents were presented with a referral for a plastic surgeon and a bill for $450.
The plastic surgeon examined the dinosaur, consulted with three other doctors, then took fluid samples from its tiny mouth. Then he admitted Cassie to the hospital and ordered an MRI, biliary drainage, chest x-rays, allergy tests, a spinal tap, a balloon endoscopy, bioelectrical therapy, full blood work, coronary stress test, bone density tests, and a biopsy. After four days she was released. The doctor told Cassie and her parents that the creature could not be removed because it was connected to her nervous system. “You two are like conjoined twins. To remove it would endanger your life.” Then he gave her parents the name of a psychiatrist with experience in helping young people cope with handicaps. They departed the hospital with a bill for $84,000 and the card of Dr. Rebecca Goldmeyer.
Before her appointment with the psychiatrist on the following Tuesday, the dinosaur grew about an inch and was now invisible only when Cassie held her arm straight down to her side. “Are you coming to cheer squad tryouts?” her friends asked. At first Cassie’s answer was no, but she quickly changed her mind and said yes, that she would be there.
“Good,” said Malonda, the head cheerleader, “because Sandy Wilson’s trying out and she’s in a wheelchair.” She put a hand on Cassie’s arm, the one that covered the creature. “Anyone should be able to do cheer squad. It’s all about spirit, and we know you’ve got that.” The rest of the girls chimed in their agreement and told Cassie they knew she could do it and that they all supported her. “And the uniforms will be long sleeved,” added another girl.
Dr. Goldmeyer looked just like a photograph of a prison matron that Cassie had once seen on Wikipedia. The doctor’s hair was pinned up in a tight bun; she wore round glasses; her chin was square; her nose was bulbous; and she had a tiny scar on her forehead in the shape of Rhode Island. She held a notebook on her lap in which she occasionally wrote as they talked. “What are you thinking as you sit here with me?” asked Dr. Goldmeyer. Cassie proceeded to tell her how she looked exactly like the prison matron she had seen on Wikipedia. Dr. Goldmeyer did not blink. “Do you think that hurts my feelings?” asked Dr. Goldmeyer.
“Why would it? I was telling the truth,” said Cassie.
“What if I told you that woman on Wikipedia was my mother?”
Cassie’s eyes grew bigger and she waited for Dr. Goldmeyer to say something further. Silence. “Is she?”
“My mother was a speed skater. She took the bronze in the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics.” Dr. Goldmeyer sat still as a stone.
“That was 1964. What has she been doing the past 48 years?” asked Cassie.
“She ran a women’s prison until 1989. She’s retired now.”
“So it was your mother,” said Cassie triumphantly. She sat up taller in her seat.
“Tell me something. Do you feel a person is limited to only one component of identity? My mother was a speed skater and later,” Dr. Goldmeyer paused for dramatic effect, “she was a highly efficient warden of a women’s prison.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of that.”
“You are a girl with a creature attached to your armpit. To be more specific, a dinosaur as I am told by,” she consulted her notes, “Dr. Dharanipragada. You are also a student at St. Edna’s Catholic School and a cheerleader. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” said Cassie.
“You are the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Winston Gaines Rhineholdt. You are a member of St. Philip’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, and you are a member of the Justin Beiber American Fan Club. Is all of that correct?”
Cassie was mortified. “I haven’t been a member of the Justin Beiber Fan Club since I was eleven.” She put up her hands over her chest as if to protect herself.
“Those memberships are for life,” Dr. Goldmeyer replied. She took off her glasses and leaned closer to Cassie. Dr. Goldmeyer’s eyes were locked hard on her, and Dr. Goldmeyer let the discomfort settle onto Cassie before she spoke again. “Don’t you think that you can be the girl with a dinosaur under her arm as well as all those other things? You see Cassie, it’s all about accepting the multiple components of the self, be they emotional facets of your personality or physical manifestations of your body.”
“But you haven’t even seen it,” cried Cassie. Suddenly she sat back, perplexed. “Why haven’t you asked to see it?”
“Don’t you want to? Everyone else does,” said Cassie.
Dr. Goldmeyer furiously began scribbling notes. “You say that as if you think having this …” She made a swirling motion with her pen toward Cassie. “This thing under your arm makes you special.”
“Now you’re calling it a thing.”
More scribbling and she looked up again, holding Cassie’s eyes by her stare. “I just reacted in an offensively dismissive manner to you, and you became quite emotionally possessive when I referred to the dinosaur as a thing. Tell me, how do you see it?”
Cassie pulled the sleeve of her shirt over her hand and lifted her shirt to her shoulder, not caring that she had bared the entire side of her chest. She raised her elbow and there it was. The creature, now exposed to the dim light of Dr. Goldmeyer’s sleek office, slowly lowered its wings and blinked its eyes. It opened its mouth, arched its back, and made a mewling sound like a kitten with a sore throat. “Tell me Dr. Goldmeyer, how do you see it?”
Dr. Goldmeyer’s face did not register any emotion. She turned her head, put her glasses back on and studied the blue-grey creature attached to Cassie’s upraised arm. It flapped its wings twice and stretched its tiny clawed feet in a sleepy yawn. “Self-acceptance is paramount to adolescent development, even when it involves physical anomalies such as this. Just take a look at any women’s magazine. They distort and control young women’s acceptance of their bodies based on antiquated and often misogynistic perceptions of beauty. You have to reject those images. Most are Photoshopped beyond recognition of the original human being in the photo anyway.”
“Do you think that dinosaurs have been Photoshopped out of any of them?” Cassie gently put her hand over the dinosaur’s head, a move that showed it she was about to lower her arm and it must draw up its wings. The gesture seemed personal, almost intimate, and Cassie suddenly recognized the gesture for what it was, their first means of communication. She kept her hand on its head for a moment. The beak was short and hard, but when the wings folded over and covered its face there was a sleek softness all the way down the body, like stroking a baby chick, or the silk flowers in her mother’s guest bathroom.
“We have come to the end of our session. I want to see you again next Wednesday after school,” said Dr. Goldmeyer, finishing up her notes.
“I can’t. We’re having cheer squad tryouts.”
Dr. Goldmeyer tapped her pen against her notebook. “Thursday,” she said.
Cassie’s mother was waiting for her in a thickly carpeted room lined with leather chairs and thick sofas for parents to be comfortable in while their special children were counselled. “Do you feel?” Her mother began, and for a moment Cassie thought that was all she was going to ask. “Do you feel better?” she finally said.
Cassie liked the first question better, and she almost said so. “Yes,” was how she decided to reply.
Practising for cheer squad meant daily training sessions that required raising her arms repeatedly, jumping, kicking, and a lot of yelling. The dinosaur didn’t respond well to any of it. The good part was that it slept soundly for hours after she completed her practices. The other girls tried not to stare at the lump that sometimes stretched its wings under Cassie’s shirt while they rehearsed their routine. Cassie was placed on the end next to Sandy who had become very adept at spinning her wheelchair since she couldn’t high kick. When the girls moved into their pyramid formation, Sandy was in the centre with a girl standing with her feet on each arm of the wheelchair as she towered above Sandy’s head while two others sat on the ground on either side and each rested their toes on a chair arm. Cassie and another girl leaped in front of Sandy’s chair, dropped onto their stomachs, raised up on their elbows, and rested their chins on their palms in a kind of Annette Funicello-listens-to-her-record-player pose. All was going well until Sharon Bachmann’s mother came to practice the day before tryouts waving their new uniform — a skirt and a sleeveless vest.
“Isn’t it darling? I designed it myself,” cried Mrs. Bachmann, holding up the white pleated skirt with bright blue trim and vest with St. Edna’s in blue script across the front. The sleeveless vest was lined in the same bright blue.
Cassie looked on, horrified. “Long sleeves,” she whispered through her tears. The blue trim would make an enormous frame for her dinosaur to flap its wings every time she raised her pom-poms.
Mrs. Bachmann proudly held the vest and skirt against her own chest for all to admire. “Everyone selected for cheer squad will have this uniform before our first game against Lady of Lourdes Academy in two weeks.”
Cassie tried to hide her tears, but they spilled down her face in an embarrassing cascade. “Oh, Cassie,” said Sharon, with faked concern. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like the uniform?”
“Sharon,” Malonda pointed to the vest, “Cassie can’t possibly wear anything sleeveless. Everyone would see.” She cocked her head to the side in one of those looks that tried to say what no one wanted to say.
“Well now girls,” said Mrs. Bachmann with the same smarmy smile as her daughter. “We can accommodate Cassie’s physical challenge if she makes cheer squad. After all, we let Sandy do spins in her chair instead of requiring a high kick. I can redesign Cassie’s vest with sleeves to cover up her situation.”
No one had called it a situation before, and the word was a puncture right through Cassie’s self-confidence. People had called it a dinosaur and a creature, and one boy even cruelly called it a monster, but no one had ever called it a situation. That was a word for police emergencies, premature labour, and traffic jams, not a word for the part of her body that slept next to her chest. She held her arm stiffly by her side, the creature snugly resting after its workout.
“I don’t see why we all can’t just accept Cassie’s handicap,” said Malonda. “There’s no reason to set her apart any more than she already is.” Malonda walked straight up to Cassie and put her hand on her shoulder. “What about it, Cassie? Being a cheer squad member is all about accepting yourself for who you are and celebrating that self for all the world, or at least all our school, to see. Each one of us has something that makes her special. For some people it’s on the outside,” she cast an approving look at Sandy who beamed from her wheelchair. “And for some people it’s what’s on the inside, like Rashonda’s Sickle Cell Anemia.” Everyone turned their heads toward the only African-American girl trying out for cheer squad. “For you, it’s this little creature.” She made a gesture toward Cassie’s arm. “No one understands how he got there or why, but this is a part of you that makes you special, and maybe it’s time for you to accept it and not try to hide it.”
“You sound like my therapist,” said Cassie.
“My mom’s a psychiatrist.”
“Was your grandmother a prison warden?” asked Cassie.
“Oh Cassie,” cried the other girls, and suddenly they all rushed in for a group hug, all except for Sharon, who remained near her mother and the sleeveless uniform.
Cassie sometimes raised her arm when she lay in bed at night. The creature would nuzzle its beak against her finger and make the mewling sounds as she stroked its head in the darkness. Sometimes when it fell asleep the creature would rest so soundly that Cassie was sure she could hear a snuffling sound when it exhaled. On the night after the cheer squad debacle, the diminutive wings folded just under its beak so that Cassie could rub its chin and then run her fingers along the downy edges of its wings as it breathed in and out in almost imperceptible rises and falls under Cassie’s fingers. Before she went to bed, she had pushed open one of her windows so that she could better see the sparse glittering of stars so far away, and the view comforted her: the pink of the curtains she looked past to see the night dotted with stars, the cooling breeze that flowed over the comforter and across her face, the darkness of her bedroom, the womb-like silence of her home at 2:00 AM, and the sleeping creature underneath her arm. “We are acceptable,” she whispered, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Cassie never felt the creature when it disengaged itself from her nervous system, gently detached its spine from her flesh, peeling its way ever so slowly off her, and then wriggled its way from underneath her armpit. She never awoke as the creature stood next to her shoulder and stretched its wings to their full width. It arched its neck upward and splayed out its talons on the bed, adjusting itself to the new limits of its motor skills. The first few flaps were tentative, but the breeze from the night air beckoned the primitive urge of the creature, and after a couple of hops and stumbles, the creature rose from Cassie’s bed and flew out the window. Dipping low, almost to the tops of the bushes before gaining its bearings, the creature finally rose and soared over the ash tree in the yard next door and disappeared.
Early that morning Mrs. Rhineholdt awoke to the sound of Cassie’s sobbing. When she pushed open the bedroom door, expecting some unknown horror to have overtaken her daughter, she saw Cassie sitting on the edge of her bed, crying and holding her arms tightly against her body. “Oh Cassie, is it?” She didn’t know how to ask, or what to ask since the day they discovered the creature had joined her daughter’s flesh. She reached for Cassie’s arm, the one that had nurtured the creature, and Cassie lifted it, looking away as if ashamed. There was no mark that it had ever been there. The armpit was smooth, flawless, and lean, like any young girl’s arm. Cassie threw herself against her mother’s shoulder and wailed. “Oh Cassie,” her mother said, smiling into her daughter’s neck. Cassie pushed her hand under her armpit, seeking out the soft wings that were no more, and she cried harder.
“It’s over,” said her mother, rocking her daughter. “You don’t have that thing anymore.”
“I’m so,” Cassie searched for words. She held her face against her mother so she could not see her. “I’m so relieved.”
Cathy Adams was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Her novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her publications include Utne, Upstreet, Portland Review, Steel Toe Review, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, among others. She now lives and writes in Xinzheng, China.