a short story by Susan Chiavelli
About the Author
Susan Chiavelli believes that being swallowed by a whale is an apt metaphor for writing fiction.
She serves on the editorial staff of the Santa Barbara Anthology, Community of Voices. Her fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies.
The Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference awarded “Whale” the first place fiction award in 1998, and it has received other recognition. It appeared in World Wide Writers in 1999 and Potpourri in 2001. In addition, “Whale” has been used in the Speaking of Stories educational outreach program for youth at risk.
Susan grew up in Seattle.
Will pulled the visor down on his black baseball cap, the one that had “Free Willie” stitched on it in white — his own private joke. He’d taken to wearing it after he got kicked out of fat camp last June, after the episode. He swung his backpack over his shoulder and felt its sweet weight as he headed out the door. An empty gun is a stupid thing, but he never went anywhere without it.
He saw the kids up ahead at the corner, slowed and timed his approach to coincide with the arrival of the school bus, as he always did. Will had learned long ago not to linger around a group of kids with nothing to do. His breath puffed out in front of him, and his unlaced high-top sneakers sloshed through the matted leaves as he walked under the bony maples. He heard the bus making its way up the hill before he saw the bright yellow hulk lurching through the mist and the stain of flashing red lights. He quickened his step and fell into line, the last one to get on. Will heaved himself into his usual seat, alone.
Heather and Tiffany were sitting in the seat in front of him, giggling and whispering with their heads together. Pretty and popular, they never acknowledged his existence, except maybe to laugh at something Ryan said about him. Will rested the backpack in his lap, and his hand felt the secret weight against the canvas. Whatever silly little secret they were telling could be their last, if he chose it to be. It was all up to him. He opened his backpack, slipped his right hand in and groped around until he found the .22, but left it concealed inside. He’d been taking the gun to school for a whole year now and secretly pointing it at people who didn’t like him. Point and click. Point and click. It calmed him. Will tapped Tiffany on the shoulder with his left hand, purposely touching her untouchable blonde hair in the process, and leaving it resting there a moment too long. She turned around, flicked his hand off and looked at him like he was an insect. Will vaguely remembered that she had once told him to keep his cooties to himself, somewhere back in second grade when people talked like that.
“Do you have the time?” he asked, for lack of anything more original.
He gazed into her violet contact lenses, still feeling her heat in his daring hand. Tiffany scorched him with a purple-laser glare. The two girls exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Will asked.
He pulled back on the trigger and played with the balance of tension.
“You’ve been riding this bus every day, and you still don’t know when it gets to school?” Tiffany shook her head in amazement.
“Yeah,” Heather added, “and like all of a sudden, you want to know what time it is? Like you don’t have the faintest? That’s so lame.”
“Whale!” Ryan’s voice pierced Will’s back. He was sitting in his constellation of friends strung across the back seat. “I’ll tell you what time it is, Blubber Boy. It’s time to shut up and leave the girls alone.”
Will turned around and smiled at Ryan. “Whatever,” he said, but his smile said something else. He shifted the backpack in his lap and pointed the hidden gun at the rear of the bus.
“Wipe that shit-eating grin off your face,” Ryan said.
Will didn’t answer. Point and click. He turned back around and looked out the window at the strip malls flying by. He released the trigger and pulled his sweaty hand out of the backpack. He knew exactly what had gotten into him. He felt like he had choices.
The morning dragged by, and finally it was lunchtime. Will made his way toward the cafeteria. He’d faked being sick, which got him out of gym early, so the halls were empty — the way he liked them.
“Will? Is that you, Will?”
He recognized the voice and turned around, but he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“It’s the new me.”
She twirled around in a complete circle; her long honey-colored hair flowing off her newly chiseled shoulders. Will stared, speechless. A wave of dizziness came over him, as if he were the one spinning. A beautiful girl, even though a formerly fat one, was twirling around in the school hallway so he could see all her perfect, newly sculpted parts.
Her hair and eyes were the same; he’d recognize them anywhere. Blue-green eyes, the same color as the swimming pool where he last saw her at camp — her white flesh bobbing in the water. He’d despised water aerobics, except for watching Sienna. It wasn’t the water he minded; it was all that wallowing it took to get in and out of it. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, what with everyone being in the same boat. But it was humiliating, being forced to look at everyone else’s fat hanging out, and no where for the eyes to escape without seeing a 3-D reminder of yourself. It was all so lame — except for Sienna. He liked the way she pushed the wet hair off her face, the water streaming off as she opened her eyes and gulped in some air. He’d watch where the air went, as it inflated her chest and caused the trapped cleavage to rise and fall, rise and fall against black spandex, and…
“Will? So what do you think?”
Will stammered, before he could find his voice.
“Wow! You look awesome. But, what are you doing here?”
“I go to this school now. My parents moved so I could start over. Can you believe it? They’re so supportive.”
She grabbed his arm and propelled him down the hall. Will couldn’t help gawking at the new version of Sienna. A wave of jealousy washed over him. She’d actually done it, shed the cocoon, as they said at camp. He could hear the counselors’ voices mingling with the whispering pine trees at the beginning of each meditation period. Shed the cocoon — shed the cocoon — shed the cocoon. They walked past the glass block window wall that led to the cafeteria, and Sienna shimmered — an apparition in the wavy light. Will pictured a cocoon of pure white fat left on a carpet of green pine needles, somewhere deep in the forest — dropped there in one graceful move as if she had simply taken off a bulky winter coat.
“God, Sienna. You really did it. I can’t believe it.”
“I know, I can hardly believe it myself.” She smiled, and Will thought she was smiling at him at first, but then he saw her checking out her multiplied reflection in the glass wall. She turned her attention back to him.
“Would you have lunch with me? I don’t know anyone here.”
“Okay, but are you sure you want to be seen with me?”
“Will, are you forgetting?” Sienna lowered her voice.
“It’s me, your camp buddy. Besides, I have something important I have to talk to you about.”
Will hoped she didn’t want to talk about the episode– the rage reaction as the counselor referred to it. Fit & Healthy had refunded nothing to his parents, charging them for the property damages and pointing out their small print rights. He didn’t really remember the details of going berserk, but it was apparent afterward that he had. What he did remember was the long ride home in the Skylark with his summoned parents. Glimpses of blue lake retreating through bushy pine trees as he listened to his father’s tight-jawed silence, and his mother’s weeping about all the money wasted. “We paid all that money, and for what? A measly seven pounds?”
Will didn’t have anything to say for himself then, and he knew he couldn’t explain it to this new Sienna either. Maybe the old Sienna would have understood. He thought about the first time he met her at camp and how they’d dubbed the place Fat & Hefty, and then both laughed until they cried. He couldn’t get over her transformation. One of his big problems at camp had been his inability to imagine himself thin. He just couldn’t visualize it.
The counselors played whale music during meditation, and the whale’s song haunted him. Will walked into the school cafeteria with Sienna. He noticed that she dropped his arm before they went inside, but even so, her aura splashed all over him. Heads turned. He heard whispers, and he knew everyone wondered what the pretty new girl was doing with him. He looked around for Ryan, but it was early; he wasn’t at his usual table yet.
They entered the food line, and Will let Sienna go ahead, feeling like a boyfriend as he handed her a tray. She zipped past his steaming regulars: chicken nuggets, pizza, Sloppy Joes, and picked up a vanilla nonfat yogurt, fresh fruit tray, and a Diet Pepsi. Will opted for the same. He didn’t want to eat his old foods in front of the new Sienna. Now that he had a new friend, maybe she would teach him the secret. Maybe he could actually lose weight too. The mantra — shedthecocoonshedhecocoonshedthecocoon — filled the dreamless space in his head.
“So where do you sit?”
Will looked around. He didn’t want to take her to the dork’s table, so he headed for a completely empty table in the far corner by the floor-to-ceiling windows. They set their trays down across from one another, Will squinting at the window and Sienna facing the room. Will couldn’t believe it; a ray of sun escaped through a cloud and slashed across their table — like something out of a bible story. He plunked his backpack down on the bench, no need for it now. Everything was different. Now he was sitting with Sienna, butterfly girl, and her blue eyes looked at him like she wanted something. Sienna opened up the yogurt and dumped it in the middle of a pineapple ring. Will copied her. It was the way they had served it at camp, and he liked that they shared this bit of private history, even though he wasn’t crazy about yogurt.
“Will, I’ve got to ask you an important favor.”
“Sure, Sienna, anything.” He liked the taste of her name in his mouth — Sienna. Her eyes were darker blue now, like the sky clouding up behind her.
“You’ve got to promise me something.” She spoke in a hushed voice and leaned forward.
“You’ve got to promise to never tell anyone that I was at that fat camp with you. I’m starting over here, Will. If people find out I used to be fat, I’ll be ruined. I want you to tell people, and only if they ask, that our parents are friends. Got it? We’re family friends.”
He listened in silence and suddenly had a bad taste in his mouth — infected with slimy bacteria cultures. He hadn’t tasted yogurt since his last meal at camp, right before the episode. Sienna smiled at someone over Will’s shoulder. He turned around and saw across the sea of kids that it was Jamie, one of Ryan’s friends at the cool table. Will turned back to see Sienna’s smile fade as she looked at him.
“Of all people in the world, you understand, don’t you, Will?”
He looked into her intense eyes with intimate knowledge of their power to visualize what she wanted and get it. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, both seeing her sitting at Ryan’s table and both knowing there would be no room for Will in that vision.
“Sienna, our parents have never even met.”
He pulverized the fruit on his plate with his fork and then looked back up. Superimposed on the window glass behind Sienna, over the view of the darkening sky outside, was the slow motion reflection of Jamie and Ryan sauntering toward them, as if they had all the time in the world. Sienna looked at them and back at Will as they got closer.
Will felt a hand on his shoulder, “So, Whale, buddy, aren’t you going to introduce us?” Ryan said in a fake, polite tone.
“This is Sienna. Sienna, Jamie and Ryan.” He cringed waiting for an insult, but the boys were on their best behavior in front of Sienna.
“Where are you from?” Ryan asked.
“We just moved here from Woodinville.”
“So how do you two know each other?” Jamie asked.
“We’re family friends. Isn’t that right, Will?” Sienna was cool, and it sounded true the way she said it.
Will looked at her and hesitated, “Sure,” he said, “That’s it, family friends. Then he smiled. “Why, we used to take baths together when we were little.”
“Will, we did not!” Sienna blushed, and Ryan and Jamie laughed.
“Sienna, my mother has a picture of us in the tub together.” He was surprised at the sound of his own voice, but he couldn’t stop. “Remember?
“The last time your parents got together with mine, and they drug that picture out. Remember how embarrassed we were?”
“Will!” He felt her kick him under the table, but he didn’t care. Ryan and Jamie were still laughing at what he’d said, and it felt good to bask in that kind of laughter.
“Yeah, well parents always pull that kind of shit,” Ryan said in a sympathetic tone. Will did a double-take. He’d never seen Ryan’s sensitive side before.
“Hey listen, Tiffany’s having a party Saturday night,” Jamie said.
“And you’re invited. Do you think you can make it?”
“Sure, I’d love to,” Sienna said, smiling at Jamie.
“Good.” They stood gazing at one another for a moment until Ryan nudged Jamie.
“Oh, yeah, and bring a friend if you want.”
“Okay,” Sienna said.
“I’ll talk to you before then. Later.”
Will and Sienna watched in silence as the boys walked away. When they were out of hearing range, Sienna stopped glowing.
“Why did you have to say that?”
“Hey, you wanted me to be a family friend. I was just making it believable.”
Sienna sulked as she ate her yogurt in silence.
“So who are you taking to the party with you?” Will asked.
“I don’t know. No one. I don’t really have any friends here yet.”
Will grinned at her. “Sure you do, you’re looking at him.”
She frowned and jabbed at her pineapple.
“Oh, well I think they wanted me to bring a girlfriend.”
“Well, yeah, sure they did. But you don’t have one, so you can take me. It’s no big deal. We’ll go as friends, you know, old family friends?”
Sienna looked at him and pushed her plate away. “All right, Will, sure. You can come to the party with me.”
He smiled at her, and she smiled back, but there was something missing in her eyes. Behind Sienna, the weather was getting weird outside. Black storm clouds were breaking up and some blue sky peeked through, brightening the dead grass — the crazy kind of weather that can go either way.
Will stood on the corner of Horizon Place in the dark, right where Sienna said she would meet him. He shifted the weight of his backpack to the other shoulder. It was getting cold out, and he shivered as he pushed up the collar on his coat and pulled his “Free Willie” cap down. She didn’t want him going to her house — said her parents didn’t allow her to date — they would have to meet somewhere before going to Tiffany’s. She was thirty minutes late now, and he’d started worrying back when she was only ten minutes late.
He paced back and forth debating what to do. There was a phone at the gas station a block down the street, and he could still see the corner from there, if she showed up. Except now he was getting the definite feeling that she wasn’t going to show. He walked quickly to the gas station. A growing feeling of dread followed him. He fumbled in his pocket for some change and punched in her number. A woman answered the phone, probably her mother. She said Sienna wasn’t home, that she was “out on a date” and asked him if he wanted to leave a message.
“No, no message.”
He hung up the phone. The dread was beginning to feel familiar. It was the way he’d felt before the episode at camp. He walked toward Tiffany’s house, and then he stopped; he knew he wouldn’t be welcome there. How could he walk into the party without Sienna? Will ducked into the shadow of a dense hedge, knelt down and slipped the empty gun out of his backpack.
An empty gun is a stupid thing. He loaded the bullets into the cylinder one by one, and as he did so, he had the odd sensation that everything was turning out just as it was meant to be.
“Whale” Copyright ©2002 by Susan Chiavelli.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.