The Truth About Lizzie Shennick ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Yesteryear Fiction.)
Every morning Miss Frid opened her book and called roll, going down the list: Harry Abbot, Maxine Abernathy, Beryl Barrister, Donald Best, Roy Brewster, Virgie Carrow, George Crawford…and so on to the end. Every morning at least one or two were absent, but every morning there was one who was always absent.
“Does anybody know Lizzie Shennick?” Miss Frid had taken to asking the sea of slack-jawed faces staring at her. “Has anybody seen Lizzie Shennick? Does anybody know the whereabouts of Lizzie Shennick?”
Since any inquiries had failed to provide a satisfactory explanation, Miss Frid decided to do some investigating on her own. When she was in the principal’s office one morning before anybody else had arrived, she took a forbidden look into the registration file. She found the address she was looking for, memorized it, and went back to her classroom and wrote it down before she forgot it.
A few days later, on a sunny Saturday morning, she got into her old Nash Rambler and drove across town. With the aid of a map, she found the street she was looking for and drove along it slowly, looking for the right number. The houses were big and old and in some places boarded up or falling down.
The house she was looking for was set back from the street and obscured by trees and thick foliage. She parked the Nash and got out and approached the gate of the chain-link fence that surrounded the property. When she tried to open the gate it fell off its hinges but she didn’t let that stop her. She walked up the front steps to the door and rang the bell.
In a few moments a woman came to the door and opened it. She was, Miss Frid thought, Lizzie Shennick’s mother. She was thin and rather on the young side with strange beet-red hair parted down the middle of her head. The hair swept out in waves on both sides away from the part and crashed over each ear like a huge wave in suspended motion. How she achieved this effect was not immediately apparent.
“Yes?” the woman—she went by the name of Griselda—said to Miss Frid in a voice that indicated she had rather been expecting her.
Miss Frid identified herself and explained she was Lizzie Shennick’s teacher from school. “Are you the mother?” she asked Griselda.
“Well, some would say yes and some would say no.”
“I wonder if I might inquire why Lizzie is enrolled in school but never attends,” Miss Frid said, careful not to sound priggish or inflammatory.
Griselda motioned Miss Frid inside and closed the door. “Lizzie isn’t like other children her age,” she said.
“Is she ill?” Miss Frid asked.
“It’s not an illness. It’s a condition.”
“Maybe you’d better explain to me what you’re talking about.”
Griselda motioned for Miss Frid to follow her through the dark house and into the kitchen, where a large window opened onto the back yard. She directed Miss Frid’s attention out the window.
Miss Frid saw, or believed she saw, a gorilla dressed in a red dress with little white flowers on it jumping up and down on a trampoline. The gorilla jumped very high, with grace and precision, and landed delicately on first one foot and then the other, and then on both feet. With each jump her dress billowed out to reveal white underpants.
“Why, that’s astounding!” Miss Frid said. “How do you get a gorilla to do that?”
“It’s not what it appears to be,” Griselda said.
“Why, what do you mean?” Miss Frid asked.
“That’s our Lizzie.”
Miss Frid looked at her with disbelief. “Wait a minute! Are you telling me your daughter is a gorilla?”
“She hasn’t always been a gorilla. Sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea and try to explain it the best I can.”
She set the water on the stove to boil and the two of them sat down at the table. Griselda lit a cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke; she seemed to be trying to think of how, or where, to begin.
“We just moved here from a long way off a few months ago,” she said, picking a particle of tobacco off her tongue. “We had been noticing a change in Lizzie for some time, but it was very gradual. The doctor said it was a hormonal thing. He said she would get over it.”
“What kind of a change?” Miss Frid asked.
“At first it was hair growing on her face and arms and then all over her body. We tried to keep the hair off using depilatory creams, but it was no use. The hair came right back, thicker than before.”
“I can see how that would be a problem,” Miss Frid said. “For a young girl, I mean.”
“Then her body began thickening through the arms and shoulders. Her head got bigger and her mouth widened; her teeth grew longer and more ferocious looking. Her strength increased every day; she could bend a metal bar in half without even trying. She didn’t seem to be aware at first at what was happening to her. She would look at herself in the mirror and see herself as she used to be, before she started changing. We started keeping her in the house all the time so people wouldn’t stare and laugh at her and ask questions. There was really nothing we could do except hope the situation would reverse itself, which is what I prayed for every day. After about a year and a half of very slow change, the transformation speeded up—became more pronounced. You could see her becoming a little more gorillafied every day. And then, by the middle of the summer, the change was complete—she was all gorilla. After that, I gave up all hope she would ever change back into a regular girl again.”
“I see now why she didn’t want to go to school with all the non-gorilla children,” Miss Frid said sympathetically.
“Oh, she wants to go to school, all right, all right! We just thought it would be too cruel to send her to a school where she was the only gorilla. Think how she would be stared at! Children can be so cruel!
“Have you thought about sending her to a special school? A place where she could be with her own kind?”
“And what kind is that exactly? Do you have a name for it?”
“Neither do I. We’ve given up on the idea of school altogether. She’s training now for a circus career.”
“The trampoline is part of her acrobatic act—she also does a song and dance routine—but I figure her best chance for success is with the freak show. She could headline with Crab Girl and Skeleton Boy and the Human Sponge. With the proper buildup, I think she could be quite the sensation. If people are going to stare at her and point and laugh and be amazed, they’re going to have to pay a price for the privilege.”
“A child should go to school, even if she is a gorilla.”
“She can learn everything she needs to know in the circus. Besides, they have an old woman that teaches the kids their lessons, even the freak kids. The circus is in her blood. I was in the circus as a clown when I was carrying her. Something happened to me in that circus that I believe—that I know—is the reason for Lizzie being the way she is.”
“What could possibly–?”
“We were performing one night to a full house. I was in the main ring going through my routines with a couple of other girl clowns. We were juggling bowling pins and doing some acrobatic stunts when suddenly there was a loud scream from the audience. Everybody stopped what they were doing and turned toward the scream. That’s when we saw that one of the gorillas—his name was Hugo—got loose from his trainer. He was running frantically, swiping at people with his big hands. Nobody knew what had provoked him. Everybody was running and screaming, trying to get out of his way. He came running toward the ring where we were as if he knew what he was after. I ran from him, the same as the other clowns, but he caught me by my back hair and dragged me down. Everybody who saw it happen thought I was a goner. I thought I was a goner too.”
“What did you do?”
“There I was on my back on the ground. I knew not to scream or struggle; I pretended I was dead. Hugo had me pinned with his upper body; I could feel his hot breath on my face. The trainers were yelling to try to get him away from me and leave me alone, but he just ignored them. When I dared to open my eyes a little, Hugo’s face was just above mine. I saw he was terrified and confused; he didn’t know what to do. It was him against everybody else. And then suddenly he did an unexpected thing: He began whimpering and stroking the side of my head. When the trainers approached him, he growled at them and flailed out his arms.”
“How did they get you away from him?”
“They were going to throw a net over him and pull him away, but he began nuzzling the side of my head with his snout and nibbling on my ear. They thought he was hurting me, biting me, but he wasn’t doing anything of the kind. And then he leaned all the way over and kissed me on the mouth. It was the sweetest, gentlest kiss! You would never know that such a huge monster of an animal could be so gentle. In just a few seconds he had developed this—I don’t know—kind of protective bond with me. I felt it too and was no longer afraid of him as I had been. I just knew then that he wasn’t going to hurt me.”
“Were they able to get him away from you then?”
“One of the clowns—the one named Beauchamp—always carried a small gun wherever he went. Beauchamp was standing about fifty yards behind Hugo and couldn’t see what was really going on. Like everybody else, he thought Hugo was hurting me. He took out his gun and shot Hugo in the back and killed him. I saw the surprised look on Hugo’s face when he was hit. Of course he fell forward on top of me but they pulled him off before his body crushed me to death.”
“And that’s why Lizzie turned into a gorilla,” Miss Frid said to herself.
“When she was born a few months later, she seemed normal in every way, but I always knew in my heart that she would be marked in some way.”
Before Miss Frid left, she wanted to speak to Lizzie (never having conducted a conversation with a gorilla before), but Griselda thought it best if Lizzie didn’t know about Miss Frid’s visit. The less she was reminded of school, the quicker she would be able to forget about attending. Miss Frid told Griselda she hoped they would reconsider sending Lizzie to school, gorilla or not, but Griselda said they had already made up their minds that Lizzie was going into the circus as soon as she could, when the new season began. Having no reason to stay any longer, Miss Frid thanked Griselda for telling her the long-in-coming truth about Lizzie Shennick and stood up to go. As she was going out the door, she said with regret that she would tell everyone at school that Lizzie would not—and would never—be coming to school. She wouldn’t tell people the real reason for Lizzie not coming to school, but she would tell them something they would be able to believe and comprehend. She had always been able to make up a good story.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp