by Joanna Theiss

WHEN THE BAD ONE, the curfew-breaker, changes over, the other girls assume it’s their fault. Because, yes, they do say it, but they don’t mean anything by it. It’s a throwaway warning from fairy tales. It’s not a prophesy.

You’ll turn into a pumpkin!

Their laughter is like pebble ice tossed across her legs, which she has slung out of the open window. When she disappears from view, the other girls hear an inhuman thud on the grass below.

She is no longer a girl but an autumn gourd, and she is rolling down the slope, her body bulbous and ridged, her skin leathery orange.

That same night, under florescent lights, a mother balances cardboard boxes in arms that are always full. She’s been cramming boxes into this storage unit for weeks, boxes of tuneless toy instruments, flapless lift-the-flap books, a plastic swan with a cracked, dangling neck. Her children’s art, paper tidelined with watercolor, pipe cleaners quirked into men. Boxes overflowing with the flotsam the children unthinkingly hand her each day: plastic wrappers from their snacks, rounded stones from their scavenges, the tail feather of a crow.

That night in the woman’s storage unit, she labels every box with a magic marker’s permanence until she is nothing but a cardboard box, ready to be filled.

The next day, ten little girls stand center stage in the basement of a suburban church. Because they are playing angels, they wear white dresses, white fishnet wings strapped to their backs, white elastic bands digging into their armpits. The pastor and the parents are admiring them as their divine sopranos lift from babyish throats, until their last words leave them with a petally pop-pop-pop.

The adults rise, then lean forward, then clasp their hands over their mouths. On the stage where ten little girls had sung are now ten orchids in grocery-store pots. Orchids with white teardrop petals and inner lips the damning pink of new blood.

After the pumpkin, the cardboard box, and the angel orchids, the bossiest girl in English class becomes a blue jay. We’re shocked to see this alchemy happen not through rumor nor gossip, but in front of us, yet we do as we are told. We shout, fling pencils, and, when she drones at us from the ceiling, we wield our notebooks like shields and use them to cause an updraft that blows her out of the window.

Still, she interrupts our lesson by awling her heavy black beak against the closed window, her calls hoarse and warning.

Next, my stepmother becomes a yolk-yellow balloon, her change arriving as my brother and I sit down at the kitchen table to eat her scrambled eggs. We watch the skin of her face grow helios-shiny, then shrink, then inflate when she bellows. My brother tugs on her ribbon, stunned and happy—this is freaking awesome, man, about freaking time!—while I stare mutely at my plate, my stomach leaded glass.

On the school grounds, the blue jay has knocked herself unconscious and lies lifeless on a hedge. This is lucky for our English teacher, who has become a sunflower seed.

A blade waits for us in Trigonometry, and when we stagger away from it, the assistant principal spots us. She is shouting about our disobedience when she, too, clatters to the floor. All the boys rush at her but a junior is victorious, waving a golden token above his head before stuffing her in his pocket. He figures there’s got to be an arcade somewhere that will take her.

Because school is nothing more than a scattering of junk and hoards of roaming, mocking boys, Lucy and I walk home early. Lucy confides that she wants to become a cell phone so that they’ll cherish her instead of letting her winkle away in the dark like the orchid girls, or shrivel up like my stepmom did once she lost her air, her dome contracting and hardening like the rind of an overripe lemon.

I don’t think we have a choice, I say. Across the street, a spotted cow, grossly huge and misplaced in our neighborhood, lows complaints and bangs her skull against a front door, which has closed against her. When Lucy doesn’t say anything about this spectacle, I turn and find not my best friend, but an ivory pillar candle, as yet unburnt.

I hold her and I pray:

Transform me into a spider that my hopes might flow into silk proteins.

Narrow me into a fresh-edged piece of chalk that I might move on slate in meaningful curls and loops.

Loosen me a river that I might stretch westerly away from this place.

Muscle me a horse that I might batter the ground with my hooves.

Fossil me a stone, impenetrable, geologic-patient.

Please, turn me into a frog, because in the stories they escape their animal forms, but escape would require a voice and none of us has been given that.  


Among all of the out-of-place objects, the mirror only matters because he’s in it.

He’d been running with his boys when a candle rolled drunkenly across the cracked sidewalk and almost tripped him. When he stopped to crush it beneath his sneaker, the mirror, angled on the curb, reflected himself, leg poised mid-thud.

His friends are far away now, galloping giddy in this womanless world that teems with unexpected gifts, but he stills, stoops, and picks up the mirror.

There’s the blue sky behind him, the sweat tippling his temples, his hearty, exultant grin, but there’s something else, too. There’s wrath silvering from the mirror’s surface. A glimmering of revenge, radioactive as radium that mars his image.

Irritated, the boy tosses the thing to the ground. He doesn’t wait to see if it shatters.


Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a lawyer-turned-writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as South Florida Poetry Journal and Barren Magazine. One of her pieces was selected as a winner of Best Microfiction 2022. Links to her writing are available at