At the stop she’s come to dread each day, the yellow school bus jerks to a halt. Sarah’s heart stops, too.
The bus doors slam open. A foot comes to view at the top of the step—python print sandals, laces snaking up slim calves, then a body, the girl’s glossy black hair and softly rounded face betrayed by a quick, cruel smile. Her cold, calculating eyes dart swiftly, find their prey.
Sarah shivers, the air suddenly glacial as the girl approaches, sneering, shoving a silver flask under Sarah’s nose.
“Drink,” she hisses, taunting, the venomous liquid a dare.
Sarah’s heart drums rapidly, sweat beads her temple. She hunches, shoulders rounding, their soft curve a reflex after months of torment. The girl grins, slick teeth glinting, lips curled in triumph.
Sarah looks up, meets the gaze of her nemesis, then just as quickly shifts her glance down, away. Trembling now, nerves electric, Sarah tries to escape, to dart around the girl. To be anyone but herself, be anywhere but here.
Swiftly blocked, she slumps, curls protectively around herself. Tears of fear pool under her eyes, then drip down cheeks hot with shame.
The girl starts to laugh. “Coward,” she spits, trailing a long, pointed fingernail slowly down Sarah’s pale arm, an angry crimson trail now marking it.
Suddenly, something inside Sarah snaps. An anger takes hold, its sparks within her feeding a kindling of fortitude. Quickly, decisively, she draws herself up. She glances at the backpack beside her, reminds herself that today can be different. Today she’s prepared.
In a flash of courage, Sarah grabs the offered flask, wincing as she drinks, sees the shocked look on the girl’s face, the bitter liquid burning as she swallows.
“Your turn,” says Sarah, hands quivering just slightly now. She draws her own vessel, a thermos, from the backpack at her side, offering it—a challenge.
The girl hesitates, surprised. Doubt, momentarily shadowing her features, is just as rapidly replaced by a hardening, the cold-blooded mask she wears so well. She grabs the thermos, smirking, then casually drinks, licks the last glistening drops off her lips with a darting tongue. She glances at Sarah, triumphant.
Holding the girl’s gaze with her own, Sarah reaches out with ice-cold fingers and touches her. Scales begin to form, their green and black iridescence now slithering up Sarah’s hand, her arm, her body, her face. She feels a primitive chill now, to her core. To her heart.
The girl looks down, brows knit in confusion as she takes in her own hands, body. Skin quickly sprouts soft fur, crescent ears protrude from the top of her head. Her nose elongates. Whiskers appear, twitching rapidly, warm mammal’s heart beating faster now.
The very tiny part of Sarah that is still Sarah, still human, hesitates. Resisting the primordial pull within, she feels a flicker of something else, something new. Pity. Pulling back, she wavers, softening. She looks at the girl, now almost unrecognizable, searching the animal’s eyes with her own.
The girl (who is not really a girl, not anymore) stares back, defiance replacing confusion. Her eyes, the only identifiable part of her left, even now, remain unchanged, vacant of remorse. Cruelty and scorn radiate, raw and palpable. Sarah’s gaze narrows alongside the very small space left within her heart.
Drawing closer now, Sarah smells something new—metallic and acrid, mixed with salt and sweat. Fear.
The fear excites her, completes her transformation, reptilian jaws suddenly opening wide, venomous fangs protruding, as the rat-girl thing draws back, tries to escape the quick wind of the snake, her eyes frantic, wild.
The snake coils, springs. Swallows the rodent whole.