They called him Little Z because he was the youngest of the bunch—and wholly unoriginal, if what the others said was true. “You look like a drunken N,” a male teacher had scolded once, his disdain clear. “Stand up straight. Don’t imitate. Don’t overcompensate. Be your own man—” the teacher looked him up and down dubiously, eyes lingering below Little Z’s waistband for a second too long, “—if you even can.”
That night, Little Z stepped out of the shower and, with his open palm, wiped at the foggy mirror. He studied the crooked mark they had branded on his chest at birth. He wished he could rub away the thick black blemish, but as his hand moved over his reflection, all he did was reveal more and more. He frowned, removing his hand from the slick surface, staring at the mirror as it clouded over again and he disappeared behind another misty sheen of water vapor.
Little Z smiled a smile he could no longer see. He toweled off and slipped into the T-shirt and matching shorts waiting for him on the counter next to the washbasin. When the children were newborns, they had each been given a set of clothing adorned with the same letters that were permanently etched into their skin. They were expected to wear these clothes at all times. Of course, like any children, they grew. But just as they began to test the limits of their old attire, a new set of tops and bottoms appeared on their closet shelves, smelling like freshly varnished wood. Little Z relished the scent and held the soft cotton against his cheek as he inhaled.
He would find his new clothes standing there on the counter, twisted into a complex origami configuration that resembled a zebra. Before he got dressed, he would cradle the miniature animal in his arms until he heard someone banging on the bathroom door, demanding their turn. And so, reluctantly, he would let the cloth zebra fall open, now flat and lifeless, and he would look down as the garments conformed to the shape of his body, his little head and short limbs peeking out of the appropriate holes.
Alliances formed immediately between the members of their class: the A’s and the N’s, as well as the O’s, R’s, T’s, but especially the E’s. There were so many of the latter, it seemed, and they were identical in every way. Walking in tandem, matching one another’s movements with precision—they even spoke the same way, always making the same foreign sounds, their own private language. Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh. To Little Z, it sounded suspiciously like laughter.
But there he was: the only Z. One, lone, alone. “It’s because you’re special,” another teacher had once told him. “Don’t let anyone tell you differently because, well, I’m going to let you in on a secret.” She leaned closer to his ear, conspiratorially. “They’re probably just jealous. It might not seem that way now, but you’re worth more than any of those other kids. Well, except for Q of course, but quite frankly, she’s so dependent on U that there’s almost no comparison.” She looked around to make sure they weren’t being watched. “But don’t tell anyone I told you that, okay?”
Little Z nodded, even though she wasn’t making any sense.
“You’re like a sleeping giant,” she continued, and her use of the term confused him even more because he was Little Z, the youngest and by far the smallest, definitely not a giant. Maybe she’d only meant to call him a sleeping ant, but her voice had gotten tangled up in the ending consonant of the previous word, or maybe she’d meant for the description to be ironic, a joke. Maybe he was supposed to smile. He wasn’t sure, so he moved his lips around in the most ambiguous way possible and hoped that they formed some appropriate configuration on their own. “You might not get the spotlight often,” the teacher continued, “but when you do, you always have something interesting to say.” She paused, looking concerned. “Are you alright? Why are you doing that with your face?”
She was actually right about one thing, Little Z thought later: He did, in fact, sleep a lot. It was rather embarrassing actually, because he often fell asleep at the most inopportune times, like when he had to introduce himself to a large crowd and someone kept asking him to repeat himself: Sorry, speak louder will you, what’s your name again, I didn’t catch that? He had heard about a condition called narcolepsy, and for a while he thought he might have it, but then he also heard about a condition called hypochondria, and after that he wasn’t so sure, so he dropped his research altogether.
Instead, Little Z sat at his desk in the back of the classroom and dreamed up conspiracy theories. He became convinced that all the members of his cohort were just pawns in a game that some unknown and veiled entity was playing, that none of what surrounded them was real life. They were simply killing time, waiting until the next time they would be chosen.
Chosen. The word had an ominous quality, as if it were referring to something larger-than-life and of grave importance. Every day, a disembodied voice would crackle to life over the loudspeaker, rattling off a list of letters. The children wearing the corresponding T-shirts would then rise from their seats and leave the room. For the longest time, Little Z had no idea where exactly they went. He waited in anticipation for the day he would find out. Time passed. He grew older. Three whole zebras went by, and he hugged each one to his chest in front of the fogged up mirror before letting it unravel around him.
The day he finally heard his name called, he was ushered into a strange room. The floor was decorated with colored squares. He and the other chosen children were arranged and rearranged until they spelled out words. Little Z felt exhilarated and nauseous at the same time. It was a relief to finally feel like part of a whole, to finally belong. But when he was separated from the others again, the imprint of the word they had created together lingered somewhere within him. The word was lodged somewhere inside his ribcage now, and it left a funny taste on his tongue. REALIZE. He barely knew how to define it.
Back at his desk, Little Z began the waiting process yet again. During lessons, white chalk roamed across the blackboard, leaving a trail much like the residue from that word. REALIZE. It had somehow become a part of him, and he couldn’t understand why. He watched the other students with their spitballs and paper airplanes, wondered how they did it day after day. Wondered how many disparate words were floating around inside them, leaving that faint impression on their souls.Susan L. Lin hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean was a semifinalist in the 2012 Gold Line Press chapbook competition. Her writing can be found online at https://susanllin.wordpress.