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Special place

Andy entered Mr. Pinster’s classroom carrying an 18x12 inch canvas. Shades of black and grey were visible on the edges, but the central subject was covered up by half a dozen pages of double-spaced text. Making his way to his seat, Andy glanced at his classmates’ work. Freja had painted a mostly-featureless child inside a golden bird-cage. Her sketchbook open, she already seemed to be thumbnailing another project featuring the same cage. The girl next to her had painted a cityscape full of smokestacks pouring smog into the air. Andy took his place beside Erin, who had painted a baby crawling toward a glowing light. He rested his head in his hand – poorly imitating the sleep his 16-year-old body expected at 7:30 in the morning.

Shortly afterward, the first period buzzer went off, and the pledge of allegiance came in through the loudspeaker. Some of the girls stood up, and Erin even said the words. Freja remained engaged with her sketchbook, and the rest with their phones. Jeff was still making his way to his seat. Otherwise motionless, Andy opened his eyes, took a deep breath, then closed them again.

After the pledge ended and Erin took her seat, there was about a minute of silence before Mr. Pinster lowered the lid of his MacBook and said “Alright. Looks like you’ve all got your thematic paintings.” He raised his head towards the students. “Does anyone want to read their Artist’s Statement.”

The silence returned. Andy opened his eyes and saw Erin glancing at his print-out.

“You don’t have to read the whole thing” Mr. Pinster added, rolling his eyes.

More silence.

“I’ve gotta call on someone if no one volunteers.”

Andy could still feel Erin’s eye’s on him. He became uncomfortably aware of how he was sitting, where he was looking, and what expression his face was in. He smiled awkwardly, which prompted Erin to say:

“Go on, Andy. You’re smart. And you wrote, like, 10 pages. It’s gonna be good.”

Andy took a deep breath and exhaled an “OK.” He took his canvas to the front of the classroom. He seated it on the whiteboard ledge for everyone to see. It was a black-and-white acrylic painting of a girl’s face fixed in an expression of horror. Her eyes were looking just away from the “camera,” and her right hand was reaching toward her temple, where there was a small, pointed, bump.

Andy took another deep breath, then looked down and began reading from his print-out.

“The title of the piece is ‘Horns.’ It discusses the involuntary nature of corporeal existence, and the way that it can contradict our personal identity and moral convictions. The subject is shown as she appears to herself in a mirror, in a state of surprise and horror at the nascent horns at her temples. These allude to depictions of the Judeo-Christian Satan, whose animalistic appearance reflects the primitive, violent, carnal nature of evil. This nature exists in humans as the id, an inescapable consequence of our embodied condition. Our encounters with this part of our psychology often contradict our self-concept, which usually holds us to be rational and good. Our reaction to the dissonance this creates is reflected in the subject’s reaction to the appearance of horns.”

Andy was never sure how to indicate that he was finished. He let the hand holding his Artist’s statement fall to his side and, for the first time, made eye contact with his classmates.

“Damn, bro, that’s deep,” said Jeff.

“I told you it’d be good,” said Erin.

“Thank you, Andy,” said Mr. Pinster. “Anyone else have a comment?”

Freja was finally looking up from her sketchbook and squinting at Andy’s painting – as if she found something suspect about his explanation – but she said nothing. So Andy returned to his seat as Mr. Pinster addressed the class:

“Now that we’ve done a thematic painting, we’re going to continue exploring themes in our artworks and Artist’s Statements. For the next project, we’re going to explore ‘medium as metaphor.’ You can do your project in any medium, but you’ll need to explain how your choice of medium supports your themes. You might want to look through the supplies closet to come up with ideas about your medium.”

Mr. Pinster turned on the projector, and on the whiteboard there appeared a few slides of artworks demonstrating what he meant by “medium as metaphor.” Andy was particularly attracted to one which showed a sequence artworks starting with a 2d painting of a woman running forward, followed by another two paintings of the same runner, each with more 3d elements protruding from the canvas. At the end was a full 3d sculpture of the woman breaking through the finish line.

After a few more slides, Mr. Pinster stopped the projector, clapped his hands together and said “alright, you can get started right away.” He returned to his MacBook without another glance at the students.

Andy decided to take Mr. Pinster’s advice and made his way to the supplies closet. He opened the door, stepped in, and flicked the light-switch to his right – which he found was not there. He took another step inward and looked around for the switch. His head was starting to hurt.

The door closed behind him.

The dim appearance of shelves and stacks of paper disappeared into the darkness. Andy put his hand to his forehead as the pain in it started to throb. He started to breath faster but found that his lungs seemed to be capturing less and less oxygen at each breath. Standing upright began to feel like an ordeal, so he dropped onto his hands and knees, his mouth hanging open trying to take in enough air.

A sharp pain shot across his torso, then down his arms and legs. It was as if the insides of his body were collapsing in on themselves. The pain left Andy unable to think of anything besides his breathing, which was now taking a tremendous amount of effort. It felt like his lungs were shrinking.

After a few minutes of agony, Andy’s breath started to return, and confused thoughts ran through his head. Why was he sick all of a sudden? Who had closed the door, and why? Why was there no light coming in through the gaps? It was as if he was totally blind.

Still on all fours, he raised his head to look around the room, trying to make out even a single shadowy outline. None was there. But moments later, a flicker of light seemed to flash across the wall opposite from him. He couldn’t say what it was, or what he’d seen in the light – but it had been there.

Andy rose to a kneeling position. Another flicker appeared at his right. It left him no more sure of what he’d seen than the one before it – but it had a more distinct, pinkish color.

As he made to stand up, a third, pink flicker appeared at his left. Then his right. Then above him – and all around. The walls and floor were now pulsating with the flickering light, and his full view of the room around him was restored. But the shelves, the bins, and the coffee cans full of paint brushes were all missing. Andy was now in a completely empty room. The walls and floor now looked like the glass of an aquarium – only instead of fish swimming past on the other side, there was a constant stream of pinkish flashes of light.

His mouth was still hanging open, but by now Andy had breath to spare. Obviously his illness had messed with his vision. He needed to get the attention of Mr. Pinster or Erin or Jeff – or someone.

“Umm… Hey?”

He had tried to speak loudly so that they would hear, but it came out soft and oddly high-pitched.

“I’m uh – what’s going on?”

There was certainly something different about his voice this time. It didn’t sound like his own at all.

It sounded like a girl’s voice.

—You think I’m, what, transgender?

—You’ve seen this and think that there’s any chance you might not be? You’re so trans that you managed to make a pocket world where you can be a girl. I don’t think I would be powerful enough to do that.

—I made this place? You’re not powerful enough? What are you talking about?

—So is it real? Or is it just an illusion?

—Real? I’m not sure that means anything when we’re talking about different worlds. What’s real in our world and what’s real in this world are different.

—You’re still a real girl, though. Whether you’re in this world or our own.

—Well, not really.

Yes really.

—I’ll never look like this back there, though, will I?

—Well… maybe not exactly. But you can definitely change how you look! There are lots of trans girls out there who go on hormones and come out looking just like any other girl.