Samuel told me to break a leg, so I broke mine. But it wasn’t glamorous enough. A needly bone fragment stuck out. Blood pooled on my white shoes — an irritating colour combination. I snapped off the bone fragment, and some pleasing abnormality returned. Walking by was a uniformed person with a baby face and a stiff, awkward gait. His outfit — yellow and orange overlapping in haphazard artlessness — exuded subordination.
“Hey, you!” I said. The pain made me sound angrier than intended.
The uniformed person stopped. He looked repulsed by the blood. “Y-yes?”
“Get something to wipe off this mess.” He took a few tentative steps forward, still repelled by my wound. “If you don’t get this shit under control, I’m telling Samuel, and we’re going down together.”
His face shifted to concerned. He came toward me, disgust breached. Rifling through his shoulder bag, he found a spray and wipe, which he used to fade my shoe stains. No one would be able to see its faint traces on the catwalk. My rolling and crawling across the runway, my great figure shaped to disfigurement, would distract anyone from something as unremarkable as shoes.
“Thanks,” I said. Curtness was all he was going to receive. The last traces of kindness I had for the day drained away when my index finger was snapped, my shoulder dislocated and my foot twisted.
“Five minutes until showtime,” someone said on the PA system.
I limped toward my place, amidst the other models. There was some creative breakage amongst them. Harold had every second finger broken, looking like jagged teeth. Miriam had her nose broken and depressed, her nostrils struggling for air. She stared at me, seeming deep in thought, then nodded approvingly. “Patchwork breakage. Nicely done. It suits you.”
I gave a pained smile, teeth gritted in laboured kindness. “I like your breathing pattern. A struggle for life, an exhalation of relief, knowing that you have enough in you for at least one more breath.”
Miriam chortled and snorted, or maybe she was just breathing. “Maybe a life in fashion criticism is in your future,” Miriam said, unconvinced. And she had every right to be. I thought of the shed I lived in — gross hovel basically engraved on the front door, while I stayed stuck in failure. There, I wiped away the grime from my walls, but I still felt grimy. My body bent and broken, passersby peered through the window in interest and freakish admiration. Sympathy cost more than I could afford, however.
I took off my X-Glove so my broken index finger could show. The glove’s work was done for today. In the green room, I could see people doing last-minute breakage. X-Gloves, infused with energy, breaking bones like they were twigs. Our bosses used them to bend their enemies until they were crying on the floor, feeling as broken as their bones. While we used them to bend — to “better” — ourselves.
“What are you going to do with this show’s pay?” I asked Miriam.
“It’s only $500. Get food, I guess.”
“Yeah, same, I guess.”
As powerful as the X-Gloves are, they couldn’t get me higher in the so-called social class ladder. It’s like $500 is enough to get your hand on the rung above you, and immediately slip off it. It’s too slick and slimy.
Those different, luckier, are born with privilege that can’t be moulded. It’s obvious why many of the bone-breaking models are Black. There are sprinklings of other races, too, while white’s a rarity.
Harold turned my way. “This fucking blows,” he said. “We get more of a crowd, less money, and longer hours? Pretty sure Samuel’s a sadist for booking us here.”
All I could do was laugh. “Are you going to do anything about it?”
Harold furrowed his brow. “Do what?”
“You spend your time bitching and moaning during every show, in hopes of something. But things seem to only get worse. Your moans must be a bad luck charm.”
“And you’re doing something about it?” Samuel spat.
“I didn’t say I was. I just don’t spend my time wallowing in muck, like a broken person.”
“Poor choice of word.”
“No kidding. Fuck you.”
I always got into an argument with one of the models before the show — mostly Harold because he was a big enough hothead for me to think it was summer whenever he was near, even during a blizzard.
The pain broke us, as we stewed in our filth and didn’t have the courage to throw it at anyone but each other.
Samuel came in, looking excited. His skin would’ve looked like ivory if it weren’t dotted with acne. “Everybody ready? Places, places!” he said, clapping his hands. “Looking fine, all of you.”
Samuel got a text and looked at his phone. “OK, everybody. The show starts now. Katherine, you go first. Then Simon, Miriam … ”
I led the models. Lights shone down on us. We walked, staggered and crawled down the runway. The crowd was ecstatic when I came out, leg dragging, tears withheld. Miriam struggled to go forward, her breathing impaired from breakage.
Harold held his broken fingers up like they were gems glowing in the stifling, blinding room.
I moved past the crowd — half of them gawking, half cheering, all awed.
When the pain got unbearable, like always, I stayed silent and submissive. These people were paying my mortgage. We mould ourselves for them, and they mould us for us.
Last but not least was the star, Carl, almost all of his bones broken so he curled like a ball, rolling down the runway with a grimace.
“Let me see that mangled shoulder, Katherine. Lovely!”
“Somebody kick Carl and see how far he rolls. Please!”
Samuel emerged from backstage and wasn’t shy to oblige. He kicked Carl, who collided into a wall, bouncing off it with a scream that just made the crowd giddier. Carl landed on the whooping, salivating crowd. Spit flew all over him. Even from here, I could smell the crowd’s perfume and cologne mixing into something vile. I felt bad for the guy. The crowd pushed Carl upward, as he went up and down like a beach ball. A mosh pit of haute couture.
There was something about this show that was like a slap in the face more potent than any broken bones. I didn’t feel like a freakish object of admiration but like an object of abject ridicule. I couldn’t even grasp a thread of a silver lining anymore. The predatory glint in the crowd’s eyes was brighter than usual, illuminating truths. The cheque that would be sent my way after the show didn’t seem appetizing. The Black and brown bodies around me, mangled as they were, seemed more pleasurable.
A drone-like crowd member grabbed my arm, and I pulled back. There was pain, but also a spark coming off my skin, like his hand was my match. My arm was damaged but fiery. Literally fiery.
Flames moved frantically, as if pushed by a gust. My arm wasn’t scorched or pained. Instead, I felt a sweet, invigorating warmth.
Everyone stopped. The crowd calmed, the models reprieved and stared at me. I took a step forward and tripped on my bad leg. It snapped and painlessly formed into a rocket thruster. I was surprised, but I wasn’t aghast. I wasn’t even bothered. What should be foreign didn’t feel so. Was it always a part of me?
I focused on it, and it fired up. I was aloft, zooming and zigzagging through the room. I hit a wall and my shoulder cracked. Out of my shoulder came a dark wing, which let me glide and soften my fall.
“Holy shit,” said Miriam, clearly impressed. All the models seemed to be.
“How did you do that?” shouted Harold.
Meanwhile, Carl didn’t say anything. He was intent on something as he rolled forward, breaking even more, if that were possible. Sparks shot from his body. His face transformed from pained to confident. His rolling become faster until he became a yellow, glowing ball. He levitated. But he didn’t stop at the roof. He smashed through it and kept going until he was out of sight.
Miriam quickly went backstage and came back with an X-Glove. She dislocated her shoulders and wings emerged, just like mine. The other models followed suit. There weren’t enough X-Gloves for everyone, so they took turns until they broke themselves fins, gills, wheels, and other assets.
Simon’s jaw was open wide. I imagined inside it was disbelief, powerlessness, fear of ruination. He eventually composed himself. “This is great. We can use these new qualities for more, better shows,” he said weakly.
But we weren’t listening. We flew out the windows, wheeled through the doors, propelled out the roof.
Miriam and I were both high in the sky. The sun dappled our dark wings. I could see a model plunging into Lake Sirin, grinning, not coming back up. We rose above the mountains and it looked like their tips were pointing at us. Not accusingly, but in deferential, non-freakish admiration.
I turned to Miriam. “I have no idea what happened, but this is pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” she said brightly but then dimmed. “We’re still freaks, though.”
“We still mould our bodies, but freaks?” I smiled. “If so, ‘freaks’ isn’t really derogatory in this case.”
Harold came up with his rocket thruster. “We getting the fuck off this planet?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Not me.”
“Whatever. Suit yourself.” He propelled onward until he was a speck, then part of space.
Miriam looked at me quizzically. “You want to go back down there?”
I shook my head again. “I’m content to stay right here for a little while.”
Miriam seemed to understand. I think we shared the satisfaction that those who once looked down upon us now look skyward. Our bodies were moulded by ourselves, for ourselves. We were no longer tethered or repelled by the world.
We mould ourselves to mould the world.
Our bodies, with dark wings outstretched in an angelic glow, stayed aloft.
Sean Dowie is a mixed race writer from Toronto who dabbles in stand-up comedy and filmmaking. He’s an Assistant Editor at Augur Magazine, and a book reviewer at FIYAH Literary Magazine and Nerds of a Feather. He’s preoccupied with weird stories. You can find him on Twitter @DowieSean