Albert, a kid in my class, says he heard about someone, some other kid, who got a polio vaccine, and it gave him polio and he died instantly. The kid’s mom was sitting outside in the waiting room, and she never saw him alive again. This made me very nervous, especially since I have to get a lot of shots for my condition, so I told my mom about it. She said that she never heard about anyone dying from a vaccine before, it wasn’t something I should worry about. Besides, she said, polio isn’t a thing that kills you instantly. The story didn’t make any sense, and Albert was probably making it up.
But I don’t think Albert was making it up. Albert is very smart and I don’t think he would lie. Some kids in my class, they would definitely lie, like when Aaron and Will made up the thing about the penis disease, but not Albert. And I don’t buy what my mom said about polio not killing you instantly. Polio is, or was, a horrible disease that killed a lot of people. I know this because Ms. Ellen, my fourth grade teacher, taught us about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States, who had polio and was in a wheelchair. We didn’t know what polio was, so Ms. Ellen explained that it was a horrible disease in the United States until everyone got vaccinated for it. Ms. Ellen didn’t say anything about how fast it kills you, but I’m sure you could die instantly from it, because the worst diseases kill you the fastest, like poison, which kills you faster if it’s stronger.
Also, I bet a disease like polio would kill you even faster if you got it through a shot, which goes straight into your blood, rather than how you would normally get a disease, which is through the air. A disease that came to you through the air takes much longer to affect you, because somehow it has to work its way into your blood. I think medicines work the same way, and that’s why I can’t just take the medicines for my condition at home, but I have to go in to the doctor’s office and get shots, even though that means I miss school.
I should explain my condition. It’s a rare disease that seems to be turning me into a fish.
Last time I needed shots, I had to leave in the middle of a science lesson, which I was finding very interesting. We were planting little seeds in Styrofoam cups, and everyone was enjoying it because we were getting dirt everywhere. Soil, I mean. But sometimes when I leave we’re doing something really boring, like copying down spelling words, and it feels good when everyone watches me get up and gather my things, and they have to stay at their desks, and Mrs. Reddy, my teacher, tells them to pay attention to the lesson.
But not all my medicines are shots. Like there’s the topical cream that’s supposed to reduce the scales on my skin, only we can’t tell if it’s working or not. I asked my mom why it doesn’t work and she said it’s experimental, because the doctors don’t know much about my condition, so they have to try things, like the topical cream. I knew that. I just asked because I was annoyed with having to put the cream on. Sometimes it stings.
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter if Albert was right or not about polio, because my mom says I already had my polio shot when I was a little kid, and I didn’t die then, so I should be okay. Though, some things that should kill you right away sometimes don’t, and then they kill you later. I’ve heard about people who get shot––a gun shot, not a doctor shot––and they think they’re okay, but then the bullet is still inside them and it moves around or something and eventually they die. Also, my great, great uncle, who lived in Germany, swallowed a big coin when he was two years old, and they thought he just pooped it out, because nothing happened to him, but then two years later he started spitting up blood and died, because the coin was still inside him.
I don’t know if vaccines work that way. But anyway, I’ve gotten shots so many times that I don’t care anymore. I’m very mature when it comes to medical things and blood and stuff like that. We had an assembly last week and the woman from the Red Cross came to talk to us, and then Mrs. Reddy talked to us after the assembly about how important it was to give blood when we’re older, and a lot of people in my class whined and said they wouldn’t. And then Mrs. Reddy told us that her brother had been in a car crash and survived because they gave him blood that other people had donated. Then Jonathan Shieh said, “They put other people’s blood in him?” and everyone laughed because they thought it was so gross. I thought that was rude and stupid, because Mrs. Reddy had just told us that her brother almost died. So I said, “Listen, people!” and I was going to go on, but everyone, including Mrs. Reddy, burst out laughing. I don’t get why people laugh when I say things like that. My grandmother tells me I sound like a little adult. I think she sounds like a little adult.
So after class went out to recess, I stayed behind and told Mrs. Reddy that when I was old enough, I would give my blood to people like her brother. She got all weird like she didn’t understand and I said, “I know the other kids thought that the doctors taking your blood is scary, but I don’t care about that.” But then Mrs. Reddy said, “Well, Jake, it’s very good you feel that way, but I don’t think you can give your blood.” And I said, “I know, I’m too young,” but she said, “Even when you’re older.”
And then she explained that if I gave my blood other people might get my condition. Because then it would be in their blood. I told her that the doctors said other kids at school wouldn’t catch my condition, it wasn’t like a cold. She said she wasn’t sure, but that blood is different and it wouldn’t be safe. I asked my mom about this and she got all upset and said Mrs. Reddy shouldn’t have said that to me. I just wanted to know if it was true or not, about my blood, and my mom said she didn’t know but either way, Mrs. Reddy shouldn’t have said it.
Anyway, people my age can be very immature about medical things, which is why I had to be the one to put the condom on the banana in sex education. We have to take sex education because we’re fifth graders, and nobody wanted to take it because we heard from the sixth graders that it was gross, because they show you pictures of people’s genitals and then their insides, and they show you newborn babies, which you’d think would be cute but they aren’t because they’re all covered in goo and look sort of purple. The girls had to go to Mr. Kichida’s classroom and the boys from Mr. Kichida’s class came to ours, and then Mrs. Reddy left and this nurse came in, except he was a nurse who was a guy, and Will, who’s this popular guy in our class, made a big deal about being disappointed, because he’d heard it was a nurse and he thought it would be a woman who would talk to us about sex. Will likes to act like he knows all about sex, and lets on that he did it with this girl Allison Schubert, who doesn’t go to our school but one time she came for a softball match and Will pointed her out and then all of Will’s friends were staring at her. You could tell she knew they were staring, because she kept looking over but pretending she wasn’t. But Will keeps changing his story, and so sometimes he just says he touched her boobs and sometimes he says he kissed her with his tongue, and so we know he hasn’t really done anything.
So the nurse, who was a man, asked someone to demonstrate putting a condom on a banana, and I raised my hand and did it, and everyone laughed and said, “Gross.” They would have said that no matter who had put the condom on the banana. And then Will said, “Fishboy wants to have sex with a girl,” and the nurse guy told them to be quiet. Then when I was sitting down, Aaron, who is a friend of Will’s, said to me, “Fishes don’t have dicks,” and I just ignored him, but later I looked at the World Book Encyclopedia entry on fish, even though I’ve read it a billion times, but I couldn’t find anything about their penises.
Then later Will raised his hand and said to the nurse guy, “Excuse me, but can you tell us about fish?”
And the nurse guy didn’t get it and said, “Fish?”
And then Will said, “Yeah, I know someone in this class is very interested in how fish have sex, but he ’s too afraid to ask.” Everyone burst out laughing but the nurse guy didn’t get what was going on, so he just ignored Will and went back to what he was talking about before, which was showing us the chart of female organs.
It was okay because when the class was over and the girls came back in the room, Albert said really loud, “You guys don’t have penises,” and everyone laughed because it sounded like he didn’t know that already, though he claimed he did, and so everyone made fun of him and they didn’t think about me for a while. Albert is my friend, but he can be sort of ridiculous sometimes.
My mother would call the kid who died from the polio vaccine a ghost. I don’t mean because he died, because some people who die become ghosts and other people don’t, and I don’t know if this kid became a ghost and haunted people. But my mother would call this kid a ghost because that’s what she calls people who go somewhere and never come back. Whether it’s because they died or something else. Like this girl she went to high school with: they were best friends and then the girl moved away after they graduated and my mom never saw her again. She didn’t die, she just had a new life somewhere else.
I think it’s weird that my mother calls people who don’t come back when they should ghosts, because real ghosts––the haunting kind––are things that come back when they shouldn’t. I told my mom that, but she said, “Jake, you think too much.”
My mother says my life will be filled with ghosts, everyone’s life is, but so far I can’t think of anyone who feels like a ghost. There was one kid in my neighborhood who moved away and I never talked to him again, but he wasn’t one of my good friends or anything, so it didn’t matter very much. I feel like for someone to be a ghost, they have to matter. You have to feel it when they’re gone.
I thought about the ghosts for a day or so, and then I told my mom that I didn’t have any ghosts, not really, and she said that I’ll probably have more when I’m older. I said, “But I might not get much older.”
She grabbed my shoulders really hard, so her nails dug into my skin. And she said that I shouldn’t talk like that, of course I would get older, and I said, “Okay, but I might be a fish.” I was crying by then, not because I’m sad about the fish thing but because she was hurting me a little and it scared me. She let go and hugged me, and said, “No, don’t worry don’t worry.”
I didn’t think she’d get upset because since my attack, we’ve been talking a lot more about how dangerous my condition is. My attack happened six months ago. In P.E. we were doing the President’s Challenge Physical Fitness test, and we had to run a mile around the blacktop. I was doing okay, and then I ran out of breath, and then suddenly I couldn’t breathe at all. I don’t remember, but people said they saw me flopping around on the ground, and while they were waiting for the ambulance I was flipping slower and slower, and the place on my neck where the gills are growing was moving, sort of, like I was trying to use them. Later, Albert said, “Dude, it was like you were a fish that someone had fished,” so I have a pretty good sense of what I looked like. They thought I was going to die and all the kids were sent off the playground.
Now I’m not allowed to participate in P.E. anymore, and when the President’s Challenge Physical Fitness patches came, everyone in the class got one except me, a few of the girls, and Albert, who couldn’t do a pull-up and now everyone makes fun of him for having wimpy arms. At recess that day some of the boys laughed at Albert and me, and I said, “It’s just because of my condition,” and then Will said, “Dork, even if you weren’t a fish, people would hate you.” (He always calls me “dork.”) It’s a stupid thing to say, because I’m not even a fish. I’m part fish, and slowly turning into a fish, but it’s stupid to say I am a fish. I’m a mixed up thing.
Do you prefer things mixed or unmixed? I mean things like yogurt that has the fruit on the bottom. I tend to like things unmixed, but my mom used to mix up my yogurt for me, and the Cream of Wheat cereal she gives me when it’s cold outside. We put brown sugar and milk on top of our Cream of Wheat cereal, and my mom would put those things on for me and then mix it all up. I didn’t even know you could have it a different way, until I visited my dad in Arizona last summer, and he let me put my own milk and brown sugar on the cereal, and I decided to try it without mixing it, and I much preferred it that way. In fact, I don’t really like Cream of Wheat when it’s all mixed up, but I love it when it isn’t mixed. It makes that much of a difference. I like how the milk mixes with the sugar and gets all sweet, so it’s almost like chocolate milk, but not chocolaty. You don’t taste it in the same way when it’s mixed with the cereal.
Other people, though, prefer things to be mixed. Jonathan in my class (not Jonathan Shieh but the other one, Jonathan Reider) got a fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt in his lunch––his mom usually buys the kind that comes already mixed inside the cup––and he was so grossed out that he wouldn’t eat it until one of the girls, Jennifer P., mixed it up for him. He wouldn’t even mix it himself.
I think it’s very interesting that some people like things mixed and other people like things unmixed, and I said so to the class when Jonathan Reider wouldn’t eat his yogurt. I wasn’t sitting with those boys, but I said it loud enough so they could hear. Everyone giggled and then Jonathan Reider said something, but I’m not sure what it was. But I think it was something about how weird it was that I liked unmixed things, since I was so mixed up, like part fish.
But I’ve thought about that, and really I’m mixed more in the way that Cream of Wheat with the milk and sugar on top gets mixed, than the way a premixed yogurt is mixed. Like, I have some scales, and my gills, and my feet are turning sort of flippery, so in places I’m like a fish, but in other places I’m a human. I mean, it’s not like if you put a fish and a human in a blender you would end up with me. You would end up with a disgusting, gooey, bloody human-fish mess.
It would have to be a very large blender to fit a whole person.
But anyway, I do think it’s very interesting, the mixed versus un-mixed idea, because I can’t see why different people would be so different about something little like that. Also, I think it’s interesting that my mom only eats in Cream of Wheat in the winter, when it’s cold, but my dad eats Cream of Wheat any time of year, including in the summer, when I went to visit him.
When I went to visit my dad, I swam everyday in the pool in his apartment complex. At least, every weekday, because on the weekends it was so full of other people from the apartments, and I prefer not to swim in front of other people, because they can see all the scales on my chest, and I see them staring. It’s not that I’m ashamed, it’s just a little uncomfortable, to know that they’re staring and not know whether I should look back at them or pretend I don’t know.
Anyway, I went swimming a lot, because I enjoy swimming, and my mom rarely lets me go now. But when mom was on the phone with my dad, he mentioned that I was going in the pool, and she got angry and told dad that I shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Then I wasn’t allowed to go in the pool for the rest of the trip.
The doctors say that if I go in the water too much, it might accelerate my condition, and if I start using my gills, I might forget how to use my lungs. But sometimes, if my mom isn’t around, like if she’s working in the backyard or something and I know she won’t hear me, I run water in the bath, and then I just lie down in it for a very long time. I can’t breathe underwater yet, but sometimes if I’ve been in the water for a long time and I hold my breath, I can almost feel my gills tingling. It’s a satisfying feeling.
I think I’d feel better if I knew what it was like to be a fish. Like I think a lot about sex education and how Will asked about fish having sex, and how Aaron said fish don’t have dicks, and it makes me very nervous, because I don’t know about any of that, and it’s not the sort of thing I can ask my mom or my doctors. I don’t like to talk about sexual things, because my mother raised me as a gentleman. Not like Will, who talks about Allison Schubert and also about jerking off, which is weird and gross. But I will say that sometimes, just recently, something will happen, like a girl brushing against me, or when that new girl Sara whispered in my ear when we were playing telephone, and I feel weird. I don’t want to say any more about it than that. And once something similar happened when a boy—I won’t say who—brushed against me, but I think that was just because he was behind me and I thought it was a girl. I hope it doesn’t mean I’m a homo. I wonder if fish can be homos.
All this sex stuff makes me even more scared of being a fish, and I’m scared that when I’m a fish, I won’t be attracted to other fish, and instead I’ll be attracted to humans, which I know would be bad because my mother says that one of the most important things is to be able to be with the one you love. She said this once when I asked her about homos, who she says I shouldn’t call homos, and once when we were watching a historic movie on the television, where this woman had to marry a guy she didn’t like because her family needed the money. So if I become a fish but I still like humans, then it might be torture for me. That’s what my mom said about the woman in the movie: torture.
But then, I’m even more scared that I’ll start having sexual thoughts about fish. Like one time, when I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a fish, I remembered this time way back in first grade when we went to the aquarium, which was very interesting, and then when we got back to our classroom we had to pretend we were a school of fish, and it made me so happy, being in a big group like that. Everyone was swimming around—running, really—in one big group and brushing up against each other, and I imagined how if we were fish we would all be slippery things. Thinking about that now gave me a weird tingly feeling, and I got scared that I was attracted to the idea of fish, which is probably disgusting.
But it would be nice to be in a big group like that. I don’t even know if I’ll really become a fish, because I might die, like I almost did during the President’s Physical Fitness Test, or I might stay a mixed up thing forever. If I do become a fish, I don’t know what kind I’ll be. I hope it’s the kind that lives in schools.