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1 / The Change
When young Clarence Cochran woke from disturbing dreams one evening, something seemed to have changed. True, he was lying in his familiar crevice in the wall behind the top shelf, high above the Gilmartins' stove and refrigerator. But that evening, his head felt different, oddly large, yet light. He shook it, but nothing arched or swayed gracefully in front of him. That's strange, he thought, I can't see my antennae. Then he looked down at the rest of his body. What he saw made him sit bolt upright. What has become of me?
Gone were the dark brown ridges on his belly. Gone were the tiny airholes along his sides through which he normally breathed. Gone were the two stiff hairs on the rear of his abdomen that warned him of trouble creeping up from behind—usually Floyd, one of his older brothers, who liked to tease and push him around.
He twisted his head to look behind him. Gone, as well, were his beautiful wings. But worst of all, where were his six trusty and many-jointed barbed legs that helped him scurry over the kitchen floor, up the walls, and upside down across the ceiling?
Clarence closed his eyes and wished he could go back to sleep. He'd been just fine that morning when he'd crawled deep down into his crevice and his mother had listened to his prayers and put him to bed. So maybe all this was just a dream. Maybe when he really and truly woke up, he'd be his old cockroach self again.
"Clar-ence!" his mother called from the shelf just below, where his family usually gathered before going down to the counters to eat and where the Gilmartins, their human hosts, still had three yellowing cookbooks and a wooden box full of recipes no one had used in years. Kathryn Gilmartin, the wife, mother, and family breadwinner, didn't have much time for cooking anymore. And Larry Gilmartin, her husband, who was in charge of the kitchen and walked their daughter Mimi to and from school, had about as much interest in cooking as he did in cleaning up afterward. His specialties were hot dogs, instant mashed potatoes, delivered pizza, and Chinese takeout.
"Clar-ence? I don't hear you stirring up there!" Clarence's mother called again in her cheery, musical voice. The evenings always made her happy and eager for the nightly search for food with her family. "Rise and shine!" she went on. "Up an' at 'em! Your father is waiting, hungry as a bear. And Floyd and Stephen are already down here, too. You don't want them hogging all the sweet-and-sour pork, do you?"
Clarence knew his brothers were up. He couldn't hear them yawning and grumbling in their sleeping places nearby on the top shelf. If he didn't get going, Floyd and Stephen would eat all the sweet-and-sour sauce and whatever remained of the fortune cookies! In a voice that came out more squeaky than normal, he yelled, "Coming!" Then, screwing up his courage, he opened his eyes in the dim light and looked again at his sorry self.
Inexplicably, a pair of plaid boxer shorts, the kind that humans wear, encircled his waist and hips. The rest of him was covered in skin the color of uncooked chicken, with bits of blond fuzz here and there. His body wasn't any longer, but it looked like it had stretched. And what had happened to his shell, with its rich brown color and hard finish? How could it be gone? How would he hold himself together? His legs—he could only count four, not six, of them now!—had become long, smooth tubes. And at the ends of each, five smaller tubes had sprouted, each ridiculously short and stubby.
With some relief, Clarence did notice one tiny, lonely hole in the middle of his abdomen, just above the elastic waistband of his shorts. Yet he didn't seem to be breathing through it, and it wasn't giving off that pleasant, stinky, and reassuring odor that usually made him feel at peace with the world and at one with his family.
Wondering about the rest of himself that he couldn't see, he clumsily stretched one of his strange front legs toward his head and then touched it. His head was bigger! He felt short thick hair that swirled and stuck up in the back, then a fleshy, shell-shaped thing that led into a waxy tunnel. On the front, he felt eyes, like grapes, sunk into deep sockets. Between them was a bump with two small holes, each with yucky, gooey gunk inside. He felt an oval mouth in which the parts worked oddly up and down and where a damp, flat, noodley thing flopped this way and that. "Hold on, I'll be right there!" he shouted, his voice still sounding squeaky.
"What, has the kid got a cold or something?" That was Clarence's father, who wasn't exactly at his best in the evenings before he got some food into him. He, too, was on the shelf below.
Then Clarence heard his mother reply, "Well, maybe he does have a cold or a fever. Poor child. I'll go up and see. It isn't like him to be so late."
"Tell him to move his precious little butt!" That was his annoying brother Floyd speaking.
"You mind your own business," his mother said to Floyd. "I'll handle this."
Clarence heard the soft patter of her steps as she climbed toward his crevice along the cupboard wall. Soon she was on the top shelf.
"No! Wait! Don't come in here!" he cried. He didn't want his mother, or anyone for that matter, to see him like this. If he could just hold her off a little longer, he might find a way to get back to his normal self.
"You all right?" she asked him gently, still out of sight.
"Yes! I'll be there in a minute!"
He heard his mother pause, then turn around.
"Well, get a move on!" his father called up to him.
"Let's go!" cried Stephen, who ordinarily paid more attention to preening his long wings and antennae than he ever did to Clarence. "I have an appointment," he announced, which meant that later he'd be meeting Martha McMoffit again, strolling with her, wing-to-wing, along the shadowy path beneath the radiator.
"Hurry along, Clarence," his mother called, more sharply than before.
Now Clarence tried to get on his legs and crawl out of the crevice. Usually this was easy. With his six strong, spiky legs and sticky claws, he'd scoot right up the steep, almost vertical wall of wood and crumbling plaster.
On this evening, though, everything was more complicated. He had no middle legs, and his smooth hind legs were absolutely worthless for climbing. Just looking at them made him feel faint. Still, with much awkward shoving and slithering, he moved his body from its lying-down position at the bottom of the crevice so that his stomach leaned against the sloped wall and the ends of his front legs could grab onto a narrow ridge. With all his might, he tried to pull himself up so he could see over the rim. But soon his front legs shook and weakened, until he slid sadly down the wall, splinters sticking into his stomach.
He tried to climb up again and again, but it didn't work. Exhausted, he slid down and collapsed on his back. Hopelessly, he looked up at the dark walls, as if from the bottom of an open grave. How will I ever get out of here?
Excerpted from Clarence Cochran, A Human boy by William Loizeaux
Copyright © 2009 by William Loizeaux
Published in 2009 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.