by Jennifer Todhunter


Payton stands on the front steps of his school at lunchtime, pulling hair from his head one piece at a time. Attached to the follicle of each flaxen strand is a word, a thought from his mind, which he tosses with force at those watching.

I am not a doll for you to dress up.

An uneasy murmur builds through the crowd as his words hit his classmates in their chests. The thoughts explode into letters which fall to the ground with a crack, splattering at the onlookers’ feet.

Mrs. Thomas, the chemistry teacher, tries to reassemble the message in vain. She was always good at puzzles, but this one has her stumped. The rain drizzles. The clouds sling low. Payton wrenches out the thin blue streak in his bangs and throws the words at a group of kids standing by the bike rack.

Don’t tell me what to think.

The letters get caught in rusted spokes, alongside playing cards clipped to frames. Payton ignores these triggers. He does not want the uncomfortable memories of his confusing childhood and days spent alone, wondering.

Patches of Payton’s scalp start to show, his pale white skin mottled with angry pink welts. The school secretary runs out carrying a telephone, but Payton’s lips remain clamped together.

I am not a girl.

Payton steps out of his school-mandated pleated skirt. Rolls down his navy-blue knee socks. His starched white blouse slips from his shoulders as he undoes its row of buttons. There is nothing he wants on his skin right now.

He pulls out the same phrase again, liking how the letters feel in his hands when they’re fresh from his head.

I am not a girl.

Payton’s principal approaches with a fire blanket from the school lab, her face set in pity, and Payton hurls a ‘not’ in her direction. The word shatters against her thigh.

When the end-of-lunch bell rings, the concrete is littered with spilled words and bits of Payton’s misery. He runs a hand over his smooth skull, down his bare arms. He smiles. His brain has quietened.

“I am not a girl,” he says. “You cannot make me one.”

Payton picks up an unbroken ‘I off the ground and walks toward his music class where his saxophone waits.

He does not look back.



Jennifer Todhunter is a number nerd by day, word fiddler at night. She enjoys dark, salty chocolate and running top speed in the other direction. Find her at or @JenTod_.