Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Five: A Quick Escape

Once Leo was a block away, he finally let out the breath he was holding, shoulders slumping forward in defeat.


He glanced behind him. He couldn’t even see his house anymore. His parents and those girls had vanished.


Around him, costumed strangers walked from house to house in duos and trios and larger groups. The autumn evening was peppered with laughs and candy wrappers crinkling and creepy laughter from motion-activated, fancy halloween decorations.


And here was Leo, all alone.


All alone and looking stupid.


It made him angry, eyes burning. He made a bee-line for a park bench nestled in some bushes next to a playground. Shivering and breathing heavily, crouching behind the bench like some kind of creepy weirdo, Leo ripped the pink tule from his princess costume. He bunched it up in his hands and threw it into the trash can, minus a long strand of it that he fashioned into a kind of belt.


He ripped the front and back of the skirt portion of the dress, vertically down the middle. He folded the pieces of the fabric together and stuffed them into his socks.


He broke the sparkly pink spines off of the tiara until it was a jagged, crappy circlet. He pushed it down onto his forehead, his black hair puffing out around it.


He looked down at himself.


A princess had transformed into a prince. It was a dubiously Arabian costume, with wide pant legs and a cinched waistline. It could pass for a legitimate costume.


Just barely.


But it was good enough.


Alright. He felt a little more like himself again, the tightness in his chest fading away with each inhale and exhale.


He hopped out of the bush, glancing left and right to make sure no one had seen him. Once he was satisfied, he started walking farther into the neighborhood–and farther away from his parents.


He got lost pathetically easily, but he didn’t even care. The point was to be away from home long enough to fool his parents into thinking he was having fun. Getting lost was just a side perk.


The neighborhood streets curved pleasantly, lined with orange and red-leafed trees. But everything was so… identical, so uniform. The houses all had the same fake brick veneer and exhausted beige siding. The same two car garage with a cost-effective sedan out front.


Back home, Leo’s parents had lived in an apartment complex right next to the campus Leo’s mom worked at. Their neighbors had been from all over the world and all had crazy stories to tell about love and school and cities and war. Everyone’s difference brought them together.


Looking at all the other kids, Leo had never felt more distant from anyone else.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Four: Unmitigated Disaster

The Spice Girls looked up at Leo, their expressions unreadable beneath their butterfly hair clips and sparkly outfits.


“Hi?” Posh Spice said.


Leo shifted from foot to foot, feeling like bees had buzzed up into his costume. “I just moved in. Down the street,” he offered.


Sporty Spice perked up. “Oh! Where?”


Leo jerked a thumb behind him. His house sat on the spot where the coul-de-sac turned into a proper street. The yard was empty, but he knew his dad would work his green thumb soon.


All five of them glanced at the house. Something passed between them. Someone snickered.


At Leo’s confused look, Baby Spice took pity. “You live in the Parker house.”


“What’s the Parker house?”


“It’s where Genevieve Parker lived,” Ginger Spice gushed. “Now that was a crusty old bitch.”


They all laughed at Ginger Spice’s insult.


Leo didn’t know what to say. “Um. Cool.”


Silence again. Leo was drowning in it. Coming up for air, he spoke again. “Uh, my mom wanted me to introduce myself and hand out candy with you guys.”


None of them looked very enthusiastic about it, or at least, Leo thought so. “What’s your name?” Posh Spice asked.


Leo swallowed. Well. There that question was. “Leo,” he said.


“Oh. Cool,” Posh Spice said. “I’m Andy.”


“Bella.” Sporty Spice.


“Erin.” Ginger Spice.


“Opal.” Scary Spice. Her expression was particularly haughty.


“Sun Woo, but people just call me Sunny,” Baby Spice offered.


“Nice to meet you,” Leo said.


“Well, Leo, we don’t really have a sixth chair,” Posh Andy said. “So, like, sorry.”


“Yeah…” Ginger Erin said, trailing off into another awful silence. “Want some candy?”


“Sure.” Leo shuffled forward, then realized he didn’t have a pillowcase or plastic pumpkin to put it in. Lowering his eyes, he reached into the closest bowl and grabbed a handful of Reese’s Cups. He reached under his dress, putting them in his jeans pockets. They bulged ridiculously, crinkling as he moved around.


Leo was at a crossroads. The Spice Girls were all still staring at him. Should he stay? Should he go? What would his parents say if he came home just a few minutes later with his tail between his legs?


“So, I, uh–“


“Trick or treat!!”


A trio of particularly adorable elementary school-aged kids had approached the table while Leo was having his internal crisis. They were dressed up as the three blind mice.


“Oh my gosh!!” Ginger Erin exclaimed. “Aren’t you the cutest?”


All attention moved to the cute kids, and their pillowcases, which were immediately loaded with piles and piles of candy, much to their delight.


While the Spice Girls cooed and giggled at the Blind Mice, Leo shuffled away, slinking over to the next street corner and out of sight.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Three: The Spice Girls


His parents were looking at him with hopeful expectations. Unable to let the silence continue any longer, Leo took the dress from his dad with a forced smile. “Thanks.”


His dad clapped him on the back. “Go out there and have fun,” he said.


“I just talked to the woman across the street, with the beautiful Elm tree,” Leo’s mom added. Her daughter and her friends are handing out candy to the kids at the end of the cul-de-sac!”


The enthusiasm practically vibrating through Leo’s mom was an order. If Leo didn’t go ham it up with those girls, he would crush his mom.


Leo gave them both a curt nod before slinking back up the stairs. In his sweaty palm, the cheap material of the gown itched.


It was like a horrible homework assignment worth a quarter of your grade. Leo changed clothes and put on the dress with a mechanical slowness, face devoid of expression. 


His parents tearfully bid him goodbye like it was prom night. No, that eventual nightmare wasn’t for another few months, thank god.


Once outside, the cold bit into Leo through the princess outfit. The tiara scratched at his scalp. More kids were out now, and Leo bristled whenever they looked his way.


Steeling himself, Leo squared his shoulders, stood up straight, and marched toward the gathering at the end of the coul-de-sac.


There was a folding table set out on the asphalt. It was covered in a table cloth with an orange and black spooky theme. On top of it, a few big baking bowls full of the best candy sat.


And, behind the table, in folding chairs, sat five teenage girls.


As Leo approached, his heart sank further. Their costumes were immaculate, and, worst of all, they matched.


Each of the five girls was a different Spice Girl. From left to right, there sat Ginger Spice, Posh Spice, Scary Spice, Sporty Spice, and Baby Spice. They were all white, except for Baby Spice, who was Asian.


Leo thought back to his parents’ hopeful expressions. Leo was a mixed kid to two hard working parents who’d faced income problems and even people having a problem with their interracial relationship. In the year 2004.


This neighborhood did not feel like home, and Leo didn’t think it ever would.


Still, Leo approached the table. As he walked up, all five of the girls looked up, their energetic conversation dwindling away.


Leo stopped a few feet away. Everything was silent, save for the breeze rustling the autumn trees and the occasional cry of “trick or treat!”


“Uh.” Leo swallowed. “Hi.”

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Two: The Costume

Leo dropped the cardboard box onto the carpet of his bedroom with a heavy thwump. His arms and back protested from the labor, his calves begging not to have to march up and down the stairs another time.


There was a bed with a mattress in the center of the room, but it didn’t have any sheets on it to hide the weird stains that old mattresses had. Still, Leo flopped onto it, letting out a long sigh and looking up at the ceiling.


He didn’t want to be here.


“Leo!” His dad called out, voice muffled through the door. “Get down here!”


Okay, that wasn’t what Leo had in mind.


With a labored grunt, Leo sat upright, forcing his angsting, teenage body out of the room and down the stairs.


His mom and dad were standing in the entryway to the house with twin smiles on their faces. Stepfordian smiles.


Leo slowed as he reached the front hall, glancing warily between his parents. “Uh, what’s up?”


“Look!” His mom exclaimed. She gestured outside.


Leo leaned forward, looking out the screen door at the disturbingly normal American suburban scene. He looked back at his mom with a question on his face.


“Trick-or-treaters!” His mom said.


Leo looked again. Sure enough, even though the sun hadn’t set, some kids were already out, mostly the young ones toddling around in Pikachu costumes, holding hands with their parents.


“Cool,” Leo said.


“[DEADNAME]*, we know moving can be tough,” Leo’s dad said. Yeah, understatement. “So we want you to go out and have some fun.”


Leo’s dad pulled out a costume from behind his back. Leo had to bite his lip to stop from making a noise of disgust.


It was a princess costume, with royal purple velvet and a sheer, sparkly, pink decorative material spread all over it. It was girly and infantile and not Leo’s style.


*We wanted to respect Leo’s privacy and not use his birth name, which he dislikes.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter One: Bad Beginnings

Leo Castellano was not your regular boy. Not because he was a transgender boy–Leo had known his true identity his whole life. It was as normal to him as eating cereal for breakfast. He knew his pronouns were he and him and his. He knew who he was, even if other people didn’t.

No, Leo was not your regular boy because he was just plain weird. He knew that. His classmates had always made sure to remind him. He’d embraced it. If the alternative was being mind-numbingly boring along with everyone else, then he was perfectly comfortable being weird.

Being weird was awesome. Being weird meant you could chase frogs and watch old French movies and imagine crazy worlds, and no one could stop you.

For some reason, as Leo got older, his parents were less okay with the general weirdness. It was like the moment he entered high school, all those dreaded Parental Expectations exploded out of them at once in a miasma of pink confetti.

You see, Leo’s parents didn’t know Leo was trans. Leo’s parents still called him by the wrong name and used the wrong pronouns.

Which, to Leo’s horror, meant that, now that Leo was in high school, his parents expected him to be on the girl’s soccer team. Or ballet, if he preferred. But they wanted him in some group activity, something to get him some friends and into a decent school. Only problem was, those activities were all gendered out the wazoo.

Leo didn’t want to wear the women’s soccer uniform and only hang out with girls. Don’t get him wrong, girls were awesome–most of his weird friends were girls. But it was just a painful, constant reminder that other people didn’t see him how he was, that he wasn’t right in his skin.

It wasn’t fair.

And, just to make things worse, Leo’s parents had to move to another state just two months into Leo’s freshman year because of Leo’s mom’s job.

Just when he’d made a few friends. Just when he thought he might want to join photography club. All of it was gone.

Now, here Leo was, sulking in the back seat of their minivan, staring up at the new, cookie-cutter, two-story house that they had officially moved into. Today.

On Halloween.

Leo usually loved Halloween. He loved trick-or-treating with friends. You were never too old to get free candy in a terrifying costume. He loved watching scary movies and carving jack-o-lanterns.

Now, here he was, on Halloween, with school the next day. A new, unfamiliar school, where assignments had inevitably already built up. And boxes in the trunk for Leo to unpack. Boxes and boxes of sketches and books and toys that Leo’s parents said he was too old for.

Leo did not want to start life in Red Oaks.

He just wanted things to be the way they were before.

And, he wanted to be himself. His real self.

Kurt Vonnegut: A Different Kind of Fiction

If you haven’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, what have you been reading? That might sound bold, but if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, you know where I’m coming from. For me, its a combination of his dry and satirical humor and his unique way of presenting a moral that set him apart. In this context I’ll be focusing on three books: Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night, which I all wholeheartedly recommend. This is also the order in which I first read them, and approaching them linearly will hopefully help you follow my train of thought.

I first read Slaughterhouse-five my senior year of high school, outside of my English class, and I ended up finishing it in two days. For a fictional book that combined seemingly mutually exclusive topics such as war, time-travel, and aliens, I wasn’t expecting to like it. To be honest, I only picked it up because I knew it was a classic and that it was frequently referenced in literary culture. However, I was surprised by the unique writing style of Kurt Vonnegut; there is something so genuine and authentic about how he tells a story. He doesn’t seem to care so much about plot holes and accuracy, but more about the overall message of the story, and that was so different than what I was used to (considering intricate books such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien). Slaughterhouse-five was especially good at displaying how Kurt Vonnegut uses dry humor to understand humanity in the face of tragedy. A common phrase in the book is “so it goes”, in reference to everything from the end of the universe to the absurd and irrational murder of the protagonist’s companion. At first this sentiment just appears cynical, but after you finish reading you understand what Kurt Vonnegut is really trying to say: in the face of senseless human tragedy, humor is a way to cope with the truth, and to ultimately shift focus to the beautiful parts of existence.

Next I read Cat’s Cradle, and if I thought the plot of Slaughterhouse-five was bizarre, this book took it to another level. The main plot point is the existence of a dangerous material called ice-nine that turns any liquid into ice. However, the story follows a simple protagonist named John and his strange journey that eventually converges with the story of ice-nine. It also features a strange island with an outlawed religion called Bokononism, which is central to the themes of the book. Essentially it is a nihilistic and cynical religion, and Kurt Vonnegut uses it as a punching back to criticize the concept of religion as a whole. In doing so, Vonnegut expands beyond the traditions and beliefs of religion and reveals a human element in understanding life. Through his character development and use of humor, he shows how absurd humanity is, while simultaneously showing how the journey is more important than the destination. Even if everything ends in tragedy, as things often do when people are involved, the story is what teaches us how special it is to be human. This alternative perspective on life is so genuine in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing that you almost forget you were reading fiction.

Last but not least (in fact to many it is Kurt Vonnegut’s best work) I read Mother Night, a story about a spy named Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who works for the U.S. during World War II as a German propaganda radio host. After the war he is put on trial for war crimes, and the book is written as he is living in an Israeli jail. This is the least bizarre of the three books, featuring a pretty straightforward plot and only a few outrageous people and events. This book is also unique in another way, as shown by the first lines of the book:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Having already read Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, this was a surprise to say the least. I loved Kurt Vonnegut because he didn’t hold your hand and spoon-feed you the moral of the story like other fiction writers, he made you work for it. I can only speculate why he did this, but after I finished reading the book I realized that this was only one of the morals. Perhaps he was just being ironic, because he knew that this wasn’t the full truth. Although this is definitely a lesson from the book, the true moral is revealed in the same way as the other two books: through his authentic characters and ability to draw profound truths from fiction. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but after I finished reading, I had no idea what I felt. The ending was tragic to say the least, but it went deeper than that; it wrestled with concepts of guilt and justice in the most profound way. Similar to Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, he managed to show the complexity of humanity and also challenge our pre-held conceptions of what it means to be alive. It’s a moral that you can’t put into words because it’s so universal that it doesn’t exactly mean one thing. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing almost transcends traditional literature because he offers an entirely new perspective on life. Overall, after reading all three books, I feel as if Kurt Vonnegut is an entirely new kind of fiction: one that leaves the conventions of the genre and instead recognizes what makes it so powerful to begin with. I definitely recommend all three books, and I hope you can see the importance of his writing as I do. As for myself, he’ll always be on my list of favorite authors, and I hope to read more works by him in the future.