Janet’s eyes widened when she saw the four-eyed, green-antennaed, maroon-skinned biped before her that only nominally resembled one of her students. They were waiting in the wings, fifteen minutes out from the start of the next act. She could already hear people shuffling back into the auditorium from intermission, greeted by sound checks from the kids who were manning the mixing desk.
“Sheila?” she asked. “Are you planning on improvising?” She looked down at script in her hands, folded over to the second act, to see if there were any handwritten edits she’d missed.
“Don’t worry, Miss Winsome,” a voice from behind her spoke.
Janet turned, and sighed with some relief and some dread, as Rhine appeared backstage. Behind her came the costume that Janet had been expecting to see Sheila wearing, a one-eyed purple worm.
Rhine nodded at the two tall kids who carried the costume in and began to position it over Sheila. She turned to Janet and smiled. “We will do you proud. Did James get you that coconut water I sent over?”
Janet glanced between one kid struggling to get into a costume that Janet wasn’t sure she’d be able to lift on her own, and one kid who was obviously “handling” the jittery director of this year’s original stage production. She would probably weep with pride later, when everyone was gone, and she was sitting on the stage amidst the props they had built, the scenes they had painted, the costumes they had woven and assembled, and the machines they had constructed.
But for now, Janet stared at her young stage manager and laughed. She put a hand on Rhine’s shoulder. “I didn’t, but that’s good thinking. I could use one right now. I’m feeling parched. Everything else okay? Have you taken a break?”
“So far, so good. And the only thing we’re breaking around here tonight…is a leg.” She turned to Sheila and the other kids. The costume was on and they threw up their thumbs and nodded at Rhine’s sentiment.
Janet shook her head and grinned at them, just as “random male voice, British” requested that the audience please find their seats, because intermission was over. And the past six months flashed before Janet’s eyes.
About six months prior to opening night, Janet Winsome, a young teacher in her second year at Readerson Middle School, volunteered to be in charge of that year’s school play. At the first afterschool gathering, most of the students were excited and intrigued to hear that the play would have a new director after five years of doing only serious and somber productions. Janet’s predecessor, a former actor and seasoned drama teacher, had done her best to impart some appreciation of the art in the various students among her various casts and crews for over a decade, until she retired and moved to southern Florida over the summer.
Janet knew nothing about theater. But she figured she could learn as she went, and learn with the students. And maybe even from them. She loved teaching math, which by her measure was a universal language (notwithstanding “love”). Math provided a singular expression for all different kinds of people. Her ulterior motive in volunteering to be the teacher in charge of the school play was to provide students with multiple expressions—from the costumes to make-up to song to acting to set design and building, and so on.
Of course the first thing everyone wanted to know was what play they would be doing that year. Everyone yelled out the names of famous and popular plays and musicals that they wanted to try. When Janet proclaimed that she aimed to do something original, the reaction was mixed. A few people perked up. Many looked confused. A fair number shook their heads and left.
In the end, a baker’s dozen remained. They went around the room introducing themselves and sharing a little about why they wanted to do the play that year. There were no shocking revelations. But Janet took note of who was shy, who was outspoken, who seemed eager, who seemed reluctant, who shared their talents, and who was hiding them. And she had an idea of how and where she would start.
The next day, she greeted them all in costume.
“I am Exoplanetary Janet, Traveler of the Cosmos.” She raised her arm and swept her hand slowly from left to right.
There was whispering at the back of the class. Two girls, so thick-as-thieves that they were more like one two-headed girl, glanced at Janet, then resumed whispering. One of them, Rhine, raised her hand.
“Then why are you dressed like a cowgirl, Miss Winsome?” she asked.
Someone sighed. “So, we’re mixing genres? I’m already fatigued.”
Janet smiled. It was likely that none of them knew she had no background in theater. She didn’t want to let on in case it might discourage them into thinking the play didn’t matter enough to put an experienced teacher in charge. But she didn’t want to deceive them either.
“Listen, I have a confession to make to you all.”
“It’s okay, Miss Dubs. We already know. You have no idea what this year’s play is going to be.”
“And you’re going to give us a pep talk about how we can all work together to come up with something great.”
Janet glanced between the two who had spoken, a brother and sister, pressed pause on her “confession,” and put her hands on her hips. “Great! That saves me some time. So…ideas?”
Marty, a slight kid in the front who had his elbows on the table and his hands folded under his chin peered at Janet. “Well, if you can be a space cowgirl, I want to just do the voice of something, a robot. I want to do a robot voice. You know how they put effects on it to sound…uh…”
“Robot-y?” another kid answered.
Janet nodded. “Okay. Nice. Let’s gather the characters first, then throw them into a situation.”
“Missus Farley said that the story has to come from the character. Otherwise it won’t keep the audience’s attention.” That was Sheila, the other head of the two-headed girl in the back.
“Oh! Maybe we can do special effects. That’ll keep their attention. I have leftover fireworks—”
“No!” Janet shook her head and her finger, first at Darany, who’d spoken, then at the rest of the class. “No fireworks, no dangling from wires, no set pieces taller than—” She put a hand above her belly button, her center of gravity, the height at which she believed she could catch even the tallest and biggest kid if he or she were falling off something. “—three feet. Safety first, everyone.”
“Boring,” someone said.
“I want to be a giant cyclops worm,” Sheila said. When Janet glanced over at the girl she had deemed was the alpha-queen of their little troupe, she expected to see the girl smirking at her. But Sheila’s eyes were wide and there was a slight but sincere smile on her face. “And I want my name to be Mother Monocula.”
“Wait, does that mean you’ll have babies? I can build the babies!” Darany whipped his head forward and looked at Janet. “Safely!” he said. “Totally safe.”
Marty twisted around in his chair and looked back. “Do you want to help me build the robot I’ll be voicing?”
Rhine raised her hand again. “I want to be part-human, part-metal, part-vegetable, part-bird.”
Janet couldn’t tell if they were testing her limits or if they were actually serious about what they wanted, or a bit of both. But she found herself wondering…how much of what they threw out could they actually manage to make happen on the stage?
Rhine tilted her head and glanced at Darany. “Dar?”
“If you can draw it, I can build it…probably,” he said with a confident shrug.
“I can’t draw,” Rhine said. She frowned and glared down at her paper.
The slouching boy, James, who sat a few seats away from Rhine straightened up a little and turned to her. “Describe it to me. I’ll draw it for you.”
Janet smiled, pleased and proud, even though she hadn’t really done anything yet. Her cast and crew were already getting along and helping each other.
She asked them all to bring sketches or descriptions of at least one prospective character to their next class. As Mrs. Farley had taught them, they would begin with the characters, and build a story from there.
Janet stared at the character study drawings that the students turned in to her during that school day. About half should be doable. She gently rejected the other half—which included a giant head made out of amorphous cloud and a zombie that was just the top half of the body.
She pinned the rest of the characters up at the front of the class.
“Okay, these will be our characters. So, take a look at them. Who are they? What’s the story about?”
“Outlaw justice,” someone suggested. There were some considering looks and a smile or two at that suggestion.
“Moving to a strange new planet and being scared you won’t fit in.” This one elicited some groans and a whispered “no, nothing depressing.”
“Random adventures, because we’re kids and we should be having fun.”
At that last suggestion, the kids didn’t burst out into giggles as Janet expected. Some sighed and nodded emphatically. Some crossed their arms and nodded emphatically. Some cried “yes!” and…nodded emphatically.
Janet got the sense that they still didn’t quite trust that she was really going to let them put on an original play that they would all draft together and that could be fun.
She reviewed the drawings again. Elaborate drawings, she thought, of ambitious costumes. Doubt looked over her shoulder and threw out some second thoughts. “I did remember to tell you guys that we’ll be making all these costumes ourselves, right?”
So it began. For the first half of each class, they brainstormed the story, then drafted and revised, and for the second half, they practiced and rehearsed. After a couple of months, they started meeting in the auditorium.
They put their hands to work, sewing, building, drawing, tinkering. And with no small help from parents, the costumes, the sets, and the safe-as-could-be special effects were coming along.
One day, Janet arrived to the auditorium earlier than usual. She didn’t have a class to teach during the last period of the day, and usually spent the time in her own classroom going over homework or exams, or reviewing lesson plans. But the closer it got to the play’s opening night, the more anxious she was to spend every possible moment tending to every element.
She overheard voices behind the door to the backstage office. She recognized them as Sheila and Rhine. She hesitated a moment, not meaning to eavesdrop, but just startled that the students would be there so early. The dismissal bell hadn’t rung yet. She hoped for their sakes that they had notes from their sixth-period teacher.
“They’re real?” Rhine asked.
Sheila laughed. “They’re not as big. I used to have one as a pet back home. But they wouldn’t survive in your climate.”
“Did it have babies?”
The girls laughed.
“You’re really going for it?” Rhine asked.
“Okay, but no one will see you really. You’ll be covered by the costume.”
“Yeah, that’s the point. I can be myself and not worry about freaking anyone out.”
Janet couldn’t help but to jump in then. She pushed open the door. “Hey girls. I’m so glad you feel you can be yoursel—” She stopped, and froze when she saw the girls. Or rather, one girl and one four-eyed, green-antennaed, maroon-skinned biped that only nominally resembled one of her students. The proportions were off. Her torso was shortened and her legs much longer than they should have been.
They were sitting on the bench in the office. Rhine immediately jumped up and rushed to Janet.
Janet peered at the one still sitting on the bench. “Sheila?”
“You’re Exoplanetary Janet, remember?” Rhine said. “You can handle stuff like this. It’s normal for ‘out there in the cosmos.'”
Janet grinned at Rhine. She glanced between the girls. “Did you two do this yourselves?” She took a step toward Sheila, who strangely, shied away. “It’s phenomenal.”
Rhine moved in front of Janet, blocking her view and her movement. Janet suddenly caught on.
“Was this supposed to be a surprise?” She looked at Rhine and put her hand over her brows to block her view of Sheila. “I don’t remember us making this change to the script. We’ve had too many over the past month. We need to stop with that before you all forget what your correct lines are.” She put her hand down and looked at Sheila. “Hang on, does this mean you’ve changed your mind about the giant cyclops worm? Because we’ve started building the framework for that. If you’ve changed your mind, Sheila, you need to let me know. It’s now or never.”
Rhine now rushed over to Sheila and helped her up from the bench. “No change, Miss Winsome. We’re still doing the giant worm. And no surprises. Sheila’s just…letting her hair down. We’re going to the bathroom now. We’ll be back before the session starts.” She waved and swept Sheila out of the room before Janet could speak another word.
Janet frowned, but then she smiled slightly and shook her head. She was glad for the initiative that the kids were taking with their assignments and roles. But it was about time she guided and disciplined that initiative enough for them to solidify the production.
When Rhine and Sheila returned from the bathroom, Sheila looked like herself again. And Janet, thinking she had walked in on a new surprise character, said nothing to give Sheila away. She still encouraged the kids to do some ad-libbing and improvising, as long as it wasn’t too disruptive, and as long as they reigned it in when she signaled them to.
They started partial dress rehearsals. The purpose of the rehearsals was to test out how obstructive some of their costumes would be when they were walking around on stage. And to practice operating the remote-controlled worms and the huge red metallic marionette robot, so the kids wouldn’t trip over the worms or get trapped under the robot (though it probably would be fine since he was made mostly of foam on the inside). Even the human hero spaceman, played by Darany, had a clunky costume. He was basically wearing dyed custodian overalls, but he would have to contend with a plastic fishbowl helmet, and some decorative tubing.
Probably the most comfortable person onstage would be the person playing Exoplanetary Janet. Janet had only meant for the character to inspire the kids to come up with their own character ideas and to practice acting techniques, but they liked her, and she fit into their story. So Janet asked for volunteers and gave the part to the one girl who raised her hand but hid behind the others. Janet—the cosmic cowgirl character—would sing the one and only song they added to the play, which also fit into the story. The first time this girl, Moira, sang during rehearsal, she knocked everyone’s socks off. Janet—the math teacher and middle school play director—was awed into sitting back in her chair and wiping her brow. The rest of the kids recovered from being momentarily stunned, and immediately proceeded with a lot of back-patting and triumphant yells and whistles. And Moira blushed and glanced down, until someone put the cowgirl hat on her head, and she raised her face to the sky and became Exoplanetary Janet, Roamer of the Cosmos. (The kids thought “roamer” sounded cooler than “traveler.”)
They didn’t really need to practice their dialogue. It wasn’t too complicated or deep. The story they’d come up was, as they liked to call it, “classic.”
Janet’s voice would speak first, setting up the conflict of the play.
“In the distant future, Mother Monocula, a giant cyclops worm from the planet Thelarvaria, unable to sustain her million larval children on their native planet, only seeks a new home when she comes upon a new and fertile world.”
That world, of course, was Earth. Beyond the planets that orbited our own sun were planets that orbited other stars. Exoplanets, they were called. And some of those exoplanets, like Thelarvaria, hosted life. Humanity had taken to the stars, but had still only explored half their own galaxy, when they started hosting guests from other planets that sustained life in that same galaxy.
Much of the life that humanity discovered was friendly and curious. As Earthlings visited their planets, they visited Earth. And Earth created an organization that helped to facilitate travel and foster the exchange of knowledge and culture among the many inhabited exoplanets in the Milky Way. It was called the D.E.P.T., or just the Department. As in, the Department of Exoplanetary Travel.
Not everyone believed in the Department and its many rules and regulations. Some people just wanted to travel through the galaxy freely, and make friends (or enemies) the old-fashioned way, without an authorized representative hanging over every word and gesture between human and alien.
Exoplanetary Janet, Roamer of the Cosmos, was one of those people who disagreed with the Department’s ways, though she did think they meant well.
She was considered an outlaw for roaming the cosmos without an intergalactic passport. The one departmental agent who was assigned to bring her in was the law-abiding spaceman Davenport. But despite himself, he liked Janet. They were best friends in school as children. And whenever they had a run-in, she always seemed to get away. For Janet’s part, if she learned of any wrongdoing that she couldn’t handle on her own, out there in the frontier of exoplanetary space, she would let Davenport know about it, and even help him deal with it.
With Janet’s sidekick, a hybrid alien ambassador named Weirdly, and Davenport’s partner, a robot designated Pi-Maker, the heroes made a formidable team, adventuring through the galaxy. Now, they were called upon to band together once again to defeat a danger on their own home planet.
Mother Monocula was welcomed as well as any other alien seeking to settle and build a new life on Earth. But she didn’t tell Earth’s authorities that the life she sought to build would eventually extinguish all other life on the planet. For after she and a few of her larvae landed on Earth, more and more of her children, able to create wormholes (pun most certainly intended) with a blink of their single eyes— wormholes that led straight to our solar system—began to arrive, and to devour.
They made it to opening night, with the sets and the backgrounds and costumes and rehearsals all done, all ready. And opening night came, and Janet’s voice echoed over the sound system. And just before intermission, they left off with the arrival of Mother Monocula as an ominous shadow in the background.
Just as Rhine said, everything had gone smoothly so far.
As the curtain rose again and a thin layer of dry ice vapor floated over the stage, Janet took another deep breath and watched.
Sheila was stronger than she looked. She hoisted that huge Monocula costume and marched out onto stage, looking through the cleverly hidden eyeholes in the worm’s giant eye. The alien’s comically large eyelashes bounced and swayed as the worm moved onto stage. Janet heard the bemused laughter from the audience. Two motorized worms rolled out beside Sheila and the laughter swelled.
Janet grinned. So much for the terrifying visage of the all-devouring giant cyclops worm.
But now, Mother Monocula and her children began to devour everything on Earth—plants, animals, sand, water, buildings, rocks…everything. This was depicted by various plush toys representing plants, animal, and so forth, being strategically tossed in front of Sheila, so she could lower her costume and sweep over the items, “devouring” them.
The kids managing the music and sound design were going nuts with the sounds of crashing and monstrous roars, and people screaming, and ominous music.
It was so loud and rumbly on the stage that Janet didn’t notice the gentle finger tapping on her shoulder until it became a pat. She turned and saw that Moira, whose part was coming up, was trying to tell her something. Janet shook her head and pointed to her ears. She couldn’t hear. Suddenly, Rhine was there too, in her own costume as Weirdly.
They all stepped aside, further away from the speakers.
“We have a minor problem,” Rhine said.
Janet nodded calmly. “Something was bound to go wrong. It’s okay, we’ll improvise or figure something out.”
Rhine blinked and exchanged a glance with Moira.
“Well, maybe it’s not so minor.”
Moira had woken up that morning with a strange feeling in her throat. A soreness she had never felt before. She’d been sick a few days prior, but had recovered in time for opening night.
“She’s been drinking honey tea all day,” Rhine said.
“I can speak, kind of,” Moira said in a whispery croak. “But I won’t be able to sing.”
After the scene of Monocula devouring everything was the scene where Davenport and Pi tried to stop the giant cyclops worm and her children, with an unsuccessful plan. He and Pi discover an ancient song that could lull the worms to sleep. It was never known on any planet except Thelarvaria. So he sends word to Janet and Weirdly. They find the song and send the music to Davenport and head to Earth themselves.
The gag was that Davenport would try to sing the song, but would fail to lull the worms because he couldn’t carry a tune. (Darany in real life had a lovely singing voice and would have to fake it.) With no other recourse, Davenport would resort to brute force, by climbing atop the mother worm and trying to wrestle her down. (He would be climbing on the back part of the costume, which had wheels. So Sheila wouldn’t be bearing his direct weight and wouldn’t be moving much after that anyway.)
Exoplanetary Janet would arrive just in time and sing the ancient song. Or that’s what was supposed to happen.
“Maybe we can just have Dar do the song and Janet can make a joke about how she thought she’d have to do it,” Rhine said.
Moira frowned and shook her head. “Understudy,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” Rhine said. “She doesn’t really want to go out there. She went to hide in the locker room as soon as she found out Moira couldn’t speak.”
“We were recording you the other night at final rehearsal,” Janet said. “Why don’t you just lip sync to that?”
Moira frowned more deeply. But Rhine’s eyes widened and she snapped her fingers. Janet looked at her, brows raised, expectant.
“I have an idea.”
“Obviously,” Janet said.
By this time, news of Moira’s talent had spread. But only her family knew that she’d lost her voice. She did her best with the speaking parts, and it actually sounded fine, since she was supposed to be a rough outlaw and her voice sounded rough.
Then the moment came. Monocula was in the middle of the stage, surrounded by two of her children. Davenport was perched on the mother worm’s back, clinging desperately as Pi looked on helplessly.
From stage right, there shuffled into view an alien with a strange profile that looked part-human, part-metal, part-vegetable, and part-bird. The marionette strings on Pi turned his head toward the newcomer. The music faded.
“Glad to see you, brother robot,” the newcomer, the alien ambassador Weirdly, said.
“You should not have come, ambassador,” Pi’s robotic voice intoned. “Now you will perish with us.”
“That isn’t the plan, my crimson friend,” Weirdly said.
Just then, from stage left, came the stomping sound of boot-steps. The boots of an outlaw, a cosmic cowgirl.
When she emerged onto stage, the crowd erupted into applause.
“Janet!” Davenport said, still clinging to the worm. “Look out!”
They built some movement into the worm costume. Sheila stretched her wormy purple lips into what was meant to be a wicked smirk.
Exoplanetary Janet had a length of rope wrapped around her torso just in case their first and best plan didn’t work. But she ignored the rope for now. As the worm struggled against Davenport’s grip, Janet dropped to her knees. A light shone from behind her. She raised her hands to the worm and inhaled deeply.
And instead of the song that she was going to sing with her beautiful voice, the song that Davenport had already tried to sing, Janet expressed a series of chirps and strangely-pitched notes. The sounds, courtesy of the young geniuses that were engineering the sound for the play, were actually coming from a speaker in her pocket.
The “song” came to an end. Janet lowered her arms, and the light behind her dimmed. And as it did, the single eyelid on each worm lowered and closed, and the worms dropped to the ground. All sound abruptly stopped.
Exoplanetary Janet sighed and rose to her feet as Davenport slipped off the “unconscious” worm. The audience erupted into cheers and applause.
Davenport walked toward Janet and waited until the applause died down.
“Boy, I really had the pronunciation wrong on that one,” he said.
Another wave of chuckles gripped the audience.
And the music started again. Heroic music this time. Janet—the director, not the cowgirl—spoke again as the heroes onstage dusted themselves off, checked on each other, and poked at the fallen worms.
“Davenport reported all that happened. He had tried to contact the Thelarvarians when Mother Monocula first began devouring, but they were a private people and did not answer, until news of Earth’s plight reached them through other means. They took Mother Monocula and her million children back to their home planet, where they would be properly punished according to their custom. Davenport asked Janet to keep an eye on the planet, both to make sure that Monocula’s punishment was just, and to be forewarned of any future danger from her, and maybe to find out what kinds of things the Thelarvarians liked, so that humanity might one day reach out and try to be allies.
“As for Janet, Davenport reported on her bravery, but the Department could make no exceptions to their rules. She was still an outlaw. Davenport had tried, he said, to detain the cosmic cowgirl. But…she managed to get away.”
When the curtain call came, there were cheers for Darany and Moira who were recognizable as the lead heroes. There were hoots and hollers for Rhine and Marty when they were announced as playing Weirdly and Pi. And solid applause for Rhine as stage manager.
When Sheila came out onstage, there was silence at first. She had four eyes and maroon skin, long legs and a short torso, and antennae. She looked sheepish and hesitant, and Janet wondered at how funny it was that a person could be so confident and outspoken in one setting and shy in another. Rhine reached over and held her friend’s hand. And the sound crew announced her.
“We call her Sheila, but her full name is Shaakienlare’uth. She played the role of…Mother Monocula!”
The crowd applauded. There were even some shouts of “Monocula!”
Janet could see some of the parents in the audience. She spotted Sheila’s and noted the stricken look on their faces. She felt a twinge in her belly as she worried over anything inappropriate or unintentionally offensive in the play. She had looked up anything that might be remotely problematic online and even talked to the kids. Nothing had come up in the final version of the play. It was approved by the principal and whoever else in the school administration approved school plays. She was going to see most of the parents at dinner soon. If Sheila’s parents were worried, she could talk to them then.
The cast of supporting actors and the crew went on stage next. Then Marty took a microphone from someone and announced their director. Janet joined the kids on the stage for a quick bow, and before she knew it, the curtain had dropped. In the flurry backstage, Sheila gripped Janet’s wrist.
“Thanks, Miss Winsome,” she said. “I’ve always been told I’m welcome here. And that’s nice. But this is the first time I’ve felt at home on Earth.”
Janet blinked and nodded. She still didn’t understand what Sheila was doing with this character. But she did know how to respond. She’d been wanting to say it all night…even before the play began.
She climbed on a stool and got the kids’ attention.
She looked down at Rhine, then shifted her gaze to Sheila, then Moira, Darany, Marty, and each one of them in turn.
“You did me proud,” she said.
She heard sniffles and the shuffling of feet, and suddenly, someone handed her something.
“I was supposed to give you this,” James said.
Janet sighed and held up a can of coconut water.
And with that, the cast and crew of “Attack of the Giant Cyclops Worm” burst out in cheers.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.