At the beginning of fourth grade, I was enrolled in the gifted program at a school across town. In the dregs of the early morning I would get on a bus and buckle myself into a gray plastic seat. The bus driver always had the local pop station playing over the intercoms. Already a snob, I hated the music, but the songs of that year are still burned into my memory: “My Heart Will Go On”, “No Scrubs”, “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

Most of us had small gifts, party tricks at best. One boy could pop a balloon by staring at it hard enough; another girl could always draw the eight of clubs from a shuffled deck. I could leave white marks in the air after tracing letters and symbols with my fingers, though they faded within a minute. We would be gently pushed to go as far as we could, but mostly slink back into the main stream of education and become respectable sales managers and sewage technicians.

Charlie was different. Charlie could turn into animals, and this created problems. In class, after he had raced ahead of the rest of us and finished his work a half-hour early, he would impatiently stamp the floor and claw at the gum encrusted under his desk. When this failed to bring relief, he would turn into a raccoon, or a sparrow, or some other kind of animal that could move quickly and frenetically around the room. Our teachers (we cycled through a lot that year) would angrily go after him, but he was always just beyond their grasp.

That winter, Pokemon swept the school like a storm, and our gifted class was no exception. First we played the video games, Christmas presents that we hid in desks and lockers. When they were banned, we played the card game, setting up in those few lucrative playground spots where architecture shielded the ground from wind. Miss Eight-of-Spades became a menace, always able to draw a Grass Energy card when she needed it. Once the cards were banned too, we played our private role-playing games, making our minds imitate the logic of the video games or cards, keeping track of everything in the ringed notebooks we had been given for school.

Charlie had little time for this. He would use our obsession to entertain us, from time to time. If he strained himself, he could transform into a turtle with ghastly blue skin, or a mouse with motley yellow fur. We applauded him, although it didn’t look very much like the Pokemon we saw in the cartoons. But Charlie could never sit still enough for even video games, let alone any kind of cards or television. While we gathered during winter recesses and talked about someone’s cousin having a foil Charizard, he was a snow leopard cub, kicking up white winds wherever he went.

In time, he started missing classes. It was easy enough to turn into a pigeon and blend in with the dumb birds that hunted for our dropped crumbs. He would claim that when he was an animal he lost track of time. Our teachers would plead with Charlie, reminding him of the good results he had when he tried, but to him that was all the more confirmation that he didn’t need to do anything differently.

I only went to Charlie’s home once. It was a damp March day, and I had somehow managed to miss the bus home. Our latest teacher, a mousy-haired woman who was rumoured to smoke on the front lawn during recess, asked him if he could look after me. Looking back, it definitely wasn’t what she was supposed to do, but I was happy to avoid an hour staring at the stucco ceiling while the school called my parents.

Somehow I had expected Charlie’s house to be as magical as he was. I thought we would step over a rolling hill and end up in a cabin made of candy, or an old stone castle. But instead he took me to one of those gray apartment buildings whose walls festered with amorphous brown stains. He lived on the eighth floor, I suppose with his parents. In the small apartment, everything seemed stacked on each other, cabinets and tables piled up at precarious angles.

After letting himself in with the key in his pocket, Charlie hopped up onto the kitchen counter and got us some cookies. I asked if he wanted to watch some TV — Dragon Ball Z was on after school, and I thought they might show a new episode. He wanted to wrestle instead. I told Charlie my mom wouldn’t let me watch wrestling — she told me it was fake, and that they were tricking kids. He insisted upon it.

There was no play to Charlie’s wrestling, no stone cold stunners or figure four leglocks. He was on top of me, holding me down, an ever-shifting, impossible body. There was something immense between us, a desire neither of us could quite understand, and I thought it might crush me. He began changing shape on top of me, at one moment a big fluffy dog, another a thick-knuckled gorilla.

I scratched his face and told him to stop. That seemed to finally get his attention. Charlie became a boy again, and sulkily apologized. I finally got him to turn on the TV, but his family didn’t have cable, so we just watched Judge Judy in silent incomprehension until my parents got there.

Shortly afterwards, we began to understand that Charlie wasn’t quite human any more. He would spend most of his time partially transformed, becoming a boy with the translucent skin of an iguana, or with the furry paws of a cat. The teacher had given up on trying to stop him. After Easter break, he never came back. We talked among ourselves, told stories about him being shipped out of state for scientific testing or running away from home, but the teachers never mentioned him.

I continued in the gifted class until high school, but never developed my gift beyond a party trick. Some of us benefited from it — Miss Eight-of-Spades has a magic act in Vegas now, and balloon-popping boy works for the military. I became a paralegal, got married, had kids of my own, entertained them by drawing cartoons in the air. Every once in a while, maybe when I’m taking out the garbage and see a squirrel perched on the fence, staring at me with his beady eyes, I wonder if it might be Charlie paying me a visit. But mostly I don’t think about it.

A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.