Shadow of a Change, p.1Michelle Sagara
Shadow of a Change
by Michelle Sagara
Rosdan Press, 2011
Novels by Michelle Sagara
The Book of the Sundered
Into the Dark Lands
Children of the Blood
Lady of Mercy
Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light
Chronicles of Elantra
Cast in Shadow
Cast in Courtlight
Cast in Secret
Cast in Fury
Cast in Silence
Cast in Chaos
Cast in Ruin
Cast in Peril (September 20, 2011)
The Queen of the Dead
*Forthcoming in May 2012
Copyright 2011 by Michelle Sagara
All rights reserved
Cover design by Anneli West, Four Corners Communication
Fossils: photoshop brush by Lileya.deviantart.com
“Shadow of a Change” Copyright 1993 by Michelle Sagara; first appeared in Dinosaur Fantastic, ed. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg.
Table of Contents
Shadow of a Change
Other Short Stories
I’m ambivalent, in general, about horror. I can read it, I can be affected by it—but I’m a bit of a wimp. I avoid horror movies, for instance, and on the rare occasions when someone has been foolish enough to watch a horror movie in my house, they usually have to watch the last half hour of it without sound. Yes. I turn the sound off entirely. I find that helps. (It doesn’t really help with the noise levels, as all of the people who were watching it then crank up the volume on their complaints—but their complaints don’t cause my adrenaline levels to continue to rise to uncomfortable levels. I can’t speak for their own adrenaline levels, of course.)
This story was published in 1993, and was written at the start of 1993. It was, in fact written during the absolute worst of my first pregnancy. This is probably too much information, but the phrase “morning sick” upset me immensely because it implied that somehow the horrible nausea would not be present at every other hour of the day. Or night. Honestly, it was like having the stomach ‘flu for four and a half months.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I am not—so very not—someone who can work cheerfully through nausea. I had agreed to write the story, and my one attempt to test the waters for non-delivery had returned a resounding “we need it”.
A little bit about short story anthologies, now. When they are—as the various DAW anthologies are, and were—invitational, what this means is the editor in question invites various authors on a list to contribute stories to the book. They’ll let the author know what the theme of the anthology is (“story about dragons”, “story about elves”, etc.), the pay (usually in cents per word), the deadlines and the maximum length they’re looking for. The authors who are interested will agree to write a story.
This all makes sense, as far as it goes. The editor will promise the publisher an anthology of a certain length. But. Life generally happens, and sometimes people who agreed to turn in a story will have the type of emergencies that cause them to either forget or be incapable of doing so. Some people (ahem) will turn in stories that are too long. As stories begin to arrive around the deadline, the editors will have a good idea of how much over-length or under-length their book is. If it’s under, they can’t turn the book in without finding stories that will fill the word-length gap. If it’s over—well, actually, I have a story about that, too, but I’ll save it for later.
So, having explained this, my story was by this point necessary. So I wrote one. But…it was, in many ways, affected by how I felt about my self, the changing shape of me at the time, and the constant, low-or-high levels of nausea and headache, and it’s almost entirely unlike anything I’ve written since. It’s more a tonal/mood piece than something with a strong, structural impact.
Shadow of a Change
She didn’t know when it started.
One morning, she had simply been April Stephens, part of the typing pool at a large, sedate computer firm. She caught the same bus every morning at 7:30, arrived at work every morning at 8:15 (give or take a few minutes for traffic), and made her way to her desk, coffee in hand, for exactly 8:30. She wore neutral colors, neutral styles and a very conservative bob; she wore sensible shoes, ate healthy food, and lived a very quiet life.
Sometimes, on the bus on the way home, traffic stalled in the misnamed rush hour, she would gaze out the window and try to remember if this was what she had wanted out of life. Eavesdropping on the fluttering conversations that changed daily, she would catch a spark of something bright and shiny and new in the hushed whispers or excited chattering, that made her yearn, for a moment, for someone else’s youth.
Home was a simple affair; she lived in the two story, two bedroom home that she had inherited when her mother had passed away. Her father, long gone from even memory, had not survived her second year, but his picture hung over the mantle of the fake fireplace. She dusted that mantle, oiling its dark, rich wood, with a particular care to detail; it was one of the few things in the house that she thought beautiful.
Certainly she did not consider herself so.
She had one or two friends, made in grade school, to whom she had anchored a part of herself, and she kept in contact with them by the use of phone and a judicious letter here and there, although they all lived in the same city. She rarely went out, and rarely invited anyone in; it was stressful, not to know how to behave, what to say, or how to entertain. Easier was simply this: to enter in through the side door of her home, lock it behind her, drop her bags by the side of the umbrella rack, and sag against the wall. She added tea to her daily routine; she watched television. She did not live an unhappy life.
She should have known something was wrong when she missed the bus on a Monday morning in early spring. The snow had started its second melt of the season, and her rubbers, filthy with mud and crusted with dried salt, made squishy, awful protests as she ran, briefcase tailing her like exhaust, to the bus stop in time to see the great, red rectangle pull away.
In six years of work, she had not once missed the bus. Unsettled, she clutched her briefcase to her chest and held it there, as if it were a shield. The next bus came, and she caught that easily enough; fumbled in her pocket for her bus pass, and then stumbled to a seat.
The drive to work, across the muddied water left by melting snow, was not restful either; she rocked back in forth, against the lurch and halt of the bus’s motion, while she tried to remember the dream that had anchored her so thoroughly to sleep that she had slept late, missed breakfast, and then been late for the first event of her morning.
She missed her morning coffee, but made it to her desk in time for an orderly 8:30. But the day had an edge to it that even a large lunch and a whole pot of tea at its end couldn’t dull. When she went to bed that evening, she made certain that the alarm was set just a little early; made certain that it was across the room, rather than beside her bed.
But the darkness held her in. When she managed to open her eyes in the morning, the light through the sheers told her that the klaxon of the alarm had been going on for at least fifteen minutes. She struggled with blankets, tossed them off, and then tried to stand.
I’m sick, she thought, as the room spun. Her knees hurt, and her elbows; her focus came strangely, as if she were looking through convex glass. Holding the side of the bed, she stood. She had to shut off the alarm clock before the bells shattered the insides of her sk
She made it, although her fingers felt thick and wide and she had to struggle—every movement came at some effort, as if movement itself were foreign—to hit the small switch that would stall the bells.
They stopped, and the silence that descended, rich with sunbeams and the blue of a clear, morning sky, felt hollow. She barely noticed the time. Breakfast. Food. She stumbled out the door and down the stairs, clinging to the bannister.
That morning, she was also late for work.
April half-walked, half-crawled, through the side door of her house at the end of the day. She dropped her bag in the wrong spot, left her coat on, and plunked herself down on the couch. She wanted to sleep, but the light in the room was too bright; with an exhausted snarl, she stood up, yanked the blinds closed, shut off the lights, and then returned to the couch.
There, in the silence and the blessed shadow, she listened to the heavy rasp of her breath. Wondering what she was sick with. Wondering where she had caught it, and how long it would take to go away.
That night, when she finally managed to leave the couch and the living room, she dreamed of shadows and darkness and hunger.
“April, are you all right?” Susan Lundstrom, the oldest member of the typing pool and therefore the one with the unspoken seniority, made a place for herself at the cafeteria table, settling down with her tray, her purse, and the ashtray she’d moved from the smoking section.
April nodded, distracted.
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, you look a little green. Are you sure you’re okay?” When April failed to hear her, Susan leaned forward, casting a shadow over the wood veneer surface.
“I’m fine,” April said. She straightened out her shoulders and picked up her sandwich. “I just didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Have it your way,” was the cheerful reply. But the voice lost some of its lightness. “April? April?”
April Stephens was staring at the two slices of white bread and the tomato, cheese and lettuce between them as if they were asphalt. She tried to bite it all, even tried to chew it, and at last stood up, muttering her apologies around a mouthful of food that she could not swallow.
She found the washroom, trying to tuck the food beneath her tongue so that no one would notice, and quickly swung into a cubicle. There, she got rid of it. And the soup that had preceded it.
Shuddering, her stomach rolling beneath her flesh, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, stood, and made her way to the sink. The mirror, with someone’s fingerprints at the lower edge, showed her the tired and strained face of a very upset woman. She breathed deeply, breathed again, and then straightened out her glasses.
Come on, April. It’s not like you’ve never been sick before.
But it was like she’d never been sick.
Coming home by bus, with a stop at the supermarket, became a fog of dizziness, hunger and nausea. She wasn’t certain when she got off the bus; wasn’t certain when she entered the supermarket; couldn’t remember what she’d bought there. All she remembered was the now of the moment; the past and the future faded around her as if the present were the only island on which she could stand.
The only time she panicked was when she couldn’t remember having paid, but a quick count of her money assured her that she’d certainly spent some of it.
Dinner was quickly prepared; she turned on the television, settled uncomfortably back against the couch, propped her legs up on the coffee table and started to eat. She tried to keep track of what was on the television—she thought it was the news—but the picture kept rotating like a warped record. Annoyed, she played with the remote, but it brought no relief—only a surge of new colors, different distortions.
Snarling, she turned her full attention to her food.
Which she didn’t remember cooking, because she hadn’t. She stopped chewing as she realized that her mouth was full of something cold and wet; looked down to see that her fingers had all but disappeared into what was left of a slab of beef. Blood and warming fat greased her nails as she dropped the meat. She ran to the sink, bent over it, and spit out everything that she hadn’t already swallowed.
Then, choking, she slid down the side of the cupboard in front of the sink, curled her knees up under her chin, and began to cry.
She didn’t notice that as she did, she was licking her fingers clean.
She knew her work wasn’t up to standard in the following week. Susan knew it. Alexis new it. Kelly new it. None of them said a word, although Susan continued to ask after her health. Susan even did her best to see that the workload was less evenly distributed than usual; if April hadn’t felt too ashamed, she would have been grateful.
But she did have to type, and the work that she did get assigned was expected to have a certain quality to it. Until now, April had always been certain that everything that left her desk with her initials on it was as perfect as anyone could make it. That was gone. Her fingers felt sluggish and heavy; the keypad of the word processor was suddenly tiny and incomprehensible. She had to look at the keys; her fingers had forgotten years of instinctive movement.
Stephen Hawthorne was the first person to bring back a complaint. He didn’t, of course, carry it directly to her; he had to go to the head of the typing pool to let his displeasure be known. But April heard him shouting in his high, nasal voice. She hated it; had she not been afraid of drawing more attention to herself, she’d have plugged her ears.
He came back three times that day, and at the end of the day, Susan was exhausted enough to call April to the front of the room, where Stephen Hawthorne stood, angrily tapping the floor with his perfect black shoes.
“Ms. Stephens?” He asked, in that clipped, nasal voice.
“Yes?” She kept her own as steady and as low as possible.
“What is your excuse for this? I need this report for a client; this is not a normal interoffice scribble. Look at this—did you even run it through a spellchecker?”
She nodded obsequiously, hoping that it would be enough to send him away. But he kept on and on and on until at last she grabbed the report and curled it in trembling hands. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—listen to another word.
“I’ll fix the goddamned report and have it on your desk in the morning. Is there anything else or do you expect me to sit here and listen to you whine for the rest of the day?”
She had the satisfaction of watching all of the blood rush to his face before she turned on heel and marched smartly back to her desk. She half-expected him to follow her, but he didn’t. Which was a pity.
At the end of the day, only this memory stayed with her; all others vanished into the haze of her encroaching disease. Perhaps tomorrow she would do the unthinkable. Perhaps tomorrow she would miss her first day of work.
When she got home, she walked into the kitchen, turned the oven on, pulled her dinner out of the little Safeway bag, and walked into the living room. The windows remained shuttered against the end of the day; the television remained dull, faceless glass. She didn’t want the noise, or the mix of noises. She felt nauseated, but beneath the nausea was hunger. She ate.
This time she paid careful attention to what she was eating, fascinated by it, detached from its reality. The meat in her mouth was cold and grisly; it tasted slightly rank, too old. But it was food; real food; she could chew it slowly and then swallow it. It was almost good.
Only in bed, the lights dimmed, the clock set, did she cry; the tears were silent and bewildered, with no force and no anger behind them.
In the morning she saw the first clear sign, the whisper of a real change. Her skin was darker, harder. She thought at first that her fingertips themselves were somehow calloused; nothing felt right to the touch—not the bedsheets, not her clothing, not the meat that she ate in the morning.
She looked at herself, carefully, in the mirror. Her face was the same shape, but it, too, was darker. She opened her mouth and her teeth were sharp.
The doctor. She had to call
She ran back to her bedroom, leafed through the phone book, found the number and then picked up the phone. Jabbing awkwardly at the impossibly small buttons, she managed to hit the right sequence of numbers—on the ninth try.
“Doctor Kennedy’s office, may I help you?”
“I’d like to make an appointment to see Dr. Kennedy,” April said, her voice throaty and deep with the early morning. “It’s an—an emergency.” She wasn’t used to making this much of a fuss, and her voice broke on the last word.
The sound of flapping pages could be heard before the receptionist’s voice returned to the receiver. “There’s an appointment for tomorrow at eleven thirty, if you’re available then.”
Tomorrow. April Stephens shook her head.
Shadow of a Change by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes