“I don’t see why you’re so upset,” she said, tapping the ash from her cigarette.
They were sitting outside on the back porch. It was August, still warm in the evenings. The house sat snugly on the outskirts of the capitol, near where the state became abruptly more rural. Some woods began in the backyard. Tonight there were fireflies. Sometimes there were racoons. Paul had liked living here for the past four years. After his separation from his ex, he’d been forced out of the city; he couldn’t afford to live in town alone. Moving into the periphery of the city felt like a setback, initially, but he eventually found that it just meant a longer commute. The rest sort of dropped away. Especially after he’d met Becca.
He sipped his drink.
Since their engagement, one particularly nice evening that previous May, she’d been acting…odd. Or perhaps just acting. Going to sleep and waking up at increasingly odd hours, staying home from work for days at a time, smoking more than usual, drinking sometimes catastrophic amounts of coffee and sometimes none. Paul had wondered if she was on drugs, and if she was, why she didn’t share.
Now, on the porch, on another particularly nice evening, she was telling him that she wasn’t human. That’s how she put it at first. He’d thought she meant it in an existential-crisis sort of way. He thought to himself, not for the first time, that he was glad she thought at all about what it meant to be human; the ex had never seemed to.
“No,” she’d shaken her head. “I mean that I am not physically or spiritually a human being, like you. I only look like it.”
“Then what are you?” he’d asked.
“A shapeshifter,” she’d said.
So, now they were arguing.
“It means you’re mentally ill,” Paul was saying.
“I’m not, I know I’m not; it’s going to happen soon. I can feel it.” She looked off at the clouds, hastening eastward across that (she couldn’t help but think) horrifically polluted skyscape.
“So it hasn’t happened yet. You’re telling me you’re convinced you’re a shapeshifter while you’ve never shifted shapes?” he said. “Jesus, Becca. You know, my uncle is a psychiatrist; he’s not local but I bet he knows someone who is.”
She laughed and crushed her cigarette out on the deck.
“No doctors,” she said.
“Well, have you seen one?” he asked as she walked past him to the door, which she opened.
“I’m done talking about it. You really aren’t even trying to understand,” she said and went inside.
Paul stayed outside to finish his drink.
Fuck, he thought.
He was on a beach; not one he recognized. He was barefoot, but there was no feeling of sand beneath his feet. There was just nothing, sort of like his legs and the sand became the same thing at some point. When he tried to move, he hardly budged. This bothered him all the more after he noticed, out in the water, swimming things. Their shapes were unclear, but they were good sized, and fast; dark forms dashing beneath the surf. He tried to find a name for them, some title to affix to them to put his mind in a natural panic, rather than the more primal dread he now felt. The best he could come up with was critters. Yes, there were critters out there in the water.
Did they want anything from him? Could they or would they hurt him? Who knows. Paul certainly didn’t. But he also knew, or realized then, that if he was going to know anything about these critters, if he was going to see them more clearly, then they’d have to come closer. And he certainly didn’t want that. So, Paul now found himself straddling the need to know what would happen to him and the terror at its approach.
And that’s how he woke up, later that night, in that state of straddling. It felt like waking up perched on a fence, in the dark. There was a kind of unwilling alertness to it. He wished, then, that he were still living in the city. If he were in an apartment building, he could scream and wake up any number of people. Out here in this house, he’d have to do some serious shrieking, and perhaps for some time, before anyone noticed.
Reaching out, he didn’t feel Becca there, but he also felt her, there. In the room. Paul sat up in bed, his stomach shrinking against the rest of his organs, knotting and tensing.
“Becca, that you?” he said into the room.
At that, she stepped out from the shadow she’d been under, and Paul could make out her face, just barely, and really only because he knew what was usually there, on her face. But as his eyes adjusted, he could see that now she wore a pale grimace. Her features were distorted enough to render her a stranger, but for him to still retain the sense that he knew her somehow.
And did she seem…shorter? Increasingly shorter?
Paul watched what was happening to his fiancé, half watching and half trying to catch up with just what was happening. He watched as her legs indeed shrank, down and down until her torso sat atop two feet, which were flattening out, it seemed. He watched as her arms, too, shriveled, flattened, and lost their fingers.
There was little blood—that was one thing that occurred to him, as it was happening. It dripped out of her mouth a bit when her teeth fell out, and the beak began to jut from her face like someone was pitching a tent under her skin, until the skin broke, her nose gone, her lower jaw shrinking and conforming to the projection of the beak, hardening and sharpening.
The other thought that occurred to him, as it happened, was that she was remarkably quiet through the whole thing. A little whimpering, but he was surprised she didn’t scream. Maybe she didn’t think it dignified.
When it was finished, he didn’t say anything, didn’t reach out to her, or try to help her. There didn’t seem to be any way to help, really. In the dark, it shuffled slightly on its new feet. Paul watched it and thought huh…really? A fucking penguin?
Yes, the penguin seemed to say, continuing to shuffle. It shook its feathers and turned its head from side to side. There was no malice in its expression; Paul searched its face and found only what penguins’ faces usually contain. He moved his legs from the bed and sat on its edge, planting his feet on the floor and his elbows on his knees.
He looked at the penguin, and the penguin looked back.
Opening his eyes into the sunlight cutting through the blinds, Paul immediately looked to the other side of the bed for Becca. She wasn’t there.
He got out of bed and walked to the dresser. There was a note.
Left for work early, coffee’s in the pot. Love you
Paul looked at the carpet; there was no blood on it, not a single spot. He left the note where it was and got dressed. Already what had occurred the night before felt a little distant, and he was glad that it did. It had seemed so real, that dream. Paul thought of Becca’s admission and resolved to call his uncle. He wondered if he had his phone number.
Downstairs, he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that had grown cold; he heated the cup in the microwave and scrolled through the contacts on his phone. No phone number for Uncle Phillip. He texted his mother and asked her for the number. When she asked what he needed it for, Paul told her that a colleague was having some problems, and that he wanted to see if Uncle Phillip knew any local psychiatrists. His mother didn’t ask anything else.
When the coffee was hot enough, he went into the living room, sat down on the couch before the street-facing window, and dialed his uncle’s number.
“It’s been a little while, Paul,” Uncle Phillip said upon Paul’s “hello.”
“Yeah, it has; I’ve been pretty bad at keeping in touch, I’ll admit,” Paul said.
“You and me both. No worries. Life gets busy; complicated, too.”
“That’s sort of why I’m calling. Now, you can’t tell anyone what we talk about, right? Confidentiality, that kind of thing?” he asked.
“Well, you aren’t a patient,” Uncle Phillip said, “but I have no trouble keeping my mouth shut. What’s going on, Paul?”
Paul cleared his throat.
“My fiancé, Becca – I don’t think you’ve met her – but, yeah, I’m wondering if she needs help. She…uh…she told me she doesn’t think she’s human. That she thinks she’s some sort of shapeshifting creature. Yeah, I don’t know what to do,” he said, stumblingly.
After a momentary silence that Paul couldn’t distinguish as surprise or thoughtfulness, Uncle Phillip began to discuss delusional disorders, personality disorders, different possible medications, so on and so forth. Then he asked,
“Is Becca terribly active on the internet? Does she visit chatrooms, message boards, those kinds of things?”
“I’m not really sure,” Paul said. “She doesn’t spend any more time online than I do, but I don’t know what she does, really. Aside from her taste in memes, from what she shows me, I don’t have much of an idea.”
Uncle Phillip was silent for another moment, and this time Paul was able to read the silence as contemplative.
“Have you…” Uncle Phillip began. “Okay, um, bear with me here. Paul, are you familiar with Furries?”
Now it was Paul’s turn to pause.
“Um…well yeah. What does that have to do with anything?” he said.
“I’ve found that the internet caters to all sorts of niches; every niche, actually, can be found to have a community. It’s remarkable, but not without its drawbacks. For instance, people with similar problems or delusions can delude themselves further through their indulgence in internet-based communities. From what I understand, Furries, odd though they may be, are mostly innocuous. Other groups, not so much. Groups of people who embrace lycanthropy aren’t too hard to find. Just the other day I was reading a man’s online appeal for advice, the problem being that his wife believed herself to be a cat in a woman’s body. Usually with these kinds of people, there’s some sort of trauma involved, something they may believe they can suppress or protect themselves against by rendering themselves something other than human. Has your fiancée had any sort of trauma in her past?”
Paul had to admit that if she had, she hadn’t disclosed it. They’d been together for roughly two and a half years, and she’d never mentioned being abused or bullied, mistreated or emotionally battered. But he wondered now if there were elements of her life that she was hiding from him, feelings and thoughts that she kept locked up. Of course, he could accept that she probably was ; no one ever fully reveals or empties themselves. There are always things that we keep even from those closest to us, and there’s nothing unusual about that. The problem here was that if there were issues that Becca was keeping from him, and they were contributing to her shapeshifter delusion, which, in turn, she may be feeding by frequenting online communities of people who believe themselves to be animals of some sort.
When Paul got off the phone with Uncle Phillip, he felt no more equipped to deal with Becca than before he had called. He finished his coffee, then went through the living room and down the hallway to his office (he worked from home most of the time), where he spent the rest of the day alternately working and browsing online threads of discussion by supposed lycanthropes.
That evening, after Becca had come home and they were sitting down for dinner, Paul brought up the subject with her.
“So, I’ve been thinking about last night,” he began. “I know I may have reacted…poorly, but I’m just trying to understand. I’m worried about you; I even had a dream last night that you changed, and it…god, Becca, I just want to help. I talked with my uncle today and did some research of my own. And I just want to get this straight. You think that you’re some sort of animal in a human body, is that it? Or some kind of…” he petered out as he watched her expression shift to a sort of gentle annoyance.
“I’m not trapped in this body, Paul. This body itself changes, I become something else. My kind have been here for just as long as humans have, maybe longer. I’ve educated myself on the history, though it’s not easy to find legitimate sources; much has been suppressed, just like my kind have been, over the centuries. Every faith has tried to turn the public against us; tried to wipe us out. I could try to explain more to you, and maybe you’ll get some of it, but it’ll take time, and I need you to be patient and open minded if I’m going to go there at all,” she said.
Paul nodded throughout, bobbing his head and trying to prepare himself for confrontation.
“Where have you learned all this?” he asked. “On the internet? Because I’ve been looking into people who think they’re animals, or lycanthropes, and—” Becca cut him off.
“I don’t think I’m an animal, Paul. I’m a different kind of being. One that literally transforms,” she said.
“I just can’t understand how you can literally change,” Paul said. “Is it that you don’t feel human, whatever ‘human’ means; is it that you want to be something else? Or that you identify more with, say, cats than other people? Some of the stuff I’ve learned today, it’s a little…I don’t know. Are there organizations for people like you? I’ve seen there are forums, in-person conventions, and—”
“What are you saying?” she interrupted. “Organizations? Do you mean to say you think I’m a Furrie or something? I don’t dress up, I don’t have a butt plug with a tail attached, none of that shit, Paul. Jesus. I actually change, it isn’t some fantasy.”
She stood, took her plate to the sink, and began to do the dishes. Paul took this as an indicator that the conversation, for now, was over.
He got up and helped her with the dishes.
That night, he awoke from a dream the details of which he could not recall. He checked the digital clock on the nightstand; it read 3:37. Half asleep, he rose from the bed and shuffled out of the bedroom, making his way downstairs towards the kitchen to get a glass of water. He didn’t turn on any lights, both for the sake of his eyes and because he didn’t want to wake up too much. In the kitchen, he retrieved a glass and filled it with water from the tap. He leaned against the counter and drank, in the quiet. There were no real thoughts in his head, only the groggy, sluggish workings of a brain not quite awake.
The shuffling from the hallway changed that.
His senses sharpened and his heart began to beat a little faster. His breath thickened in his chest. The shuffling continued; there was most definitely something in that dark hallway leading to the kitchen, and it was coming closer. Pale moonlight gave the kitchen a faint grayish glow and provided the only light. Paul didn’t want to move to turn on the lights; the light switch was right next to the mouth of the hallway, down which the thing in the darkness shuffled. Paul instead stood with his glass in his hand, ready to throw it, ready to run if his legs would allow. Remaining quiet, perhaps the intruder wouldn’t notice him.
A form appeared against the black, growing closer. It was about four feet tall, and bobbed from side to side as it moved.
Dreaming, Paul thought, I’m just dreaming. Wake up, just wake up.
He felt that as long as the lights were off, as long as he couldn’t clearly see or be seen, that perhaps he was safe inside a dream, something he could wake from. But he felt the cold of the tiled floor against the naked soles of his feet, the clear weight of the glass in his hand, the thud of his now palpitating heart, all countering his repeated insistence that he was dreaming. Paul remained still against the counter, waiting.
The penguin emerged into the pale gray light with slow, deliberate movements, its wings at its sides, bobbing its head. It looked at Paul and stopped moving. They stood on opposite sides of the kitchen from each other, Paul and the penguin. He looked into its face for any sign of intent or desire.
What do you want with me, penguin? he thought.
As though it could read his thoughts, the penguin began to move again, shuffling over to the fridge and nodding its head at the door. It made a noise and flapped its flightless wings, then looked back at Paul.
He didn’t move. He wasn’t sure if penguins ever attacked people, or, if they didn’t, whether this one would. But the more he stared at it, the less bothered he was by it. The penguin seemed to want something, and it confirmed this by nodding towards the refrigerator door again.
“Do you…do you need something?” Paul asked it.
The penguin continued to bob its head toward the refrigerator.
With great trepidation, Paul approached. He didn’t want to alarm it, but he also noticed that the penguin seemed very calm as it was. It seemed perfectly confident, comfortable and, really, in control of the situation. Paul got to where he was exactly his arm’s length from the fridge and, trying to keep some distance from the penguin, he pulled the handle of the door and let it swing completely open. The penguin made a noise, and Paul backed away, pressing himself against the counter again.
It seemed to be looking around for something in the fridge. Paul watched as the penguin reached its beak out and took a container of cream cheese from one of the shelves. Container in beak, the penguin took it and scrambled up onto a chair, then looked back at Paul. It set the container on the table, made a noise again, and flapped its wings a little.
“Um…” Paul said, and the penguin gestured with its head at the container of cream cheese. Paul set his glass on the counter; he’d forgotten that he was holding it.
“Do you…um…you want me to open it?”
The penguin bobbed its head and made a noise.
“Ok,” Paul said, and he moved slowly over to the kitchen table.
He took the lid off the container, then stepped back. The penguin proceeded to ravenously eat the cream cheese from the container. Paul stood and watched.
Do…do penguins eat cream cheese? he thought.
Well, apparently they do, because here he was, watching the penguin contentedly eat cream cheese in the ghostly pallor of the moonlight.
He refilled his glass at the tap and drank.
The next morning, he plodded downstairs. He’d slept, but not well. When he went into the kitchen, he half expected to find the penguin there, making breakfast. But there was only Becca, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the news.
“Morning,” she said.
Paul looked around the kitchen, searching for any indicator, however small, that there had been a penguin eating cream cheese in there the night before.
He found none. Everything was as it usually was.
A dream, he thought.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down across from Becca.
“Sleep well?” she asked him.
“Weird dreams,” he said.
She didn’t ask him what they were.
The day crept slowly by. Becca left for work as usual. Paul went through his morning routine, showering and eating breakfast before going into his office to begin work. He did all this mechanically, and the acting out of a routine comforted him. Throughout the workday he distracted himself, occupying his mind with every possible thing except for penguins. But the memory remained, sitting in the back of his head, casting an uncanniness over everything he did. He considered calling his uncle again but didn’t.
When Becca came home from work, she was in a good mood. Paul was somewhat exhausted.
“Yeah, you look it,” she told him. “I’ll make us some dinner, you just take it easy. I feel like cooking anyway.”
Their evening proceeded without discussion of any real depth. They talked of work, of the news, of political developments. After dinner they sat in the living room and watched a movie, one that Becca picked out and that Paul had trouble following, tired and preoccupied as he was. He wanted to talk with her about his “dreams;” wanted to talk with her about his confusion, apprehension, and anxiety.
I don’t know what’s going on, with me or with you, he wanted to say. He wasn’t sure whether he was more concerned for her or himself.
The sun set unceremoniously.
They went to bed a little later than usual, the movie being of the longer sort. As they settled, and Becca reached to switch off the lamp on the bedside table, Paul almost asked her to leave it on. He wanted to reject the ambiguity of night, to keep it at bay if he could. But he didn’t say anything. She turned out the light and snuggled up close to him in the dark. He put his arms around her and actually began to relax, but only a little. There was part of him that felt the kind of teenage nervousness of being close to someone you had a crush on, that butterfly anxiety. She seemed to sense this.
“You’re tense, Paul,” she said, a little teasingly.
“Long day,” he said.
She ran her fingers over his chest and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Then she kissed him again, with a little more force, beginning to lightly run her fingernails over his bare skin, tracing impossible shapes and causing his skin to tingle, his heart to beat faster. He turned his head towards her and began to kiss her back, and soon they began to shed their nightclothes. Paul’s exhausted mind began to stray from the nervous thoughts and sensations of the past couple nights, and he became more present, more in the moment. It was a relief, and he relished it.
Wrapping her arms around him, Becca kissed him deeply and rolled him onto his back, moving on top of him. As they began to have sex, Paul closed his eyes and gave himself fully to sensation, running his hands over her bare skin, feeling the weight of her on him. He let himself relax, let his mind pass into the sensual rather than ruminative.
So, caught up in the relief of lovemaking, and with his eyes closed, he didn’t take notice of Becca’s shrinking arms, the limbs flattening and the fingers vanishing as she rode him. He didn’t notice the disappearance of her neck, the recession of her legs and webbing of her feet, the emergence of the beak from her face, the reforming of her head. She continued grinding atop him as they both groaned, and Paul didn’t notice the pitch of her groaning and moaning begin to change.
Then he heard a honk, and he opened his eyes.
The penguin sat atop him, still riding him, honking as it orgasmed.
For a moment, in shock, Paul let it continue, but then he bucked with his hips and swung his arms wildly through the air, knocking the penguin off of him as he rolled out of bed to the floor. He got to his feet and, naked, ran down the hallway to the bathroom, where he threw on the lights, then closed and locked the door. Overwhelmed, he knelt in front of the toilet and vomited into it.
He knelt there, clutching the bowl and weeping with terror and disgust, periodically stifling his sobs to listen for the sounds of the shuffling penguin outside the door. He stayed there for the rest of the night.
Paul awoke, still naked, on the floor of the bathroom. Given that there were no windows in there, he had no sense of what time it was, or how long he’d been asleep. His head ached, his left foot had fallen asleep, and his back was sore from having slept awkwardly on the bathroom tiles. Though standing up took a few moments and some effort, his mind was wide awake and immediately recalling what had happened the night before.
He knew, then, that he couldn’t write this one off as a dream. How else would he have ended up lying naked on the floor of the locked bathroom? Trying to steady his breathing, he stood before the door and mustered the courage to open it. There was a feeling of having been violated; a disturbed feeling of filth that he felt deep in his heart. Steeling himself against what might be on the other side of the door, he opened it.
The hallway was empty. Paul thought about calling out for Becca but didn’t. Instead he moved quietly and cautiously down the hall to the bedroom, peering inside from the hall before entering. The room was empty, as was the unmade bed. Morning light came in through the window and gave the room a golden hue. Quickly getting dressed, he tried to quiet his mind, to slow the pulse of anxiety that throbbed through his body. He left the bedroom and continued slowly down the stairs, trying to make as little noise as he could in the enclosing silence of the house.
Becca was in the kitchen, as she was the day before, sitting at the table and drinking coffee. When she saw him, she rose from her chair and fetched him a mug, filling it and setting it across the table from her. Paul sat down and wrapped his hands around the warm mug. He had trouble looking directly at her, and so he looked down into the coffee.
“So,” Becca said after a few moments, “do you believe me yet?”
Paul didn’t realize that he did until he nodded.
“Yes,” he said.
Becca’s face didn’t change, at this. She simply nodded back.
“Good,” she said. “I wondered how long you’d try to convince yourself it wasn’t happening.”
He tried to think, but nothing was coming. He looked up from the coffee, across the table at her. There was a kind of look in her eyes that he’d never seen before, the look of an old sort of wisdom, an old knowing.
“I guess…I guess I want to know why…and what now?” he said.
Becca looked at him intently, and he tightened his grip on the mug. Light from outside pooled on the table between them, and the chirps and twitters of birds outside the window were all that broke the silence.
“Why…the why doesn’t matter, really. It is. That’s all. I don’t plan to live any differently than I have till now, especially because it would attract attention if I did,” she said.
Then she leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. She kept her eyes on him.
“As for the what now…well, that’s really up to you, isn’t it? My cards are on the table, Paul. I’m here, and I am what I am. I can understand if you won’t accept me; I can understand if you don’t want to get married now, or if you want to be as far away from me as possible. But I love you, Paul. That hasn’t changed. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important thing. Of course it can’t be like it was before, not anymore,” she said, and reached her hand across the table to him. “But I think it could even be better.”
He tightened and loosened his grip on the mug. There was a tightness in his throat and stomach. In the past, Paul had usually been able to tell that he was sensing a momentous change because he would grow nauseated , a nervous panic percolating in his stomach. He felt this now, and reflected that when he’d had this feeling before, it had usually been the right move to lean into the discomfort; he’d learned that in order to grow, the comfort zone must be breached. And sitting there looking at his fiancé’s outstretched hand, he felt thrust outside of comfort, out of his past and into a now in which he was a pilgrim.
After a moment of sitting with it and letting himself be uncomfortable, Paul sighed. Releasing the mug, he reached out and took her hand. He found it warm and secure. Becca smiled and squeezed his hand.
Neither of them said a word.
They sat that way for quite some time.