She couldn’t remember how she got here: standing by a bus stop in the middle of a busy city she didn’t recognize. It didn’t smell like any of the cities she knew. The buildings towered higher than she thought possible. Little machines buzzed all around her on the roads that used to be for horses and humans. What a weird thing the humans came up with, she thought. Harnessing the magic swirling around them would’ve been so much smarter but humans were never ones for smart ideas.
Her stomach grumbled loudly and the old woman standing beside her glared in her direction.
“Skipped the first meal today,” she said in a Celtic language she remembered the paler humans speaking.
The woman stared blankly back at her and muttered something the shapeshifter couldn’t understand. Guess they no longer use that language, she thought.
She looked around her and saw everything was written in a script she didn’t recognize. Before she could stop herself, she shifted into the angry woman beside her, picking up her language along with her appearance.
“Lovely day, isn’t it ma’am,” she said without thinking. As the words tumbled out in the foreign tongue, the old women looked at her newly formed doppelganger and shrieked, attracting the attention of the nearby humans. She shifted back as quickly as possible, but some had already seen her ability and were no doubt ready to draw their swords. She balled her fists and readied herself for a fight.
Bizarrely, nothing happened. The humans looked away, except for the old women who was still staring wide eyed at her, and everything went back to normal for them.
“Guess it’s my lucky day. Well, cheers love!” She waved goodbye to the frightened women. Those words felt more natural but the language still seemed off. If she thought about it for more than a second, she came up with a mess of contradictions, so she didn’t think about it.
As she walked towards the distinctive smell of butter and flour her stomach craved, she listened in on the humans’ conversations, trying to figure out where, and when, she was. All the nouns in the language were unrecognizable and nothing made sense.
The origin of the lovely scent was a little pastry shop, with a door that chimed when she walked in and stacks of food all neatly arranged behind thick panes of glass. The man behind the counter asked her what she wanted. She pointed to every croissant, Baklava, quiche, pie, and tart that caught her eye. He placed her order in a bag and waved her over to the end of the counter.
“That’ll be fifty-five pounds ma’am.” He reached out his hand and she stared at it, just as that old woman had stared at her.
He sighed and slowly explained that the pastries cost money, pausing to elaborate with every new confused look on her face.
“Understand? Without money you can’t have any of this.”
She scoffed, “Of course I can have it.”
She grabbed the heavy bag of pastries and rushed out the door, ignoring the angry shouts and sounds of panic as the man tried to chase after her. She ran through alleys and blended in with crowds of mothers walking their children to school until she was safe.
It took her hours to finish eating everything but as soon as she tossed the bag in the nearest trash bin, her stomach rumbled again. She had forgotten how exhausting shape shifting was. And running.
Without the scent of pastries filling the air, she was left to aimlessly wander through the city streets looking for food. Are there more of those food shops? She wondered. Maybe there were some that sold something other than pastries. Like mutton, or god, anything other than boiled cabbage.
The last time she had been in a city, it was surrounded by fields of grain and pastures full of unguarded sheep ripe for the picking. Once dusk fell, she transformed into a sheep and slowly infiltrated the flock, taking extra care not to startle the creatures. Then, as calmly as the first transformation, she became a wolf and tore the animals limb from limb, gorging herself on their meat for hours, reveling in the freedom of caring about nothing more than survival. That night ended with the human farmer shooting in her direction and his dogs barking from a safe distance. She ran off, taking refuge in the forest as she shifted back into a human form with the taste of sheep’s blood still fresh on her tongue.
In the heart of this busy city, she longed for the metallic taste of a fresh kill and the thrill of the hunt. But the only animals she’d seen were birds and squirrels, and she wasn’t nearly that desperate yet.
She settled for a grocery store. With its rows and rows of packaged, ready-to-eat food, it was hard for her to imagine a more boring meal, but she’d manage. She wandered through the produce section, picking out strange fruits and biting into them. Some tasted awful, too starchy or too sour, but the grapes were delicious. She grabbed one of the convenient bags and continued deeper into the store, leaving a trail of discarded grape seeds as she went.
An employee found her sitting in the snack food aisle with a pile of empty packages around her. She cleared her throat to get the shape shifters attention.
“Um, excuse me ma’am but we prefer if our guests pay for their items before eating them,” the woman said. She seemed nervous as she stared down at the shape shifter.
“Pay. Like with money?”
The employee nodded and sighed. The shape shifter had been hearing a lot of sighing today. Maybe humanity was getting ruder in their old age.
“And how do I get this money?” The man at the pastry shop had declined to tell her that helpful bit of information.
“Get a job or steal it, I guess. I don’t give a shit,” She responded. “Are you gonna pay for all this?”
The shape shifter stood up and dusted the crumbs off her clothes, before replying a cheery “No!”
“Then I’ll have to call the police on you.” From her tone, that sounded less like a threat to the shapeshifter and more like a punishment for the employee.
“You’re not gonna chase after me yourself?”
“I don’t care nearly enough about this job to do that, ma’am.”
She grabbed another bag of grapes on her way out and left the store unconcerned. She didn’t know what the police were or why anyone should fear them, much less her. She’d spent years, decades, centuries in Hell. Nothing in this world could scare her.
She decided to follow the employee’s advice about finding money. The stealing part, not the job. She could tell that they were miserable things just from her short interaction with the employee.
The city was full of humans she could steal from. Men with bulging wallets hanging out of their back pockets. Women with purses loosely held in their hands. Then there were the business professionals struggling with their briefcases and stacks of paper and travelers with luggage dangling off them like apple trees right before harvest time.
She could’ve chosen any of them but one in particular caught her eye, or rather his tie had. The hideous pink and purple paisley stood out in the crowd of dull grays and browns. He would be perfect.
After following him for a few blocks he turned down an alley and she took her chance. She pushed him behind a dumpster, slamming his head against the brick wall. He was out. Whether temporarily or permanently, she couldn’t tell and couldn’t be bothered to check. She stripped him of everything but his sweaty boxers and off-white tank top and shifted to look like him. With his clothes on, she could blend in with the strange city perfectly. After fumbling around in is pockets for a few seconds, she found his wallet packed with the thin colorful pound notes she had heard so much about. She left his body slumped against the dumpster, straightened the horrendous tie until it was tight around her neck and walked calmly back onto the street.
It was getting late and she was bored of exploring, or some might say getting lost in, the city she now knew was London. She had spent hours in a public library reading about everything that had happened since her last memory of Earth and its humans. Wars with explosions more powerful than even Vulcan himself could summon. Centuries of humans murdering each other for trivial reasons. Millennia-old conflicts resurrected by strongmen and ordinary people for personal gain. Good things happened too, some of the books told her. Bonds broken. Economies booming. Freedoms restored, as if they had ever been there at all.
The humans may have changed a lot about their world, but they couldn’t change themselves. They were still selfish bastards and when push came to shove, they always chose oppression over compassion.
1976 was the year now, according to the helpful librarian. She didn’t know what that meant but she thanked anyway. Their measurements of time had always seemed strange her, randomly jumping from thousands of years to zero as if their past could be erased.
But that was the human way, she thought. They erased their old gods, magical creatures, evidence of other worlds, other universes. Why should their past be any more sacred?
The library had closed not long after night fell. A librarian gave her directions to a good restaurant before she left, but she’d gotten lost several streets ago. It hadn’t helped that she was stuck in this ridiculously sweaty body so the librarian stood far enough away that she could barely hear a word of the directions.
She settled on a crowded pub that served greasy chips and beer. She wasn’t sure what either of those things were but the bartender told her they were delicious, so she ordered them. The hot chips burned her pallet and the cold beer soothed it. She ordered more rounds, repeating the cycle of painful bites and calming swigs until she couldn’t eat any more. The bartender wordlessly slid her a glass of water and left her alone with her thoughts.
The pub was changing around her. The quiet couples were slowly replaced by rowdy drunks with loud voices and terrible manners. After the third time one of them bumped into her, she stood up and told them to fuck off. The group of three drunks didn’t respond and laughed as they weakly pushed her towards the bar. She shoved them, hard, forgetting she was taller and bigger than she was used to being. They toppled to the ground, forming a mess of limbs all battling against each other in the fight to stand up.
“You fucking fairy!” One of them shouted as he finally stood up. “What kind of man wears a pink tie?”
She didn’t know what he meant by fairy or what an ugly tie had to do with it, but she knew it was meant to be an insult. She’d heard enough of those in her lifetime and she knew just how to handle them.
“I’ll let you what kind. A fucking-”
She decked the first man. Then the second. Then the third.
The first came back and slammed a beer bottle on her head. The half full bottle drenched her short hair and covered her scalp in glass. She shook off the glass and smiled what probably looked like a sadistic smile in that body and front kicked the man square in the gut, sending him across the room. His friends looked back at his unmoving body and continued the fight, now with barstools and knives. The other pub patrons were now pressed up against the back wall and huddled into booths, leaving a wide-open space for the four of them to fight.
The two men charged. The legs of a wooden bar stool slammed into her ribs as a knife slashed wildly at her arms, slicing up the nice suit jacket but leaving her skin intact. She jumped back to take off her jacket and tie, letting them both fall to the ground. They charged again, one unarmed, one with the knife.
She leapt towards the knife-wielder, in one smooth motion kicking his groin, bending his wrist, and smacking the knife out of his hand. She twisted his arm into his back and stood behind him, using her free hand to choke him.
While she was disarming one, the other one took out his own knife and slashed at her. Some of them missed, others barely scratched her more than a paper clip, but most drew blood. Her arm stung with the pain but she didn’t let go of his friend. She picked up her tie off the floor and shoved it in her captive’s mouth. As he gasped in vain for air, she stared down the one left standing, daring him to attack. He backed away and dropped his weapon.
She leaned in close to the captive’s ear and whispered, “Remember this moment, you lazy sod. Because if I ever hear any of you knob heads calling anyone a ‘fucking fairy’ again, you’ll be wishing this was the worst of it. Got it?”
The man nodded frantically. Drool was starting to leak out of his mouth and his eyes were watering. Satisfied, she shoved him away from her, letting him fall to the ground with a harsh thump.
She looked around the pub. No one was speaking and the only sound that could be heard was the first man groaning as he tried to stop his head from spinning. The patrons had a mixture of scared and proud looks on their faces. A group of men in the back looked thankful and she nodded discreetly in their direction.
The bartender was the only person willing to speak. She kindly asked the shape shifter to leave and she compiled, after handing the bartender all the money in her wallet. She wasn’t sure if it would pay for her drinks and food, not to mention the damage from the fight, but it was all she had.
“Get these losers out of here,” she heard the bartender say as she limped out the door, back onto the dark, sparsely populated streets.
When people passed her, their eyes drifting towards the growing patch of red on her otherwise white dress shirt and her hand gripping the left side of her abdomen where the chair hit her ribs. Parents with children crossed the street. Groups of men gathered outside store fronts averted their gazes when she returned their stares.
Then she noticed one person across the street who wasn’t looking away, a young Indian woman with a smile that looked brighter than the stars. When she moved to get a better look, she realized the woman was on a billboard and not really there at all. But still, the woman felt more real to her than the living, breathing business man had.
She shifted into the woman, changing her clothes as well to match the woman’s simple outfit. She was too weak to get rid of the wounds from her fight. The slash wound was now sticky with a mix of dry and wet blood and the pain in her ribs was only getting worse with every breath.
‘Charlie’s first choice is Sensodyne toothpaste. What’s yours?’ The advert read.
She thought about that name. She couldn’t remember her own name, or maybe she remembered too many of them. Skin-walker. Lagahoo. Obake. Vampire. Huli jing. Demon. A name had only ever been something humans had forced on her, each one coming with an attempt to capture or kill her. Maybe it was time to have her own name. Maybe it could be Charlie.
She spoke the name a few times, first as whispers and then louder as she started to like the sound. She shouted it out in the stillness of the night, letting it echo in her mind.
The day was finally starting to get to her. Her arms ached and she could feel her head pounding. Before her eyes drifted shut, she sat down against a nearby tree and hugged her knees tightly against her chest.
She woke to a light shining in her eyes, someone shaking her, and another person shouting at her. If her entire body hadn’t ached, she would have slapped the man leaning in close, too close for comfort. Instead she just opened her eyes and stared blankly at the uniformed men.
“Do you speak English, ma’am?” said one of them. She nodded. “All right then. You can’t be in this park after dark. It’s trespassing. Do you have ID on you?”
She coughed to clear the effect of sleep out of her throat and asked, “What’s ID?”
The man looked at his partner who was still shining a flashlight in her face. They exchanged a silent look before turning back to the shape shifter.
“Have you been drinking?” She nodded. “Take any drugs?” She shook her head. “You sure?” She nodded. “No methamphetamine or cocaine or ecstasy or heroin? You’re not high?” She shook her head again.
He looked down at her bloody arm, clearly not believing she wasn’t involved in anything illegal besides trespassing.
“We’re gonna have to take you down to the police station. For the trespassing. Then we can get that knife wound of yours treated.”
So these were the police that grocery store employee thought she’d be scared of. They didn’t look threatening. In their caps and blue uniforms, they looked more silly than scary. The night sticks at their sides were the only slightly intimidating thing about them.
When she didn’t respond, they pulled her to a standing position and each took one of her arms around their shoulder. The three of them limped like that for the few blocks to the station. The cut on her arm reopened and turned the dark blue of the officer’s uniform even darker. If he noticed, he didn’t say anything.
At the station a young woman took her fingerprints, painstakingly rubbing each finger pad in the dye before smushing it on a thick sheet of paper. The same officers asked her what her name was. What she was doing in the park. Who had hurt her. If she was involved in any drug-related activity or gangs. If she was in the country legally. They told her they were matching her fingerprints as they spoke, soon enough they’d know who she was, so there was no point hiding her identity.
She stayed silent, out of principal and practicality. The few hours of rest hadn’t been enough time for the healing process to finish, not with the little food she’d consumed and whatever happened to her in that other dimension. With a violent escape off the table, she was left with stubborn noncompliance.
Eventually the officers gave up and sent in a medic. She cleaned her knife wound with alcohol and wrapped it tight in a bandage. Her ribs had been bruised not broken. That’s a good thing, the medic told her as she pressed a cold pack against the swelling.
Armed with an ice pack and a handful of painkillers, she was walked into a cell with a few weary humans trying to sleep with the bright lights and hard benches. The officers told her she’d be released in the morning, once they could confirm her identity.
She took a seat on the cold metal bench and leaned her head against cell bars. The painkillers were starting to kick in, muddying her thoughts and clearing her head at the same time.
The woman beside her sat in a black and white outfit with a cross around her neck. She stared at the shapeshifter, refusing to look away even when their eyes met.
“What are you looking at?” She grunted out. Talking hurt, she learned, each word requiring another pain-inducing breath.
“What’d you do? Kill a man?” the other woman asked. She smiled at that. At least someone was willing to be forward with her.
“I might have. Might have killed a few. They deserved it. Shouldn’t act like a prick without being prepared to get the living shit kicked out of you.”
The other woman laughed, covering her face as she did. “Damn that’s cool. All I did was run away from a nunnery. My parents threw me in there with those batshit religious women to get myself sorted. Said I was being too much of a problem child. ‘Gilly, you need to grow up and stop having sex with girls before someone thinks you’re a lesbian,’ that’s what they said before throwing me in shithole.”
If there was one thing she disliked more than human selfishness, it was their dumb versions of morality that only seemed to beat their interesting parts into a pulp and mold them into the dull ones.
“Did it work? The sorting yourself out?”
Gilly smiled proudly. “Nope. I’ve never been more of a problem.”
“Sounds like we’re both badasses, Gilly,” the shapeshifter said with complete honesty. Anyone who fought against a system like that was more than worthy of the title.
“I guess we are, Ms.- What’s your name?”
The shapeshifter thought for a few seconds before clearing her throat and announcing it like she had always known it. “Charlie. Just Charlie.”