CRACKPOTS AND STALKERS
It’s the shadows that tell you someone really is, much more than what they look like or even how they act. People can train themselves to cover up anything; but the shadows never lie. Of course, I couldn’t always see the shadows. It took my own shift to realise how. But once I knew, I could never go back to how I had been – even if it meant I had to live with my own shadow.
Candance jogged down the street, brown hair slicked back in a ponytail, sweat sheening her forehead and dripping down her cleavage. The late evening sun melted over the street, turning everything honey-coloured, and everyone else seemed to react by becoming slow themselves, like the light had turned viscous. Candance alone sped through the evening, keen to get her jog over and done with so she could hit the shower and get ready for dinner.
Usually, jogging was enough to let her zone out and forget the worries of the day; this evening, not so much. Flashes of deep blue satin, glimmerings of diamonds, and the faint rush of applause intruded on her quiet, threatening to steal her concentration away entirely.
Frustrated, Candance ground her teeth and pounded harder against the pavement. I will not be distracted, she told herself. I will not be distracted.
The conflicting scents of hot tar, exhaust fumes, and freshly cut grass mingled in the air, and she breathed deeply, counting out her strides as she did. In-one-two-three, out-one-two-three, and on and on down the street until formal dinners faded from mind and she forgot about everything except her feet hitting the concrete, her arms pumping at her sides and the steady rhythm of her breaths.
She turned the final corner for home feeling lighter and more centred than she’d managed all week – and cried out as she ran into a person standing hunched in the middle of the path. A crack in the pavement seemed to leap up and tangle itself around her toes, and before she knew it Candance’s palms scraped the ground, quickly followed by her knees.
Hissing inward, she lifted her hands to survey the damage. Fine gravel had embedded in her skin and the heels of her palms bled. Her knees weren’t much better. Wincing, she struggled to her feet. Well, this is going to look amazing with my gown, she thought, and pursed her lips.
“You shouldn’t go, you know,” said a voice, and Candance whirled to face the stranger. A woman, though her voice had been deep enough to belong to a man, old but not frail, hunched but not weakened.
“To the dinner tonight.”
Candance’s heart leapt in her chest. “How do you know about the dinner?”
The woman simply shrugged. “Don’t go.”
Heart pounding now with adrenalin as well as exertion, Candance licked her lips. “That’s none of your business.” She turned away.
“Suit yourself,” said the woman. “But most people prefer not to have an audience, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Candance stopped, struggling. On the one hand, the woman was obviously a crackpot at best, and a stalker at worst. On the other… “Why not?” she said at last, back still to the woman.
“You haven’t felt it waking?” the woman asked in apparent surprise.
“Felt what?” Irritation blossomed. Stupid woman, standing around where people could run into her, making vague prognostications and being obtuse. Why am I even still listening? Candance snapped to herself.
“You truly do not know what you are?” The woman shuffled into Candance’s peripheral vision and peered at her. “How strange.”
What I am? Candance shuddered, squashing the fear that was trying to take root in the back of her mind. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m leaving now.” She launched back into a jog, wondering why she’d even felt the need to respond to the woman. She should have just ignored her from the start, kept jogging and not listened to a thing.
She glanced back over her shoulder, pulse skipping when she accidentally made eye contact with the woman.
“Don’t go,” the woman called again. “It’s waking. I can see your shadow, even if you can’t.”
Candance’s gaze flicked down to her shadow in front of her. She frowned. It was a perfectly average shadow, and she could see it perfectly well. What on earth…? And even more strange, when she glanced back again, curious despite herself, the woman had gone.
Oh well, Candance thought, rolling her neck as she ran. Don’t think about it. Pretend it didn’t happen. She shoved aside the uneasiness and told herself it was only nerves.
The thing about pretending is that we all do it. We all pretend to be something we’re not, and we do it most of the time without even thinking. And yet the very first thing we look for in a mate is someone we don’t have to pretend with, someone we can be our deepest, realest selves around.
I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if we all just stopped pretending. Then I remember the shadows, and know: sometimes, the only thing standing between civilisation and complete anarchy is our willingness to pretend.
Candance smoothed the final hairpin into place and surveyed the result in the mirror. A triple strand of diamantes encircled her neck and one wrist, and some genuine diamond-encrusted hairpins accented her updo. The midnight satin gown glimmered softly under the lights of her bathroom and she allowed her lips to quirk up slightly at the corners. She scrubbed up okay.
She headed back through the bedroom, snagging shoes on the way, and paused in the front entryway of the house to slip them on just as someone knocked at the door. “Coming,” she called as she did up the final buckle and then tottered to the door. “Allen, hi,” she said as he grinned and proffered a cream rose in full bloom. She tapped the front of her left shoulder and leaned forward as Allen pinned it onto her dress.
“Stunning,” he pronounced, and offered her his arm.
Grinning in return, Candance took it and allowed him to lead her toward the car. Allen had taken her under his wing five years ago when she’d first arrived in town. They’d hit it off right away, in a friendly, brother-sister sort of way, and Candance hadn’t been at all surprised when he’d first introduced her to his boyfriend. Five years later, Allen and she were better friends than ever, and he’d been the easy choice for an escort to this evening’s do, where any other invitation might be seen as a serious proposal on her behalf, and turning up alone was impermissible.
Candance paused as Allen stooped to open the car, all prepared to flash him a charming smile and slide into the front seat; instead, she frowned as something unfamiliar surged through her stomach. It almost felt like the lurch of adrenalin, only it was hotter, quicker, there-and-then-gone.
“Are you okay?”
Candance pretended she’d just been smoothing down her skirt. “Of course.” She gave him the planned smile and climbed into the car, stiffening as the strange sensation seized her again.
Allen closed her door and rounded the front of the car to climb into the driver’s seat. “All set?” he asked, looking her up and down. His eyes lingered over her stomach and his lips tightened into the barest suggestion of a frown. “Are you sure you want to go tonight?”
Candance knitted her brows in confusion. “Of course I am. I have to go. I want to go. I—“ She cut off and hissed as the feeling surged again, this time with a hot edge of pain.
Allen raised an eyebrow and glanced pointedly at Candance’s hands, which now clutched her belly. “It’s all under control?”
“Of course.” She’d eaten something funny, or maybe overdone the run, that was all. It was nothing. She’d be fine.
“So, tell me about the fabulous speech you’ll be making tonight,” Allen said, turning the key in the ignition, then pulling smoothly out into the street.
Candance leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. A feeling of well-practiced calm soothed over her and she smiled, anticipating the moment. “I can’t believe they chose me.”
Allen laughed. “Probably not the best way to begin.”
She laughed with him. “No, probably not.” Still, it was the truth: she’d been surprised enough when her boss had told her that she’d been nominated for the prestigious ATS Santo Award for her research into the social behaviour of oceanic bearded dragons.
Candance gasped as her stomach contracted. She tightened her fingers over it convulsively and Allen shot her a worried glance. She smiled back at him. “I’ll start with the story about the dragon biting my finger when I was in Hawaii that time.” Please ignore it, she begged him with her eyes. Tonight, of all nights, everything had to be perfect. She’d worked so hard… Her aunt’s voice rang in her ears, reminding her that of all the people who’d tried to make a name for themselves in marine herpetology, only three were currently making a job of it.
Allen nodded and focused on the road ahead, worry still tightening the corners of his mouth and eyes – but at least he’d let it go for now.
Candance knotted her fingers in her lap. “Then,” she continued, ignoring the tremors in her belly that felt like her last meal was trying to escape, “after they’re all dying of laughter at me, I’ll turn on the serious-face charm,” she tested it out on Allen, eyes wide and serious, “and they’ll love me. Right?”
He reached out and lightly punched her shoulder. “They’ll adore you.”
Twenty minutes later they pulled up outside the Princeton Hotel, a giant, fifty-storey affair spangled in gold and purple lighting and backdropped by the Bellington Wharf, home to all boats worth more than Candance’s house. Candance popped the passenger door open and stretched one leg out. Cramps hit her in the stomach like knives, and she doubled over.
Allen grabbed her wrist and turned her, searching her face. “You don’t have to do this,” he said. “Not tonight.”
Candance glanced up to where her boss stood waiting at the top of the stairs, and heard her aunt once again. “Yes,” she said, straightening, teeth gritted as she forced away the pain. “I do.”
“Candance, you can walk away from this. We can leave—“
She shook her head. “I can’t do that to them.”
“Sure you can, we just—“
“Look, I’m going, alright?” she snapped as another wave of nausea flooded over her. Nausea was better than pain. She exhaled. “Sorry. I’m going. They’re expecting me, this is a big deal, and I can’t just walk away. I won’t,” she added.
Candance stared across at Allen and put a hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate your concern,” she said, softly now. “But if I leave, it’s not just the ceremony I’m walking away from. It’s the Award, my job… everything.” Tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t just walk away.”
“Okay,” he replied just as softly. He squeezed her arm. “You can do this.”
Candance nodded and swiped away the tear.
“Go get ‘em, tiger.” Allen grinned. “I’ll meet you in there shortly.”
Candance watched him drive away towards the car park, then turned to face the hotel, stomach flipping from nausea – and nerves.
THE BEAST WITHIN
I often wish I’d listened to Allen, that night. But then I wonder what would have happened if I had. I might still have my job, for one thing. And the ATS Santo Award. That was what hit me hardest afterwards – Aunt Clarisse had been right. My chosen career path was a complete dead end.
She was wrong about the rest, though. I wouldn’t go back for the world.
“And now,” said the presenter on stage while the lights glimmered off his perfectly coiffed hair, “the winner of the ATS Santo Award, Candance Murray!”
The crowd erupted into applause like a flock of gem-toned butterflies taking wing, and Candance pushed her chair back and stood, demurring as Allen offered his arm and her table companions offered congratulations. Her stomach fluttered and Candance smoothed her hands over her belly as she glided up to the front.
The first two steps proved no obstacle, but on the third, while the crowd still cheered behind her, the same stabbing pain from the car ripped through Candance’s gut and she stumbled. A few of the crowd gasped as Candance struggled to right herself, the floor swimming before her eyes.
No, she told herself. Come on. Get up there and thank them. You can’t fall apart now.
Candance forced herself upright, clinging to the narrow handrail. Gritting her teeth, she conquered the final two steps and strode to the podium, her shadow dancing under her feet, flung every way by the multi-directional lighting.
The walk to the podium took years, and by the time she reached it the applause had well and truly died out. Candance’s cheeks felt burningly hot, and as she clutched at the podium for support she wished the presenter would just hold the stupid trophy still so she could claim it. Why did he have to wave it about in that ridiculous manner anyway?
He leaned towards her. “Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay,” Candance snapped, reaching for the award. “Give me that.”
He frowned, but passed the slab of glass on its wooden mount to her and guided her to the microphone. “Candance Murray!” he said again, and the room broke into over-enthusiastic applause underscored by a riot of whispers.
Candance swallowed, wetting her throat, and opened her mouth. Instead of the thank you she’d intended, she groaned as another bout of pain stabbed through her. Over the podium, her shadow flickered. Candance stared. She really must be unwell; for a moment it had looked like she’d grown a snout. She shook her head and tried again. “Thank you,” she said. Her voice sounded gravelly and raw. “It’s an honour to… receive…” She tried to remember what the award was called.
Allen rose from their table and started towards her, weaving between chairs, eyes fixed on her. Candance smiled. Sweet of him to come help her with her speech. She didn’t need help, though; she was doing just fine. Why, the entire audience was holding their collective breath, just waiting to see what she’d say next! She grinned at them, then blinked in surprise at the slab of glass in her hand. She frowned. “What’s this?”
The presenter stretched his lips, but Candance could tell that he was unhappy. Something about the eyes and the way that he tried to usher her away from the podium. Probably it was this stupid glass thing they’d given her. The nausea in her stomach was making it hard to think, but really, who in their right mind would have made such an ugly, misshapen lump?
Allen reached the bottom of the podium and hissed out her name. “Candance! Come down here!”
The presenter pushed her towards Allen, so she took one hesitant step, then another. Allen smiled encouragingly. “That’s right, just keep coming.”
Halfway to him, Candance gagged and retched as something tried to claw its way through her stomach. The award dropped to the floor with a heavy thud, and Candance followed.
Allen’s arms wrapped around her and he shoved something at her mouth. “Swallow this,” he whispered urgently. “Now!”
Candance gulped the sticky paste down, then gagged again as Allen hauled her to her feet.
“No,” Allen said, brushing the presenter aside. “I’ll just take her out for some fresh air. I’m sure she’ll be fine. You just carry on,” he added when the presenter looked lost.
“No,” Candance gasped as she stubbed her foot on the award and it rolled away. “No, I need that.”
“We’re a bit past that, don’t you think?” Allen muttered as he steered her by the elbow towards the nearest exit. “Just get out of here, will you? I don’t know what on earth you were thinking, coming tonight. I thought you had more sense than that.”
Abruptly Candance realised that her cheeks were cold because they’d reached the outside, and the wind was cooling tears on her face. “No,” she whispered. Pain wracked through her body again and for just an instant her shadow flickered, something huge and toothy and clawed. For just that instant, Candance reeled in shock; she knew what was trying to claw its way out of her stomach.
Eyes wide, terror slicking her palms and drying her mouth, Candance turned to Allen. “What’s happening to me?”
Allen stopped short and stared at her. “What do you mean?”
She trembled. “Allen, I feel like… like something is trying to rip my stomach out.” And like I’m about a hairsbreadth away from turning into a monster. “What’s—“ Her words were lost in a growl as her teeth flashed long and needle sharp, and her body billowed to something twelve feet tall and scaly before plummeting her back into her own skin. Candance reeled.
Allen caught her arm and steadied her before leading her out towards the farthest wharf. “Here,” he said as they paused where the paving met wooden slats. “Eat more of this. It’ll help keep it under control.”
“But what is it?” Candance said over a tongueful of the sweet, sticky paste. She swallowed and felt the beast in her stomach settle a little.
Allen heaved an almighty sigh, then stalked off down the wharf.
Candance followed. “What is it?” she asked, unable to sort the fluttering and palpitating into neat categories of sick and nerves and beast. “What’s wrong with me?”
Allen sighed again and ran a hand over his head. “Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re changing.”
“Your beast,” he said, and Candance started. How could he know that it felt like a beast in her stomach? “It’s breaking free. You’re changing. Did you see your shadow flickering before? I saw that at your house, when I gave you the rose, and knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it to be this fast.” His hand ran over his hair again.
Candance clenched her teeth and glared. “What do you mean, changing? And if you knew something was wrong with me, why didn’t you say something earlier, in the car?”
“I thought you knew!”
Candance cocked her head. “What, that I had a monstrous beast lurking inside of me, just waiting to break free?”
“No!” Allen threw his hands up. “That you’re a theriomorph. A skin-walker. Shape-shifter. It runs in families; I assumed your parents would have prepared you.”
Candance reeled, head pounding, stomach still roiling. Somewhere out in the darkness, a curlew called. “My parents died when I was eight.”
The silence stretched again, broken only by the cries of the curlew and the lap-lap-lap of water against the wharf. He’s thinking about me, Candance thought. He’s wondering how to tell me I’ve become a monster and he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Suddenly, that seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen, far worse than turning into a monster, or even people knowing she turned into one. ‘People’ was amorphous, nebulous; Allen was Allen.
“So,” she said, aiming for casual as she leaned back against the wharf’s railing and hooked her arms around it. “Other than the fact that I was clearly making a fool of myself, why whip me out here and feed me that… stuff?” Her heart hammered as she waited for his response. “Also,” she said, straightening, “how did you know to do that?”
Allen seemed to take his time thinking, turning to link his arms through the railing next to her and surveying the stars. “The paste slows the transition, makes it more controllable and less painful. It’s a relatively new invention. As for the other, I could see that you were about to change, and…” He shrugged. “We never show ourselves in public.”
“We?” Candance cut in. “You’re one too?”
“Yes. A grey fox.” He weaved his head and caught her gaze. “Are you listening to me? We don’t show ourselves. It’s safer that way. Especially for the more unusual” – he shot her a glance – “of us.” He frowned. “What are you, anyway? A lizard?”
Candance smirked, eyes narrowing. She’d only had an instant to meet her inner animal, but an instant had been all she’d needed. “A lizard?” she asked cuttingly. “Really?” The change bubbled up inside again, and this time she knew it wouldn’t be suppressed; it was too strong, too hot, and holding it in would scorch her from the inside out. So this time, she let it go, laughing in delight as the power swirled up from her belly, around her chest, and tingled down her arms and legs.
Suffused with the warm light of change, her fingernails shot out and claws punched the air, one quickly after the other, a staccato of rifle shots. Muscles stretched, tendons shifted and popped, and her bones lengthened and strengthened. Stability and swiftness, perfect balance and poise; her new frame simply worked.
And then, as easily as it had begun, the change was over, and Candance stood towering over Allen, clacking her teeth and chortling as best as she could with her new vocal cords.
Allen, to his great credit, hadn’t moved an inch, though the whites of his eyes and the stench of sweat gave away his fear. “A raptor,” he said, and swore. “Of course you had to be a raptor. We haven’t seen a prehistoric mutation in decades, and now, just as we’re getting the whole concept under control and starting to regulate it, you show up as a fucking raptor.”
Candance clacked her teeth again and attempted a laugh, which came out as more of a strangled roar than anything recognisably humorous – but Allen seemed to understand. He rolled his eyes and shrugged himself away, huffing deeply. “Well, go on then. You’ll have energy burning through your system like nothing else, if you’re anything like normal. Go run it off somewhere people won’t see you.” He squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples. “And do me a favour, will you?”
Candance peered down at him, trying for any expression but hungry, because the finer details of emotions were beyond her at the moment. The power, the heat, the adrenalin surging through her veins and sizzling in her skin and making her want to run, and run, and run, and run…
Allen sighed resignedly. “Just come find me when you’re yourself again, will you? We need to talk.” He glanced up at Candance, the first look he’d given her since he’d sworn at her – and immediately, he shook his head and walked away, hands deep in his pockets.
Candance waited until he was nearly back inside, let her inner beast roar – just once, quietly – and sprinted away into the night.