By Caren Gussoff
Tillie Montgomery couldn’t hold it any longer.
She pulled her mother by the arm, like when she was an impatient kid, toward the closest exit, between the hot pretzel counter and the beauty supplies.
Her mother tugged back.
“Please, mom,” Tillie said. “Quickly.”
The voice of the all-pink Elvis vendor seemed to follow them from the atrium the whole way to the exit, alternating between “Hunka Burning Love” and the exclusive features of the microphone, available that day for a special Wednesday price — even though everyone everywhere knew retailers started the serious sales two days later, on Black Friday.
I feel my temp’rature rising
“I’ll find a bathing suit tomorrow,” Tillie said.
“The mall’s going to be infinitely more crowded tomorrow,” her mother said. “And worse the next day.”
But yours won’t, with this easy plug-and-play unit
Tillie tried to imagine infinitely more crowded, shoppers standing on shoppers, legs and arms and shopping bags heaving with a single breath, until it made her a little sick. It wasn’t worth retorting about the fundamental illogic of her mother’s statement to begin with.
My fever’s a hundred and nine
“We can order a suit online,” Tillie said. “Overnight shipping.”
“And if it doesn’t fit?” her mother asked.
Her mother was waiting for a response, but Tillie couldn’t think about anything but reaching the exit, the smell of yeast from the holiday ham pretzels, the roar of other conversations, a single baby’s wail, reaching the exit before the freezing-burning in her finger and toe tips swallowed her.
Tillie walked faster, steering her mother around the salesgirl from the wholesale salon products, who was pushing coupons for a conditioner that ‘specially attacks and reduces hair’s frizzogens.
“You are not going to mope in the hotel the entire time we are in Florida,” her mother continued. “I forbid it.”
Tillie’s mother already said to Tillie all the things that everyone everywhere knew were true but that do not feel true: It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; no one’s looking at you; everyone has their own problems. She’s worked her way through all the angles in the book of mothering, trying camaraderie and coercion until she was finally onto forbidding.
And kids from nine to a hundred and nine will love the noise-cancelling technology built right in
“We are finding you a bathing suit. We are going to Florida. You will swim and have fun.” Her mother stopped and tried to hold her ground.
Tillie wanted to scream. She was surprised she didn’t. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she promised. She would have promised anything. “No matter how bad it gets. I won’t come home without a bathing suit.”
“That’s what you say now,” her mother said.
I might turn to smoke but this mic makes me feel fine
The exit was just ahead, but the freezing-burning already turned electric and consumed her. The fine hairs on her cheeks and arms thickened into fur. Antlers pushed their way through the soft skin on her scalp. “I told you,” Tillie said. “I couldn’t hold it.”
When Tillie was a child, she would cross her eyes, scowl, stick out her tongue. Her mother would warn her that one day, if she wasn’t careful, her face would freeze like that. That would make Tillie screw up her face tighter, hold the grimace as long as she could, daring her face to set in that expression.
It never did.
Eventually her mother and Tillie would dissolve into laughter. At the time, Tillie thought they laughed because she was hilarious, a natural-born comedian. She thought they were laughing at the silliness of the faces. Now, she understood it was the glee and joy of an obedient body, reflexively docile, subservient meat. Reveling in a body that changed with time, only.
Since Tillie had dropped out of college, she sat at home and watched a lot of news. All the channels churned out special report after special report.
Her mother tried to keep her busy, but Tillie would spend hours clicking between investigative updates, expert commentary, and live feeds.
Doctors hypothesized on the unforeseen long-term effects of lifestyle, commonly prescribed medications, insulin resistance, and gluten intolerance.
Scientists speculated about accelerated evolution, mutation-enhanced biodiversity, fast-tracked speciation, new branches sprouting on the phylogenic tree. Radiation, they said. Viruses. Random chance.
Weirdoes quoted Edgar Cayce, Nostradamus, and Mother Shipton. They welcomed the Age of Aquarius. They blamed aliens, covert government experiments, vaccinations, genetically modified food, hormone-laced meat, and Western medicine.
Zealots held hands and prayed, blaming the occult books available at any Barnes & Noble or public library, the increased popularity of yoga, witches, the doctors, the scientists, and the weirdoes. They welcomed the new Eden; they awaited Armageddon.
Everyone had a theory, but the point was something was happening.
It was not happening to everyone everywhere, but to enough of them that it seemed like soon enough it might.
The point was humans sometimes changed into giant animals.
The point was Tillie sometimes changed into a giant animal, and there didn’t seem to be much she could do about it.
It was Thursday. Tillie flexed and unflexed her claws, kneading the chenille bedspread. She didn’t know why she did this, only that it seemed to calm her down. The bed groaned beneath her weight.
Tillie’s mother came in and pushed in next to her on the bed, scratched Tillie’s head and behind her ears. Tillie plopped down and rolled her belly towards her mother.
“A kitty,” her mother said, absently. “I always said we should get a kitty cat.” Then she rubbed Tillie’s belly hard. “Maybe not a giant one, but a kitty nonetheless.”
The rubbing was too hard. Tillie thumped her tail, nipped lightly at her mother’s hand. Then she head-butted her mother’s arm until she began scratching Tillie’s head again.
Tillie laid her head on her mother’s lap as she sat and watched a rebroadcast of the President pardoning a turkey. Tillie had trouble staying awake.
“Oh well. No mall for you today,” her mother sighed. “Maybe it won’t be as crowded as I think tomorrow.”
People dug deep for answers. Environmentalists blamed climate change, toxic dumps, high levels of lead, fracking. Wiccans explained how the goddess wished humans to reconnect with their animal brothers and sisters. When asked about what he thought, the Dalai Lama just pushed his palms together and smiled at the reporter.
On Friday morning, Tillie read an investigative report about specialty shape shifter brothels popping up all around the outskirts of Vegas.
Then she watched footage of a woman, shifted into a hippopotamus the size of an M1 tank, knocking through the concrete barriers of the Maple Leaf reservoir, causing flood damage to the North Seattle neighborhood estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Tillie rubbed her temples and watched live footage of the aftermath, homeowners in rubber gaiters emptying buckets of water from their basements, DOT workers clearing gutters.
Tillie tried not to remember the first time she shifted, but did. It was just like that. Only she became an elephant during her Fundamentals of Calculus class, destroyed most of the lecture hall, and trampled a priceless frieze donated by the class of 1958.
“Tillie Montgomery, turn that crap off,” Tillie’s mother said. “It’s not doing you any good.”
Tillie laid her head on her hands.
“It could be worse,” her mother said. “You’re young; you have people who love you. So, you’ve got a chronic…” she paused to carefully consider her word, “…condition.”
Tillie looked at her mother. “Diabetes is a chronic condition,” she replied. “Arthritis is a chronic condition.”
“Exactly,” her mother said. “And people use insulin or take medication and they live their lives. There are support groups now, you know.”
“Yeah, and brothels,” Tillie replied. “They said on the news.”
“Well,” her mom said, shaking her head. “That doesn’t surprise me at all.”
“What am I going to do, mom?” Tillie asked.
Her mother picked up the remote, flipped the TV off. She patted Tillie’s shoulder. “Come on. There’s a big world out there.”
Tillie stood up and looked out the window at the neighbor kids tossing a Frisbee to their golden retriever, Vinnie. His tongue hung out of his mouth, long and pink as a hot dog. He was happy. Tillie could imagine herself there, also happy, grabbing the Frisbee between her own teeth, rolling in the cold mud, panting. She wanted that. She tried to make her fingers and toes cold-burn, but they wouldn’t.
“What am I going to do?” she repeated.
Her mother opened the hall closet and pulled out Tillie’s coat. She draped it on Tillie’s shoulders, then wrapped a scarf around her neck. She tucked the ends of the scarf inside the neckline of the coat. “Today, you are going to buy a bathing suit. Tomorrow, we go to Florida. In a few months, you’ll return to college. You will graduate. You’ll go on. You’ll see.”
“I can’t just—” Tillie started, but her mother cut her off.
“You’ll see. If you can handle the mall on Black Friday, you can handle anything.” Her mother hustled her by the arm to the front door. “Go on.”
Tillie drove herself down to the waterfront, the opposite direction from the mall. She parked near the aquarium, bought a hot cocoa from a street vendor, and sat on the cement embankment of a deserted pier. Tillie drank her cocoa, looking down into the black water and the soapy-looking waves.
She hadn’t been a fish yet. A few days before, she’d seen a news clip of one shifter that became a van-sized beluga sturgeon in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The sturgeon flipped, gasped, while some kindly onlookers poured their personal bottles of water on his gills until paramedics and ichthyologists rushed 500 gallon tanks to the scene. Tillie didn’t know what became of that shape shifter.
Her phone vibrated from inside her coat. She pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was her mother. She didn’t want to pick up, but she knew her mother would just keep calling and calling. “Hi, mom.”
“Come home. I was being insensitive. I keep pretending everything is normal like that is going to make it normal.”
“Mom—” Tillie started, but her mother talked over her.
“You can swim in a tank top and cut-offs,” her mother said. “The important thing is that we are together and that you’re happy and have fun on this trip. It’s okay.”
“No,” Tillie said, crumpling her empty cup. “You are right. Everything is normal. This is normal, now. I’m going to do this.”
“We’ll do it together, then,” her mother said. “Come get me.”
The mall parking lot was like a malicious game of Stratego. Cars funneled down into standstill chokepoints, carefully laying tactics of misdirection and subversion as they leapfrogged and curb-jumped to open parking spaces. When Tillie finally slammed her car into a spot, a father in a minivan that had been edging around her flashed her the finger.
“So much for holiday spirit,” her mother said, returning the gesture.
Tillie grabbed her mother’s arm as they weaved their way to the entrance.
“Keep breathing,” her mother said. “In your nose, out your mouth.”
Going in was like jumping into a fast-rushing river. The air was scented with gingerbread candle smoke, and the current snaked in time to the tinny, instrumental carols from the overhead speakers.
Tillie tried to keep ahold of her mother, but the stream pulled them apart. Her mother’s head bobbed further and further ahead of her. Tillie tried to swim off to either side into a store, but instead was tossed ashore into the atrium right beneath the giant skylight.
In the corner of the atrium was the all-pink Elvis’ microphone cart. Only today, he was neither pink nor Elvis. Instead, he was dressed in lime green, head to toe, heavy framed glasses balanced in the center of his face. He pointed the mic at her and grinned. “Keep your chin up, Peggy Sue.”
Tillie smiled at the floor and tried to jump back into the stream of shoppers, but was instead just jostled back into the same place.
“May as well get comfortable, and enjoy the show,” he said to her. He smiled again, then concentrated back on the microphone. He began his demo. “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer,” he sang.
Tillie sighed and settled in to watch the all-green Buddy Holly. Now that he started, it seemed rude to leave, and she wasn’t looking forward to trying to surf the shoppers. She was safe there, in the atrium, a deserted pocket of air, just her and Buddy Holly.
No one was looking at them. They all had their own problems.
Tillie watched the lime green Buddy Holly and decided that beneath the weird, bright outfit and clunky spectacles, he was actually pretty cute.
“Goin’ faster than a roller coaster,” he continued. “And folks, every day the holidays are getting closer and a perfect gift will surely come your way-a-ay-ay if you give them the gift of quality sound.” Lime green Buddy Holly waved his free hand at the crowd, who still ignored him. They all held their shopping bags above their heads as they were swept by.
Then, there was a wave in the stream.
At first, Tillie thought they were balloons popping. Or firecrackers. Gunshots never sound like one thinks they are supposed to, especially if one has never heard gunshots before.
Tillie had never heard gunshots before. She didn’t know to panic until she heard the screaming and feedback from the microphone as it dropped from Buddy Holly’s hands and rolled out into the tumbling river. Then, Buddy Holly tackled her.
They hit the floor hard. He was heavier than he looked when he was singing, and a little sweaty in the lime green suit. More balloons popped, firecrackers cracked, and through the din, Tillie heard voices: “He’s got a gun!” and “Someone’s shooting!”
Above them, there was popping and cracking and screaming and din. And the cold-burn started in her fingers and toes.
“Are you okay?” Buddy Holly whispered into her hair, which was already clumping beneath him. She wanted to say yes, started to say, “Oh no,” but her mouth froze in the no, her lips hardening and growing long and black. A beak. Lime green Buddy Holly rolled off her as wings pushed out above her scapula and raised her up. She could see his face, baffled and afraid, as she tripled in size.
Tillie tried to say something, but only cawed.
Tillie flapped her wings. She looked at the sunlight streaming through the skylight above them. She pointed her beak at the window and cawed again.
The popping and cracking and screaming and din moved closer.
She jumped nervously on her black legs, talons tapping the floor. Get on, she cawed. Trust me.
Buddy Holly seemed to understand. He grabbed and pulled out a fistful of feathers as he clambered up her back. He was heavier than he looked when he was singing.
Tilled flapped her wings. She scanned the river of faces and cawed down at them. She passed once, twice, until she saw what she was looking for, the one human face she knew. She cawed at it, flapped down, and as she dove, closed her talons around the soft nesty fabric around the face. The face yelled, “Tillie!” at her.
Mom, she cawed back.
She had to flap hard to rise again, but they ascended to the skylight. She kept flapping there and cawed at the human on her back. He had thicker legs. He understood and kicked out the thick safety glass. The glass rained to the floor below them, covered the crowd in glittering shards of snow.
The human on her back held onto her tightly. The one in her talons grasped her legs. They all looked down at Black Friday for a second. Everything looked frozen in time and quiet. Tillie liked how the glass caught and bent the light. She was happy. She was born for this.
She flapped and flapped and flew them away.
Caren Gussoff is a SF writer living in Seattle, WA. The author of Homecoming (2000), and The Wave and Other Stories (2003), first published by Serpent’s Tail/High Risk Books, Gussoff’s been published in anthologies by Seal Press, and Prime Books, as well as in Abyss & Apex, Cabinet des Fées, and Fantasy Magazine. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 2008, was the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia E. Butler Scholar at Clarion West. Her new novel, The Birthday Problem, will be published by Pink Narcissus Press in 2014, and her first contact novella, Three Songs for Roxy, will be published by Aqueduct Press in 2015. Find her online at @spitkitten, facebook.com/