(The Thursday Prompt last week was “forever”. That got me thinking about what forever means to us, and how we would never really want something to last forever. People were made to exist in a changing universe, and the drive to adapt is coded in our genetics. That lead me down a rabbit trail and into this story, which is undoubtedly influenced by “The Homecoming“, a wonderful Hugo-nominated short story from Mike Resnick. I think it conjures a good idea of what ‘forever’ really means to us, a vague state of affairs that will exist long into the future after we will. Anyway, here’s the story, 1344 words.)
“Forever? What do you mean forever?” Matthew shifted in his bed, his ears scraping against the headboards. They felt so strange, higher than they should have been, long and fragile and immense. They were flaps of skin, really, perfectly shaped for catching sound. He had no need for them. He didn’t want them. He felt the developing muscles at their bases fold them downward, and he knew immediately that it was a signal of his mood to the people in the room. It made his stomach roll. He was already getting used to them.
Dr. Patel stood to the left of him, a mask over his face, a clipboard in his hands. The man looked tired, but that was to be expected. Counting Matthew, there were 14 other cases that broke out in the immediate area and chances are they had all come here. How many times had he had this conversation? How many times did he have to look at a misshapen face in mid-transformation and try to sound sympathetic?
“What I’m saying is, there is no known cure for your condition.” Dr. Patel’s accent and low voice made him difficult to hear under his mask. Matthew’s left ear flicked up, scraping the thick mane of hair he was growing and the wall. It was like turning up the volume on the TV. Suddenly he was as clear as a bell. “We have no idea how it works, why it does what it does. For now, the best that we can do is make you comfortable through your change and prepare you for what your life will be like…after.”
Matthew’s mother began sobbing at the foot of his bed. He watched his father go to her, standing behind her chair to grab her shoulders. He looked like he was about to cry, too. It struck him that they were grieving for him. Right then and there, while he was still in the room. His heartbeat quickened, and he felt a flash of anger. His parents. His own parents. To them, he was as good as dead.
Yet in so many ways, he was. The transformation phase was the contagious phase, at least as far as the CDC had told the public. But that wouldn’t stop him from being fired, from people crossing the street when they saw him approaching. It wouldn’t keep his landlord from finding a reason to evict him, and it wouldn’t protect him from the gangs of anti-chimeral activists popping up all over the world. He would either need to seek sanctuary at the CDC in Atlanta and submit himself to biological testing, or he would have to find one of those reservations out west and live off the grid as much as he could. Either way, his life was over.
He felt his breath quicken. His jaw hadn’t broken yet, but he could feel the pain along stress points as he spoke. His eyes were wide, he knew it. He could only imagine how he looked. “I…I got out of the water as soon as I could. As soon as…I….I knew…”
Dr. Patel put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down on the bed. Matthew hadn’t even realized how far he had sat up. “I know. You were only exposed for a very brief amount of time, but the agent was very aggressive. By the time anyone knew what was happening, it had taken hold for most of the people on the beach. I’m sorry. I truly am.”
Matthew remembered being in the water, the coolness and moisture and salt in the air as he splashed with Amy. The sun was sinking low over the buildings behind the boardwalk, and night approached from the ocean. There were ribbons of brightness in the waves as they crested closer to shore, but everyone thought that was just the sunlight reflecting on the water. No one had any idea something was wrong until a little boy started to scream and slap at his skin as if he was trying to put himself out.
Then Matthew felt it, the water starting to burn on his skin. It was like someone had slipped enough acid into the entire ocean for it to start scouring things. He grabbed Amy and waded back to shore in a panic, and he practically had to drag her on the beach those last few feet. Ten minutes later and the boardwalk was lined with black vans, grabbing people, pulling bags over their head, carrying them away. He saw a man in fatigues grab Amy and lift her over his shoulder, kicking and screaming. He was on the southern edge of the beach by now. He turned and fled.
That was the last time he saw her. That night he drank himself to sleep, chased by a pounding headache. The next morning he woke up with long, rabbit-like ears covered in fuzz that matched the shade of chestnut-brown his hair had become. His parents recoiled when he stumbled downstairs, and they immediately called the hospital. Three days later, and they’re still quarantined. His mom and dad will likely go home, eventually. But he’ll simply disappear.
Dr. Patel told him what he could expect in the coming days — there’ll be pain as his body’s changes grow more and more severe, and they’ll come in waves that will last anywhere from hours to days. Bones will stress until they break, and then re-set themselves. His body will be flooded with adrenaline most of the time, and the stress on his heart will be tremendous. They have painkillers and tranquilizers ready to counteract it, though. At some point, maybe in a month, maybe three, he’ll be something new, unmistakably and irrevocably, and he’ll be released into his parents’ care.
His mother had to leave the room halfway through the doctor’s speech. His father left a moment or two after that, and the doctor left as soon as he knew there would be no other questions. The silence descended around Matthew’s bed, thick and total.
Matthew knew that this would be one of the last times he’d ever see his parents. His mother wouldn’t be able to handle the sight of his body mangling itself to become something alien, and his father always retreated from the things he didn’t understand. They might tell all of his friends that he died with Amy, and even have a funeral. Of course there would be no body. It would have decomposed long ago to make room for whatever form he’d be walking around with by then.
He flattened his ears and closed his eyes. His life was over. The death would be painful, and at the end of it he would have a brand-new, more difficult life that he would need to learn to live. He knew he wasn’t ready, but whoever was? No matter how much time you had to prepare for it, death was always sudden. You could never know how to deal with it when it comes.
His mind spun. He thought of Amy, Mom and Dad. He thought of his coworkers at the office, his drinking buddies, the college friends he always looked up when they came home for the holidays. He would need to say goodbye to each and every one of them. He would have to let them go, forever.
Abruptly, he grabbed the remote and flipped on the television. He watched the news reports of the giant rising out of the Atlantic Ocean and devastating the boardwalk just hours after he ran. The military managed to kill it before it contaminated the entire city, but the loss of life and property was immense. That alien was still stretched across the length of the beach, he knew, covered over with plastic and being slowly dissected by the CDC. The creature had been the death of him, he thought.
But it had also birthed him.