SHIFTER • by Jamie Hittman

After sex, instead of cuddles, Amy asked for the cat. Lulu protested that they just did this yesterday, but Amy was insistent. So Lulu went to the bathroom, crouched down on the rug, and changed.

The thing about shapeshifting was that it never hurt while it was happening. She could hear her bones splintering, her organs slurping as they rearranged themselves, but there was no pain. It was holding a shape that hurt, human or otherwise. Her bones yearned to twist and bend, aching to find a form that would satisfy them.

Her mother knew the pain, and her father. Neither was a shifter anymore. “The only way to end the pain is to find someone to love you,” her mother told her, smiling. “Deeply. Truly.”

But Lulu was never the sort to be noticed, passed over by shifters and normals alike. To have a chance at love seemed impossible luck.

She and Amy had met in the grocery store. They were cruising the produce section and their carts collided before a display of red delicious. They laughed over the spilled apples and their attempts to gather them and somewhere amidst that chaos Amy asked her out.

Amy’s attention had uncorked a vessel inside Lulu’s being, and the love that poured out was dizzying, desperate, and not entirely sane.  Lulu was sure that someday this love would be mutual, instead of this friends-with-benefits thing they had going. She could, after all, be anything Amy desired. And whatever Amy wanted, Lulu would give.

So Lulu crept out on small white paws and snuggled up beneath Amy’s chin. Amy cooed and stroked her back, soothing the spots that hurt the most.

Amy liked talking to the cat. Something about the petting opened her up. Lulu couldn’t answer, but she could mew and bob her head in acknowledgement. Once, she became a parrot to squawk out a reply, but Amy preferred the cat, her silence.

That was their life.

Sometime later they went for a walk in the park — Lulu was human that day — and Amy bumped into a young woman walking a dog by the fountain. The dog, a yorkie, lunged at Lulu, jaws snapping. Its small white teeth grazed her ankle, and while she ran to the bathroom to wash the wound, Amy and the woman began talking. Lulu returned to find them laughing on the fountain’s edge.

“Are you okay?” the woman asked Lulu.

“She’s fine,” Amy said. “Rivka, this is Lulu. We’re roommates.”

“So sorry about your leg,” Rivka said.

Soon enough, Rivka and Amy were dating. As the cat, Lulu would clamber up a tree outside the bedroom and watch them through the window, but after Amy spotted her lamp-yellow eyes peering out from the dark, she kept the blinds shut. Lulu had to content herself with yowling from a fence post night after night.

What if Amy gave up on her? The question filled her with terror. She could sell herself to a spy agency, as her aunt had done. Or she could be like other lonely shifters and live wild as a deer or an eagle. Nothing would stop the pain, and the joys of the wild wore off quickly. Animals just lived to eat and mate. Animals didn’t know love.

Sometimes Rivka brought the dog and that bothered Lulu more than anything. It could smell the prey inside her, the cat, the rats, the squirrels, and it followed her around the apartment, yapping. She shifted into a wolf and growled through yellow fangs, but the dog stared her down, undaunted. The dog knew what she was. It slunk off to a corner and lifted its leg to a floor lamp, giving her the side-eye all the while. The dog pissed everywhere. But Amy was too smitten with Rivka to pay much attention to piss.

One night, when Lulu was caterwauling, Rivka let the dog loose in the yard. It bolted for Lulu and chased her in circles before she slipped through an opening in the fence. The dog followed, howling. Lulu flung up her tail and lured it down the sidewalk to a busy intersection where an eighteen-wheeler was turning. Lulu darted beneath it, jinking between the wheels and out. Behind her there was a thump and a crunch and the barking abruptly stopped.

Lulu never told Amy what had actually happened, though she suspected Amy knew the truth when, come the next day, Rivka discovered the broken corpse at the intersection. Rivka was inconsolable. She and Amy broke up a few weeks later.

Then it was just the two of them, Lulu and Amy. Amy sulked on the couch in silence while Lulu skipped to and from the kitchen, fetching her snacks and hot tea. Together again! she almost sang. At last, together again!

Slowly, Amy emerged from her gloom. She sat up, drank her tea, smiled, and Lulu smiled back, because she had won. Amy pulled her down to kiss her on the mouth and they found themselves making love again, a gleeful tangle of arms and legs. They lay there wrapped up like a gift they might give each other and once again, timidly, Amy asked for the cat.

Lulu dashed off to the bathroom and the cat emerged. And how Amy looked at her then! Her eyes were glad and tear-filled, made moist by a greed that looked a whole lot like love. Those eyes made Lulu’s heart feel quivery, and she realized it was not her heart but her bones. They were fusing. The cracks filled in and smoothed over with the feeling of cool water, a relief so powerful that Lulu swayed on her little cat feet. If that’s how it has to be, fine, she thought. Maybe she had never been human to begin with. Maybe she had always been a cat, soft and servile, cast in the reluctant shape of a woman.

Jamie Hittman (she/her) is a 31-year-old resident physician with previous publications in Bird’s Thumb Magazine, Penny Shorts, and Every Day Fiction. Her flash fiction piece, “The Four Billion Year Birthday,” was featured in Every Day Fiction in March of 2014. She graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens College in May of 2014.

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