The Metamorphoses by Stephan James

The Metamorphoses
Stephan James

I first saw her on a Tuesday, early November. It was starting to chill down outside. That’s how Bradley always said it — “chill down”. I liked him for small things like that, but small things weren’t enough to keep us together. Hell, even big things like a son weren’t enough to keep us together. Anyway.

She was moderate height, blonde, slim build, pretty. She came in to Jack’s All-U-Can-Eat alone, with a book. Stories, by Kafka. I read one before, I think, I couldn’t remember if it was him or Faust.

She helped herself to the buffet, ate quietly, read her book. After she was finished she got a second plate, and then a third. Each time I cleared her table she gave me a small nod and smile, said “Thanks” with a slight German accent, thonks.

“Marie!” Jack called me over to his manager stand, hands on hips. A scowl turned down the corners of his mouth, his thick, greying mustache poking out over thin lips. “She needs to leave.”

I found myself defending a stranger. “She hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Jack’s glare deepened. “You know what I mean. We got a policy here.”

I tossed my head. “No free meals doesn’t mean much when you call it ‘All-U-Can-Eat’,”

“Whatever,” he snarled. “Just get rid of her.” Rolling my eyes, I slowly made my way over to her table.

I didn’t want to do it, I said, but I was going to have to ask her to leave.

“Can’t I just stay here and read, for a while longer?” I loved her accent. “I’m in the middle of a very exciting story.” She sounded so intelligent, so refined.

I got an idea. “Actually, yes,” I said, looking over my shoulder. “That’s perfectly fine.”

Jack was even more disturbed than before. “What the hell’s going on?” His eyes were accusing slits. “Why is she still there?”

“She’ll just pay again for the dinner service,” I said. And even though I often complain that money is tight, I knew I would be able to cover one extra meal.

#

By Friday I had to come clean. She apologized and asked me why I’d paid for her three times. Honestly, I didn’t know, it just felt like something I wanted to do.

“Sadie Lawrence,” she said, holding out a hand. I shook it carefully, noticing how smooth her skin was. I, Marie Dunbar, have never been able to be happy with mine because of how much time I spend in the water, with washcloth, in the steam of the warming table.

She asked me to sit, but I had to decline.

“Don’t fraternize with the customers,” Jack growled.

Finally, at half past eight I was done for the day, but Sadie apparently wasn’t. She was on her fourth plate of dinner service, after three at lunch time. I could tell Jack wasn’t really that happy about it, but until he developed some kind of limit he’d have to just take it. I stood out by where the smokers took breaks and waited. I buried my hands deep in my overcoat and thought about Evan. Evan, the one thing that has kept me going the past years. Bradley keeps threatening to move back to Charleston to be closer to his family, but I don’t really think he’ll do that, split up a little boy and his momma. Bradley and I had our troubles – we had a fair share of other people’s troubles, too – but we weren’t that different. There were lots of reasons we were married for seven years. The kid was just one of them.

But even the best of kids, and the best of intentions, are never enough when two people haven’t been true to each other. When they’ve kept secrets, on both sides, that come out, those secrets can destroy even the strongest bonds. Ours started cracking two years ago, and finally burst when I hit Bradley. It wasn’t intended to be anything that damaging – I smacked him because he kept pressuring me about – well, you know. But the look in his eyes… I could see he wanted to return the favor. So we split, and with his income like three times mine, and the fact that I couldn’t disagree that I’d laid palm to backside on Evan often, the courts felt it best that Bradley have custody, and I have visitation rights.

Looking back, I can say that that was the beginning of a mid-life crisis. Usually those things start after forty, so I was ahead of the game, for once in my life.

Jack’s was empty and it looked like I’d missed Sadie. I had wanted to talk with her more, maybe ask what she was doing in there. And she was so pretty – me, I always feel like some kind of child’s drawing that got brought to life. My left side hangs little lower down than my right, so I look like I’m standing on a hill. Every day, when I look in the mirror, I just want to start over.

#

Sadie was there on Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday again. I never really got the chance I wanted. Well, short chats, about the book she was reading, or about the weather or traffic, though she didn’t seem to have much to say about those. My shifts were usually ending in the late afternoon, before the dinner service, so I couldn’t spend time with her, as Jack would have a cow if he saw me sit down in my apron and talk to a customer. Finally, though, on Wednesday I had a later shift, and when I got there she was already inside.

I did my business normally, she did hers. Eat, sit, read, eat. It looked like she was starting to put on a few pounds. Her face was fuller than before. Her shoulders rounder, rather than the angular look of a long-distance runner, or a model. Frankly, she looked even more beautiful. I told her, and she smiled. She patted her tummy. “I’ve got a little more to go, don’t you think?”

“Are you pregnant?”

She shook her head. “A change is happening, but, no, no baby.”

“What kind of change?”

“Let us say, you probably won’t recognize me at this time next year.” A change – maybe I need a change.

“Are you sure that’s healthy?”

Sadie tilted her head, rested her cheek on her hand. “Now what would make you so interested in whether or not I’m healthy?”

I blushed. “I don’t know, I just kind of, feel like, I’m starting to like you. As a friend,” I hurried. “I was going to ask-“

“Marie!” Jack’s voice cut through the minor din.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, “Later!” and hurried off. Sadie smiled, gave a little wave, and returned to her dessert.

She stayed until closing time, and in fact waited for me twenty minutes. I was touched by her gesture; I have so few friends these days. I wish Deanna hadn’t moved, but there are only so many interior design jobs here, and she had been out of work for eighteen months, and, and, and…

We talked as we made our way to her apartment, five blocks away. I learned that her accent was from her mother, who had been raised in Austria then moved here “for university”. I liked that. It was a little bit of an air, something almost put on, but it made her sound different, and special. I told her I’d always been in the midwest, one little suburb or another, Fishers outside Indianapolis, Geneva near Chicago. I wished I’d been a little more adventurous.

She stopped outside a small apartment block. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I have enjoyed talking with you, Marie. I think we could become friends. But — I don’t really invite others in. I’m very private.” She did gave me a half-grimace, then, just the left side of her mouth turning up a little, wrinkling the soft fold under her eye. “And, to be honest, it’s probably not a good time for me. It would be better for us to keep a little more distance.”

I didn’t understand. I wish I’d had more time. To learn just what she meant by her changes. To know her family, her history. To share with her my disappointments, failures, my hopes and dreams. Oh, who am I kidding. Hopes and dreams don’t exist for people like me.

Still, I opened my arms. She did, too. There was no judgement. No expectations, no duty. Only care, and, maybe, love? It was the best I’ve had in a handful of years.

We held the embrace for a few seconds longer than normal. It was as if she could tell I needed it. Finally I pushed back to arm’s length. “Thank you,” I said. I stood alone on the stoop for a few moments, before turning to walk back to my emptiness.

#

Sadie became a regular at Jack’s. For the next two weeks she was there daily. We didn’t talk a lot, which was okay, because we both knew the friendship was going to grow, just as soon as I could get back on my feet, perhaps move out of my sister’s basement and finally feel like a whole, responsible adult again.

But then, eventually, she wasn’t there any more. I guess, looking back, I can see that her last day was on Thanksgiving. Jack wanted experienced help who could handle the difficult customers he’d have that afternoon. And he was finally starting to not give me the evil eye when Sadie would hug me as she left. I could tell she was much fuller than when we’d first done that, weeks earlier. She must have put on twenty pounds.

I didn’t think anything of it, not even when she said “Goodbye,” and there was a finality to her voice. It looked like she had a tear in her eye. Then, I had thought maybe it was just because she was sad about spending Thanksgiving alone. Only later would I recognize that she might miss me, too.

Black Friday was pure hell. The less said about that the better.

As Saturday was my day off I slept in. When I finally woke, I had the strangest thought, and said aloud, “Wait, did I see Sadie yesterday?” And then I realized that I was becoming a stalker. Imagine – me! Stalking someone. Who’d a thunk it.

Well, not stalking, necessarily. But observing. Taking notice. I hope she’s alright. I expected everything was just fine. But, to be honest, sometimes I get these feelings and, if I don’t act on them, I start to get all worked up inside. I didn’t want that to happen, not this time, not with Sadie.

After a week we all finally admitted that she wasn’t coming back. To be honest, I felt a little let down. Not as much as disappointed, because at that point in my life I’d been disappointed so many times before, but I was let down, just the same.

It would be two more days before I would take a walk over to her apartment. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe it was the first snowfall of the season, on a still-warm December afternoon, that put in my mind thoughts of otherness, and just wanting to connect. Maybe it was the fact that Bradley had called to tell me he and Evan really were moving to Charleston, he thought I should know, it was only fair of course, and no, Evan didn’t want to come spend one last weekend with me before they went. Fair? What the hell is fair? He gets to go off and live a life of fun and frolic, I’m stuck here in this dead-end job in a dead-end town with a dead-end backstory that makes anyone I talk to run like like goddamn Godzilla just came around the corner.

So I didn’t know why I went to Sadie’s place that night. Perhaps I was looking for my friend. Perhaps I was looking for someone else to blow me off completely, and take away any last hope I had of turning things around.

She did not answer when I knocked. A stack of mail, addressed to Sadie Lawrence, gave indication that she hadn’t collected it in a while. On impulse I tried the door. To my delight, it opened.

I don’t know what Sadie was worried about. Her apartment was nothing embarrassing. It was small, yes, but so was everything else on that block. The entry hallway had a short table to one side, where I dropped the assorted stack of rectangles. “Sadie?” I called. I didn’t want to scare her if she’d been indisposed. There was a single bedroom off to the left, empty. The right side had a multi-function area, with a couch, television, and round dining table with four chairs. Off past the table I could see a kitchen. The place was clean, and tidy, except for one outfit that lay in a heap in front of the sofa. I glanced around, looking for, I don’t know, clues? Nothing I could see was out of the ordinary.

I turned to head back out, reminding myself to stop by again in a week, and if Sadie still hadn’t turned up I’d mention something to the building manager. And then I thought I’d probably leave Sadie a note, to let her know I was here and it wasn’t some random stranger or burglar, if she returned to find the mail brought in and the door open. So I made a quick about-face and headed for the kitchen.

Yeeeeahaah! I screamed and jump-skidded six feet to my right, away from a large brown mass right on the floor next to the wall. I put a hand on my chest to keep it from leaping out, and my other hand on my mouth to keep from screaming again.

Was that her? Was that her – in a cocoon? Impossible. People don’t do that. Do they? Ridiculous. But maybe? Maybe she knew it was coming? Was that why she was at Jack’s for three weeks? Fattening herself up? “A change is coming, yes,” she had said. How was I supposed to know this was what she was talking about?

After a couple of minutes of staring and breathing hard, I calmed down enough to stand upright. I stepped slowly towards the dark, rugged mass and reached out a tentative hand. I couldn’t touch it. Yet, I couldn’t leave it alone, either. What if Sadie was in there? In trouble? What if she needed my help?

I spoke a little, trying to sound reassuring, for both her and myself. I told her that I wasn’t going to hurt her, that I was here for her. I told her it was me, Marie, and that I’d just come to check and make sure she was all right.

My fingertips touched the surface. It was stiff, but flexible like cardboard. It looked woven, like a thick wool, wide strands that went around and around and around. It was over three feet long, almost two tall, shaped like a football.

I stroked the edge, ran my palm across the ridges. It was rough, it rubbed and rasped against my skin. It felt real. The sound filled the small space, and then dissipated, taking with it my fears, my anxiety. Sadie was in there, I knew. She was in there, and I was out here. What was she doing? A change. Yes, a change.

#

In January I started paying the bills. Apparently she had not thought that far ahead, and I didn’t want someone who had no idea what was happening to stumble in and make a terrible mistake. Her bank account was stocked enough to keep us going for at least six months. That made the transition out of my sister’s basement a little easier.

It was around the middle of that month that I really noticed the color differential. The cocoon had gone from dark brown to softer brown, to tanned leather, and was on its way to a hard, smooth eggshell-white by the middle of February.

I talked to it often. I had stopped using the word her long ago, not knowing anything of what was happening inside, and it felt weird thinking of it as Sadie at the same time as asking people to call me that. “Don’t I look great?” I said one day, after a dye job and short cut. “I think you’d like it. It’s kind of like how you used to wear yours; a bit shorter, but it’s good, don’t you think?”

I had no idea what I might do if it had made a noise; to be honest, it had sort of become background, like a piece of furniture or decoration.

Jack was still a jerk, but I could handle him. I didn’t need the money as much, since the old accounts were paying the bills and for food. Everything I got from Jack was finally going to create a little bit of savings. I’d need that in May, or June, whenever we both decided to get out of here for good. I was feeling proud of myself; I’d made the first few transitions, both physically – out of my sister’s place – and emotionally. Yet it wasn’t enough. I want to go somewhere. Somewhere else. Not sure where, but I just know that this, this is not for me. Not any longer.

Evan? Yes, I’ll miss him. No reason I shouldn’t – I always miss him. But he and Bradley have been four states away for two months now. The physical distance makes the emotional gulf just a little bit easier. And, perhaps, if something good does come, if I get to that better place, maybe he can come and stay for a weekend. Or even a week! That would be nice. A whole week with my son. I can hardly wait.

#

I am in the living area, sitting with coffee on the couch, when I hear the first noises. It is the second week of March, morning with frost on the grass outside. It sounds like dry leaves dragged across an empty riverbed. It is an alligator underbelly along Egyptian sand. I hear it, a couple of times, but don’t know what it is, until I look around my apartment a little more and recognize it coming from the kitchen.

The thing is still where I first found it months ago, at the corner. It is now stiff, hard, and unyielding. The sound is coming from inside. Is that her? How much has she changed? What does she look like? I have heard that butterflies have different DNA from the caterpillars they started as. Perhaps they lose their memories, too, and have to start anew. Will she recognize me?

I look around for something to help. I reject both a cleaver and kitchen scissors. Too deep. Finally I find a small paring knife. I grasp it in a fist, and lift it above my shoulder. Wait, where is – it?

I tap one end. “Hey, move away from here,” I say. “Hey, I’m gonna help you.” The whispers move towards the other end, then stop. I plunge the knife down, into the chrysalis, annihilating the smooth perfection which was the culmination of that prior life. I break through, my fist punching a bit of a hole. I hear small shards crumble down inside. There is a glimpse of flesh. It is a foot, kicking with a heel. I help.

After a minute I go to the other end, tap there, wait. Lift and drop. It works from the inside, I work from the outside. Soon a trough has been dredged, two fists wide. I have left saucer-sized bits all over the floor.

I glance in, but try not to see. There are too many legs. Not enough arms. I grasp something sticking out of the gaping wound and pull. It is skin, taut against bone. I lose my grip and it slides back inside. I reach again, find purchase, pull and heave. It squeezes out and lies motionless for a moment.

It is on the kitchen floor, breathing hard. It stands, and I take in the miracle before me.

It is a flesh-colored thing, nearly six feet tall, on four legs instead of two. What used to be arms have shrunk; it almost looks like a praying mantis. The ribs seem smaller, rounder, more like a cylinder than normal. There are no breasts or nipples. No hair. The mouth is a lipless void. There are six eyes.

Out of its back are two gorgeous wings, four feet wide each, at least. They look rumpled from having been confined. Blue and yellow stripes on a black background. They open and close slowly. Twice, five times. It blinks. The mouth gapes wide; there has been no sound for almost three minutes, not since my feet stopped crunching shell.

It swivels its head to look around. There is a small porch to the back, with a sliding door. I step carefully past, not wanting to touch something I shouldn’t. From high school biology I remember that these things are very fragile in the first moments; they should not be disturbed at all if possible. I shove the glass and step away, giving it plenty of room.

It looks at me, and at the portal. I nod, and speak meaningless, calming words. It probably can’t hear me; if it has ears, they don’t look like anything I’d recognize. It takes a few tentative steps towards the back yard, stumbles, regains balance. Wings shimmer in the morning light.

On the porch it stands taller. I wait, apprehensive. It looks at me and blinks all six eyes at once. I nod, and hold out a hand. Do I expect it to shake? To sniff, like a dog? Fool. I withdraw the gesture. It looks me in the eye once more, then turns to the light and the fresh air, crisp with the season. Inside it smells like warmth, and the dusts of old lives. Out there is excitement, and wonder, and creation. Re-creation. It crouches, extends the wings that have smoothed out the wrinkles. It leaps, and pulls hard for freedom.

The sound is more surprising than the act itself. A dull thud, a bit of tinkling as the frosted grass crumples under the weight. It struggles to right itself, crouch, and try again, and this time only gets one pulse of the too-weak wings before it succumbs to the irresistible force of gravity, the force of nature, and of nature’s God, who does not take too kindly to the creations attempting to muck about on their own like this.

I feel sick. It is terrible watching the thing suffer like that, helpless, underdeveloped, yearning for fullness yet inhibited within a prison of its own making. Or did I do this? Is it somehow my fault?

I back into the warm room, shut the door. Perhaps the cold will numb it soon. In the meantime, I cannot leave it.

“Nine one one, what’s your emergency?”

“Please, help, I think there’s a hurt animal in my backyard. I think it’s dying. Can you send someone from Animal Control over to put it out of its misery?”

“Certainly, ma’am. What’s your name and address?”

“Sadie Lawrence,” I say, turning away at last.

END

The Metamorphoses by Stephan James 1

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