It wasn’t until Darla felt the soap stinging in the shower that she noticed the scratches on the backs of her hands and arms. Angry, red scratches that ran from her knuckles up to her elbows. She stared in horror at the deep tracks that lined her arms and tried to figure out what to do next.
Darla stood, indecisive, under the steaming hot water. Her first aid kit was in the kitchen, and she was probably out of hydrogen peroxide. She was terrible at keeping track of things like that. “I should pay more attention,” she admonished herself. One of the scratches had opened up and begun to bleed, dripping bright red blood onto the white shower tile. Her stomach churned, and she threw back the shower curtain and turned off the water. She reached for her towel and wrapped it around her torso, wishing that she could cover her arms.
She padded into the kitchen and searched her cabinets for bacitracin or hydrogen peroxide, to no avail. These were the times that she wished she could live with someone. Preferably a responsible roommate who would buy things like milk and stamps and medical supplies. She looked around the kitchen, and her eyes fell on a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Why not,” she said to herself. She grabbed the bottle and walked over the sink. Unscrewing the top, she held her arm over the sink and took a deep breath. She poured the brown liquid over her arm and for a second felt nothing. Then her arm lit up like it was on fire. She gasped, dropping the bottle in the sink. The contents spilled out before she could snatch it up again.
“Shit,” she swore. She realized that her hands were shaking. She dropped the towel on the floor ran over to her bed, curled up in the middle and pulled the blankets all the way over her head.
This was the thirty-second time that Darla had changed. Each time came without warning. The first time, she had been visiting her dad’s place in New Hampshire. Her dad was a retired forest ranger who still lived right on the edge of the State Park. He loved it there and had vowed that he would rather die than move. They had been close when she was a kid, but had grown apart, inevitably, during high school. The visit was one of the first that she had made post-college. Her dad had barbecued burgers for dinner, they had watched a few reruns of Seinfeld together, and she had gone to bed in her childhood room.
Four hours later, she had woken up with a cramp in her side. At first she thought it might just be gas, but then a sharp pain shot through both of her legs. She called out for her father, and tried to stand. Her knees gave out and she crumpled to the floor. Every detail came into sharp relief, and she could feel individual splinters against her arm. The floor was cool, and for a moment, she lay there, hoping that the pain might dull. Then her head began to ache. At first it was a dull ache, like a migraine about to settle in, but quickly it grew more severe, as though someone was trying to pry her head open at the temples. She gasped and began to dry-heave, trying to pull herself up onto her knees. She tried to yell for her father again, but all that came out was a strangled cry. Ten seconds later, her whole body convulsed and she passed out.
When she awoke, her vision had cleared and she could see every stitch in the coverlet on her bed. Then she realized that her glasses were not on. Then she realized that it was still dark. Her whole body felt as if it had fallen asleep; pins and needles raced up and down her skin. She tried to move, and found that her feet and hands didn’t feel quite right. She turned her head, rotating it slowly and realized that nothing was preventing her from turning her head all the way around. She squawked and fell over, scrambling to right herself again. She threw out her arms and felt the strength of the wings before she realized what they were. She screamed again, and this time her father came running into the room and threw on the light. She was temporarily blinded, and she lurched forward, trying to escape.
Her father swore, and scooped her up. It wasn’t until that moment, that she realized that she was impossibly small. She lashed out, catching him in the face with her foot by accident, and she saw that she had left a trail of beaded red across her nose. Her father raced downstairs and threw open the back door, carrying her out into the night.
“It’s going to be okay, Darla,” he said. He held one arm out in front of her and she stepped up onto it, panic racing through her body. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. Then he brought his arm down quickly and launched her up into the air. Caught by surprise, she threw out her wings and caught flight. It was all too much for her; she swooped low, heading back for the house and crash landed on the porch. She hopped over to a planter and burrowed behind it. She heard her father sit down quietly in front of it, guarding her, and they stayed that way until sun began to rise, when suddenly she was overcome with pain again, and began to grow.
Her father ran and grabbed a blanket, wrapped her up, then carried her into the house and laid her down gently on the couch. She was still too in shock to speak, so he waited. Finally, she was able to speak.
“Dad, what the fuck?” Darla screamed. She pulled the blanket around her more closely. “I need clothes,” she demanded. He jumped up and came back a few minutes later with her jeans and a black sweatshirt. Then he left the room to let her change. She called him back in when she was done, and he returned bearing two peanut butter sandwiches and a cup of tea.
“So, I owe you an explanation,” he said, setting everything down in front of her. She stared at him.
“Dad, that’s an understatement.” Her voice was shaking. She couldn’t bring herself to touch the food.
Her father settled back in his favorite leather chair and took a moment, staring at his hands.
“I started changing when I was 17,” he said, “Younger than you.” He looked at her, and seeing that her face was still blank, he continued. “I was a porcupine my first time.”
“Am I supposed to find that funny,” Darla asked.
“I was hoping…” he said.
“How did you hide this from me? From Mom?” Darla demanded.
He shrugged. “Your mom and I didn’t live together for very long. And for me it mostly happens at night. I’ve been able to tell when it’s coming for a long time now.”
“So, this could just happen to me anytime?” Darla asked.
“Day or night,” he replied.
“Why? Why does this happen?” Darla asked. Her father shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “There’s no family mystery, or if there is, my parents didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was just me. No one else in my family had this. And when you got through 18 and nothing had happened, I thought, well I thought I’ll never need to tell her.”
“That’s the explanation you’re going to stick me with?” Darla rose and walked over to the door, retrieving a feather that was lying in a pool of sunlight. “I turned into a fucking owl and you say ‘Woops, sometimes we do that?’” She ran out to her car and took off, with him running out of the house after her. And that would have been that, except that she shifted again three weeks later.
The second time she had shifted, she had become some kind of big cat. She couldn’t open the door of her closet to see her mirror, so she had no idea what kind. She called her father the next morning in tears, telling him that she was afraid of what might happen next. Her father told her that she would get control over it. That it took him time to understand when the changes were coming.
The next time, she became a bear, and destroyed most of her house through sheer clumsiness, and left the bed covered in scat. When she woke in the morning, she was disgusted. She balled all the sheets up and got rid of them.
Slowly she became more and more isolated. She was fired from her job for being unreliable. And it became difficult to get by with so little money, especially when she kept destroying her furniture during transformations. At first, Darla took temp jobs, driving into the city for the work, but she kept getting fired for having to leave, or simply disappearing during the day. Luckily the worst thing she had become in an office was a ferret, but she began to have panic attacks at the thought of being caught out. After a time, she limited herself to freelance, conducting her work completely over email.
Even though she rarely left home, changing was still dangerous. The scratches on her arms had no doubt come from a fight with a coyote that she’d had the night before. She’d startled it rifling through a dumpster and it had gone for her throat. She’d managed to defend herself, some sort of instinct kicking in. When she’d finally limped back home, running through the doggy door she’d installed for herself just in case, she’d curled up on the floor and fallen asleep immediately.
And so she found herself, with a cut up arm that stung like all hell, and an empty bottle of whiskey.