I’m pretty good at reading people. You know how they say if you kind of subtly mimic a person’s body language or attitude you can sense what they’re feeling? Well, when I actually shift into someone else’s shape, that’s even stronger. I don’t even need to take their shape to have that kind of intuition anymore- just visualizing being in that skin- which I do pretty instinctively with everyone I see, in case I ever do want to be in that shape- is enough.
So when I saw the girl sitting at the bus stop, I could tell she was… more than upset. Traumatized, maybe. Like she was just barely holding onto her soul, though I didn’t know then just how true that was. It wasn’t that her expression was a mask of grief or anything obvious like that. It was just something in the way she sat, head bent slightly, carefully trying to avoid all eye contact. And, when she finally did meet my gaze for an instant, the weird, kind of haunted look in her eyes.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked her. I don’t know what I expected. I mean, she’d never seen me before in her life; she’s not going to pour out all her troubles to me. The most normal thing for her to do would have been to just say, “Yeah, I’m fine,” and continue ignoring me.
But her response wasn’t normal. She jumped up and screamed, “Get away from me, you bastard! I hate you! You evil, sick, twisted, evil… You’re worse than them! I hope they do kill you, you stupid horrible asshole!” Her eyes blazed with anger and hatred and behind that, terror.
Like I said, she didn’t know me. For an instant it crossed my mind that she knew someone who I’d based my current shape on, but that wouldn’t fly because I was wearing my own skin at the moment. So I backed away, thinking, Okay, maybe I’m not so good at reading people. That look in her eyes was insanity. So I left her be, went home, and put the whole incident out of my mind.
I really didn’t think about it much more. It’s not like I had nothing better to do than worry over crazy people who scream at me for no reason. After all, I was in the middle of a little job I’d taken up to help a friend, trying to frame a guy for murder, which sounds bad when I say it like that but trust me, he deserved it. And then I started to feel like I was being followed. You know the prickling on the back of your neck when someone’s watching you? It was like that, but twenty times over. And malevolent. And it happened when I was all alone, in my own shape, at home or out in the open, at times and in places where there was no possible way that there was someone else there.
You’d think I’d know better than to say something’s impossible, wouldn’t you, seeing as how most people would say that about what I do?
So on top of being busy taking all kinds of shapes and pretending to be dead, to be a cop, to be a witness, to be the guy I was working on putting away, in my free moments I was distracted by whoever or whatever was or wasn’t following me. So, I really didn’t think about that girl much at all, till a couple days later, when I was having a few beers with a friend of mine who happens to work in a mental institution. He started telling me stories about his patients, and I remembered, “I had an encounter with a sanity-challenged individual the other day,” and told him about it. He made some comment in reply, I can’t remember what, and I said, “I’m starting to feel like I’m going crazy.”
“What, multiple personality disorder?”
I laughed. “No, seriously, I keep getting this strong feeling I’m being watched or stalked or something… it’s pretty freaky. It’s only been happening for a couple of days, and I’m already starting to feel paranoid.”
And that’s when it clicks. I first felt whatever was watching me right after meeting her. She’d been paranoid and terrified and had said I was worse than “them.” Therefore… Um, I wasn’t sure what it meant. She’d called down a curse on me? The “them” that were after her had moved on to me? But I knew in my gut that something big was going on, and it was because of her.
I didn’t know how to find her again. I went back to the bus stop, but she wasn’t there. I sat down on the bench and waited. She didn’t show up, but after a little bit I felt the air grow heavy with evil and a presence behind me. I didn’t see anyone there, of course. But I felt them.
“I know you’re there!” I called, aware that if anyone was watching I would seem as crazy as the girl had to me. “Show yourself!” There was no response. “What do you want with me?” Still nothing. “What do you want with her?”
And then they appeared. Appeared is the wrong word. They were still invisible, but they were revealing themselves to me. I couldn’t see them, not really, but I could sense their presence with my eyes. It’s like how looking through a completely clear window with no spots or streaks isn’t the same as looking through an open window, how things that are completely clear are still visible. So I could see them. There were seven of them, whatever they were, floating a few feet above the ground. I’m not sure how to describe what they looked like. They were kind of humanoid and kind of not, like how a djinni has a human head and torso that trails off into smoke at the legs- but their whole bodies were like that, halfway between being solid and not.
They were terrifying. It wasn’t their appearance but the mood they created. I said I could feel their malevolence when they were watching me, but that was nothing compared to this. The girl was right to be terrified. These…beings were pure evil.
“We want her soul,” one of them said, in a voice that matched everything else about them.
“She owes us,” another added.
“We will make her pay.” They began to advance towards me. I shifted my legs to those of an Olympic runner, and ran.
I managed to stay ahead of them for long enough to be in the middle of a crowd of people, and then I shifted. I sensed confusion over the beings’ hatred and anger as they drifted back towards the bus stop.
Maybe the smart thing to do would have been to stay away from them, but it was too late for that. And I have to admit, my curiosity tends to overrule my common sense. So I took on a really inconspicuous form, and followed them.
A couple blocks away from the bus stop, the girl appeared out of an alley. The things surrounded her. I wanted to do something, but I kept back, watching. I do have some sense.
“I didn’t even know him!” she was saying to them. “Haven’t you realized by now? I won’t do it, no matter how many people you kill. Go find someone else to haunt!”
“She is close to despair. We will have her soon,” one of the things leered, and they were gone.
I put on my own shape and stepped forward. Her eyes widened and she asked in surprise, “They didn’t kill you?”
“No, but I think they want to.”
“I was hoping they wouldn’t. That they’d think I wanted you dead, so they’d let you live. I should’ve known they’re not so easily tricked.”
“I think it worked, at least for a while,” I told her. “They’ve been following me, and I’m still alive.”
“They’ve killed every single person I’ve interacted with in the last six months. My family, my friends, a cashier who rang up my groceries, complete strangers who happen to make a passing remark to me…”
I was horrified. “Why?”
“I… I made a deal with them. But I didn’t understand what I was agreeing to, and I just couldn’t do what they asked, so I went back on the bargain. Now they’re trying to drive me to despair so they can turn me into one of them.”
I thought about that, then told her, “You need to just end it, once and for all.”
“I can’t give in. They’re killing people now, but if I become one of them I’ll be killing people, for thousands of years.”
“I didn’t say anything about giving in,” I said, as a plan began to form in my mind. “What you need to do is make another deal with them- or not a deal, more like a bet. If you win they leave you and everyone around you alone, if they win you become one of them.”
“What kind of bet? How can I get them to agree? What if I lose?”
“Bet them that they can’t kill me within twenty four hours, by noon tomorrow. I think they’ll go for that. And I’ll make sure you don’t lose.”
“I couldn’t do that to you!”
“I’m volunteering. They’re going to try to kill me anyway, aren’t they?”
She nodded. “You’re sure about this.”
“Absolutely.” And I was. Scared, but sure. I started to leave, then turned back. “Wait, what’s your name?”
I shifted to another shape and backed off a bit, and she called them and made the deal. She added that if they lost they leave her and everyone else alone, and leave the earth for a hundred years. They agreed and left to start looking for me, so I was off.
I took on the shape of a woman, to make it confusing for them, and kept to crowded areas. For a while I could see them sniffing around, but not realizing I could shift skins, they were looking for the man they’d seen before. But after a couple of hours, they did figure it out. That was when things got difficult.
I was at a crowded park, sitting on a bench watching the beings out of the corner of my eye when all of a sudden they swooped towards me. I ducked into a crowd of people and shifted, becoming a little boy. People never seem to notice when I shift, even if it’s right in front of them, and while the thing must have known I’d shifted, they didn’t know what form I was in. So they were inspecting all the people around me, and being small, I managed to slip away unnoticed.
After awhile they found me again, and again I managed to shift shapes and get away. This pattern repeated itself for a while.
Then it started to get dark. People were leaving the park, so I left with them. It was a bit harder to find a crowd once it got dark, but I finally slipped into a nightclub. It took a while for them to find me that time. It was past midnight when they showed up, and I managed to evade them for another couple of hours before the place closed. I couldn’t think of anywhere else that would have enough people that time of night, so I spent a while in the emergency room, shifting from injured-seeming form to injured seeming form as they chased me.
Finally, morning came and I left. I meant to go back to the park I’d been at, but somehow they found me and managed to chase me down a deserted alley. They split up and managed to corner me, with half of them at one end of the alley and half on the other. I knew there was no way I could go, no shape I could take, that would save me.
But then, just before they approached, I had an idea. I ducked behind a dumpster and shifted into an exact copy of Laurel. There was no way it would work. They’d seen me come into the alley, they’d know it had to be me.
But it did work. They surrounded me, demanding of “Laurel” where “he” was. I cowered from them, pretending not to know. Three of them went off to search for me, while the other four circled me, demanding an answer, telling me in gruesome detail how they would kill “him”, and how they had killed each of the so many others. They tormented me for hours, and I understood why the real Laurel was so close to the brink of despair, admired her for having the strength not to give in. I almost shifted, to get away from it, but that would have meant my death, and her transformation to one of these things.
A few minutes before noon, the other three returned. “We haven’t found him,” one of them told the others.
“Should we kill her? We can at least get something out of this,” another suggested.
“We have a deal, and my death isn’t part of it!” I objected.
They looked at me suspiciously. “There’s something different about her,” one of them commented. I snuck a look at my watch. It was 11:59. If it took them another minute to figure it out or if I could stall that long, I’d be home clear.
But just then, the real Laurel began to walk down the alley towards me.
I began to run, away from her, so that they would follow me without noticing that there were two of us. They were almost on me when Laurel screamed, “Laurel!” They thought she was me, so they all turned and rushed towards her.
“No, it’s me!” I cried. The beings looked around in confusion. They would have rushed towards one of us, or more likely both of us, but at that moment the clock struck twelve.
They stood still in the air. “Don’t think this is over,” one of them said. “We’ll be back in a hundred years, and if you’re still alive, we’ll kill both of you.” Then they vanished, not just turned invisible but were gone.
“If I somehow live to be a hundred and twenty five, remind me to kill myself first,” Laurel said, and we both laughed.