In the middle of the night, as crickets sing to the gibbous moonlight, I toss and turn in the tiny but plush bed wedged in the corner of my little blue bedroom. Lilli glows softly from the pillow next to my head, her lime-light just as bright as the moonrays filtered through the mottled glass window.
When I think I'll finally find my way into slumber, I hear the creak of the floorboards. My eyes snap awake.
I don't think it's Lutz; he was nearly as asleep as the dead in the mound of cushions tucked in the living room. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was gazing into the distant elsewhere within his dreams, just as pool-gazers often look into the depths of water.
Then I wonder if Ben will peel the translucent skin from his chest again, tipping a miniature funnel into his gearwork, pouring neon-bright potions into him like fuel.
I should get out of bed.
I should follow him.
I rock in my half-sleep for long minutes, torn between these thoughts, and thoughtless dreaming.
Unable to tolerate my reverie any further, I fling my feet over the side of the bed, padding sticky lizard-heels across the wooden floor, hoping a moment in front of the window will calm my whirring mind.
Since the Laughing Gardens is safe under a glass dome, the waft of air from the yawning window is simultaneously artificial and fresh. It feels like breathing underwater through a plastic bag, high in oxygen, low in Mother Nature.
I lower my eyes to the rose garden just in time to see Ben tuck the glass funnel into the clockwork of his peeled-open chest, and my throat tightens between fascination, horror, and the gag reflex I used to get when I scraped my knees on river rocks.
After I collect myself, I look again at how meticulously he angles his arching back and chin, how delicately he pours the fragile vial into the center of him, the moonlight beautiful on his dark hair.
I hide behind the indigo curtains that frill around my window, unable to give him privacy, yet determined to hide from him. I'm curious to know how his body works just as much as I'm scared of him ever understanding my shifty, shapechanging life.
And as he looks up to the inn, where I move sneakily around my window, I think he must see me—I must've blown my cover—until he returns his gaze to the vial and funnel, his face as emotionless and focused as before, and I sigh in relief. He doesn't suspect me.
After he drains the potion, and the neon liquid cycles through the gearwork—into the veinous fibers that I imagine sync with his circulatory system—he gently returns the papery skin to the toughened rim of his chest cavity, pressing along the edges to make himself whole again.
It reminds me of my ex-husband's massaging hands, so I close the window and return to bed.
In my dreams, Ben is a robot made of metallic tubers and electrical currents, but the center of him is still flesh, and a heart beats where his gearwork used to be. He asks me if he's more human with a metallic body, or a clockwork heart, and though I feel trapped in the dream for years, I never find an answer for him.
Every morning, I remember again that I was once a fish and an owl, a redwood and a dragon, but now I am a man.
The nights we camped in the tent with a hole in the roof, or on the stone floors of the watchtower, I noticed Elly and Lilli did t struggle to wake the same as I did; even when Elly was so exhausted, she'd turned ghost white, she stirred quickly out of sleep, as if it took no effort to return to her body.
Someday, I hope to learn enough about my past lives to justify their weight on me; I want to find their contributions to my current self. For now though, they're just the specters that make my mornings unpleasant.
Ben is already awake when I sit up from the pile of cushions and pillows. I've had my eyes open for an hour now, but I'm only starting to feel conscious, aware. I try to look at Ben as he stirs a wooden stick in a ceramic mug, but for a moment, I instead see a boy stirring the ocean with a fishing pole, and an old man with a crockpot of soup, and it's disorienting.
"You okay?" Ben asks as he hands me the mug and fishing pole and crockpot.
I feel my hands on the hot cup for a time before deciding, in this reality, it's the mug, then I take it from him and sip. It tastes like spices and bitterness.
"Coffee," Ben says. "Careful, it's hot."
"Temperature doesn't bother me," I mutter, slurping.
"You don't get hot or cold?" Ben asks.
"I do," I reply, "but it doesn't affect me. I can just tell if it's hotter or colder."
"I guess that could come in handy," he says, "especially if you live outside."
"This is very hot." I take a longer drink, enjoying the bite of the aftertaste. "I wouldn't give it to Elly this way."
"Hers is on the counter," Ben tells me, hesitating before adding, "but she's asleep. Think we should wake her? I got a library and bath house to show you today."
"When are we meeting that man again?" I ask.
When he says, "Who, Saerun?" I nod. Then he continues, "Not for a couple days yet; the day after tomorrow, in the evening."
"Then you're leaving us?" I ask.
Ben smiles somberly. "Yeah. I've got a home waiting for me."
"With a wife?"
He laughs, snorting some of it in so he doesn't wake Elly. "With a cat."
"How far away is your home?"
"A day's journey south," he says. "Just a skosh further north than the road our carriage followed to bring us here."
"You can't show us your home," I say, "instead of the library and bath house?"
His eyes widen a bit as he smiles sheepishly. "Kid, I live in a village. There's nothing to see."
"Elly lived in a shack on the edge of a strawberry farm," I tell him, "and when I met her, I also met Lilli, which felt rather fortunate and eventful to me."
"Sure," Ben says. "But you aren't going to meet more people like Elly and Lilli in my village."
I lift my eyebrows. "I'm not convinced."
"It'd be a turnaround trip," he replies. "We'd spend most of the next couple days traveling—"
"I could meet your cat," I interrupt, unrelenting. Because I don't want Ben to leave us, and we never see him again. I want to be able to find him. I say, "You should introduce your cat to your friends."
My cat often sits on my legs while I write on my iPhone—yes, I've written over half this novel on a text-message-sized-keyboard—so I get the worst cramps, doing my best to hold still, determined not to upset my furry little friend. You could say I'm cat-obsessed.
First draft: November 18
Second draft: May 19
Word count: 1237 (47271 total)
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A Shapeshifter, Cyborg, & WispFantasy
A shapechanging ex-princess, a potion-powered cyborg, and a will'o'wisp are on an adventure from the Forgotten Woods, through smog-entrenched Riverport, into the chemistry labs of Bound Kingdom, in an exciting sci-fantasy novel scheduled to complete...