Still Life with Shape-shifter
National bestselling author Sharon Shinn presents a passionate, heart-wrenching story of secrets and the lengths to which we’ll go to protect those we love...
For her entire life, Melanie Landon has hidden the fact that her half sister, Ann, is a shape-shifter, determined to protect her from a world that simply wouldn’t understand. When a man shows up asking about Ann—who has been missing for months—Melanie fears the worst, and with good reason. Freelance writer Brody Westerbrook knows about the existence of shape-shifters and intends to include Ann in the book he’s writing.
While Melanie is immediately drawn to the stranger, she knows better than to trust him, and she denies his claim. But when Ann finally reappears, looking thin and sick, Melanie realizes exposure is the least of their worries. Protecting her sister has always been an enormous part of Melanie’s life, but as Ann’s health rapidly deteriorates, Melanie must come to grips with the fact that saving her may mean letting go…
I’m sitting at one of the three stoplights in Dagmar on Monday morning when Kurt Markham strolls down the crosswalk in front of me so slowly that he’s only halfway across the street before the light turns green. It’s all I can do to keep from flooring the Cherokee and running over him, backing up, and running over him again. I can tell he recognizes my car because he gives me a grin and a thumbs–up as he finally steps onto the sidewalk, into a zone of relative safety. It’s the grin that gets to me. I have to tighten my hands on the wheel to keep from swerving to the right, jumping the curb, and chasing him down anyway. What’s the point of having an SUV, after all, if you can’t take it off–road?
My more civilized instincts keep me in my lane, however, and I don’t even blare the horn at Kurt as I drive on past. But I’m in a temper when I finally pull into the small parking lot outside of the office, and it’s not too much to say that I stalk inside. Chloe and Em take one look at my face and find something fascinating to read on their computer screens. Only Debbie has the nerve to step into my office as I’m throwing my purse to the desk and ignoring the shrill summons of the phone and cursing because I’ve spilled the last of my cheap McDonald’s coffee an inch away from the keyboard.
“Bad morning?” she asks as she stands in my doorway. As always, her sleek black hair lies smoothly against her cheeks and she’s impeccably dressed, with a style more suited to a city of two million than two thousand. Well, she has to present a certain professional air; she’s the owner and public face of Public Relations by Zimmer, PRZ for short. I’m just the bookkeeper–slash–office–manager. I can get away with nice pants and cute sweaters and the occasional bad–hair day.
“Not at all,” I say in a voice of exaggerated politeness. “I like it when I wake up a half hour late because the power’s gone out at midnight, and I can’t dry my hair because the power’s gone out at midnight, and I can’t see to put on makeup because the power’s gone out, and I can’t make coffee because—oh yeah, the power’s gone out and—”
“Got it,” she interrupts. “You can stay at our house tonight if you want.”
“No, the electricity came back on just as I was walking out the door.”
She nods. “And how was the weekend?”
“Not too bad till the mail came Saturday with an offer from Kurt Markham. He’d give me two hundred thousand dollars for the house.”
She raises her eyebrows and sips her tea but doesn’t make any other reply. I am so tense and so angry that I think, at this point, if she’d said anything, no matter how insightful or sympathetic, I’d have wanted to slap her perfectly made–up face. And Debbie is my best friend in the entire world.
“So,” I say in a summing–up kind of voice, “it wasn’t so great. How was your weekend?”
“Simon ended up in the ER because he fell off his bike, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet, so in addition to worrying that he had a concussion, we had to answer all sorts of searching questions about whether or not we’re bad parents. He’s fine, by the way,” she adds, almost as an aside. “And Stevie flushed God knows what down the basement toilet, but at any rate it overflowed and sent some truly disgusting sewage over the bathroom floor and into the laundry room.”
“And everyone says boys are easier than girls.” To my surprise, I find myself smiling just a tiny bit. “How did Charles handle everything?” Charles–reaction stories are often even funnier than Simon–and–Stevie stories.
“He was totally calm and focused during the whole hospital adventure, but he kind of lost it when the toilet overflowed. Made the boys sit with him for an hour while he Googled the history of plumbing and talked about the first indoor toilets ever installed and traced the outbreak of some horrible cholera epidemic to a badly designed sewage system. I think Simon’s now afraid to even flush toilet paper, but I’m betting we won’t have any blockages for a while.”
“I love Charles,” I say with a sigh.
“Yeah, so do I, but it’s not like he’s perfect,” Debbie replies.
“Oh, please. Tell me a Bad Charles story.”
“Well, remember when I was out of town a couple of weeks ago? Apparently Charles kept forgetting to run the dishwasher. And he didn’t want to leave dirty dishes on the counter. So he started piling them up in the refrigerator because he figured they wouldn’t mold while they were in there. So of course when I got home, every plate, every bowl, every glass and every piece of silverware was dirty. And most of them were in the fridge.”
I actually think this is a creative solution to a challenging situation. “He’s a prince among men,” I say. Charles is a big, gentle, brilliant man with a quirky streak, and I never let Debbie forget how lucky she is to have him. Though she doesn’t need reminding.
For about six months in high school, Debbie and Charles and Kurt and I double–dated.
There are days I still can’t believe that’s true.
Debbie has clearly decided that her family–drama stories have improved my mood enough that she can risk a question. “So what are you going to do about Kurt’s offer?”
“Write ’Only when I’m dead’ across it in red Magic Marker and mail it back.”
She nods, but I can tell she doesn’t agree with me. “Still. Two hundred thousand dollars.”
I know what she means to imply. That’s a lot of money for such a modest property. There are only two tiny bedrooms, a bathroom scarcely bigger than the one you’d find on an airplane, a small kitchen just inside the front door, and one largish open space that contains some living–room furniture and a scuffed old square wooden dining table and mismatched chairs. There’s no basement. The yard is extensive, more than twelve acres, but that’s not the real reason Kurt wants the place. It’s situated smack in the center of two growing housing developments, both of which he owns. He wants to buy the property, raze the house, improve the land, and make a fortune.
My voice is scornful. “He’ll make ten times that much on Markham Family Estates or whatever he decides to call his subdivision.”
“So tell him you want half a million dollars.”
I hunch my shoulders. My bad mood has come back. Except it’s not just situational irritability or a head–swimming rage that even I realize is inappropriately proportioned. It’s flat–out, ungovernable, all–consuming fear, and for the last few weeks it has colored every aspect of my life. I feel it thicken my throat as I say in a surly tone, “I can’t sell the house.”
Debbie’s voice is so soft she might be murmuring to one of her boys as she coaxes him to sleep at night after a harrowing dream. “Ann will understand.”
My reply is immediate. “No, she won’t.”
“Have you asked her?”
I turn on her with another flare of anger. “No, I haven’t asked her! I don’t want to sell! She wouldn’t want me to sell! It’s the house she grew up in—I can’t just all of a sudden tell her to look for me somewhere else—”
“And why can’t you?”
Now I gesture with short, sharp movements, my fingers spread as wide as they will go, as if I am trying to juggle something so large and so overheated that I constantly fear I will not be able to catch the next bounce. “I’m not sure I can explain,” I say in a ragged voice. “I just have this feeling. If I moved. No matter how many times I told her where my new house was. I’m not sure she’d be able to find me again.”
Debbie listens in silence, her face wearing an expression of complete understanding. Debbie is the only one who knows about Ann, is the only person, since my father, with whom I have ever been completely honest about my sister. There are many other reasons Debbie is my closest friend, but this single one would be enough. “And when’s the last time you saw her?” she asks quietly.
I turn away to boot up the computer because I don’t want even Debbie to see the fear on my face. “A month. Maybe five weeks.”
She waits a moment because she can always tell when I’m lying.
“Almost exactly two months,” I say at last. “She came home at Christmas and stayed for a while. She hasn’t been home since.”
For a long time, neither one of us speaks.
Is she hurt? Something happened to her last autumn, I know—she got into a fight, or had a nasty fall—because I saw the healed scars on her ribs when I brought her a fresh towel after her first bath. But she had laughed away my concern, and she hadn’t moved with any particular evidence of pain. Still, given her lifestyle, she could be prey to so many accidents! I have to shut my mind to the constant cascade of images of Ann lying hurt and bleeding in some lonely landscape, solitary, helpless, and afraid.
Is she dead? That’s my greatest fear, of course—that she will pass on, and I will never know, though a part of me believes she could not, could not, die without leaving such a powerful vacuum on the Earth that my own soul would be sucked into it. I would know, surely I would know, if such a calamitous event had occurred.
But if she is not dead, if she is not injured, what has happened to her? Has she merely forgotten to be human?
And wouldn’t that be just as bad?
The day doesn’t get much better. It’s Monday morning, so the phone never stops ringing with questions people have stored up all weekend. Even though I managed not to spill coffee on my computer, it has decided to throw a tantrum, and it crashes four times in as many hours. When I go out at noon, deciding I deserve ice cream for lunch, I find my right front tire is flat. My last experience trying to change my own tire didn’t go so well, so I call AAA, where I’m informed that no one will be able to help me until five o’clock. It’s enough to make me want to walk a mile to the nearest railroad tracks and pillow my head on the unforgiving steel, waiting for the next locomotive to chug by.
I didn’t used to be this way.
I was never exactly a carefree sort of girl. I took everything seriously, studied hard, didn’t bother with teenage rebellion or adolescent angst. But I wasn’t grim. I wasn’t angry. I had a sense of humor and an appreciation for fun. Hell, I was a cheerleader—I wore short skirts and kicked up my legs and exhorted my fellow students to roar out their love for Dagmar High. I dated Kurt Markham, for God’s sake, and you can hardly be more shallow than that.
Ann’s the one who changed everything. Even so, at the beginning, she didn’t fill my heart with such apprehension. In the beginning, she was nothing but joy.
My own mother died when I was five; it’s hard to tell which of my memories are true and which ones I invented from photographs and my father’s stories. The older I get, the more I look like her, especially now that I wear my oak–brown hair in a simple shoulder–length style. I have her green eyes, her surprised expression, her sturdy build. My smile is my father’s, though, a skeptical and provisional expression until I am completely won over. Then I laugh with my whole body. Or I used to.
My dad was a quiet guy, tall and stooped and perpetually thinking about something; he taught physics at Maryville University for thirty years. He was not particularly well suited for taking care of himself, let alone a small girl, so we bumbled along for a few years, living on pizza and frozen pot pies and the occasional feasts prepared by his mother when she would come up from Texas. I used to secretly wish she would take me home with her so I could live always in the guest bedroom with the fuzzy pink bedspread and the pictures of seashells on the walls. I almost asked her once, when I was eight, but then I thought about how lonely my father would be if he lived all by himself. At the time we owned a rambling ranch house in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, nine rooms if you counted the ones in the basement. It was too big for two; I could imagine how empty it would seem for one. So I didn’t ask.
And just a few months later, my father married Gwen. He called her Guinevere, though her legal name was Gwendolyn. Her hair was so blond you could hardly believe it was natural, though it was; her eyes were a dreamy blue. She was short, delicate, affectionate, full of laughter, full of warmth.
Full of secrets.
She changed our lives in so many ways, and at first those changes were largely positive. For one thing, she could hold together a household, so that rambling ranch house became tidier, more comfortable, and better stocked with edible food. For another, she was mostly a happy presence. Even when you couldn’t see her, you could hear her laughing in another room, or singing the chorus of some popular song. She would swoop in and give me a kiss when I was doing homework or coloring artwork. But there were downsides. She absorbed more of my father’s attention than I liked, and that took some getting used to; and she had occasional days of gray funks, where she sat around the house and wouldn’t speak and wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t say what was bothering her.
Now and then, she would disappear.
It happened twice during the first six months they were married. We would wake up, and Gwen would simply be gone. No note, no phone call. My father, usually so placid, was wild with anxiety. I remember him shouting on the phone to the police, who apparently were not as concerned as he was that his wife had gone missing. These days I can reconstruct part of the conversation I did not understand when I was a child. They were probably telling him that they wait forty–eight hours before opening missing–persons cases on adults, especially adults who vanish from their own homes in the middle of the night. They were probably asking him questions he could not answer. Could she be visiting with a friend or a relative? Is an old boyfriend in town? Could she be meeting a contact somewhere and buying drugs?
I remember my father yelling, “Of course not!” into the phone, but surely the questions made him uneasy. The truth was, as I realized when I was a teenager, he had married Gwen without knowing very much about her. He’d never met any of her family members, even at the wedding; she only had one or two friends, and those she practically left behind once she became his wife. She was a deep mystery in a charming package, and the police were right to believe there were secrets in her life that would explain her disappearance and that she would come back on her own.
I have no idea what she told my father about those early absences, how she explained her actions and convinced him to trust her again. I’m certain she continued lying about her motivations until finally, left with no other options, she unwillingly told him the truth. But for a while, her strangeness, her erratic behavior didn’t matter. Because eighteen months after she married my father, when I was ten, Ann was born. And she became the center, the heart, the lodestone of everyone in the house.
I had never been around babies before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew from TV shows that they cried all the time and from commercials that they smiled when you put them in fresh diapers. And Ann did indeed wail whenever she was unhappy, and she did indeed go through an astonishing number of Huggies. Gwen had had an uncomplicated delivery but she recovered slowly, so I quickly learned how to change the baby, how to calm her, how to feed her. From the beginning, I considered Ann my responsibility at least as much as she was my father’s or Gwen’s.
And I loved her more than I loved anyone else in the world.
I was probably eleven or twelve the night I lay awake thinking fairly deep existential thoughts. I had heard noises downstairs—which turned out to be my father and Gwen talking in the kitchen—but I had initially worried that the sounds were caused by burglars. My first thought was that I would hide in my closet so they wouldn’t find me. My second thought was that I must run get Ann and hide her in the closet with me. Otherwise, I knew, they would steal her; there could hardly be a greater treasure in the house.
From imagining criminals breaking in to rob us, I went to thinking up other disasters. Fires, tornadoes, unspecified apocalypses that leveled the house and rendered the whole neighborhood a smoking ruin. In every scenario, I was the one to grab Ann and flee with her to some compromised haven. Gwen and my father were left behind to blow away or burn.
In the years since then, I’ve heard other people talk about their own complex childhood fantasies, in which they run away from home or find themselves tossed out without a penny. They describe elaborate story lines of camping in the woods, living on ants and mushrooms, building huts, finding water, carrying on their lives unencumbered by parental supervision. I’m sure it’s some kind of ritual of passage; I’m sure it’s the child’s way of testing out the ways he or she will behave as an adult.
But mine feels different to me. It is not so much a wishful fantasy as willing acceptance of a clear–cut duty. Ann needed someone to take care of her, watch over her, protect her, guide her, love her. I was obviously the only one qualified for the job. I’m not sure there was a time you could have asked me, from the minute she was born until this very day, when I would have given a different answer to the question Who does Ann belong to? She’s mine.
And that’s why it is killing me to think she is in danger and I cannot help her and I cannot find her, for I cannot live if she is lost.
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