I’m red pen-marks on three orange post-it notes, but only for today. Yesterday I was a yoghurt carton, discarded on a roadside and licked clean by foxes. Tomorrow I could be anything–your staple-remover, perhaps, or a cobweb in a farmer’s barn.
I gave up trying to control the changes when I was seven. After two years of daily becoming something new, despite my concentration on the mental image of ‘little girl, brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin,’ I had to realise the truth.
It’s been six years now. I’ve been more things than I remember.
I wish I hadn’t sneaked a drink of one of my mum’s potions. All those bright liquids, some of them polka-dotted or striped, lined up in jars along the wall of her study–they looked like sweeties. The stripy green and blue one tasted like liquorice and I went and sat outside, feeling light-headed, and thought I would like to be a balloon so I could float above the village and see it laid out like a map.
And I became a balloon, and I saw the village.
The next day, I was a button on a telephone. I haven’t seen my village since.
I want to see my mum again. But I never shape-change into a painting in the living room, a cushion on her bed or a note written in lipstick across her bedroom wall.
Sometimes, though, I can pass on messages. Like today. I hope that someone will find one of these messages and take it to her, quickly, before I shape-change into something else, and she’ll take one of her potions from the shelf and pour it over me and I’ll be a girl again.
She lives at 3 Berrey Close, Windyham, W Sussex, England. Please hurry!
A sticky note fluttered to the desk. A moment later they all let go. Jen got out a new pack, copied each note carefully (except last week’s pet-reconstruction appointment), and stuck them on the monitor. Just as she put the last one up, the first slipped off with an almost audible sigh.
“Argh!” She went into the kitchen to make some tea. She pulled a cookbook off the shelf to browse for supper. The pages scattered. The cover peeled apart.
That was it. She couldn’t take anymore. She flopped down in front of the trivision.
“… mutant strain attacks glues, including those commonly used in products for the home but there is no cause for…” she switched off. Another damn plague. Antibiotic resistant this, mutated nano that.
“Why couldn’t there be a GOOD plague,” she moaned.
The food-prep unit harrumphed. “There was the sentient appliance revolution…” The back panel fell off with a clatter, followed by silence.
The phone rang. It was her brother.
“Are you okay? I saw a story about the plague on the newsfeed here at the spaceport.”
“Worry about yourself,” she said. “Isn’t there glue in the shuttle?” Outside, a vehicle rose from the spaceport.
Her brother’s voice was tinny in her ear. “Apparently not because they are not grounding our flight. Listen, I’ve got to go. They’re letting us launch early. I’ll cube when I get there.”
“Why are you taking off early?”
The connection was gone, but she said goodbye anyway, watching two more departures clear the tops of the intervening buildings. It seemed like they were launching more flights today than usual. A lot more.
The framework of her chair chose that moment to return to its component materials. She was enveloped in a dense white cloud. When she stopped coughing, she was lying on a sack of upholstery fabric partly filled with sawdust. She staggered to her feet and dusted herself off.
There was more noise of things falling in the kitchen, then the overhead light went out with a small “pop.” She was feeling her way toward the door when the food-prep unit called.
“Jen? I’m cold.”
Author’s note: this story is dedicated to my friend Julie, her daughter Matilda, and her partner Kirk, because (as will surprise no-one who knows Julie) her daughter arrived in the world with a similar entourage.
Though we live in the Internet Age, Sofia’s birth was announced in the usual way: a voice was heard crying the news from the sacred cave in Damascus (interrupting the congress of lovers in the condominium above); a woman fell down beside the holy well at Chartres (now a cathedral), saying, “She is come!”; and a spirit stood amid the burning lamps of the Pituk gompa’s altar in Tibet, waiting quietly until the monks understood, but since they know to watch for these signs, that didn’t take long.
Perhaps every mother feels—on a good day, for a brief moment—that her child is the Messiah. Only a few know for sure, and the news does not generally please them. Sofia’s parents, both professors at the Università di Roma “La Sapienza,” just looked confused when the angel Gabriel showed up while they were cooking dinner, alighting on the mushroom basket by the door, which never recovered.
“I’m positive I helped with conception,” pointed out her father Rafaelo. “And since we are—were?—atheists, I’m afraid God wasn’t on our minds at the time.”
“Yes yes yes,” Gabriel replied. “If you’ve glanced at your human race lately, you know the Divine does not to do anything the same way twice.”
Sofia’s mother, Catriona, looked down at her belly, where a bump the size of a small pecorino cheese liked to move about, first high, then low and off to the side: Sofia.
“At least that explains the animals, caro,” she said to her husband.
“Animals?” asked Gabriel sharply.
“They follow me around. Cats, dogs, pigeons, hawks, rats, foxes—any creature in the city. I walk to work and by the time I get there I look like a zoo on the move.”
“The odd thing is,” pointed out Rafaelo, “They never eat each other, not even when they disperse.”
“A sign of Universal Peace,” nodded Gabriel.
“That’s very nice, but someone has to clean up all the poop afterwards,” said Catriona.
“Ah! Not unlike having a baby, then,” said Gabriel. He groomed each wing with the air of one who has done his job. “Well! That wraps it up for now. Expect further communications as events warrant.”
“—But,” Catriona began, suddenly realizing how very many questions she had, yet too late, for Gabriel had ascended in golden state, leaving behind only fragments of wicker and footprints in the fungus.
The shortwave radio still sat on the desk and it felt like more than luck when Shelly found a numbers station on her first run down the dial. A woman’s voice read the numbers, calm, never pausing for breath, reciting five-digit combinations.
During the day, Shelly’s grandfather only gave those stations a few seconds before moving on to more interesting transmissions, accented voices from places she’d find in the old atlas with loose pages. At night, he’d let the numbers ramble.
“Soothing,” he’d say, and make her cocoa in a metal cup. “Codes sent around the world for spies, they say.” He’d open another beer, grandma would read fat historical paperbacks, and Shelly would doze off.
The monotone numbers soothed her now, while her spun questions for morning. Should she go north to the city? Should she take or avoid the interstate? Which logging road was it had a station where she could top off the tank? The further she got tomorrow, the better.
“I know how you think,” Glen always said. “You’ll never leave me ’cause I’ll guess where you’re going before you even get there.”
But he hadn’t known she would leave. She hadn’t known until she drove past work and onto the onramp. Then she couldn’t go back — even if she got home by five like everything was normal, he would know.
The radio voice repeated the call sign “Papa November Pa-pa Nov-em-ber,” and maybe Shelly did doze, because a man unfolded himself from the air up near the ceiling, his gray skin nearly silver in the light of the bare bulb. He climbed down the dresser and looked at her.
She tried to speak, but all the muscles in her throat and neck froze rigid. The man’s shoulders were twisted, one leg was too short, one foot too big. He stared as if seeing into her, and evened out. He had Glen’s eyes and forehead, then he didn’t; there was a hint of grandpa’s many-times broken nose, then his face went mannequin blank.
Shelly felt her lips moving with the numbers, as if she knew them.
Then the gray man replied with codes of his own: “35-A14, 24-C9, 63-J2…”
She woke just before dawn with a hunch. In the atlas, she saw she was right: those were pages and map-grid coordinates. Places she could go.
Glen might know her, but he didn’t know Papa November.
You can hear some actual Papa November transmissions here, or read more about numbers stations in this Salon article or this Wikipedia entry.