Chameleon

By Beth Bernobich

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

The clock read ten minutes past five. Sarah halted at the back of the store, fascinated by the rows of multicolored bindings. She ran her fingers over the covers and sniffed the ink and leather. Within herself, she felt an odd squirming, and her thoughts blurred for a moment. She shook her head, trying to regain her bearings.

"Time to go, Sarah." Martha, the store manager, rattled her bunch of keys. "I'm going home to good cooking and bad television." She paused, and stared at Sarah's face. "What's the matter, honey? Are you sick?"

"No," Sarah answered faintly. "I'm fine."

"You look pale." Martha laid her palm against Sarah's forehead. "Why don't you go home? Get some rest. I'll close up."

Sarah walked home through an alien world. Although she knew every street and crossing, like a much-read story, each detail felt disconnected from the whole. Something tugged at her memory. She stopped before an apartment building with stained ivory columns around its broad porch. I live here.

Again, something wriggled within her thoughts. She shrugged away the sensation and, opening her door, stepped over the clutter of mail into her apartment.

Close door. Remove jacket. Sarah stared at the strange, familiar living room. How long had she lived here? A week? A month? Precise memory fled at her approach.

Hanni trotted into the room, chirping for attention.

"Kitten." Sarah picked her up awkwardly. She ran curious fingers over the kitten's face, rubbed her cheek against the kitten's fluffy sides. Hanni mewed in protest and twisted away, using pinprick claws to free herself.

Distracted, Sarah drifted to the front window. Outside, clouds blotted the sky, and rain had begun to fall in heavy drops. Cold. Gray. She touched the misted glass, tracing the crooked paths left by the rain. All strange. Too strange.

A sudden urgent longing for the familiar seized her. I'll call Mom, she decided, and dialed the number in her memory.

The phone range twice. "Hello," said a stranger's voice. "Morrison Office Supply."

"Hello, Mom?"

"I'm sorry. You must have the wrong number."

"No, wait. I'm trying to reach Michelle Evans."

"No one by that name works here."

"But I'm calling her house--"

"You've reached a business. Sorry."

The stranger hung up. Sarah closed her eyes. That's not possible. I know this number. I've dialed it every week for-- For how long?

She dialed again, but when the same stranger answered, panic seized her. She slammed the receiver down and ran blindly from her apartment and into the streets.

"Hey, what is this--?"

She'd run headlong into an old man, scattering his books over the wet pavement. Scowling, he stooped to retrieve his property. "Look at that," he muttered. "Just look. You should watch before you run into the street like I don't know what." He brushed gravel from one book, shielding it from the rain, his lips pursed in irritation.

Sarah picked up the nearest book. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you. I was looking for my mother."

The old man jerked his head up, and his bright, narrow eyes fixed on hers. Slowly, he took the book from her. "I am sorry for you," he said quietly.

She started to explain, but he lurched across the street and was gone. Now the rain was falling harder. She ought to go inside, she thought, as fragments of old memories came back to her. Ought to change her clothes before she called Joe.

Joe. I need to find Joe.

Oblivious to the storm, Sarah ran through the streets to Joe's apartment. "Joe," she called, knocking on his door. "Joe, it's me."

Joe opened the door abruptly. "Sarah? Hey, you're wet. What did you do? Run here in the rain?"

With relief, she saw he was smiling. "Yes, I did."

Joe brushed the wet hair from her face. "You really did, didn't you? What's the matter?"

Wordlessly, she put her arms around him. Already, in his presence, she'd recovered some of her self-possession. "Nothing happened. I -- I just couldn't wait to see you."


Weeks -- months -- passed.

Joe called Sarah every day. Sarah spent every evening in his company. She gave notice to her landlord. Half her belongings were already at Joe's apartment, and she'd redirected her mail to his address. Hanni came soon afterward, settling easily into her new home.

Within Sarah, I witnessed the release of Joe's long-guarded love. I saw how his gaze warmed; dimly I sensed his fingers brushing her cheek just before he kissed her. But Sarah stood between the world and me, an impenetrable barrier of flesh and thought and life. And she, not I, fed on Joe's emotions -- a careless feasting on passions beyond my reach. At first I tried to control her. I tried to speak, but the incessant flood of her thoughts blockaded my voice. I had just one chance left.


Leaving the silent void between dreams, Sarah found herself walking along a narrow path that burrowed through a thick forest. The sharp scent of resin tickled her nose; pine needles caressed her skin. Nothing troubled her, not even the impenetrable dark, because she knew she was dreaming. She thought she might journey this way forever and not grow tired.

Then, a thin voice broke the hush. "Sarah. Help me."

Startled, she turned toward the sound. "Who's there?"

"I am Chameleon."

Her breath caught on the edge of memory. "What do you mean -- Chameleon?"

As if in reply, a light blazed into life further ahead. Sarah walked toward it, knowing she would find the answer there.

She had almost reached the light when, without warning, a clearing opened abruptly in the woods. She stopped.

A figure sat beneath the light; the creature was dark, and the light seemed to shine through it. Sarah held her breath, afraid the creature would turn around, but some task absorbed its attention completely. Sarah stole to the clearing's edge, moving soundlessly over the pine needles. The creature bent over a large canvas, its hands moving with quick, expert strokes. Two steps more, and Sarah saw what it was drawing. A portrait of her.


"Sarah, what's the matter?"

"Nothing. Why?"

Joe set the coffeepot and two cups on their kitchen table. "You had another nightmare -- I heard you get up."

Sarah poured her coffee listlessly. "Sorry. I must be nervous about that job review next week."

Joe frowned. "You haven't slept well these past two weeks. Why don't you call in sick today?"

"I'm fine."

"No, you're not. You look like--"

"Yes, I am," she snapped. "Now leave me alone."

Joe flinched and spun away from her.

Looking at his rounding shoulders, his grizzled hair, Sarah felt a squirming inside her, and her eyesight blurred with exhaustion. She wanted to shout angry words at Joe and provoke him into fighting back.

Instead, she kept her voice to a strained monotone. "You're late for work already. Why don't you go?"

"I will." He yanked his coat from the closet and left.

Five minutes passed before Sarah moved. Slowly, she uncurled her stiff fingers; she took a shaking breath, and felt the ache of tension spread throughout her chest. We've never done that before. His voice had sounded so cold, so flat. Hers so harsh.

Too late to recall her words, too late to chase after him through the streets. But not too late to mend the damage, she thought. I'll leave a message for him at work.

She stood. Another bout of dizziness swept over her. She shook her head, willing herself to remain upright. Her nightmares had lasted far longer than two weeks, and each one had left her more exhausted than the last, until the line between waking and sleeping felt hazy and unreal.

A loud clatter made her jump, and the room came back into focus. Mail time, she thought with a weak laugh. A second later, she heard a familiar rustle as Hanni attacked the paper intruder. Oh, no. Last time, she'd clawed the electric bill to pieces. Automatically, Sarah hurried to rescue the mail.

Against Hanni's objections, Sarah separated the kitten from her prey and carried the pile to the coffee table for sorting. Bills and more bills, catalogs, . . . What's this?

She pulled an envelope from the stack. It was the letter she'd mailed to her mother the week before. A red stamp over the address read: "Return to Sender. Addressee Unknown."

Sarah sank back, staring at the envelope, but still the words made no sense. With shaking hands, she set the letter aside and glanced at the next item -- a postcard. Again, her vision swam; the picture blurred and resolved into a new image -- Escher's famous lithograph of two hands drawing each other. Underneath the picture Sarah read the words, Help me, Sarah.

She dropped the card. "That's not possible." Quickly, she glanced down at the pile of mail in her lap. The electric bill lay on top, its columns of numbers transforming into a new message as she watched: Stop pretending, Sarah. You remember the dream. I am Chameleon.

Sarah shut her eyes, but red letters scrawled a new message across her lids: Release me.

She took a deep breath, started to moan, forced herself to stop. "I'm having another nightmare," she said out loud. "I'm dreaming, even though I'm awake. I've read about this, it's called--"

What about the letters? said a voice inside her. The postcards?

They lay on the ground where she'd dropped them. Sarah reached for one, then yanked her hand back. She tried to breathe, but a weight crowded her chest, and she started to shake. I can't stay here. Still trembling, she stood and lurched to the front hallway.

You tried to run away once before. Remember? That day you ran here from your old apartment--

Sarah pulled her coat from the closet, struggling to separate it from the hanger.

--the day you came to life--

She fled the apartment and slammed the door. For more than an hour, she walked as quickly as possible, turning corners and crossing streets at random. Over and over, her thoughts replayed her nightmares. What could they mean? How could she escape them?

What if she couldn't?

Snowflakes speckled the ground; more whirled around her. Above, sheets of clouds covered the sky. Soon she reached the crowded shopping district; Christmas decorations winked from street lamps, and glittering mannequins filled the store windows. Sarah rushed blindly past them through the gathering storm. Walk, she told herself. Keep walking.


By midnight, the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a trackless city, becalmed. Snow covered the side streets, and streetlamps cast their bright haloes across the drifts. Sitting on the sofa, wrapped in an old blanket, Sarah looked out the window into the night.

Joe had returned late and had gone to bed. They had not spoken. Now, staring into the winter darkness, she tried to unravel the puzzle of her nightmares.

I could be insane, she thought. I could find a doctor -- no, a psychologist, to discover the missing pieces in my past. If, she reminded herself, she had a past to explore.

A sudden chill penetrated her blanket. Throwing the blanket aside, she hurried into the kitchen and, without thinking, lit a burner for the teakettle. As she waited for the water to boil, she thought about her mother, how she had done the same after Sarah's father died -- a midnight watch, the comfort of endless, restless tasks.

But could she trust that memory?

The kettle whistled sharply, and Sarah snapped the burner off.

I can't let this go on.

She stood in her kitchen and said, distinctly, "Chameleon."

"Sarah."

It answered so quickly, she realized it had only waited for her summons. With effort, she willed her voice to remain calm. "Who are you?" she asked. "What do you want from me?"

A long pause followed. Then, "Do you remember your dreams?"

"Yes, but--"

Her vision blurred, then cleared. She saw a blank canvas. The next moment, she saw the outline of a figure -- hers. Lines and color and shading appeared, just like the portrait from her dreams, gathering depth and vibrancy, until she saw the moment when the static picture changed into the living Sarah.

It created me. For a long moment, she could not breathe, could not speak.

Still more images flickered past. She saw everything that had happened in the past four months, but her perspective had changed, and she saw herself trapped within another soul. Just as Chameleon must see the world now.

"Let me go," said Chameleon, "or I will die."

Her vision changed focus, and once more she saw the kitchen. She swayed and gripped the table's edge, dizzy from the sudden change. Traces of Chameleon's raw desperation remained with her, echoed by her own. Now she could sense Chameleon inside, waiting for her to speak.

"If I release you, what happens to me?"

Silence.

"Will I die?" she asked, somewhat louder.

"Yes," the voice said. "No. We could share the death, the same way we shared life."

It doesn't know. Or it doesn't want to tell me.

"I do know, Sarah."

Maybe, she thought. "You're playing games with words," she said. "Tell me -- in plain words -- what happens to me."

"You will live -- for a time. I remain inside, but when you sleep, you will release me to feed outside. When you die, the way all humans must die, I go free once more. That is all I can pledge."

Sarah shuddered. All humans die, she told herself. Even so . . .

"And if I refuse?"

"You might survive. But will Joe love you, once he knows you aren't human?"

I am human, she thought, but could not say the words. She was a human with four months of genuine memories. Everything else was an illusion.

A light touch, like fingertips against her thoughts, startled her. "Go back to the clearing," said Chameleon. "Let me show you what to do. And I promise you memories, good memories, for the rest of your life."

Sarah shivered, licked her lips. "You're lying. You want to kill me."

"No. Without you, I will die."

Lies or truth or something in between? How could she tell? Her head ached. Her pulse throbbed in a staccato rhythm. Within, she heard the whisper of its thoughts, urging her to act. She had to decide now.

"Lead me to the clearing," she said.


There were differences this time. The ground crackled underfoot. When she brushed against them, the pine needles shivered and dropped to the ground. As she approached the clearing, trees bent away from her path, revealing a blank night sky and a penny-bright moon. Even the air had changed, robbed of the warm pine scent she remembered from her other dreams. Light cascaded over the trees, and a shimmer of sound filled the air. When she stepped into the clearing itself, the hum dissolved into silence.

A brilliant, polished light illuminated the space. Empty this time. No easel, no dark creature painting her portrait. Sarah let a thin sigh escape her.

Then, opposite her, she saw Chameleon.

An electric shock rippled through her. She took an involuntary step backward, but Chameleon immediately beckoned her further into the moonlight. No escape, Sarah thought. She sucked in a breath of the chill air and took three steps toward the center. Chameleon did the same.

For the first time, she saw it face to face. All those weeks, she'd only seen its hunched back -- half specter, half darker substance -- and its hands, moving rapidly over the canvas. Even when she had confronted it, awake, she'd only heard its thin voice, vibrating inside her.

Its body was darker than night itself, blending into the surrounding shadows. But when it moved, she saw fluttering arms, a swirl suggesting a face, and two brilliant points that might be eyes. Alien. Only its hands -- strong, slender curves tapering to the fingertips -- seemed human. Those hands had held the paintbrush, sketched her face with masterly strokes.

Chameleon turned its luminous eyes on her, waiting for her to speak.

"Why did you make me?" she asked.

"I needed you -- flesh and spirit both."

"But I'm not the first."

"No. But of all my children, I love you best."

It made a gesture and Sarah saw a vision of hundreds like herself -- a courtesan in ancient China, a mercenary soldier wandering through Germany's ravaged farmlands, a dark grizzled crone in a carnival who snatched sustenance from the audience's wonder. Each chosen from an outline, sketched and shaded into brief reality, they had all crumbled into nothingness.

"You made me different from the others," she said. "Why?"

Its head jerked away from her. Surprised, she thought. Or afraid. "Not different," it said. "More alive."

She shuddered. "Why?"

"To feed. To survive."

From all these hints, visions and words floating between them, Sarah sensed how long Chameleon had lived on the borders of life. Desperate and starving, she thought, and with a profound loneliness she could only guess at. She felt a reluctant compassion, and wondered if that emotion was from her or from her creator.

"I don't want to die," she said.

"And I wish to live." It drifted closer.

Sarah stilled the impulse to run. "But are you alive?"

Chameleon paused, a motionless shadow. "What do you mean?"

"You feed. You pretend to live. But you aren't really alive. What if . . ." She fumbled through her inadequate memories for the right arguments. "What if you dared to really live," she said, "not just through me, but with me? Think of the emotions you would taste."

"Inside you, I taste nothing. I starve."

"Because we've remained divided. We have to change that."

"You would be my companion?" It sounded doubtful.

"More than a companion." Sarah thought of Joe, alone after his wife deserted him, and from that painful image, she found the words. "We could join together," she said. "You with me. Both of us with Joe -- the way true humans do."

"The sum of three," Chameleon murmured. It gazed at her steadily. Slowly it nodded, then held open its arms.

The final telling moment of trust.

Sarah stepped into Chameleon's embrace. Skin pressed against ghostly skin, and she felt its terrifying urge to comfort her, to kill her, to create her anew. She thought of Joe once more and from that took courage.

"Join with me," she said. "And we can all three live."


The emptiness of night gave way to morning, to bright sunlight and the sound of Joe's voice. "Wake up, Sarah. It's past seven o'clock."

Sarah stretched and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Joe stood at the door to their bedroom, already dressed for work.

"I dreamed it was Saturday," she said.

"It's not. But if you hurry, you have time for coffee."

"With you?" She offered him a smile. "I'd like that."

Joe tilted his head, a cautious look on his face. "You look rested. Did you sleep better last night?"

"Much better."

She held out her hands. Three steps and Joe was at her side. She kissed him, and brushed the hair from his eyes, her gentle caress a wordless apology for all her bitter words. The last of Joe's reserve disappeared, and he gave her a lingering kiss before he helped us rise.

She. I. We. Already I find it difficult to discern the boundary dividing our souls, and when Joe touches our cheek, Sarah's undiluted joy is almost too painful for me. I could not bear it alone, but she stands here beside me, inside me, around me. Through her vulnerability, she teaches me compassion. Through my centuries of existence, I will gift her with knowledge.

So finally, we both will live, for as long as our body does. Who knows what happens after? The uncertainty terrifies me, but for this one peerless creation, I will dare everything. The ultimate risk for the ultimate illusion: for life itself.

 

Copyright © 2001 Beth Bernobich

Reader Comments


Beth Bernobich's short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Clean Sheets, Electric Wine, and the Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica. Her obsessions include coffee, curry, and writing about men (and women) without shirts. For more about her, see her Web site.