Fictober, Prompt 19 – “I feel strange.”
Original fiction, fantasy-ish, horror-ish. If anyone is interested, this is the same world as this piece from Fictober19, but this piece stands alone just fine.
Warnings: non-graphic discussion of forced shapeshifting? Not much in this one.
The sound of a shift happening on the bed brought my attention back to my patient. Born human, female, twenty-seven years old, worked at a car rental office at the airport in the big city two hours from here.
And, thanks to an unfortunate encounter with a worldmagic flare on her hiking trip with friends three days ago, now a shifter.
Hearing that the shift was complete, I turned to find a human woman on the hospital bed, rather than the housecat that had been there for the last three days. She was awake as well, staring at the ceiling with wide, terrified eyes.
“Jillian?” I asked softly, and her eyes snapped to me. I smiled sympathetically. “Can you understand me?”
Slowly, she nodded.
“Good,” I said, staying seated by the computer but I finished turning the chair so that I was fully facing her. “Do you remember that you had gone hiking with friends?”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and nodded again.
“Good, that’s a good sign,” I told her encouragingly. “Have you heard of magic before?”
A hesitation, but then a tiny nod.
“Okay. You may have heard of it just as stories, or something that wasn’t real. Is that so?” At her confirmation, I nodded. “That’s okay, that’s not uncommon. I ask because the explanation of what happened to you involves magic, which is real, though the kind you encountered is not common. Do you want to hear more right now?”
This hesitation was longer, but the worst edge of terror was starting to fade from her eyes, which was also a very good sign.
“While you were hiking, you got caught in what we call a flare of magic, which changed you into a cat. Your friends weren’t caught in the flare, and they were able to bring you here. This is a hospital where we help people who have had encounters with magic like yours. Are you with me?”
“This,” Jillian’s first word was hoarse, but it was a fully human word, “there’s a…hospital…for that?”
“There is, and I’m one of the doctors here,” I told her. “I specialize in helping shifters, which is what you are now.”
“I feel strange,” she admitted, almost absently. Then fear edged back in. “I’m- I’m not better?”
“The change the magic made to you is permanent, and irreversible,” I told her, careful as always to be completely honest about this. “You now have the ability to change into a cat, just a domestic housecat, and that will never go away. But, with some help from us over the course of your stay here, you can be very in control of that ability, and once you go back home, you will be able to decide if you want to shift or not.”
The mention of “going home” was clearly a relief, and a significant amount of tension drained visibly out of her body. “I’ll…I can go home?”
“Not immediately, but yes, you should be able to go home,” I said. “Learning to control this ability you have now will take some time, but we have some good processes worked out to help with that, so you’ll learn everything you need to know. We’ll also help you communicate with the people you’ll need or want to talk to about this. Does that sound okay?”
Jillian nodded again, tears spilling out of her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, “if I’d been alone I…I don’t know what I would have done.”
“That’s why we’re here. This isn’t common, but it does happen, and many people can still live relatively normal lives. It won’t ever quite be the same,” I cautioned her, “but you’re not going to lose everything.”
“Okay,” she said, tears still welling in her eyes. “I guess… Well, if it had to be anything… I guess I’d have picked a cat.”
I smiled. “Based on what I know, it should be on the easier end of the scale of animal forms to deal with.”
Her eyes widened again. “Really?”
“I had one patient who turned into a bison,” I told her, which actually made her jaw drop.
“Wow,” she said, sounding what I suspected was more like her usual self. “Wow, yeah, that would be so much worse.” She thought about that for a few more minutes, then looked at me again. “Are- Are you a- a shifter too?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am.”
“What do you turn into?”
The usual follow-up question was easier to answer now, so many years on, my carefully worded answer as always. “My other form is a reticulated python.”
“Oh,” she shifted back slightly. “You’re not…going to shift or transform or whatever, are you? I’m sorry but I’m—”
“Not fond of snakes,” I finished, offering her a wry smile. “No, I will not shift if that’s the case, and I’m not offended, don’t worry. We all have some creatures we find more tolerable than others.”
She relaxed again. “Sorry! You’ve been really nice, so it’s definitely not you.”
“I understand,” I assured her, and I did. There was a tiny part of my mind that still always felt even such a mild rejection with alarm, but I had learned to accept that over the years. I knew that most shifters came to have a similar instinct about their other form, even when there was no harm intended.
“Well,” I told her, rising. “If it’s all right, let me call a nurse in. We’ll run some standard tests, but nothing about your shift or your current mental state give me cause for worry. Then we’ll get you a little food if you’re hungry, and let you sleep again – you’re going to be very tired for at least a couple more days. Tomorrow, we’ll begin filling you in beyond the basics. Sound good?”
Jillian agreed, relieved, and I stepped out to call the nurse.
It was good when a shift went this well. The shifter patients that I typically helped (or attempted to help) were almost always in a much worse state.
But Jillian wasn’t that bad, I reminded myself firmly. For that good fortune, I would be grateful.
They could not all be saved. Most of my colleagues struggled with that truth, I knew.
That was why I usually volunteered to be there when a new shifter patient first woke…and that was why they let me.