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My Son, the Shapeshifter

Shane Rhinewald practices public relations by day and lives in magical realms by night. His short fiction has appeared in Nature Futures, AE--The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction (of course), and many other publications. You can find him on Twitter at sdrhinewald.
My son the shapeshifter starts the school day as a honey badger--thirty pounds of coiled muscle and a quarter-inch of thick skin. The predators will stay away today, and even the serpents with their venom will do him no harm.
"Let them stare. You're small but fierce," I say. "And I love you just the same."
When I tuck my son into bed that night, he reverts to a boy, swallowed beneath the blankets, a tuft of thin hair all that I can see in the gloom. I touch his frail legs through the material and hear the wheeze in his breathing.
I pray that tomorrow he wakes as a fire-breathing dragon.
My son morphs into a stork on the way to the doctor, one bent wing tucked up against his body. He tries to flap it in the backseat and squawks more and more frantically with each failed attempt.
"You'll make it worse," I say. "Don't worry. You'll fly again soon."
I watch him in the rear-view mirror, and I fear that this time even braces of aluminum and plastic won't make my promise true.
When we arrive, I gather my broken bird in my arms and carry him through the revolving doors. The nurses stroke his beak as I hurry him through the corridors, and his clawed feet flap at the ends of limp legs.
The doctor pokes and prods the broken wing with a grimace. When I ask him if my little bird will ever kiss the sky again, he shakes his head. Not this time, he tells me. Not ever again.
My son transforms back into a boy as I wheel him out of the office. Once home, he nuzzles my chest and whispers about not wanting to go back to see the doctor anymore. Still, I make him take his pills with a sip of water, and after, I place my son--now a newborn puppy with droopy eyes--into his bed.
I wait until he falls asleep and pray again that he will be a dragon.
My son turns into a snake on the doctor's table, wiggling this way and that, trying to wrench himself free. I tell him to relax, but four feet of rigid muscle and bone cannot be easily tamed. He only hisses at me, and to him, I am just another enemy. His black eyes shimmer, and his forked tongue flicks with disdain.
A nurse holds my son's flopping tail while another attendant pins his head to the pillow. The doctor hovers over him with needles and half-smiles, telling him that it will all be over soon. But what do snakes know of perspective and time? When it finally ends, my little snake constricts and becomes a ball on the examination table. The nurse gathers him up like loose rope and takes him from the room.
After, the doctor shares the X-rays, and he says that it's growing worse. It's affecting the lungs now, and the shots and pills can do nothing to keep it at bay.
I find my son some time later in the waiting room; a boy again, collapsed into a chair two sizes too big. The nurse keeps him company by reading from a magazine. He looks up with blue eyes like his father's when I approach and tells me not to give him the news.
I no longer pray for my son to become a dragon. Now, I'll take a fish.
My son shifts into a mouse during the ambulance ride, but there's no corner or hole for him to hide, just a cramped interior pressed with bodies and whirring gadgets. At the hospital, they rush him from room to room, and poke him full of holes. Later, they put him in a bed, and wires as pink and fat as his tail crawl all over him. He's small and skittish and there's fear in his pink eyes.
The doctors make him plump with fluids, and he turns back into a boy with swollen arms and legs. I rub his bony shoulders and kiss his salty forehead. Machines breathe for him with a click and a whir, and I think of the robots from the movies. If he only he could morph into one of those.
I ask the doctor if my son can hear me, and she says, "Not likely. It's near the end. I'm sorry."
I put my mouth near my son's ear and whisper that I love him. Then I curl in the chair beside him and sleep until morning's light finds the cracks in the blinds. My son turned into a honey badger again in the night--defiant and ferocious. I tell him to fight and defend himself, at least this one last time.
Strangers dressed in black touch my back with moist hands and tilt their heads toward me. I tell them to save their platitudes; my son merely shifted shape again. Now he's me. He's you. He's even bigger than a fire-breathing dragon. He is a comet streaking across the sky--atoms, elements, and heavy metals spun from the stars. He is the universe.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 16th, 2016




- Shane D. Rhinewald

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