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Chameleon

Kate Heartfield is the author of Armed in Her Fashion and the two Alice Payne novellas, as well as games and stories. Her work has been shortlisted for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford and Aurora awards, and the National Newspaper Awards. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.
I'm glad you can't see me, I lie to the girl in the window seat, with the rainbow hair. It's OK. I'm not much to look at. I'm not beautiful like you.
She's my age, but I'm not made of rainbows and a Propagandhi t-shirt. At the moment, I'm a girl made of a rough polyblend weave in brown and blue, with a drop of baby puke, a splash of diet Coke and a lot of sweat. My arms are indistinguishable from the molded beige plastic of the arms of the chair.
But as far as bus rides go, this one isn't too bad, because no one is sitting on me. Sure, the rainbow-haired girl threw her backpack on me, but it's a small, light backpack, with Jonny Appleseed sticking out of it, and I don't mind riding with it on my lap. I'll keep it safe for you, I say, knowing she can't hear me.
The bus wheezes to a stop and a man in a trucker cap gets on. There are two empty seats, and there's me, and I look like an empty seat. Please no, I say, though he can't hear. Please keep walking.
He pauses right next to me, so close I have to squish to avoid his jeans. For a moment I think he senses me; sometimes I wonder about men with that look in their eyes, whether they sit on me on purpose. They seem to enjoy it. I prepare to shut my mind down, to wait it out.
But the girl doesn't move her backpack. Her head is half-shaved, up to just above her ear, and it's growing in golden, below the rainbows on top. I wonder what it would feel like against my fingers, a shaved head like that.
"Move your bag," the man says.
She turns to him, pops pink gum between pink lips. "Nope." She makes that "nope" last a hundred years. He stares at her for a hundred more, and I'm thinking how my luck is the worst, but then he just rolls his eyes, and steps down the aisle, muttering, "damn Millennials."
"My mother is a Millennial," the rainbow-haired girl says, super loud. She grins, and once he's sitting somewhere else, she picks up her backpack and puts it on her own lap. "There," she says. "There aren't any more stops until we get to Toronto, so you should be safe now."
I blink hard, forgetting to avoid doing that because the movement weirds people out. In kindergarten, back when I didn't realize I was starting to blend in to the world, I gave a boy nightmares by handing him a pair of scissors.
Are you talking to me?
"Sure," she says, with a smile.
You can hear me? You can see me?
She sighs. "My ex-girlfriend was a chameleon, some of the time. She used to fade into the background when we were around other people. Now that I know the signs, I can't unsee them, I guess."
Sometimes I've noticed other people who are like me, but we never talk to each other, acknowledge each other. I've never heard us called "chameleons" before. My mom just called me "freak" or "sneak," back when I could turn it on and off, when I could choose to be seen when I wanted to.
Wow, I say, and then blush, which is bad because it looks like a shadow where no shadow should be, but I can't help it. So I guess you heard everything I said, before.
"Yep," she says, and this "yep" lasts so long it sends shivers all over my body. She's smiling at me. "Thanks. I'm Hannah."
Julia, I say. It's been a long time since I've said my own name. Are you going to Toronto?
"For starters, yeah. I need somewhere to hide from my life for a while and think about stuff. Somewhere where nobody knows me."
Blending in is my specialty, I say. That and pancakes. I'm so happy that I made her smile, even though she seems to smile a lot so it's not that hard. But this one is my smile. I made it.
"I think it's rad that you can change into anything, Julia. If I were you, I'd go into art galleries all the time, and just become the art, you know? Van Gogh. I really like Van Gogh."
I nod, but I've never been to an art gallery. I used to go to the mall and stand next to a fake waterfall. It had these lights that would change the water into different colors. Like your hair.
She tucks a strand of blue behind her ear. It's pierced three times, but one of the holes is empty.
"Can I try something?" she asks, and my body knows what it is before my brain will believe it's true. I nod, and she holds her right hand out, palm up.
I slowly put my left hand over hers and watch it take on every shade of her skin. Our arms slide together and then I'm wearing a little of her t-shirt. There's a stray sunset-colored hair on my shoulder.
And then for the first time in years, a little of myself sneaks in, a moving shadow on both of our arms, like a ripple in ice cream.
She gives my hand a squeeze before we let go. "That is super cool," she says.
A couple of hours to Toronto, and I am in no hurry.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
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