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Love Changes Us

K. C. Norton's short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Writers of the Future, and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. She and her dog are currently traveling the country in search of Bigfoot.

Love does funny things to you. I know that. Still, I'm not prepared for the little tendrils of skin that come shooting out of me. They're like translucent moles, but much too long and skinny. Plus they have minds of their own.
"I want them gone," I tell mother.
She pats my head. "Don't worry. They'll go, or you'll get used to them. Either way..."
Not good enough. I pick at them, but they're too strong. In the end I use nail clippers to shear them off so that the roots are flush with my skin. They don't bleed. The scars are barely noticeable. Before long they're nothing but little white patches, rough when I touch them. Nothing more.
"You're looking better," says Roberta. "Did you and Zatch'tal break up?"
I laugh and kiss her cheek. "Of course we didn't." Not that we're officially dating. We meet by the lockers sometimes, kiss a little, entwine our phalanges. We're both a little leery of the public eye, what people will say, what they'll think. After all, I'm younger, my genus and gender easily defined, while she's older, in better shape, blue in the dark and green in direct sunlight. Also, though I call her "she," she's a series of in bits and out bits. If we ever get that far I guess we'll figure out my sexuality based on which parts we put to use, but really I like all of her. She's mastered the art of sarcasm, which is uncommon for her species. They're a dense and very literal people. She's complicated, which is exciting.
Roberta has never had translucent moles. Poor thing, to have never been in love.
I notice the next change getting out of the bath. As I'm removing the cotton from my ears--there is nothing less attractive in my genus than an ear infection--I catch a glimpse of my elbows, which have gone completely bald.
My scream is higher-pitched than I would have anticipated. My mother comes running, her eyes wide, totally out of breath.
"What?" she asks. "What's wrong?"
I show her my elbows, still whining high in the back of my throat.
"Oh, honey," says my mom, "It will be okay."
No, it will not be okay. Zatch'tal will dump me, she'll find somebody closer to her age, somebody more attractive. I just know it.
"Oh," says Zatch'tal, "Verve, baby, it's not a big deal."
I curl toward her and sniffle. "You're sure?"
"I'm sure," she says, slurping the side of my face affectionately with her minor mouth. "Shall I tell you a secret?"
I nod.
"Okay, beloved. Here. Look."
She holds out one waving tentacle, so that all seventeen of the phalanges are visible. In the murky light I can see the pale crescents of new fingernails protruding from her tourmaline flesh.
"It's fine," she says, kissing the end of my nose. "That's just how love is. It changes us."
"Just the one hand?" I ask, deeply touched, rubbing my cheek against her fingers.
"All of them," she says.
I do try to keep my elbows hidden, but Roberta notices eventually. "Aha!" she cries, jabbing at me with her talons. "So you really are still together!"
"Of course," I say, pulling away. "Why wouldn't we be?"
"What about Zatch'tal? Is she changing?"
I sigh, thinking of those strange beautiful fingernails. "She is."
Roberta squeals, but she can't drag the secret out of me. It's Zatch'tal's and mine, and I'm keeping it.
"Hey," says Roberta suddenly. "Ohmigosh, Verve. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" I demand, but Roberta is laughing so hard that I can't make out the words. All she can do is point, and I have to spin slowly on the spot before I realize what's set her off.
"That's not funny!" I howl. But I can't be mad, not really; it's not Roberta's fault.
I am growing another tail. And this one is green.
Zatch'tal tells me she loves the color green. "It's a really nice color," she says, tickling my new tail right at the base. It feels good, and normally my hormones would be in overdrive, but I'm wallowing so deeply in self-pity that even a good tail-tickle can't lift my spirits.
"It's hairless," I complain.
Zatch'tal smiles and slurps on my ear. "I'm hairless. Are you saying I'm ugly?"
"No," I say, "of course not. It's just..." I sigh. "What will my parents think? What will my friends think?"
"They'll still love you," says Zatch'tal. "If your friends can't cope with it, they aren't really your friends."
"How come you aren't changing?" I demand. It sounds accusing, and I flinch, but it's not like I can just take it back.
"I am changing." She sounds hurt. "You saw the fingernails."
"It's not like growing another tail," I complain.
"I have a lot of phalanges," she whispers. She holds up her fore-tentacles as evidence.
"Oh, Zatch, I'm sorry," I say, pulling her close. "I don't mean to snap. This is just really hard for me."
"I know," she says.
After a moment I breathe gently against her left earhole, and soon she's kissing me with all of her mouths and my bald elbows catch on the lovely blue Jell-O of her flesh.
Who cares about the new tail, when I have Zatch'tal?
"Are you guys officially dating yet?" demands Roberta. "Or are you still in couples' purgatory?"
"I don't know," I say, trying to sound nonplussed, grooming my ears as if it's no big deal. "We're casual. We don't need to commit."
"Casual?" says Roberta. She licks her elbows, wags her tails at me. "No way. You're ears over toes for her, and she's not even changing."
"She is changing!" I snap. "Back off."
"Sure," says Roberta. "Sorry."
I give Roberta the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. I wonder what she would say if she knew about the pale webbing that has begun to grow between my toes.
"You should invite Zatch'tal to dinner," Gamma Father says. "We want to meet..."
"Her," I say fiercely.
Gamma Father shrugs. "Her. Okay. We'd like to meet her."
"I'll ask her," I say, but the idea of Zatch'tal in my parents' house, chatting over a hearty meal with my mother, confusing the names of my four fathers, makes me feel a little claustrophobic. It's just so hard to imagine.
Plus, I'm not entirely sure what Zatch'tal eats. Or if she even does.
I ask Zatch about it the very next time I see her.
"Oh, wow, that's nice of them," says Zatch'tal. "Maybe I will. One of these lunar cycles."
I should just let it go, but my back molars are bugging me, and I suspect they're changing too. Whatever they're doing hurts, and I haven't slept well, so it's hard to keep my mouth shut. "Don't you want to?"
Zatch'tal sighs. "Listen, Verve, you know I'm crazy about you. It's just a little fast."
"Fast?" I say. How can I be going too fast? Look at me, at everything that's happening to me. Is that too fast? What am I supposed to do about it?
"Verve," she says, "I really like you. It's not about that. It's just--you're so intense. It's a lot to take in."
I grab her closest hand, and all I can see are three little fingernails; the rest have fallen out, and I didn't even notice. My lips tremble. It feels like someone has poured hot oil into my pulmonary system. "Zatch'tal--" I begin.
"I'm so sorry, Verve," she says. "I hope we can still be friends. I just don't know how much more I can give you right now."
My molars are fusing, my toes are growing together, I have a new tail and bald elbows and some kind of weird tentacle growth. For nothing. I've changed for nothing, because my beautiful Zatch'tal doesn't love me.
"Please don't cry," she says. "I didn't want to hurt you."
Somewhere out in this vast universe, there must be a species whose bodies do not betray them, whose hearts do not transform their flesh so that love can be read on them as easily as ink on bugsilk. I envy them. But I find them so awfully hard to imagine.
"You can just change back," Roberta assures me.
Like it's that easy. Like I know how.
She flicks her crest up, rolling most of her eyes. "I'm really sorry, Verve. But you've got to pull yourself together."
"I'm trying," I tell her. "I'm doing my best."
Roberta just stares at me. Apparently whatever was going on with my molars has finally finished happening. I'm speaking a whole new language, a language nobody understands but me. I'm an island now, and there's no way to call for help.
"Let me know when you want to talk," snaps Roberta, turning away and stalking off down the hall.
I want to apologize, to explain, to turn back the clock so that I'm just Verve again, just normal. But there's no going back.
Love changes us.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 19th, 2014
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