"Howzat change goin' for ya?" Conservative mantra.

Spaces Between Atoms
Margaret Karmazin ©2014

Navajo fear their Skinwalkers. European tales describe their cursed princes forced to live as beasts while Greek gods became swans to seduce. Odin and Loki of Norse mythology once took the form of females and Morgan le Fay changed a queen to a rodent.

But no one really believes anyone can shapeshift, though trust me, it is definitely possible. There may be people all over the world who secretly do it. I am one who can.

The first time, I was eight years old. We lived near a patch of woods running a fourth mile across and a mile in length. It provided a shortcut between our neighborhood and town. For kids walking to school, the woods took ten minutes off your trip. It also provided a wonderful place to play. My friends and I were Indians, Robin Hood or wizards. We built secret lodges under rock outcroppings or tree houses where girls were not allowed. Our mothers did not see us from morning till dinnertime when they had to yell their heads off for us to come home.

Unfortunately, kids were not the only humans in those woods. A predator not yet on the police radar arrived one day, the kind who did unspeakable things to little boys before hiding their bodies under rocks and leaves. He had recently murdered a boy named Davey Berlin one county over and now he had come to our little woods to hunt.

That particular day, my parents brought my older brother home from the hospital where he'd been treated for a mysterious illness. When I asked my mother what it was, all she would say was, "It doesn't matter, Jeremy. What does is that we help him get well now."

I was mad that she wouldn't tell me the exact name of his disease, though later I'd learn it was Hodgkin's. I was selfishly angry that for over a year, all of my parents' attention had gone to Greg.

My brother did survive. We rarely see each other today. He went on to run a printing business in two different cities, married a high maintenance woman who manages a fitness center and according to mutual acquaintances, enjoys believing that I am "nuts."

Now of course I understand how my parents must have felt.

The day of the predator, I grabbed raisins and peanuts and headed for the woods, planning to sulk all day or run away. I was resting under rocks that formed a little "cave" when I heard the crunch of heavy shoes on leaves and sticks. When I peered out from under the rock, I saw a man holding his dick and peeing against a tree.

My heart leaped, then thudded hideously. Somehow I knew that he was evil and dangerous, though not in what exact way. I sensed that it was dark and dirty and fatal.

He was middle aged and beefy with a hairy neck and scraggly beard. His hair was greasy and you could tell just by looking that he smelled bad. The fingers on his hands waved, as if itching to grab onto something.

Instead of being quiet and staying where I was, I made a run for it, slipping and sliding at first, then going full tilt, but he came after me. Since he was a grownup, he could run faster.

I had never been so terrified in my life. The man was all the boogiemen I'd ever heard of rolled into one.

He gained on me and I knew that when his hand came down on my jacket to yank me back, shortly after I would die.

"You're wasting your time, little shit," he yelled when he was probably only ten feet behind.

My consciousness changed - the only way I can describe it is to say I suddenly understood that I controlled my body, that I controlled whatever state I happened to be in, and suddenly the cells, molecules and atoms of my physical self dispersed to reform into whatever I chose. In this case, whatever my eyes had last noticed as I sped by: a large, rotting tree stump. He tripped over me, fell headlong and screamed as his body slid over rocks, pointy sticks and dirt. I could still feel emotion, though I was no longer in human form. In this case, it was rage and sadistic pleasure at his pain.

He pushed himself up, brushed off soil and leaves and looked around in a panicky manner. He stared at me, walked over and warily touched my surface, then let loose with a nasty kick. But I was ready for him and formed that side into rock. He bellowed in misery, dancing on his other foot, while his eyes filled with tears.

My vision, what I would now call astral sight, covered all directions at once. The monster took one last look at me and ran. I heard him crash through the woods for a short time, then nothing. I remained as a stump for a while before reforming into my natural self.

You may wonder what happened to my clothing. It would take several years before I learned to extend my transformative powers to whatever I was wearing. This first time, they fell during the transformation through my spaced out atoms to lie underneath the stump I turned into. They were filthy when I climbed back into them, nervous that someone would come along and see my white, naked skin. But no one did and I made it home safely where I claimed I had a headache and needed to lie down. There was no one in the world I could ask about what had just occurred. I knew then as I know now that even when someone claims to love me, Jeremy Sparks is alone in the world.

The predator murdered one more child before he was apprehended in the basement of an elementary school where he worked as assistant janitor. His mother turned him in.

"You're awfully quiet," my father said a few days after what I called in my mind, "the happening." I mumbled an answer which he didn't pursue.

I took to spending a lot of time alone. Though I was only eight, I guessed what they'd do with a boy who said he'd changed into a tree stump - if he kept insisting that he had, I mean. An older cousin was in the state hospital and I overheard my aunt describing how they'd used electric shocks on her brain. I pictured Frankenstein's monster lying on that operating table. That's what would happen to people who insisted on things other people didn't believe in. The neighborhood kids avoided me and I did nothing to change the situation. After what I'd experienced, what on earth would I have in common with them?

In my room, I tried to practice the art of shifting, but could not repeat it. By fifth grade, I understood what element was missing. Terror had brought about the necessary conditions. I could not manufacture the unique sensation that had occurred between the terror and the shift, which apparently was necessary.

In seventh grade, I made a new friend - Sean Grody, a quiet, reserved type like myself. We feverishly played Super Pac Man, snuck into Blade Runner and endlessly debated whether androids could really marry a human. We sneered at ET the Extra-Terrestrial for being sappy and infantile, but saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan seven times and decided it had to be the best Trek movie ever. We had no other friends, but it was enough. Then Sean's parents divorced and his mother took him to Columbus, Ohio where their relatives lived. We wrote for a while, but when Sean started mentioning this kid Terry in his letters, I knew he had made a new life for himself and I was again alone.

Bullies moved in like turkey buzzards on road kill. They must have smelled me the second Sean and his mother rode out of our street for the last time. Kevin Dasher and Mickie Frye made my life hell in the cafeteria while Ricky Dunlevy, a thug from my neighborhood waited for me after school. He knew the rules, so made sure he was off school grounds when he began his torment. It didn't matter if I took a street route or cut through the little woods, he'd find me. But, as it turned out, he was just what I'd been waiting for.

He began with grabbing my gym bag and emptying it all over the street or kicking it under a parked car, then revved up to yanking off my belt and pulling my pants down. One time he pissed all over my books. He stole my watch, snapped my pens in half and stomped on my Mario Brothers handheld, which I'd won in a contest. I could tell by the look in Ricky's deranged eyes that his sadism was working up to a higher pitch and God only knew what he had in store for me. He intensified my torment by spacing out his attacks in a random fashion. They would occur daily, followed by a long period of nothing which, when it first happened, lulled me into believing he'd lost interest. But then he'd be back.

My parents didn't notice that I was a mass of nerves. My hands shook like an alcoholic's. Possibly they were so used to me being weird that anything new slid under their radar or maybe they just didn't care. By now my brother had been in remission for almost five years and it was likely that he was permanently cured. He was in his second year of college at Penn State.

"You oughta let your brother give you some social pointers," my father said one night at dinner.

"How do you know I need social pointers?" I asked pseudo innocently.

I felt sick actually. Everyday I had to run a gauntlet and my stupid father was clueless. But then how would he know if I didn't tell him? I was embarrassed. It was one thing to have him think I was a social failure without adding to that a wimp.

My mother looked off into space as if dreaming about Prince Charming and said, "The house was always full of kids when Greg was here."

I wished that I could have dispersed into atoms at that moment and never regrouped. If I had known how, I would have done it. Ha! Maybe they would've been charged with murder.

The next day, a Friday, everyone burst out of school at the end of the day, even the teachers. Someone actually peeled out.

It seemed that I was alone on the street. Then suddenly, I was not.

The way home included a stretch with a warehouse on one side and railroad cars on the other. Often a man could be seen working among the railroad cars but this day no one was there. Ricky was waiting for me behind one of the cars. After I passed, walking as fast as my skinny legs would carry me, he snuck up behind and gave me a strangle hold. He gripped me so tightly I started to lose consciousness. I believed that he was seriously trying to kill me. My terror helped me do what I had been wanting and trying to do for five long years.

Ricky never knew what happened. One second he was strangling a geeky boy and the next his arms surrounded a monster. Having read many comic books, horror and sci-fi stories, my imagination cooked up the scariest creature it could invent, a combination alligator, gargoyle and slime dripping alien with pointy tipped batwings! One second Ricky was enjoying cutting off my air and the next he was having his arm bitten by fangs from the depths of hell.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" he screamed when I finally let him go. He ran so fast he stumbled and fell flat on his face. The back of his pants were soiled and one of his shoes came off but he kept on going, slap- slapping along the rough concrete and I hoped he got a nail or piece of glass right through his foot.

He avoided looking at me after that. Whenever I walked by, I smiled right at him, but he turned away. I felt my power; it rushed through me, electrifying my being. I strutted through the school halls as if I were a creature from another world who could, any time he chose, eat the little earthlings for a snack.

This lasted only a short while. I craved companionship, needed a friend so badly that I cried myself to sleep. It had been a long time since Sean had written. The years crawled by, I joined the science club but they were all deeply involved in various projects and didn't seem to have room for me. None of the other after school clubs interested me. The teachers did not seem to notice my despair. I considered running away, but was smart enough to know what happened to kids like that.

In spite of my misery, my grades remained decent and I did nothing self damaging other than sneak the occasional cigarette. I read science fiction, designed computer games in my head, and studied college brochures to see where I could escape after one more year of high school.

"What are you, from outer space?" whispered this druggy looking girl in my junior year Lit class. We were reading The Metamorphosis with which I could obviously identify on a personal level, but naturally kept my comments to myself.

"Why do you say that?" I shot back. It hurt because I often wondered if indeed somehow I was.

She shrugged. "I don't know, you're just different." She didn't say that in a mean way, just matter-of-factly.

Was she really on something all the time as I had overheard people imply or was her sleepy expression a natural aspect of her physiology? She couldn't have been all that burned out, not if she was managing to get by in advanced placement English.

"Yeah, I'm different all right," I said. "And you're not?"

Apparently, she appreciated a flippant attitude. I'd never seen her smile before. It transformed her face from sly and bored to pretty and sexy.

"Did you start studying for the test yet? It's all essay, you know. Carter is a bitch grader on essays.

"I usually pull in a B on essays," I said.

"Why don't we prepare together. Try to figure out every possible thing she could ask."

Was she asking me out? I was so astonished that I delayed in answering.

"Proverbial cat got your tongue?" She didn't look too pleased.

"Uh, n-no! I mean yeah, we can study together. When?"

That was how I ended up at Rachel Coleman's house on a winter's evening.

With her punk clothes (this was the eighties) and her black hair, she resembled Joan Jett. She appeared jaded and world weary, but I soon found out that she was nothing like that.

The Coleman's lived in what my parents referred to as "the rich section," where the lawyers, doctors and bank presidents owned large, fancy homes with manicured lawns. Mr. Coleman was a psychiatrist and his wife busy on committees around town involving scholarships or the arts. The Coleman's were Reformed Jewish and while extremely liberal, kept the holiday traditions to which they were quick to invite me. Their house was a large tudor with giant rhododendron bushes in front and stately trees scattered around the lawn. After our first study session there, it would become a familiar place where, for the first time, I felt at home.

"Mom really likes you," Rachel told me. We were sitting on her bed, our books open and papers strewn about. "She says you remind her of Gregory Peck."

Flattered, but puzzled, I said, "Huh? I'm not dark like him; I don't see it."

"You're medium colored, true, but your face is kind of like his and you're lanky."

I had never thought of myself as good looking, but I suppose by this time I had developed in that direction. My height was almost six feet and my jaw had grown defined.

"Know your own power, boy," Rachel teased.

If only she knew about the kind I actually did possess. Since the episode with Ricky four years before, I'd honed that talent almost daily. By now I understood how to attain the exact state of mind necessary to make the change and how to do it without fear involved. In the privacy of my room, I turned myself into furniture, animals, plants and creatures of my own design. Through practice, I could mutate into a creature that scared myself in the mirror or a woman who actually turned me on.

All transformations were limited to the amount of matter my body actually contained so that I could not, for instance, become an elephant or at least not one of normal size. I could condense the matter slightly. If I morphed to a wolf, for instance, it would be a larger than normal one that was my exact weight, a hundred and fifty pounds. Once in a while, if I was especially restless, I would chance going out at night in the form of a large dog. When I did, it was a pleasure to sneak through back yards and see what people were doing, but there were dangers attached.

"My power, huh?" I said, smiling. She must have known I was falling in love with her.

She leaned over and kissed me, making me intensely aware that we were on a bed, though nothing more happened. The door was open and her parents were downstairs, but any second could walk upstairs. We would not make love until the following summer and sporadically during our senior year, but we certainly intensified all that after starting college. She attended Bucknell to major in political science and I was at Bloomsburg in electronics engineering. We were only forty minutes apart.

I was the happiest I had ever been in my life. The loner outcast was now settled in with a friendly and serious roommate and had an actual girlfriend who seemed to love him as much as he loved her. Rachel was, in my opinion, quite a catch. She'd toned down her punk look and now came off as avant-garde with her black skirts and sexy tops. She wore her hair short and tousled and lots of eye makeup, and reminded me of someone who ran with the art scene in New York. I tried to live up to her look by wearing black myself. She flattered me by saying I was "wicked." We visited each other almost every weekend.

"I love you," she whispered one night after a particularly athletic and sweaty session. It was the first time in my life that someone had told me that. "I love you too," I said back, thinking at the time that someday we'd be cozily married and produce little geeky-arty kids.

The next to last time I saw Rachel was February 20, 1988 while visiting her for the weekend. It was cold and crisp and we'd been to a French movie she'd wanted to see. I thought the film boring and incomprehensible like all French movies, but since she was willing to read any book I liked so we could discuss it, it seemed a fair exchange. It was maybe seven-thirty in the evening, pretty dark out and we cut through an alley to get to a restaurant we liked that served giant, buttered cinnamon buns. Behind us came the sound of several feet crunching in the snow.

We turned around. Four figures followed us, young males, not good. They did not give off college boy vibes. "Shit," said Rachel.

We ran and were turning out of the alley when I heard the click of a switchblade. Two of them were brandishing knives and one had his hand in his pocket with a gun or finger pointed at us.

"You have some shit we want," the apparent leader said.

Rachel pressed against me, her terror palpable. I could feel the change about to happen, that there would be no stopping it. All I could do was decide what direction it would go. Monster? Murderous wolf? Whatever it was, they could still shoot at it.

Aware of nothing but the need to block Rachel from the thugs, I morphed into a metal column that surrounded her. Thinning it out, I stretched it high. I could see and sense the thugs rear back, their eyes wide with fear. A knife clattered to the ground before they turned and ran.

I also saw Rachel inside the column, as thunderstruck as they.

Once they were gone, I morphed back. We were silent, she shaking and backing away, me staring at the ground.

She burst into tears. "What was that?" she cried between shuddering sobs. "What the hell was that?" Her face was stark white.

"What did you see?" I said cagily.

"Suddenly I was inside this horrible tube and there was no way out, it was awful, awful! And what happened to those hoodlums?"

Should I have lied to her? If we were to spend our lives together, something would lead to it happening again. I had to tell her.

"Let's go have coffee. I'll explain."

The normally cozy restaurant did not feel that way now. Our booth seemed isolated, which I suppose was a good thing considering the conversation. I told her my story, how it began with the predator in the woods. I told her everything.

She was quiet for what seemed an eternity. Then she shook her head. "Are you an alien or something?" She was trembling.

"I don't think so," I said. "I have my mother's coloring and otherwise look like my father."

She shook her head. "I don't know, I need to digest this. It's really scary."

After we got back to her apartment, she wasn't up for our usual Saturday night lovemaking. The next day, she said she had a migraine and would probably need to sleep all day. I left around noon and drove back to my campus.

It would go on like this for another three weeks, her cutting my calls short and saying she had a lot of class work to do. She was not able to get together on the weekends.

I understood.

I wouldn't see her again until 1991 when, home for the Christmas holidays, we ran into each other in Wanamaker's. She introduced me to her fiancé, a premed student she'd met in judo class. He wasn't the type I'd ever pictured her with, but there they were, flushed and happy. Later I would wonder if she ever told anyone about me.

I live in Maine now, near the Canadian border, where I work as a free lance writer of technical articles. Occasionally I run to town for food and reading material and once in a while, a night of female companionship. There are two Québecois that I share drinks with on occasion, but everyone knows not to get too close. No one knows why and no one asks.

x x x

I imagine that most reading this are too young to remember Tom Terrific - possibly the first animated shape shifter ever on broadcast TV. Tom's noble companion was Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog and he and his pooch were a big part of my early childhood. This story is nothing like those gentle, amusing cartoons. So I don't know why I brought it up. Except to encourage you to comment on this shapey tale at our BBS -GM

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