I wander the Chicago streets unseen. I’m plain, drab, faceless. I’m a shadow drifting through the world of form. It isn’t all bad, being this way. I ghost into theaters and museums and concerts without paying. Guards see me bypass the lines and slip through the doors, but somehow I never quite register.
Being nobody has its perks but now I hunger to be somebody once again, to have a name again. To do this I must find the right man to follow. I wander the Chicago Loop looking for certain telltale signs of pain, longing, emptiness.
We live in a world of grief and so it doesn’t take long to find him. He carries himself with an undefined heaviness and peers through a fog of yesterdays. His emptiness drags me along.
I follow him into a coffee shop and stand behind him in line. He doesn’t notice me because there is nothing to notice. I am nobody. I am soft clay in search of a potter. I won’t know who I am until he shows me. I touch his hand. He glances back but I still don’t register on his radar.
And yet, in that brief touch I feel his longing. I loop my finger around one of his and this time he finally fixes his gaze on me. I peer up at him, only now I have a freckled face with a cute nose, framed with auburn hair. He gasps. They usually do. I smile, just the way she used to smile.
My God, he says.
Then we’re at a table, my small hands enveloped in his large ones, coffee all but forgotten, our eyes locked. I become more her by the second. Elsa is her name. His memories of Elsa blaze to life. I become a little shorter and plumper. I grow to like strawberry ice cream and mystery novels with cats in them. I fell off a horse when I was a little girl.
I hear it like a rolling echo in my head, the same words, said to me by a hundred men: Is it really you? It can’t be!
You’re right. It isn’t.
I pull my hands away and return to being plain, drab, soft clay.
No. I’m not her. But I can become her.
He glances about, like they all do, and I know what he’s thinking: Are there hidden cameras? Is this some reality TV show? A prank? A sick joke?
I take his hands and become her once again, even more so this time, and his doubts vanish. He is hooked. We talk. We make a deal. Money is passed from him to me. I don’t tell him the truth: that I need to become Elsa as much as he needs me to be her.
We go to his Michigan Avenue hotel room and sit on the queen-size bed. We hold hands and I swim in his memories.
I say: Tell me about her.
We were in love but never got married. Then she died. It was so sudden. I married somebody else but—
But your wife can never know how much you miss her.
We’re quiet for a long time. Then he speaks again, only this time he isn’t talking about her but to her. To me. To Elsa.
I’ve missed you so fucking much! All the stupid, silly little things you did. You would piss me off sometimes because there was that crazy energy between us. And the way you laughed! You know what I used to say about you? That you were one half sweetheart and one half lunatic.
I laugh, just like Elsa. Because I am her, more and more and more with each passing minute.
Why the fuck did you have to go and die like that? I didn’t even know you were sick. I married somebody else, you never knew her. I go away on business, like now. I never cheat. Not because of her, though. My God! It’s because of you, Elsa. Because of you.
His cell phone rings.
I tell him to answer the phone, that I’ll be quiet as a mouse. Something Elsa used to say all the time. She had lots of cute sayings like that. I let go of his hand and scootch away from him.
He answers and talks to his wife for a few minutes. I don’t really listen. I feel Elsa slipping from me. I try to hold on. Elsa had parents and went to school and held down jobs, but those memories wisp away like dandelion seeds in the wind. I search my mind for my own past, as I have so often before, and come up empty.
He hangs up the phone and looks at me, a drab and pale thing sitting on the bed of his fancy hotel room. I need to become somebody, need to be molded and directed, but it’s a strain. It takes a lot of energy.
I reach for him again. He pulls away. He’s wondering, What is this creature beside me? I’m floating away. I need to become Elsa again.
He demands, How did you do that? Did you drug me? What the hell is going on?
I have no idea how I do it. I only know this hunger to become somebody, to feel, to live. For a short time I felt his love for Elsa, poor dead Elsa, and could almost believe that love belonged to me. I ache to be her again.
I reach for him, quicker this time. I latch onto his hands, my small fingers clamping so tight he shouts. I don’t let go until I’m Elsa again, sitting on the bed. He still has questions but they don’t matter. Elsa is with him. I look like her, smell like her. My skin is soft and warm, just as Elsa’s was. He throws his arms around me and says my name: Elsa, oh Elsa!
We talk, we embrace, we order room service, we make love. We talk deep into the night and fall asleep in each other’s arms, with him still murmuring my name over and over.
Elsa, Elsa, Elsa.
I awake, no longer Elsa, and slip away while he sleeps. I have money now. I leave this fancy hotel and check into a cheap dive, one of those TRANSIENTS WELCOME places, where I don’t have to show ID. I get my key and go upstairs.
I enjoyed being Elsa but the strain has been great. I sleep for a long time.
Sometimes I’m the One Who Got Away.
Other times I’m the Childhood Sweetheart.
Or the Dearly Departed.
I sift through the remnants of other peoples’ memories. I think about the names I had. The memories and the names fade because they don’t belong to me. They are merely heirlooms I borrow. I have no name of my own, not that anybody ever asks.
After some time in the cheap hotel, I emerge and walk through the Loop once again. I’m merely wandering, not yet looking for somebody new to follow. Being Elsa was nice. The warm glow of her energy has stayed with me.
But now, as I wander through the Loop, I’m back to being nobody. It seems like it has always been this way: me spotting the right man, following after, dipping into his mind, and becoming the love of his life for one glorious night. It feels like I was made for this.
I go to a bagel shop. It always surprises people when I talk to them. The young lady behind the counter punches my order into her machine. She looks so confused, wondering why this drab, formless shape is talking to her. She seems like a nice person, though, and I want to hug her. She asks my name, so they can call it when my order is ready. I tell her Elsa. I feel like a thief, stealing Elsa’s name like this. But it’s so delicious! I have a name.
When my order is ready, the girl calls my stolen name: Elsa? I get my food and say awesomesauce! Because that’s another cute thing Elsa used to say. But Elsa is a faded memory.
When I sit down, a man looks my way. He’s somebody I’ve seen before. Something stirs inside me. Nobody ever looks at me when I wander alone, but he does. Tall, sharply-dressed, distinguished gray hair that lends him a quiet authority.
He has a laptop open but keeps stealing glances my way. Does he need me to become somebody? No, I don’t think so. Why does he look familiar?
It comes to me: He’s been following me. Just as I’ve followed so many people. How could that be? Nobody ever sees me, let alone follows. I’m not used to this. My heart pounds and I don’t know what to feel.
I pick up my bagel and step over to his table. He looks up and sees me. He doesn’t see some Lost Love. He doesn’t see the One Who Got Away. He sees me, I can tell. Plain, drab me, with no past and no name to call my own.
I have other memories of him but they’re locked away and I can’t get to them. I hear them like voices from a further room.
He reaches for my plain, drab hand. I snatch it away and drop the bagel. I’m aware that he’s standing, calling to me, but something drives me off. I bolt through the revolving door, run headlong into the crowd on LaSalle, people shouting.
Without warning, the need to be somebody descends and claws me like a ravenous bird. I follow first one man then another and another. I can’t concentrate. Borrowed memories swirl and slam through my head. It’s dizzying. I run and stumble for hours.
I’m on the south side and it’s dark before I finally latch onto somebody. I find him in a bar. Or he finds me. His name is Dale. He glares at me through a haze of hatred. He sees me: haggard, worn, angry. My face is drawn up in sharp angles and dry skin.
You bitch. You goddam filthy bitch, what are you doing here?
I try to tell him: I’m not who you think I am, I only look like her. As I try to explain, his memories of her seep through me like dirty oil. His only name for me is Bitch.
I told you what I’d do if I ever saw you again. I told you never show your face round here. Then, loudly to another man: Hey, Bubba, look who’s here.
Bubba looks up from where he was about to sink the eight ball. He eyes me and frowns. He’s huge and looks like a confused gorilla. He doesn’t see Bitch. He sees plain, drab me.
Dale latches onto my arm. He is very strong and it hurts. His foul energy slams into me. Other men have a grab bag of mixed feelings but Dale’s hatred is undiluted. I throw up walls inside myself but his rage invades, relentless and without mercy. Against my will, I become Bitch, more and more.
Now Bubba’s eyes blaze with recognition and he sneers: Tiffany! He throws down the cue stick and lumbers over. He slides one fat, puffy hand over my face. His memories of Tiffany crawl inside my head like spiders. I cry out and both men laugh. Somebody chucks quarters in the jukebox. Music blares. I scream for help but nobody gives a shit.
This has never happened before: two men seeing me as the same woman at the same time. I become an amalgam of their memories of this woman. My name is Bitch. My name is Tiffany. I have a thing for Vicodin and alcohol and rough sex and any other distraction the world can throw at me. When I was a kid my mother got so mad she ripped out a lock of my hair and it never grew back. I had a back alley abortion when I was thirteen.
Dale hauls me across the bar. I am Bitch. I am Tiffany. Was I always her? I can’t tell. But I’m Bitch now and she damn sure knows how to fight. I snatch a bottle from somebody’s table and let Dale have it upside the head. It shatters and Dale goes down. Bubba comes at me but I lay into him good with the broken end of the bottle.
Bitch screams. Tiffany runs.
I plow through the front door into the street and a car screeches to a stop. The driver curses. I stumble. Dale and Bubba can’t be far behind. I spot a nice car, a fancy SUV that’s out of place in this neighborhood. Tiffany knows how to hotwire cars. Do I have time?
The door of the SUV swings open and he gets out: the distinguished-looking man who was following me earlier. He opens the back door of the SUV. I dive in and he slams the door. He gets in and cranks the engine just in time because Dale and Bubba are hot on our ass.
He peels out just as the two men begin pounding the shit out of the SUV. He drives off and very soon pulls onto Lake Shore Drive. I weep in the back seat. I’m still Bitch and I hate this man and hate all men and hate myself.
Only slowly does Bitch drain away and I go back to being nobody. I weep some more. I don’t know which is worse: being Bitch or being nobody.
He drives for a long time, not saying a word. He lets me cry it out. Eventually, he pulls into a lot and parks. He turns and looks over the front seat. He sees me. I can tell. He doesn’t see Elsa or Bitch or Tiffany or anyone else. He sees me.
I ask: Who are you?
I look at him. He gazes back, a sad smile spreading across his face.
My name is Wolfgang Bollinger. I’m your father.
I tell him I have no father or mother. I had no childhood. I never fell off a horse when I was a little girl. I never had a job. I don’t like strawberry ice cream or mystery novels with cats in them. I don’t know how to fight or hotwire cars.
There is sadness about him but it’s different from the pain I look for in a man. I don’t understand. I grab his hand. He doesn’t pull away. I slip into his memories and become confused because they’re mixed in with my own. The memories that I kept locked away.
We both remember: a vast cavern of a place with all the latest high-tech equipment. I float in a warm vat of amber fluid. A younger version of this man comes by and talks to me. It’s a laboratory but he doesn’t treat me as a test subject or a guinea pig. He presses his hand against the clear side of the vat. I open my eyes, somehow knowing he is there. I press my hand against the clear wall and we smile at each other.
But I still don’t understand.
Why, oh why, would he do such a thing?
I created you to become my lovely Lisa. We were together eighteen years and I missed her more than life itself.
You became her and we got to say all the things we never got around to saying when she was alive. I had always been so busy with work, but then I got another chance. It was a brief but magical time.
We sit quiet. The windows fog up. Eventually, he speaks again.
I still love her and miss her and think about her. But after that night, the deep and horrible pain was gone. My heart was able to heal.
Yes, I remember now!
And then I slipped away. Into the night.
So I was your daughter because you created me. Then I became your wife for a night, because that’s what I was made for. But who am I now?
Tears flow from his eyes. He crumples in upon himself like a paper sack and pulls his hand away. He has no answer to give.
I crawl from the back to the front passenger seat. He won’t look at me. His gaze is fixed on his lap. His shoulders shake with quiet sobs. I reach over and take one of his hands in both of mine.
I say: Look at me.
It takes him a long time but he looks. I begin to change. This time I become somebody he has never seen before, but our minds are joined and so he knows who it is.
Isabelle? My God. This can’t be. It’s you. Isabelle!
His wife lost her in the first trimester. That was nine years ago. I feel myself shrinking down to child size. I giggle, my voice airy and carefree.
What I’ve done! What I made of you! It was a sin. I created you for my own selfish ends.
I pull his head onto my tiny shoulders and let him weep. I tell him everything is okay. I don’t need to know who I am. I don’t need a horse or strawberry ice cream or mystery novels with cats in them. I have everything I need.
I have a father who loves me.
I have a name.
My name is Isabelle.
© 2018 by Seth Chambers
Author’s Note: This story, along with my other changeling tales, is a way of exploring the experience of being adrift, socially invisible, and without personal identity.
Seth Chambers was born with a Pentel Rolling Writer in hand and has been pathologically addicted to writing ever since. In his quest for life experience, he has worked as an army medic, mental health counselor, farm hand, wilderness guide, bike messenger and ESL teacher. His writings have appeared in F&SF, Daily SF, Fantasy Scroll, Isotropic Fiction, and Perihelion SF. His novella, “In Her Eyes,” was a nominee for the Theodore Sturgeon Award and included in Prime Book’s, The 2015 Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas.