Shapeshifter.

by Tim J. Myers.

It was noon when Kate pulled up to the diner on the gritty little main street. She’d been in the town a few times before and the Mustang had always been crowded. But today she had her pick of parking spaces, and once she’d settled into a booth she realized the place was almost empty. Music was drifting out from a cheap radio in the kitchen.

It’d been a long beautiful drive out from Denver, warm late-September sun, the whole world yellowing as it slowed toward winter, high blue ramparts of the Front Range on one side of her, endless stretching prairies on the other. Along the way there was little but open fields, lines of distant cottonwoods, and isolated barns or stock ponds. After a teenager in jeans and a football jersey took her order, she asked where the usual lunch crowd was.

“Oh, most of ’em’re up at the school,” he said, smiling. “There’s a pagan’s coming today. One of those Wiccers, I think you call ’em. So everyone’s protesting.” He made it sound fun.

Unbelievable! she thought. I’ve had this set up for two months, and when the day comes I have to compete with some nut! She got storytelling gigs regularly around Denver, but had also been trying to get her name out in the surrounding towns and rural school districts, to supplement her income—which sure as hell could use supplementing. But a “pagan”? That was odd. Did people actually bill themselves that way? And why would a pagan come to a public school in a little Front Range town?

She ate her chicken Caesar and left the diner, more curious now than put out. A block from the school she first saw the picketers. CAST OUT DEMONS, one sign read; FOR THE SAKE OF OUR CHILDREN announced another. There must have been fifty people on the walk in front of the low brick middle school. And they were making plenty of noise.

They all had to park right here too, Kate thought, annoyed. So she drove around the school till she found a little back lot by a baseball field.

She knew she should go straight to Loomis, the principal who’d set up the assembly with her, but her curiosity was too strong. So she walked around the building, coming in behind the protesters. An older woman at the back of the group happened to turn and see her. The woman wore pink slacks and a sweater over her shoulders fastened with a pearl neck-clasp, her features pleasant and grandmotherly. She smiled at Kate. “Didn’t I see you last week at the Stop and Go?“ she asked.

Kate hesitated. “Maybe so,” she said, then smiled. “So who’s all this for?”

“Oh!” the old woman said sweetly, “Pastor Jack told us all about it.” She turned and stood on tiptoes, straining to see over the crowd, then turned back. “Someone from Denver here to work against the Lord—I forget the name.”

Kate stiffened. The woman went on without noticing.

“And after what happened to that Breadley boy! So we’re protesting.” This last delivered with unconcealed pride. “All the drinking and drugs and the school killings—those terrible boys down in Littleton—the last thing we need here is more godlessness!”

Suddenly Kate felt sick. “Who’s coming from Denver?” she asked weakly.

“Here,” the woman said, still smiling. “This is what Pastor Jack gave us.”

With a dull ache Kate looked down at a grainy photocopy of her own flier. AN AFTERNOON OF STORYTELLING, it read, ARE YOU READY FOR THE MAGIC? Words she’d carefully arranged to appeal to the notoriously finicky and hard-to-impress middle-school kid. The woman was pointing at the bottom of the page.

“See? Right here. WITCHES, WIZARDS AND SHAPE-SHIFTERS. These are good Christian kids. No one should be filling their heads with these pagan… uh…things. Some parents even kept their kids out of school.” She turned back to the crowd as a new chant began.

Guess there’s a first time for everything, Kate thought. But pretending to be glib didn’t help; the weight of the crowd, the volume of angry voices, the crude lettering on their jerrybuilt stake-and-poster-board signs—it all sent chills running through her. The chant was monotonous but powerful, beating against her eardrums:

                                                Chase the devil out!

                                                Chase the devil out!…

 

For a moment she was tempted to turn quietly and go back to her car, just drive away. Principal Loomis wouldn’t care, she told herself bitterly; even in their phone conversations he’d struck her as dull and conformist. For a moment she couldn’t move in either direction, stood there watching the crowd.

But no, she told herself, shouldering her bag and moving toward the front doors of the school.

Loomis was in his office, conferring intensely with what seemed to be his whole staff. Kate noticed two policemen sitting in chairs by the door—looking almost, she thought, like kids in trouble. There was no secretary in sight, so Kate walked right in, her anger slowly building. One of the men looked up. “I’m Kate McGaney,” she said simply.

“Miss McGaney!” the principal exclaimed with a start. The others all looked at her.

“We have a problem?” Kate asked quietly.

“Well…Miss McGaney, uh, welcome to Eisenhower. Yes, well, we do. It’s very unfortunate. Won’t you sit down? Uh—Roberta, do you mind?”

“No, Rance. Ms. McGaney, here, please sit down,” the woman said, offering her chair. She looked somewhat older than Kate, wore a gray pin-striped business suit.

“Miss McGaney,” Loomis began, “I have to appraise you of the situation here, which all happened real…real suddenly. We called your home number last night, what, Bonnie, three or four times?”

“I was out late,” Kate said. “Didn’t check my messages.”

“Of course,” Loomis intoned. “Anyway, what happened is real unfortunate. A young man who lives in a town up the highway…well, he committed suicide two days ago. And that really upset people around here.” He paused.

“Oh!” Kate said. “I’m…I’m so sorry!” Then she frowned in confusion. “Is that why…? I mean…what’s that got to do with the picketing?”

“Well, people are very upset, particularly some of our local clergy…”

Pastor Jack, Kate thought grimly.

“…because,” Loomis continued, “the boy was very involved in Satanic rock music…”

“Rance,” the woman named Roberta interrupted, “You can’t say that! Plenty of kids like rock and don’t get into trouble!”

The principal frowned but nodded slightly, then went on. “This boy—Mike Breadley. He was a, you know, a ‘metal head’—that’s what the young people call it. Shut himself up in his room, blacked out the windows, listened to Black Sabbath, that kind of thing…”

Kids still listen to Black Sabbath? Kate wondered.

“He had emotional problems, we understand,” Roberta went on, turning to Kate, “and there are still questions about what was really going on in the family. But he shot himself—no doubt about that. And with Columbine still so fresh in everyone’s memories…” Her voice trailed off. “I’m sorry—I’m Roberta Scott, vice-principal.” She reached for Kate’s hand and shook it.

“But I’m still confused,” Kate said. “One of your students…”

“Oh, he wasn’t one of our students,” Loomis interjected.

“Whoa!” Kate said, her anger brightening a good deal. “A kid who doesn’t even go to this school—who may or may not have been a Satanist—who lives in another town—kills himself—and people in this town don’t want me to tell harmless fairy tales because they have witches and shape-shifters in them? I know you get the news here; surely you know this kind of thing has happened before. And has ended up in court, I might add.” Shut up before you go too far, she told herself—if you haven’t already.

“That’s right, Ms. McGaney,” Roberta jumped in. “And we’re not going to let them stop the storytelling assembly—are we, Rance?” She looked keenly at the principal.

“All right, Roberta, all right. I know it’s a First Amendment thing. And I don’t want the Denver papers branding us hicks and fanatics. But tell her the rest.”

Roberta looked down for a moment. “Ms. McGaney. We have an open-door policy here at Eisenhower. Not only for students’ families—for the whole community. We want a school/community partnership, you see—‘It takes a village’ kind of thing. But in this instance—which we certainly didn’t foresee…”

Kate had no trouble figuring out the rest. “In other words,” she finished grimly, “anybody who wants to can come to the assembly. And things could get ugly.”

The vice-principal’s eyes were full of embarrassment. “That’s right.” There was a pause.

Loomis cleared his throat. “We’ve got some security here for you, Miss McGaney. You’ll be safe. You can be sure about that.”

The two cops outside; of course. She was about to tell stories to middle-school kids while flanked by policemen. It was all a dream.

“There’s an old story about this,” Kate said, with what she hoped was breeziness. She stood up. “It’s about Daniel—a man of God. A man who told stories to a godless king, Nebuchadnezzar, and interpreted the king’s dreams. The king threw him into the lions’ den. You all remember that one? Ask them out on the sidewalk—they read the Bible.

“So where’s the multi-purpose room—that’s where I’m telling, right?”

The policemen stood up when she came out, the first saying “Ma’am” as he put on his hat, an older man, tanned and wrinkled, probably a local, she thought. The second was younger. Church-goers? she wondered. But she didn’t have time to think about that. For one thing, she felt wobbly and a little nauseous. And she had to go to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror in the girls room, she had a moment of panic; after all this, did she even remember the stories?

Once she walked into the big high-ceilinged room she realized it was going to be as bad as she could have imagined. The kids—probably a hundred or so, the whole sixth, seventh and eighth grades in this little feeder school, were sitting on the floor, eyes wide with fear and fascination, craning their necks to look around. But not at Kate in the front—at the pressing crowd of protesters behind them: the grown-ups of their world, their parents or grandparents, coaches, local merchants. And I’m here to do what? Stand in front of these kids and by my very presence tell them their own people are wrong? Come between them and their mothers and fathers?

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the older cop said. “We’ll be right here. Nobody’s gonna hurt you.” But any gratitude she might have felt was quickly washed away in panic. Not hurt me?! she wanted to scream; They’ve already hurt me! For a terrible second she wondered if they’d brought things to throw.

When she started, the catcalls and chanting began. It was like a basketball game in a crowded gym, she thought, when the ref makes a call and everybody boos—only the booing never ended. The kids didn’t know which way to look, darting their terrified eyes back and forth between Kate and the protesters. Kate started as she always did, I’m delighted to be here, I have some great stories for you, the first one I learned from… But as the noise level rose, she stopped pretending to actually tell and just let the words fall out of her mouth, cutting the plots to their bare minimum—just enough, she knew, so she could say to herself later that she’d actually done it. “Anna and the Seven Swans” went fairly quickly, the protesters appreciably louder when she said “…for the old woman was really Baba Yaga the witch…”—that word enough to send shock waves through the room. Then the Viking tale about the wizard with his underground world, his transformations into various fierce beasts before death at the hands of the hero. And finally, “The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses,” a Plains Indian tale she’d first learned from a splendid Paul Goble picture book, and whose variants she’d studied assiduously. Even the chanting, though, couldn’t completely dampen that story in her mouth; she knew the kids could hardly hear her, but she said the words anyway:

 

But one year, when the girl was supposed to come back with the stallion to visit her parents in their camp, the mother and father looked and could see no girl. And yet, beside the great stallion ran a beautiful paint mare, brown and white. And the next year the mare came again, with her stallion–and beside them ran a sweet little foal, paint like his mother. And the girl’s parents knew their daughter had become a wild horse–that she’d finally found her own people and was happy…
But the noise never let up till she’d left the room, the policemen still on either side of her.

They walked her to her car, of course. The second policeman opened the door after she managed to unlock it. She saw him looking at her. But she had nothing left in her, so she just started the car and drove off.

 

That evening the second policeman came home after his shift. His wife was at work. He paid the babysitter and she left for volleyball practice.

“Daddy!” Shawn and Brittany yelled, a third- and second-grader. He scooped them up, carried them to the living-room couch, plopped down with them. Beyond the windows, twilight was settling across the land, the mountains now only looming black shapes.

“Dad,” Shawn pleaded, “will you play Chinese checkers with us?”

“Maybe later,” the second policeman said. “But I got something neat for you. Want to hear a story?”

“Cool!” the kids shouted, bouncing on the couch.

“Okay,” the second policeman said. The kids sat down, cross-legged.

“Once there was an Indian girl,” he began, “who lived out on the plains—right around here, in fact. And she loved wild horses…”

 

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