The scene must have played out a thousand times.
“Have a nice day, Scout?” I’d grumble. I’d toss my keys on the landing, still breathing hard from climbing the converted house’s steep staircase in the dark. My apartment door always shut behind me with a crunch, its old wood groaning, forcing the termites within to play Musical Chairs. “Bet you were busy, scratching walls and eating free food. Get a good nap in?”
As I’d peel my grease-scented uniform from my body, I would observe my subject, my only companion: my five-year-old tabby cat. From outside the blinds, the setting sun would make a crosshatch pattern across his gray stripes. Tufts of downy hair would drift around his prone form like a halo. One enormous green eye always rolled over me as I delivered my inevitable conclusion: “Wish I had your life.”
In my defense, this routine never seemed anything but harmless. Self-pitying, perhaps, but ten long hours a day of attending to surly tourists would dampen any server’s attitude. Be honest, companions of felines: Have you never said such a thing?
When my luck began to improve, I ceased to make this bitter, idle wish. When I gained recognition for my writing, moved across town, and met the woman who would become my wife, I forgot how ardent my after-restaurant routine had been.
Certainly I had forgotten it by three years later, on the moonless night when I met the blue fire.
That midnight was as deeply dark as any horror-movie well. When the first bruise-like lights appeared, I thought that I was dreaming, or in that sleepy state where shapes seem to shift in front of you.
The blue specks joined together, deeper and brighter. They were shiny as a summer morning with too little sleep, blinding as a bonfire. In fact, more than anything, that was what the mass came to remind me of: a series of flames, tendrils stretching indigo and periwinkle as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t see my own body by its light, but I still remember knowing, with absolute certainty, that I had nowhere to hide.
“Who are you?” I whispered. The breath in my voice made a patch of flame waver, the blue before my face thinning out. A second later, the space was whole again, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.
The voice echoed in my eardrums, from everywhere and nowhere: Who am I not?
I shivered. I knew the fire noticed, knew it took stock of the emotions I couldn’t keep my human body from conveying. Though it had no shape, its emotions infused the air. Beneath my wide eyes, I felt my cheeks dampen—with sweat, or tears, or perhaps both. “What do you want?” I pleaded in a tiny voice.
I’ve come to grant your wish, it roared.
Though my head shook with tremors, I tried to ask what wish it could possibly mean. Within seconds, I didn’t have to. The words died in my throat as I stared into the heart of the flame, at a miniature, azure-hued replica of myself. I saw my figure—exhausted-looking, hair slightly shorter, but clearly me—creaking open an old door, dropping a set of keys, and approaching a tiny, neon-tinted Scout. Though there was no sound to this tiny movie, I knew what I had been saying.
“No,” I protested, then more loudly, “no! That’s not what I want anymore.”
It laughed. The mystical fire laughed at me! I can’t wait to tell Kelsey about this dream, I thought. Some part of me already knew the dreadful truth, but hope dies hard.
When the fire spoke again, it reminded me of my former boss pretending to take note of disgruntled diners’ complaints. I’ll pass that wish amendment along. But as you can see, we’re pretty backed up here.
When I woke up, I was curled into a ball on my new black blazer, hairs sloughing off with each movement of my whiskers. An itch behind my ear begged a long scratch. Before I knew what I was doing, I nearly slid my razor-sharp claw all the way into my eye.
My fiery vision came back to me, and then, in a sickening rush of realization, I recalled my whole turbulent human life. My memories were frayed at the edges, as if I were already starting to forget.
I slowly stretched my claw back in front of my face and studied it. I already knew what had happened by the time I studied my back legs, my shockingly pale stomach, my whipping tail taut as an exclamation point. I sprang from the suddenly huge couch and spun wildly. Every book, calendar, and knickknack in this room was familiar to me, had been painstakingly picked out, but now it had been resized for giants.
Anxiety surged through my chest. It made me want to tear down every wall decoration and yowl until I was hoarse. What had I done? My human personality revolved around words, around saying them and weighing them and molding them into breathing works of art behind my fatigued laptop screen. Though the machine was still in sight, now it held no more promise for me than any square of warmth. As a self, Deb Jannerson did not exist anymore.
I had barely finished the thought when Deb entered the den. No. Not Deb, not me. This person walked more cautiously than I ever had, licking the remnants of breakfast off her wrists.
The full horror of the situation made me scramble up onto all fours, bare my teeth and hiss. Scout had no idea how to function in the world! His taking over my life could only spell disaster. Kelsey, my friends, my family would all think I’d had a nervous breakdown. After all, Scout didn’t know how to talk, let alone drive or type. How was he even standing upright? Surely humanity was not so easy to learn.
Scout fumbled with my front doorknob—none too gracefully, but admirably discreet for one’s first experience with thumbs. A rectangle of the outside world barreled in. I sensed carefree kids tricycling in the street, neighbors calling my human name, new opportunities hanging in the air like fruit for the plucking.
“Mmmrow!” I cried. My mournfulness filled my fuzzy throat, reverberated around the home I had worked myself to the bone for and then spent the happiest years of my life inside. I gave him my most longing stare, the one he had liked to use against me for chin rubs or a new layer of food. Don’t leave, I thought with all my might, trying to send the message telepathically; help me find a way to switch us back.
From behind his new human face, Scout paused and turned to me, his blue eyes flickering with a moment of recognition. Then, he was gone.
About the Author: Deb Jannerson is the author of the acclaimed poetry collections, Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and Thanks for Nothing (Finishing Line Press, 2018), available wherever books are sold. Her debut YA novel is forthcoming from NineStar Press. Jannerson won the 2017 So to Speak Nonfiction Award for “Scarring,” a short memoir about queer intimacy and PTSD, and the 2018 Flexible Persona Editors’ Prize for “Cut,” a piece of flash fiction about gruesome work injuries. “Cut” was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. More than one hundred of her pieces have been featured in anthologies and magazines, including viral articles for Bitch. She lives in New Orleans with her wife, her cat, and her snake, two of whom appear in this story. Find her at debjannerson.com and on Twitter @DebJannerson.Learn more at debjannerson.com and @DebJannerson on Twitter.