Good morning, Mona.
Good morning, Henry.
You wanted to see me?
Yes. Have a seat.
Thanks. So, what's up?
I'll get right to it, Henry. We have a problem. I may not be able to keep you on.
Really? I'm surprised to hear that, Mona. What's the matter?
Where were you yesterday afternoon, Henry?
What do you mean?
I mean you weren't in your office. I mean you went to lunch at 12:15, and you never came back.
That's not true. I'm sorry Mona, but that simply is not correct—not historically accurate. I was back from lunch right on time. In fact, as it happens, I was back five minutes early—at ten after one.
I went out for lunch at twelve-fifteen, and I was back at my desk at ten after one.
No, Henry, I happen to know that you weren't.
I was. I went across the street for tacos. I had three chili tacos with cheese and guacamole. Then I sat there a few minutes, drinking my tea and doing a little light reading. Voltaire. Candide. Chapter two, in which Candide chooses the gauntlet. My favorite part of the whole story.
Listen, Henry, I'd love to sit here chatting Enlightenment literature with you, but...
Then I came back to my office—at ten after one—and I stayed there until five.
Henry, I know full well you were absent all of yesterday afternoon. I looked into your office a half dozen times, and I didn't see you once.
Oh, right, right... I understand now. I understand the confusion. Let me explain. You'll laugh when I tell you. Really. Prepare yourself for a really good laugh. Okay?
I'm ready; go ahead.
You see, here's the thing: I was there the whole time. You saw me; you just didn't recognize me. That's because, you see, I was shape-shifting. Get it? I was there the whole time, but I was shape-shifting. You see? It's funny, yes?
You noticed the new lamp on the corner of the desk? The tasteful, art deco number with the frosted shade? That was me. I shape-shifted into an art deco desk lamp with a frosted shade. Convincing wasn't it?
I don't believe you, Henry.
You don't believe me?
No, Henry, I don't.
I have to tell you, Mona, that stings a little.
I'm sorry, Henry. It's nothing personal. It's just that I don't really believe in shape-shifting. I think it's a myth.
Oh, it's no myth. I can assure you of that. It's as real as...
I'm sure it's been quite thoroughly debunked...
No, no, no...
...in all the major...
No, no, no. It's just that it's still perceived as a threat to the orthodoxy of the ruling elite. That's why they insist upon slandering it's devotees in the popular press.
True as that may be...
But shape-shifting has hardly been debunked—by any... objective...
I mean some of the very top young—that's the thing: young... Some of the very top young minds in the field...
Alright, Henry, why don't you show me then?
Yes, Henry. Show me. Please. Convince me. Treat me to a demonstration of your abilities.
Right now. Right here in my office.
Prove me wrong and you're off the hook. It's as simple as that.
Sure, no problem. Just give me a second.
Take as long as you need.
Yes. I've shape-shifted.
Just now. Yes.
I've shape-shifted into an alternate version of myself with inverted molecular chirality.
I don't know what that means, Henry.
I've converted all of my cellular amino acids from L-enantiomers to D-enantiomers—that is, from left-handed to right-handed molecules.
And it follows that I had to invert my cellular carbohydrates, too. Of course. I mean, you can't go around with your proteins clashing with your sugars.
Of course not.
That could be fatal.
What's the matter, Mona?
Well, it's just that, you know, I really want to believe you, Henry. But, it isn't that easy to tell the difference. I mean, to the naked eye, you appear no different than before. I suppose we could send out a tissue sample for spectral analysis, but it would take weeks to get back the results. And, anyway, I seriously doubt Procurement would approve the expenditure.
That's a good point.
I mean—given the current economic climate – it might be seen as a little extravagant.
Yes, I understand.
Maybe you could shape-shift again, but with a little less subtlety this time?
You know, to something more easily discernable...
...to the unaided eye, that is.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No problem. Let's see, what could I... Ah, okay. Here goes... How's that?
Have you shape-shifted again?
Of course. Don't tell me you can't...
I can't see any difference.
Look closely, Mona. Closely.
I'm looking right at you, Henry, and I'm only three feet away.
I've shape-shifted into a version of myself, three minutes younger.
Three minutes younger.
Precisely. To the second, that is. Precisely three minutes younger. One hundred and eighty seconds younger.
Okay, first of all, wouldn't that be time-travel, not shape-shifting?
No, not at all. That's an excellent question, but no. You see, if I had time-travelled, you and I would both be three minutes younger. As it stands, I'm three minutes younger...
But I'm still my natural age.
Exactly. Also, we wouldn't be having this conversation about time-travel, because this conversation would still lie three minutes into the future. If I had time-travelled, I would just now be walking into your office and sitting down.
You'd be saying something like, 'Hello, Henry. Please have a seat.'
I get it.
Besides, I don't know how to time-travel.
Of course not.
I mean it's not really my thing.
No, no, I understand.
I mean, I'm a shape-shifter. That's my thing. My true avocation.
Yes, yes. Of course.
I did go to a time-travel seminar, years ago, at the Holiday Inn. I thought it might be a fun thing to learn. You know, just as a hobby.
I suppose it would be.
But, as it turned out, the seminar was nothing but a sales pitch for a series of books on tape.
That's too bad.
I should have known, really. I mean, it was, after all, a free seminar. They wanted something like three hundred dollars for the time-travel paraphernalia. You know, the tapes and the companion handbook and so on. The time-travel journal and subscription to the quarterly newsletter. All the usual... So anyway, I decided to pass, on the time-travelling.
Can't say I blame you.
I mean it might be worth every penny, but still, it's a lot of money.
I understand completely.
I mean... on my salary...
Yes, yes. Of course.
Plus, I wanted to concentrate on my shape-shifting.
Better to be a master of a single esoteric art than a dilettante at a whole arcane assortment.
Specialization is the key to greatness, some would say.
Others might disagree, I suppose.
Yes, yes. The Renaissance types, for instance.
Yes, of course. So, just to polish the point, when I say that I shape-shifted into a version of myself three minutes younger, what I mean is that I backed up all of my metabolic processes to where they had been three minutes previously. I reversed the aging process by three minutes, if you like.
I do see the difference. Thank you for clarifying. And of course, some have argued, quite convincingly, that time travel—at least travelling backward in time—would violate Special Relativity.
Special Relativity, right.
The idea is that movement backward in time is tantamount to faster-than-light travel, which Relativity would seem to preclude. Kierkegaard, for example, presented this argument quite elegantly in Fear and Loathing You mean Fear and Trembling, and no, he didn't.
Fear and Trembling?
Yes. Fear and Trembling. Fear and Loathing was Hunter S. Thompson.
That's what I said: Hunter S. Thompson.
No, you said Kierkegaard.
Are you sure?
Yes. And anyway, Hunter S. Thompson didn't say it either.
Who am I thinking of then?
I really don't know. Richard Feynman, maybe. But that isn't the point. It doesn't matter. I know what you're doing, Henry. This is just a diversion from the issue at hand—a kind of linguistic tai chi.
Linguistic tai chi. I like that. Can I borrow it some time?
Consider it yours, and don't bother with the attribution. But I'd like to get back to what we were discussing: namely, your little truancy problem.
People have been complaining, alright? Some of your co-workers. They say it isn't fair that you're habitually absent—an hour here and a half day there—while everyone else is expected to sit at their desks for eight hours a day. And I have to say I agree with them, Henry. It simply isn't fair.
But I swear to you, Mona, I don't have any truancy problem. I am faithfully—almost religiously, almost fanatically—at my desk from eight to five every day... minus, an hour for lunch.
What about Monday after two o'clock? I looked in on you three times between two o'clock and five.
Perhaps you noticed a new briefcase resting on the floor just next to my desk? Black leather with pewter fittings?
I honestly can't say I recall. But let's suppose, for the moment, that I did. Are you going to tell me you shape-shifted into a new briefcase?
No, I bought that on clearance at Macy's over the weekend. I shape-shifted into a new laptop, with wireless internet, which was locked inside the briefcase. You can never be too careful.
I see. And I suppose Wednesday of last week, when I couldn't find you all morning, you were shape-shifting, as well?
A ham and gruyere on pumpernickel, with sauerkraut and dijon mustard. Toasted. With a kosher pickle on the side.
Sounds delicious. But I'm afraid I still don't entirely believe you. About the whole shape-shifting thing.
Not entirely, no. You still haven't convinced me. You see, the problem is: I can't identify any tangible difference between run of the mill Henry and Henry minus three minutes.
I'm afraid not.
Still too subtle?
A bit, yes.
Okay, okay. Give me one more try.
Sure, but quickly please.
Okay. What about this?
What about what?
I've shape-shifted into a version of myself just as I would be if I lived in a parallel universe in which Slaughterhouse-Five had been written by Gore Vidal, instead of Kurt Vonnegut. Surely there's a difference—admittedly subtle, but unmistakable—somewhere around the eyes?
I'm afraid I have to let you go, Henry. I'll need you to clear out your office by the end of the day.
After boxing up his things and putting them into the trunk of his car, he went back into the office one last time. Then he climbed onto the top shelf of the empty bookcase behind the desk and shape-shifted into all three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion—an old library edition, clothbound.
She couldn't help but notice him when she looked into the office, on her way out, at the end of the day. Curious, she walked over and examined the books, conspicuous on the otherwise empty shelf. She read the gilt lettering on the spines. She must have told him, at some point, that Miller had been one of her favorites, years ago as an undergrad. And he must have left the trilogy, she guessed, as some kind of apology, or farewell. She took the first volume from the shelf, slipped it into her black handbag, and left.
On the train, sitting beside the window, having loosened the belt around her brown coat to let it hang open, she reached into the bag, resting on the floor, between her legs, and took him out—the first volume of him. She flipped past the copyright page to the beginning of chapter one. She rested the end of his spine on her lap and cradled him in both hands before her, her head tilted forward to stare at him from above. Her eyes loitered over the first line of him, as she savored the sounds of the words in her head: "It must have been a Thursday night when I met her for the first time—at the dance hall." She smiled and bit her lip lightly. Then she took a deep breath and sighed, and her eyes continued over him, back and forth, softly down the page.
And he loved her still, and he forgave her, had forgiven her already before she had even finished throwing him out. And now there was only now, he thought, and only the two of them, there together in the light from the window, there in the back of the train, with the city speeding by, and her eyes pouring over him, taking in every line, growing wider, moving faster, and then her fingertips at his corner, hungrily turning the page, devouring him bit by bit and word by word. And now, at last, she loved him, too. It was clear. And he was happy in this knowledge, in the undeniable and plain, objective fact. And this was only the start, he told himself. There were five hundred pages to go.
And there were two more volumes of him after that, resting on the highest shelf, alone in the dark, as patient as death, awaiting her glance, awaiting her touch, awaiting her return.
BIO: Don Hucks's fiction has appeared in Cerebral Catalyst, Ghoti, The Pedestal, and Pindeldyboz.