This story was selected as the winner of the 2021 MAYDAY Fiction Prize
Margo might be lost. She balances her iPhone on two free fingers, inspecting the street map. Under one arm she holds a repurposed Staples box filled with knickknacks she should have left at her desk. Under the other is a lacey fern she didn’t ask for but couldn’t leave behind. No one will water the fired girl’s fern.
Margo walks home in dim light and uncomfortable shoes because she doesn’t want to cry on a crowded bus. After leaving the office, her normal route—a pleasant ride along the waterfront—seems foreign and hostile. That route belonged to old Margo. Margo with a job.
She tries to compose herself, but the local warehouses are disorienting in their similarity. Stacks of bricks meet sheets of concrete in an endless, orthogonal maze. If only she could stop crying long enough to read the unlit street names, but the signs and the GPS collude against her. The more she struggles, the more frustrated she becomes, and Margo, tasting her own runny nose, feels increasingly like a child.
He must have seen it. The child-like thing. The angry, ignorant helplessness. The word “baby,” diminutive, rips from his mouth with confidence. It cuts through the sound of Margo’s erratic sobs, slipping under her skin and tightening around her throat. She is desperate to respond, to find any word that will make him feel small, but all the words get stuck. They fill her lungs until the lack of words become painful.
Margo was mugged once before while waiting for a cab. That time, the man wore a black mask to shield his face. He worked with quick, practiced movements and was around a distant corner before she had registered the theft. Later, after her anger had subsided, she was grateful for the sanitized encounter.
This stranger is not afraid to show his face. Every oily, stubbled inch. He touches his flat nose to hers, and she wants to close her eyes.
There is nothing efficient about the way this man moves. He drags the purse from her shoulder and rakes heavy rings across her chin, chest, and neck. Every motion is an indulgence. And when he is satisfied, he plucks the phone from Margo’s stiff hand and walks away, unafraid she will follow.
* * *
Margo sits, inspecting her heels. They are caked with the potting soil of her murdered fern. She has been draped in a crinkly blanket. When she said she wasn’t cold, they said the blankets are meant to be comforting. The officers are coddling her.
Officer Thomas is damp and anxious. She doesn’t feel comforted.
“No. I don’t want to talk to you.” She has repeated this line three times now.
“Ma’am, I just need some information from you.” Thomas is trying, but probably not his best.
“I’m sorry. Can I just please talk to someone else?”
Margo hears heavy-heeled boots approach from behind. They are accompanied by a deep, but distinctly female voice. “I’ll help her Thomas, you can go.”
Margo turns to face the new officer, an officer Temel. She is as tall as officer Thomas but has toasted skin and gold eyes. Margo can feel the warmth. She hands the blanket back to Thomas, who leaves without a word.
In a private corner, Officer Temel brings Margo a wet cloth to clean her clothes. Cartoon ducks dance all over the fabric and Margo wonders if this might be the officer’s personal washcloth. As she wipes the dirt from between her toes, she answers Temel’s questions.
Not very tall. Dark brown, cut short. Thirty, maybe. Baggy and grey with a red zipper. Home. I don’t think so. I had to walk. Yes, alone…
Temel keeps her eyes on her clipboard as Margo cleans herself up, and she is grateful for the privacy. After completing her questions, Temel politely lifts her honey eyes. They seem genuinely sympathetic, but also tired.
“Thomas would not have said this, but I want to tell you. It’s unlikely we will find you anything that feels like justice.”
“Um. Right. Of course.” Margo wants to go home.
“I’m also supposed to suggest that you stay away from that area.” “Right.” At home, Margo can be as upset as she wants.
* * *
Temel drives Margo home. She wonders if this act of charity is standard, or if she really looked that helpless.
In the car, Margo distracts herself by watching Temel drive, entranced by Temel’s hands, with their long, powerful fingers. She traces the curves of her eyes, and lips, and studded ears, taking comfort in the shameless femininity of her features.
Margo thinks about Temel’s face for the rest of the evening. She visits her bathroom mirror and contrasts it with the sharp, androgynous planes of her own face. With all her feminizing makeup removed, Margo looks chalky, monochromatic, and scared.
* * *
The same night, Margo dreams. She is pinned to a wall like a moth, with no visible floor beneath her. Some part of her recognizes the nightmare. The other part welcomes the dream as a new reality. The lucid part of her tries to speak, to demand her dreaming half wake up, but her mind loses the words right as they reach her tongue.
* * *
When Margo wakes up, her chin’s rusty bandage is glued to the pillow. Her hand reaches for the slashes on her face, but she feels nothing. Her chin and neck are smooth, soft, and unbroken. She makes her way to the mirror, hoping to see herself magically put back together. She blinks away her blurry vision and adjusts to the sharp fluorescent light.
In the mirror is a ghost of the night before. Officer Temel’s face looks back at her from behind the dirty glass.
Margo knows what dreams feel like. She lifts her hand to her smooth cheekbones and Temel does the same. She looks down to her feet, long, narrow, and unfamiliar. Water from the leaky sink seeps between her toes, undeniably real.
That feeling returns. Her throat is tied tight like the end of a balloon. She feels a swelling pressure from the inside.
Margo empties her stomach and lungs into the tub.
* * *
Later, lying in bed, Margo feels the transformation for the first time. A series of
vibrations like bells ring inside her body, starting at her chest and blooming out toward her head, hands, and feet in a pleasant harmony. She lifts the long, strong fingers to her face. They smell like someone else.
Margo walks Temel’s body to a full bath which she had prepared for herself earlier. She skirts along the bathroom wall to avoid confronting her new face in the mirror. Small steps are good. Getting to know each other is good.
In the bath, she glides her hands over Temel’s frame, mapping the features. There is a ceremonious quality to the process. This borrowed body feels sacred and deity-like. Margo allows Temel’s fleshier figure to bob in the bath, floating and sinking with her breath. Her contralto voice echoes against the tile walls as she tests its abilities, talking, whispering, and singing a few weighty bars of “You Are My Sunshine.” The melody is confident and stable, not like Margo’s usual, wispy tone. She continues singing, and each bar lulls her closer to a state of comfort, toward something like familiarity.
* * *
Who do you call when your body is no longer your own? When your physical form develops a mind of its own, out of your control. For a girl, standard wisdom dictates that she calls her mother. Margo ignores this wisdom. Not even supernatural phenomena could bury that hatchet.
She would prefer to call her older brother, who, at one time, seemed like the most stable person on the planet. But she hasn’t seen him since their father’s funeral. He decided to up and leave the city and go backpacking in East Asia, yet to return. Maybe he’s not so stable.
Left with no appealing options, Margo welcomes the opportunity for solitude.
* * *
The nightmares continue. Margo lays face down on a glass ceiling. The inside is damp and lined with ferns and entwined canopies. The tank is large, but from her viewpoint she can see every corner. Behind one of the trees, tucked tight against its shaded moss, is Temel. Her large frame cowers, folded smaller than should be possible. An animal that Margo doesn’t recognize skulks along the length of the tank. It has three lethal-looking tales that slither along the ground, leaving deep impressions in their path. The imprints never cross, mapping the creature’s exacting plan. Margo watches it survey the tank, looking for Temel. She can tell it will find her. The animal closes in, and Margo bangs a warning on the glass. It is inches thick and swallows the sound of the impact. She tries to scream instead, but it makes no difference.
* * *
Margo has been unemployed for five weeks, only leaving her apartment to toss trash and collect takeout. She estimates she has spent half of the time in someone else’s body. Sometimes she wears a friend or a family member. Occasionally she eats dinner in the body of the stranger who delivered it. On one day, she wore the body of an old girlfriend. This new perspective on an intimately familiar form quickly devolved into a sickening sense of uncanny. That day she pinned blankets over the mirrors, doused herself in foul perfume, and sat in the dark, waiting to change.
Mostly, Margo wears Temel’s body, her first. Sometimes she chooses it and other times it finds her. For weeks she has learned this form. She might know it more intimately than her own. Its quirks, its preferences. She has discovered Temel is flexible in a strong, gymnastic way. She has clusters of mysterious calluses along her knuckles. She has not shaved her legs in a long time. Margo tried shaving them once, but it only lasted until the next change.
These surface characteristics were the first things Margo learned. Since then, she has explored further, luxuriating in every new sensation and in the way her breath catches in Temel’s throat. She wonders where the real Temel is, and if she can feel it too.
* * *
When Margo was little, she and her brother refused to sleep without a bedtime story. Margo’s mother was not so interested in kids’ books. She deferred to her husband and took long baths to “unwind.”
One week when Margo was six, her father went on a rare business trip. On the first night her father was gone, she asked her mother to read.
Little Margo sat in bed, prepared with a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Her mother arrived, wrapped in a bathrobe. She took the book without looking at it and placed it in the wrong spot on the shelf. She had a different story in mind.
The story began in the part of Poland where Margo’s great-grandmother grew up. Margo, who knew little of her family’s history, was hungry to learn about her Grandmother’s rural upbringing. But her mother was not the storyteller her father was, and she skipped all the romantic bits.
“In GG’s town they have a story, or at least they had a story, about a young girl. She was probably your age. And she looked like you too. Her family kept her in the house all the time, but no one knew why. Most of the people in the village—they were gossipy, just like grandma—well, they thought something must have been really wrong with her because even the really odd kids in town were still allowed outside.
“One day a stupid boy wanted to prove something to the others. Well, he snuck up to the house—something no one was allowed to do—and he climbed up to the girl’s window. When he looked inside, there she was. She looked completely normal, and he was going to ask her to open the window, but then she turned toward him. She looked him right in the eyes and her body started to change. Pretty soon she looked exactly like the boy, who stared at her—at himself, sort of—and then screamed.
“The boy ran himself all the way home to check his face in the mirror. The other kids followed after him to ask what happened and he said the girl had stolen his face. They all agreed she must be some kind of demon.
“Later on, the parents of the boy brought the story to the attention of the girl’s parents. Her mom laughed and said the boy must have seen his own reflection in the windowpane. The next day the house was abandoned. The family had moved to a different town and no one in that village ever saw them again.”
Margo had always considered this the worst story she’d ever heard. Worse than textbooks from school and worse than the stories her brother made up to get her in trouble.
She found out later, her mother had read The Witches to her brother. Margo didn’t ask for any more stories until her father returned.
* * *
The bells in Margo’s body have gotten stronger, like gongs. Last week, she had a near-fender bender in the grocery parking lot. Her body had lurched and taken the form of a nearby pedestrian. The teenage boy, whose car was nearly hit, took one look at the six-foot-three man in Margo’s driver’s seat and decided to move along. Once home, Margo sprinted inside, wrapped in a blanket to conceal her torn sundress.
* * *
Margo can almost control it now. Enough, she thinks, to go back out in the world. Today is her first day out for fun. She has worn her own body but exchanged her typical oversized knit for a purple silk. She feels light on her bar stool.
Young men hover around the crowded bar, even after they’ve received their drinks. Margo is already drunk. She likes to get drunk at home first. In the early weeks, she discovered alcohol helps to keep the changes from happening on their own. An excellent excuse to spend savings on gin.
Margo feels especially warm toward the female bartender. Watching the woman deftly mix a martini, she wonders what it will feel like to wear her body. She has discovered she prefers tall women, like Temel. The bartender is taller than almost every man in the room, yet she still wears high-heeled boots that help her tower over the bar, making customers nervous.
“I like your dress,” says the bartender. Margo likes the way her mouth reaches for the “r”
in “dress.” She considers going home early to feel it for herself.
“So do I.” One of the hovering men cuts in. The bartender glares down at him. He is oblivious.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asks.
Margo, desperate to rescue her budding conversation, nods panickily, but the bartender has already walked away.
“It looked like you were here alone, right? I thought maybe we could talk or something.” Or something.
“Look. I appreciate you being friendly, but I’m not feeling very talkative,” Margo says, still staring after the bartender.
“I’m like that some days too, but I bet I can get you going if you’d just give me a chance.”
Margo turns her head, but gazes just past the man toward a drunk couple in the corner. She tries to avoid a good look at his face. She doesn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night sporting a pale, pooching stomach and itchy neck stubble. She doesn’t want this man’s body between her sheets.
“I just need to run to the bathroom. Can you hold my seat?” she says. He looks pleased.
In the stall, Margo strips off her purple dress and fishes a newly purchased red one out of her bag. She slips it over her narrow figure and breathes deeply, rousing Temel’s familiar body, filling out the fabric.
Minutes later Margo reclaims her bar stool. The man, saving the stool in vain, pleads with the now unrecognizable Margo to sit elsewhere.
“Honey,” she says to him. The word is all alto, and Margo is giddy with the sensation. “Whoever you’re waiting for is not coming.”
He stutters a moment, looking for the right response. He thinks her callous, and this is fine. She watches him for a while, out of the corner of her eye. He has finished his vodka and fidgets with the ice in his cup. She thinks he would have left already if it hadn’t been for her comment. He must be determined to prove her wrong. Margo delights in watching him stretch his night out, pointlessly.
As she surveys the room for further amusement, Margo sees a familiar man at the entrance. He is tall enough that he ducks through the door frame, and though slim and silver, like a skyscraper, he takes up the space of four men. She hasn’t seen him since her last day of work, when he told her she wasn’t “fit” for his business.
Margo knows Sutton will not recognize her. Not as herself anyway and probably not as Temel either. Despite that knowledge, she clutches her purse in front of her like a shield. Desperately, she seeks out the eyes of the bartender. Fruitless, as expected. The lovely Amazon is talking to a woman at the other end of the bar. One, Margo notes, whose body looks a lot like her own.
She checks back toward the door, but Sutton has moved. He is barely ten paces away, clearly interested in the seat next to her, or rather, next to Temel. In the practiced manner of charismatic older men, he makes strategic eye contact with Margo just before he reaches the stool. He doesn’t request to sit, but nods and smiles a thank you for the seat he never asked to take. Margo wonders if she should get up and leave, but waits. His eyes haven’t left her face and she is pinned to her stool by a mix of sweat, dread, and a curiosity that is probably masochistic.
Even if he knows Temel, she could always pretend to be someone else. A rare look-alike. Someone also lucky enough to be stretched like a piece of taffy and dipped in gold.
The way he says “hello” quiets her fear of recognition. He says it in the greedy, impatient way of a man who has found a diamond and doesn’t want to share.
Margo’s fear is replaced by something like desire. Not desire for Sutton in any way that he’d enjoy, but desire to know him, to inspect those mysterious gears that drive his decisions. He is, after all, a man with a lot of deciding power.
Margo buries her concerned expression. She knows Sutton. He likes people who like him. She shifts into a more carefree posture and allows the natural feminine warmth of Temel’s body to radiate. He is immediately drawn in. “Hi,” she says.
“And what is your name?” he asks.
“I’m sorry. I don’t give that information to just anyone.” Margo saves all her breath for that anyone. He’ll love the intimation of a competition.
He smiles and tilts his head toward her, as if they now share a secret. “I guess that means I have something to prove.”
* * *
Sutton never took an interest in Margo at work. Maybe she wasn’t his type, but given what she’d heard of his escapades, she doubted if that were the case. More likely he thought it’d be too easy. She was his employee, his inferior. But here, in this bar, in a borrowed body, she has him desperate to impress her. He babbles away like an imbecile, blind to the karmic beauty before him.
Margo laughs, and flirts, and drinks. Her ambition, packaged in Temel’s striking form, breeds a sense of confidence she has never felt in her own body. She is intoxicated by her own irresistibility. It heats her skin, and she is covered with goosebumps. Sutton touches them tenderly, thinking he is the cause of her elation. She could probably ask him for anything.
“I have a request that you may find strange,” she says. “I love strange requests.”
“I want you to give me your phone and let me take a selfie.”
He takes out his phone and lays it directly in her hand, not taking his eyes from her face. He thinks he’s impressing her. She knows she can take him further.
“Not here,” she says. “There.” Margo flicks Temel’s chin toward the restroom.
Sutton removes his hand from hers, leaving the phone in her palm and gesturing toward the restroom door.
“No rush,” he says.
In the same stall, Margo undresses again, amused with herself. She lifts Sutton’s phone, careful not to include Temel’s face, and takes a few poorly lit, but sufficiently lude photos. Then she shifts her form. Fueled by anger, excitement, and gin, she hardly needs to try. Her body slides back and forth between eleven different forms, mostly women whose names she doesn’t know and three men for good measure. She takes lazy, provocative shots of every one. Five minutes of her time for a catalog of indiscretions. When she is finished, Margo bundles the photos and sends them off to Candice, Sutton’s mean and nervous wife.
After taking a moment to revel in her ingenuity, Margo looks down at the body she is wearing. A naked stranger, stark white against the green bathroom tile. The alien skin is pocked with goosebumps. Margo can’t remember where she saw this particular woman. She only remembers her face, pinched at the center and overshadowed by massive green eyes. She feels those eyes in their sockets, glassy. Wetness gathers on the bottom lids and is chilled by the air conditioning above. Margo snatches the purple dress from her purse, nearly slipping in her too big shoes. She slings it over her head but misses the straps. The dress drops over the thin body and lands on the tile. She claws at it, jamming her fingers into the floor. Pain shoots up her skinny arm. Holding her aching wrist in her hand, she drags forth her own body and slips the straps over her shoulders. The pain in her wrist is gone now. Margo steadies herself and dries the lingering wetness from her eyes before dropping Sutton’s phone in the toilet and leaving.
* * *
On her way out of the bar, Margo grabs the boy from earlier. He had been sitting in the corner, drunk, sulking, and self-loathing, like a good boy. She will distract herself with an act of charity.
Back at his apartment, Margo enjoys the temporary nature of her own body, her birth body. Her movements are vicious and selfish. She accepts the inevitable raw ache that will follow such an encounter. That’s a problem for future Margo, whenever she decides to return to this form.
The room is dark. Indistinct electronica rattles some hidden speaker system. She can’t remember the boy’s face or his voice. She only listens to the sound of her own calls. She feels the familiar sensation of bells in a crashing, rising chorus, and then falling.
Margo is gone before he has finished his shower. He will probably go to work tomorrow and brag to his friends about her bony, lithe body, but it doesn’t matter. This body is just one of many for her now. He can have it for a night. He will still wonder why she didn’t stay the night or say goodbye, and why she spent every moment of their indulgence with her eyes glued shut.
* * *
Margo is in her own bed, sprawled dead center, dreaming.
She is back in the warehouse district, wandering, driven by hunger. Her stomach feels wrung out. With every step it twists and retracts. She is certain that if she can find the right corner, around it there will be food.
This primal endeavor is interrupted by a realization. Margo begins to suspect that there is no food, and she has been perpetually turning the same four corners of the same building.
As she rounds the next corner, she finds a propped steel door. It’s a deep, unsettling green and looks sticky, as if newly painted. She doesn’t remember seeing it before, so she slips inside.
The inside is not a warehouse, but a claustrophobic room with a low ceiling and no windows. Margo recognizes the man inside. His oily, stubbled face has smudges of green along the forehead. He guiltily tucks his green hands behind his back and observes Margo, as though he’s never seen her before.
The pain in Margo’s stomach has become unbearable. She doubles over, clenching her abdomen, feeling as though she’s been struck from the inside.
The man runs over to her. He is calling her “Anita.” Margo looks down at her sandaled feet and they are no longer familiar. The skin is tanned, and toes are lined from absent rings. The man repeats himself. Anita, Anita, Anita, Anita. The concern in his voice teases at Margo.
She hits him hard on the chest, knocking him over. “Don’t touch me!”
He doesn’t know what to do. He stays on the ground, watching her. She can’t control this new body. Her skin feels hot and raw to the touch, and as she tries to change back, it ignites.
* * *
Margo wakes up mid-change. Her flesh burns along the places where her body meets the other. She fumbles with her phone’s front-facing camera and is greeted by a complete stranger. The body from her dream is interlinked with pieces of her own body. Each feature fights for dominance in a dynamic, psychedelic spectacle. Hers is losing, slipping away as the stranger’s more aggressive form overcomes it. Margo grasps for her own features. She holds an image of herself in her mind and strains against the invasion. But the other body is patient. It outlasts her will, and once she has exhausted herself, it takes over. She can’t find a place to regain her hold.
Margo’s knees and palms sear as she crawls her way to the bathroom. With what little strength remains, she hauls the burning body under an icy shower and gawks at the steam that rises off her skin.
* * *
Margo waits on her mother’s doorstep, bundled in boots and three layers of sweaters. Since the last change, she has struggled to keep this new body warm. For four days she dragged around her apartment, lethargic and sick. She set her thermostat to 85. On the fifth day, she lugged herself to the car, prepared to surrender to her mother.
Margo observes the new blue paint on the home’s exterior. This must have happened after her father’s death. He had insisted, for the duration of his ownership, that the house be immaculately white. The name Miller is spelled in brass pieces and glued to the front door.
Before she can collect herself enough to knock, the door opens a crack. Margo restrains herself from vomiting on the mat. Her mother pokes her head out, ready to evaluate the unexpected guest.
At first, her mother looks annoyed, like she might have to shoo a salesperson. Margo, struggling to support herself on the railing, hesitates just long enough for her mother’s expression to soften. Her eyes become glossy, and she lets the door fall the rest of the way open.
* * *
Margo has only managed three sips of her tea. Her mother has had even fewer. They sit on worn velvet couches in the living room, neither quite facing the other.
“You will have to change back,” her mother says. “If you don’t change back now, you may not be able to.”
Margo remembers the pain from the last change and skips a few breaths. The sight of her hands, now dry and tanned, disgust her. She pulls her long sleeves down over them and clutches her mug.
“I could change into anybody.”
Her mother stares down into her tepid tea. Her gaze does not waver, even as Margo tries to meet it, and she withholds an answer.
“If you’re going to lie to me, you’re being very slow about it,” Margo says.
“Yes, you could pick anybody,” her mother says. “But it will only get harder to change. You should expect to keep your choice forever.”
Margo examines her mother’s motionless frame. It perches on the edge of the couch, looking strained and bloodless. Normally her mother’s skin is warm, all shades of pink and peach like a sunset. Now, she looks as pale as Margo.
“Is that your body?” Margo asks.
She isn’t sure what answer she wants to hear.
“This body belongs to a ticket checker I met on a train to Oregon. I don’t even know her name. I was desperate to look like someone else at the time.”
“But you never changed back.” “I couldn’t change back.”
Margo looks at her mother’s face. She tries to imagine her with any other features, but fails. While Margo is sharp and narrow, her mother has a soft, almost childlike quality to her, even in middle age. Margo’s whole life, people had pointed out the dissimilarity between them, as though they thought she’d never noticed.
Margo’s mother lifts off of the couch and walks into her bedroom. She returns holding a small brown bag, which she hands to Margo. Dozens of old photos are stacked inside. Margo removes a small stack, careful not to touch her clammy fingers to the image. The top photo is of a birthday party. Little Margo poses in the center of a group of squinting kids. She must be barely four.
“That’s my birthday party,” her mother says.
Margo looks back to the photo and scrutinizes it more closely. She only sees herself. Flipping to later photos, high school-aged, the face still looks like her own, but the clothing is from another generation. Heavy, clipped earrings and bulbous buttons she knows she never wore. The other people in the photos are strangers.
Margo looks back and forth between her mother and the photos. She finds nothing, no hint of similarity, no inkling of shared history. Yet, this face in the photo is her mother’s. Or was her mother’s, over thirty years ago. The face was Margo’s too, until a few days ago. And now it’s tucked away in an old lunch sack, where shameful things are kept.
HALEY KENNEDY lives in Northern California where she drinks a lot of tea and writes speculative fiction. In 2020, she completed an MSc in Linguistics. This is her first publication.