I had the hamburgers all merrily sizzling on the stove, the ketchup out, and a whole new six-pack of Coke waiting for Sue, my roommate, when she got home. I hadn't seen her for several days, since she gets home from work around 6:30, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays I go places before 6:00 and get home late. Nor do I get up in the morning, since I'm unemployed. Anyway, it was okay, since we stored up several days' worth of gossip and facts for Thursday night dinner.
So I waited and waited and waited, took the burgers off at 6:30, and she wasn't home yet, and I got a bit worried, because she takes the bus and the damn things rock so much, it probably fell over on its side. But way off in the distance I heard the stairwell door slam, and a few seconds later Sue fumbling with her keys, jingle jingle, the lock turning, and voila! "Hi!" I called from the kitchen table around the corner.
She didn't answer, just came straight into the kitchen and went right for the stove. I could hear her sniffing the air.
"Long time no see," I said cheerfully, turning half around in my seat. "Hurry up, get changed, come chow down before the burgers get cold."
To my surprise, her hand reached in and snatched a burger without putting it on a bun.
I turned all the way around and caught her departing back. "Cavegirl?" I ventured, but she was gone. Now, this was damned odd for Sue the Fastidiousgetting her hands all greasy on that burger, eating in her work clothes (!), not even using a plate; hell, even I wouldn't have done those things, me the original female Oscar Madison.
But it would have looked a lot less weird in me than it did in the Felix Unger of Aurora, Colorado, so I got up and went to her bedroom. The door was closed and had the "Do Not Disturb" sign up, but that thing usually gets flipped over accidentally, so I knocked. "Sue? Look, have I offended you? Is something wrong? Let me apologize in advance, and tell me what I did."
"Do Not Disturb!" she shouted through the door. Her mouth was full.
Well, okay, I wasn't going to weather her temper, but my evening had been quite spoiled, and I was now more than a little irritated at her. I went back to the table, thinking nasty thoughts, blaming her when I knocked over the ketchup.
Then I heard her door open, and she came into the kitchen. I turned to face her just as she lunged for another burger, and managed to block her hand. "Would you please tell me" I began hotly.
She stared directly into my eyes, and my voice died.
This was not Sue.
Oh, it was Sueround face, gray-blue eyes, close-cropped hairbut it wasn't. Don't ask me how I knew. Maybe she radiated wrongness, or some psychic gobbledygook like that. For damn sure she looked mean and nasty, with this little evil smile on her face, which was normally reserved for play-acting, but now for some reason looked like her usual expression.
She took advantage of my shock to push my hand away and take another hamburger. This time she devoured it right before me, with that evil grin, and I saw why she'd tried to keep hidden: her teeth were... pointed. Just a bit, but they sure weren't Sue's normal teeth.
"Oh my Christ," I whispered. "Doppleganger." Fantasy expert, you see.
But she looked at me in disgust. "No." And she went to the freezer to get a couple more hamburgers, there being none of the cooked ones left. She slid the hamburgers into the greasy pan on the stove and turned the heat all the way to high. Soon the things were popping and squirting furiously, raining spots of grease on her good clothes as she hung over them eagerlymy Sue would never have allowed that.
Then she favored me with a condescending glance. "Changeling, stupid."
"Change!" I sort of fell out of my paralysis. "But II thought theythat was only done with babies."
"But why?" I demanded, scrambling out of my chair but not going very close to hermy bravery has limits. "Where's the real Sue?"
She picked a half-cooked burger from the pan and chewed on it. "Gone," she supplied unhelpfully, swallowing. "Gone far, far away, hee hee! As for why? 'Cause we wanted to, that's why! 'Cause we could! So there! Gonna call the cops?" She waved the burger at me tauntingly.
Yeah, right. "Hello, officer, I'd like to report a changeling. " Welcome to the loony bin. "Look," I said as calmly as I could, quivering as I did with rage and fear. "I want my Sue back."
"Not from me you're finding out how to do that," and she finished the burger in one big gulp. Her face screwed up in disgust. "These flat burgers taste like cardboard! Why'nt you get ground beef and make your own?"
Enough; I grabbed the six-pack of Coke and locked myself in my room, put on a Beatles CD to drown her out. God damn, this wasn't happening! But it was, and after fifteen minutes or so of Coke-swilling and pacing, trying to decide whether I should call anyone and tell them, or push her out the window or something, I sat down on the bed and collected my scattered thoughts.
What the hell would I do? The normal channels simply didn't apply in this case. Most of the unnormal ones didn't either. We were talking heavy-duty fantasy problem here, and me the expert wasn't particularly expert on this sort of thing.
"Moron!" I snorted, and fired up my computer and the modem. I spent hours searching out fairy tale websites and printing off pages on my noisy little dot-matrix. Interesting irony there, by the way, using technology to defeat the supernatural. God forbid the elves (or whatever it was that took Sue) got their own computers. I also went to the Denver Public Library website and downloaded a bunch of titles to look up tomorrow.
I kept my door locked in case the Sue-thing tried to get at me, but it didn't, and in the morning it went off to her job as usual, or maybe someplace else. I hoped her jobshe'd just gotten it and couldn't afford unexcused absences.
Anyway, I fretfully read all the crap from the Internet and then decamped to the library with my title list and spend more hours going through stacks of books. (Thank God I was unemployed!)
Apparently, changeling patterns were all the same. Mother discovers ugly baby in crib; goes to wise woman; learns how to make the baby betray itself, usually with food; mother trots off to a faerie ring with kid; mother forces faeries to exchange back her kid. Great. Only.
"Where in hell am I gonna find a faerie ring in Colorado?" I said aloud in dismay. The stupid things were always in nice leafy forestat least that's what the stories implied. Well, to the east lay classic gold-grass prairie: useless. To the west, in the mountains, there was forest, but of the coniferous, needly type, and even if there was a faerie ring up there, damned if I was tramping around someone's private land looking for a circle of mushrooms. Too many NRA members eager to protect their territory.
I closed the book I was reading and lay my head on the table. Maybe I should just ignore the changeling, pretend nothing happened. After all, if the faeries wanted Sue badly enough to do something like this, they were probably treating her well. I was even a bit jealous; nothing supernatural ever happened to me. And the Sue-thing didn't blast out the obnoxious country music that the real one was partial to, and she hadnt noodged me about taking out the garbage or picking up the table, and she didn't, and "I must be going insane," I said aloud again, ignoring the irritated stares of nearby library patrons.
Glumly I picked up another book and skimmed it, uselessly. Damn the faeries, anyway! Why couldn't the little buggers leave
And, God forgive me, that gave me an idea.
Straightaway I went home and called my friend Tim. I was afraid he wouldn't be home yet, but I was lucky and caught him. "Hi, Tim," I said breathlessly. "Look, I need your help. You're going to think I'm crazy, but. " I explained that tonight was Sue's birthday, and I was completely short of people to fete her, Danas out of town, Sandras working, etc. Could he possibly round up some friends on extremely short notice?
I knew it was a weak story, but forget it if I told him the truth. He was tickled by the idea, and since (thank God) he didn't have anything to do that night, he promised to bring a squad of his friends and show up by 7:00. Of course, the steak dinner I promised them helped.
For my plan had two parts. Remembering the Sue-thing's lust for meat, I figured that was the best way to keep her in one spot, or at least make her full and torpid, easily imposed upon. When I was done with Tim, I went to Costco and bought a ton of good, cheap meat: ten pounds of tri-tip steaks, four pounds of ribeyes, a whole roast, and some filets for me.
I broiled and pan-fried for an hour. The smell in the apartment was not to be believed. My mother, on a low-cholesterol diet, would have undone all her good work with one sniff. I cooked and ate one of my filetsstrength and inspiration, you seeand arranged the other beef on the table. I admit I stole shreds here and there, but there was still a huge raft of food when the Sue-thing came into the apartment at 6:45. I was watching Jeopardy!, calling out the answers and ignoring her.
I was worried she might think something was afoot with all the meat, but my fear was wasted. As before, she went straight to it, and without even sitting down she picked up the roast and began to burrow into it. I stole a glance at her; she looked disgusting, her face and hair just coated with grease, and Sue's good green jacket completely wrecked.
She ate the roast faster than I would have thought possible and started on a length of tri-tip, and I began to clock-watch nervously. If those guys didn't hurry, my whole plan was shot, since I couldn't afford another meatfest like this.
They weren't there at 7:00, but luckily the Sue-thing was slowing down, burping before she took a ribeye and chewing gingerly. Still, the table was getting denuded, and I wondered if I would have to cook the rest of the filets.
Ding-dong! I practically flew to the door, fumbled with the lock in my nervousness, and opened it to display Tim and six chattering guys. He hugged me, introduced me around to the others, and licked his lips at the smell of steak.
"Okay," I whispered. "She's at the table. Go in there quietly, circle her, link hands, and start singing."
They flowed into the kitchen, and I hurried round through the living room. Sue looked suspiciously at the guys, but she was still too interested in the steak to run away. They were visibly startled by her appearance but pretended not to notice as they ringed her. I slipped in between them, and now the Sue-thing realized something was wrong, but before she could move the guys' hands were linked and she was trapped.
She snarled like a beast and rushed at the guys, but I grabbed her. Suddenly the seven guys started to glow. I don't think they noticed, because they were singing and never once broke the circle. The glow got brighter and brighter; the Sue-thing whined and fought me, and if I hadn't gotten excited I would have lost her, but I could sense victory and clung desperately, even as she tried to scratch my eyes out. Not with glasses on, thank you.
Behind the guys, everything was getting misty, and I saw shapes moving around. Soon I could distinguish surprised-looking people gaping at us, and then I couldnt see the ring of guys or my apartment at all; oh, marvel! Spread out before me was a faerie court, glittering colors, gems, knights and ladies, a king and queen. The Sue-thing wailed and stopped fighting.
I was too fascinated to do anything immediately, until I saw Sue, my Sue, standing next to the Queen's throne. She looked as though she'd been beaten, and her clothing was in rags, but on seeing me she gasped and sprang forward, only to fall against a courier. I saw why: there was a silver chain on her leg. "Bastards!" I roared, and with all my strength I flung the changeling into the court. She stumbled through the invisible ring of guys and fell flat on her greasy face: wonderful sight! Then I took my Swiss army knife from my pocket, opened a blade at each end, and waved it with menace. The cold iron business I hadn't been too sure of, since the Sue-thing would have had to deal with such during the day, but if she didn't use a fork and knife. Sure enough, there was a collective sob as the court cringed away from me. "All right," I said, triumphantly businesslike, "give me my Sue or I'll carve you into dog kibble." With a Swiss Army knife, mind you. Hell, I didn't even dare leave the invisible circle.
If I'd been them I'd've thrown rocks, but I guess the faerie have rules they have to abide by, or maybe they're just incredible cowards. Regardless, the king made a hurried gesture, a page ran over and unlocked Sue's chain, and they pushed her towards me. Crying now, she staggered into my arms (I got the knife out of the way).
I looked over her heaving shoulder at the faeries. "Keep your hands to yourselves from now on, because I can get to you any time I want, and if you screw around with anyone I'll come back in here and melt you with iron."
Boy, they looked mad. Well, screw them, they started it.
We actually didn't get out of there for several more minutes, since Tim and the guys kept their hands together and I sure didn't know how to return us. To pass the time, I exchanged rather embarrassed snarly stares with the members of the court. Finally, though, one of the guys went off to the bathroom, breaking the chain, and Sue and I faded back into reality. Of course the guys noticed that her clothes changed as if by magic (hah!), so we (Sue between sobs) explained the real purpose behind my invitation.
Thank God they took it well. Sue's wretched condition and the incredible nature of the events deflated any objections they might have had. The evening actually ended quite merrily, although the guys didn't get as much steak as they'd have liked.
When they left, some of them arm in arm, Sue (who'd recovered herself enough to bemoan the mess in the kitchen) watched them go and shook her head in admiration. "Deb, I have to admit, only you would come up with a rescue like that."
"Dirty minds do have a use," I said, laughing. "Although I almost expected to end up in San Francisco. Imagine what havoc the gay community could cause in the faerielands. Come on, that lousy changeling made a mess that even I can't stand."
See the "About the Editor" page. This is by no means my first non-Beatle story, but it's one of the few I have that I've actually finished....