by Ian Rose
Alice looked left, then right, inspecting her fellow prisoners before peeling open the album. Mr. Densham scanned his eyes over the wall of board games, as he did every day. Alice had yet to see him actually choose and play one. Mrs. Ulrich sat at the window and watched the bird feeder, ready to tap her frail hand on the glass if her nemesis the squirrel should appear. They were all engaged in their regular patterns, and Alice opened the book, content now that she would not be bothered.
The photos on the first few pages were black and white, faded to sepia by the years they had spent in shoeboxes and stuck to refrigerators before finding a permanent home in the sticky plastic wrap of the album pages. The edges of some were cut into a scalloped design, a detail Alice noted and appreciated. Pictures were a commodity now, and no one bothered with the shape of them. She shook her head at the thought of better times and continued flipping through the pages.
“Ah,” she said aloud, and catching herself, she made another survey of the room. If anyone was paying attention, they were hiding it well, so she let herself sink back into the photograph that had elicited that sound from her. Covering one whole page was a wedding photo, a skinny young girl with freckles that even black and white photography could not hide and a tall man in an Army uniform, holding her hand with both of his.
She studied it, letting her eyes roam over every inch of his uniform, every pixel of his face. It had been years since she had been a man, and she had maybe never done it so well as that first time. Every time she picked up the album, this one always surprised her; she always forgot how handsome she had been.
The next few pages had shots of that same tall soldier, never changing so much as a haircut, as his pretty wife grew older in each image. In the last one of the set, the wife’s cheery smile had faded. Her freckles had turned to liver spots as she stared up at her husband. Not one of his hairs had gone gray; not one wrinkle had been added to that hard, kind face. In that one photo, she seemed to be just realizing it, and Alice kept her eyes on that one for a long while before turning the page to her next life.
This time, Alice had marked the page with a pen. “1962,” it said in blocky letters at the top, above three photos of a teenage girl and her friends. In each one, a small crowd of adolescent girls with haircuts ranging from buns to ruler-straight hippie styles grinned at the camera. She was in every shot, showing off the wide smile she had borrowed from her first wife. There was only one page of this girl - Debbie, she had called herself. At that age, change and growth were constant, not an ideal form for a shapeshifter. She never shifted into anyone that young again.
“Ms. Madsen?” Alice shut the album with a dry whump, and looked up suddenly at the unwelcome interruption. The nurse standing over her was one of the younger ones, here only a few weeks. She reminded Alice of someone, but no names came to mind.
“Ms. Madsen, it’s time to get some rest. The doctor asked me to limit your time in the common room. We don’t want you getting too much excitement.” She looked down and spotted the red leather cover of the album. “What do you have there? A book?”
Alice covered it up with her blanket and forced a smile at the infant that had been assigned to watch over her. “Just an old thing. I think you’re right. It is time for bed.” She rose up and placed the blanket on the little shelf of her walker, the album concealed inside. The nurse made a motion to help her, but she was up too quickly, and left the child to concentrate on her other charges.
Once back in her room, Alice laid the album and its soft wrapper on a low shelf and walked straight into her small private bathroom. As she had done countless times since she arrived at Arbor Acres Community, she took a moment both to bemoan her tiny and sparsely furnished apartment and to celebrate the relative luxury of the bathroom. Many of the less wealthy residents had to share one, and she could barely imagine losing this final privacy.
She brought herself to the mirror, and caught her own ancient eyes. The two main limits of her kind stared back at her from the polished surface above the little sink. One, a shapeshifter could do nothing about their eyes. Through all of her lives, all of her disparate shapes, she always kept these same baby blues, clouded as they had become in her old age. Second, the shifting was an ability of the skin, and just like regular humans, shifters’ skin lost its elasticity as it aged. She wiped her hand across her cheek and felt how it yielded and sagged. It had been almost a decade since she had picked this form, and she had known for at least half that time that it would be her last.
Alice stepped carefully back to her bed, gathering the album back up in her arms and laying down with it, opening back to the place she had been when the nurse had interrupted her. She paged through faster now, picking out her face in all of its various shapes and sizes. A few more wedding photos swept by, all of these with her in the dress rather than the suit and tie. The photos were all color now, each page looking sharper but somehow less real, as the quality of the inks and papers lessened with modernity.
Mixed in near the end, so far out of order, was the oldest of her photographs, a little girl and her mother posed together in an old-fashioned sitting room. Studying the girl’s face, Alice realized that it was only the bonnet and dress that identified her first shape as a girl at all. Her features were indistinct, unshaped. She had often wondered if that was always the way with her kind, if they came out like a ball of dough and remained unfinished until they chose a shape and face for themselves. She had never actually seen a baby of her own species. All of those husbands and that one wife were all human, and so there had never been any children.
Gazing down at her mother’s face, or at least the one she had worn for this ancient photograph, a thought came to Alice that had visited her more and more often as the years ticked by in her comfortable cell. Just as she had never seen a baby shapeshifter, she had never seen one of her own species die. She had never met her father, and her mother kept that face and that life captured in the photograph only long enough to get Alice through school, then she had disappeared as well. Her kind were not built for staying.
Alice wondered what face might greet the nurse that would inevitably find her one morning, laying silent in that soft little bed. Would it be her real face, the mushy, incomplete one in that childhood picture, or this last one she had settled into before committing herself to this place? Or was there maybe another shape that she had been hiding all along, keeping at bay without conscious effort, that might show itself when her old heart finally gave up beating? She laid the album beside her and closed her eyes, dreaming of all of her myriad lives and repeating to herself that she didn’t care what face they would find in her bed. It wouldn’t be her, regardless.