“Chimeras” was a Notable Story for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016.
by Julie Steinbacher
You’ve heard going chimera is addictive. You’ve never done any hard drugs, so you’re not afraid of what this means. The “Free Consultations” sign on the clinic has drawn you in, not for the first time. It’s raining lightly in the city and droplets cling to your long hair and your nose. Bumps rise on your bare arms. You have the money for the first operation–savings you were going to put toward an apartment just for you and him–and the time: your whole life. You push open the door.
The waiting room is full of people. Some have only subtle modifications, pigment alteration to suggest stripes, lengthened earlobes, eyes that shine in the low lamplight. There are others who stare at you with unblinking reptilian irises, or who run sandpaper tongues across pointed canines. And then there are the other naturals like you, all huddled in one corner, stinking to some, probably, like fear and nerves. The bravado leaks out of you, but you force yourself to the desk, where you add your name to the list.
Then you find a place to sit in the center of the room and avoid eye contact with everyone, natural or not. You’re not going to lose your nerve now. You’re making a choice, going against all the promises you made to T–but then, he broke his promises to you.
Magazines litter the end tables to make the room look more homey. Animal women are on their covers, or beautiful animal men. There are interviews in Fur & Scales with a handful of celebrities on their personal journeys to chimera. The season’s fashions are highlighted on a page–lacy webbed fingers, dappled rumps, prehensile tails. Your name is called and you furl the magazine and put it in your purse.
After the consultation you have an appointment for your first modification. The date and time are written on a smooth card that you slide into your jeans pocket and touch from time to time on the bus ride home.
Your roommates are out, so you slip into your room and strip naked before a mirror. You slide your hands across your thighs and press the jut of each hipbone, stroke the curve of your belly. Briefly you cup each breast and consider its heft and shape. You think about how each part will look, down the line, when you’ve gotten all the modifications you want.
“You’re fucking beautiful,” T used to tell you when you made love. It was a friend of yours that saw him in a restaurant with another woman, and it was over when you learned how many he’d slept with while seeing you.
The sound of the front door pulls you from your reverie, and you put on a robe. You remove the card from your jeans pocket–a corner bent, now–and put it in the drawer of your nightstand. For now, your secret.
You take a half-day from work for the procedure. It’s in-and-out; the first modifications are often slight, like the remaining balance in your bank account.
When you come to, face smarting, the air feels different. The surgeon brings you a mirror. Quivering on either side of the bead of your nose is a set of whiskers. Your upper lip is swathed in bandages, but you know beneath them each long white hair extends from a dark spot like a freckle.
Delicately, you brush the end of one, and it sets a vibration and a numb blood-beat of pain through your nose and lips.
“Be very careful,” the surgeon warns. “You’ll need some time to adjust.” He ticks off a list of activities you must avoid while the site heals.
Still gazing at yourself in the mirror, you decide the whiskers add seriousness and studiousness to your face. When the bandages come off, they might even be sensual.
Friends and coworkers notice the change immediately. Strangers take an interest in you. It’s a little unnerving how much more frequently you get cat-called.
The whiskers change your sense of the world, of crowded spaces and dark rooms. At first, taking the bus is overwhelming, the whoosh and sway of doors opening and people moving and crowding you. Then you savor every trickle of air that works its way to you through your lips. You decide you’re ready to try dating, or even just to kiss someone.
You begin to dress differently and to move differently, with more grace. Your boss notices the change, too. He doesn’t say anything untoward, but you get recommended for a pay raise at the end of the quarter. You already have your next modification in mind.
After you finish the whiskers with a set between your eyebrows, you look into bioluminescent tattoos. You’ve been on a handful of dates, and yes, kissing is ten times better with the whiskers. So is everything else. The pain of T, the rejection, you’ve buried all of that in sheets and caresses.
Some of your lovers have modifications, too. They growl or nip with sharpened teeth, lie cold-blooded beneath you or flutter fingertip-wings across your body.
“You’re having a lot of sex,” your friend B observes one evening as you clean up together from dinner in your apartment. You’ve known her since college, and she’s been steadfast through the ups and downs that followed your breakup with T. Lately, though, she’s cautious around you. The last time you met her out with a new friend, a partial like yourself, he commented that she smelled frightened of him.
You nod. “I’m trying new things.”
“It seems expensive. The modifications, I mean.”
“It’s an investment,” you tell her, twitching your whiskers.
B frowns and turns to the kitchen sink to scrub a pan.
“Does it make you happy?” she asks.
“Life is more interesting.”
You sweep crumbs off the table.
“I just hope you’re being careful,” she says over the sound of the faucet.
You get the tattoos, in strings down your sides where only your lovers will see them. But you’ve got big plans for the rest of you. There’s a soft burble in your voice, now–you’ve always loved budgies. It helps placate people on the phone, and the raises keep coming at work. You can talk your way into anyone’s good graces.
You see less of your old friends now, but you’ve been going to new clubs and cafés since you started. There are clubs exclusively for “full” chimeras, a set of insiders who’ve been having surgery for years; others for “partials” like you, who’ve just begun on the path; and places open to people who run the gamut from animal to natural. Your ears perk up (and soon they literally will) when you hear people talk about chimeras. The word “unnatural” offends you now.
At some point you realize it’s been weeks since you’ve thought of T, and you delete his number from your phone. You’ve got a date this weekend with a woman who’s just had her whole hide detailed, and you can’t wait to ask her about the process. Or to touch her. She’ll feel so good against your skin.
When your boss suggests that you owe him something for the special treatment, you quit and start blogging for a magazine that publishes human interest stories on chimeras. With a few other projects on the side, you have enough money to move into your own place. It means saving longer for modifications, but your roommates were beginning to stare at you, stale silences popping up whenever you entered a room.
The chimera community is growing day by day. So are groups lobbying to have the surgeries banned. A rightwing politician cracks a joke about how it should be legal to hunt chimeras. “They’re mostly animal anyway,” he shrugs.
You take a bus to Washington and march with your fellow “freaks,” carrying a sign you decorated.
“Chimera: More than Human. Still Human,” it says.
The march is peaceful until the afternoon heat sets in, and then small scuffles break out with a group of police who are shooing protestors out of the shade of the Washington Monument. You’re not there when the teargas is used, but you rush in to help the people who have been sprayed.
You had your tear ducts removed, so you sneeze and sneeze, but you don’t drop a single tear.
A local paper asks to run a story on you, and then your face is on the front page–whiskered, jackal-eyed, cockatiel-pinked and calf-eyelashed. People recognize you at the clubs, now. Fresh partials want to ask you questions about your next surgery, or the range of sound you get out of your fennec ears. Naturals on the street approach curious about what you changed first.
In the fresh wave of interest you meet someone new, a man with a salamander/otter thing going. It was his voice that drew you to him, soft and sibilant in your new ears with shades of earthy. He’s long and slender, with a heavy ruff of fur at his neck and chest. His hands are often warm and damp, and when he’s away you miss the way they suction to your breasts.
You are more animal than human, to a casual observer, when you run into T at the organic foods market. It’s not in your neighborhood anymore, but it’s worth the extra-long trip, and the cashiers are usually friendly or partials themselves.
You sense, rather than see him, when you turn the corner into the produce section. And there he is, checking an apple for bruising. He raises it in his human hand and gazes at it with human eyes. He’s still good-looking.
Even under the bright cockatiel spots of your cheeks you feel yourself flushing. Your whiskers twitch and make you sneeze. He glances your way and seems not to recognize you.
In line, you let yourself relax, focus on pawing up the items for check-out.
Then you hear your name, harshly grating among the parade of new sounds you’ve learned to tune out, and your ears swivel back. He’s in line behind you.
“Is that really you?” he asks, gaping.
Subconsciously you scan the food in his basket–is the chocolate bar for him or someone else? It only looks like enough to fill a bachelor’s fridge.
“How are you?” you ask, letting the budgie coo sugar your words.
He scratches his head and tears his eyes from you, looks again.
“I’m doing alright,” he says. “I guess you’re doing pretty well for yourself.”
“Yeah.” This time you let the ice in. “Yeah, I’m engaged now.” And you flash the ring on a chain around your neck. It sparkles atop a crest of bright green feathers.
“Wow,” he reddens. “Well, that’s great. Good for you.”
You nod, the still-human skin on you prickling.
“Well, take care,” you say, and as you exit, you sincerely hope you never see him again.
You’re married for two years before salamander/otter cheats on you with another chimera. It hurts, but what hurts more is she’s got all the modifications you were thinking about, surgeries you’d stayed up late discussing with him. A lot of his things go in the trash. A lot of your things go to friends or Craigslist. You have to downsize.
It doesn’t escape you that your last two serious relationships have ended in infidelity. You don’t invite this upon yourself, do you? Haven’t you changed, haven’t you grown stronger, in all this time?
In the park to get out of your head, you run into B, who you haven’t spoken to in a couple years. She waves a trailing fin, almost apologetically, and you can’t blow her off. A little prehensile tail rises in a question behind her hip.
“Do you have time for coffee?” you ask.
In the café she spills about how painful the tail surgery was, asks about feather implants, eyelid shaping.
“Stay away from scales,” you warn her. “They’re a bitch to get in, and then they fall out and catch on things and you have to replace them.”
B smiles, then toys with the sleeve on her cup.
“I’m sorry I was weird about it,” she says. “I was worried about you.”
She stares out the window at a family, two partials pushing a stroller between them, their little natural gem inside.
Looking down at herself, she shakes her head, floppy ears wagging.
“And now I feel like I’m turning inside out.” She sighs. “I wonder if I made the right choices.”
It’s almost as though you can see through her now, although the flesh she wears is opaque. What she looks like inside is you, years ago. You nudge her hand with your paw and she snaps upright.
“Do you feel more like you? Are you doing it for yourself?”
She shifts, mouth open, her iridescent fins catching the light.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” you say.
You crumple your napkin and turn to the window again. The changing world, where chimera is used more and more as a word for person.
Her eyes fill with tears. She follows your gaze out the window and blinks.
“I have to go,” she says. “Maybe we can do this again sometime?”
You nod and stand for a careful hug. Her fins fall around you like a veil.
“You’ll be fine,” you say into the ginger fur of her ear.
“Yeah.” B steps back and tries to smile through the blinking. She keeps a hand on your arm. “Just like you.”
She leaves in a soft rustle of fins. You stay, watching her retreat down the sidewalk, wondering at the prickling pain where your tear ducts used to be.
About the Author
Jae Steinbacher lives in Seattle, WA, and works for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can follow Jae on Twitter @JaeSteinbacher and find links to more of their fiction at jaesteinbacher.com/publications.
Their Escape Pod story “Chimeras” was a Notable Story for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016.
About the Narrator
Jessica Dubish is a sophomore Theatre Major at George Mason University. George Mason University; The Merchant (Gypsy Busker), Women and Wallace (Victoria), Slumber Party (Nancy), The Blue Room (The Girl), The Vagina Monologues (My Angry Vagina), Dido, Queen of Carthage (Cupid). Jessica is a Teaching Artist at Acting for Young People.