Morgan let the scuffed toes of her boots kick in the gravel that crunched beneath her, dragging her feet more and more with each slow step up the butte. It hadn't used to be such an exhausting climb... in fact, Morgan could remember days when it had been a quick, exhilarating run powered by an endless energy.
She stopped and perched on an uncomfortable spur of stone, gazing back the way she'd come with some sense of disappointment that it wasn't nearly as far as she felt like she'd gone. I'm too young to be an old woman. Morgan thought to herself, pursing her lips against the dry air and fishing in the canister of trail-mix that had accompanied her up for chocolate. Where had that energy gone? It had started, really, at puberty... the decline in her wellbeing. Her periods had started later than all her friends, waiting until she was almost fifteen before finally coming around with cramps and nausea that would sometimes keep her out of school for days at a time. By the time her freshman year of high school was halfway over, she had to have a medical waiver for her absences on file with the administration.
She started losing weight, too, about that time. Her parents - concerned that it was the peer pressure of high school overtaking their daughter's health - took her to a youth counselor who sent her to a specialist who couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. After a little while, the weight loss slowed down, but Morgan couldn't escape the feeling that she was wasting away. A variety of problems cropped up over the next few years, in the joints or the nerves, in her lungs or heart. The phantom moved from one facet of her life to another, slowly dissembling it piece by piece. A downhill trend would stop, or seem to slow, after a time, before the debilitation became to substantial. However, Morgan never felt as though she had recovered.
High school drew to a close, and for lack of anything with any more direction to fill her time Morgan began attending a local college. She found herself forced into a lighter course load than her friends and slipping slowly, slowly, behind the rest of them as they moved onward toward the rest of their lives.
She stood with a breath rattling in her chest and continued her ascent toward the top of the butte. Lately, her energy had been even more inconsistent, and she suspected her body's latest betrayal having to do with inconsistent blood sugar of some kind. There was a small nagging voice in the back of her mind (that sounded remarkably like her mother's) that said something about scheduling an appointment to see the doctor about it, but she had been spending the last couple of weeks trying to put it as far from mind as she could. In all of Morgan's tired life, she was most tired of constantly marching through clinics and offices, searching for answers to myriad of problems that continually seemed to slip the noose of diagnosis.
It took her another twenty minutes to reach the top, with two stops, but at last she came over the edge. The gentler terrain below the hill spread in greys and greens toward the city, and on her other side darkened into a (thick) forest let largely to its own wildness. Dropping her shoulders wearily and leaning down to set the trail mix on the ground beside her boots, Morgan turned in a slow circle to take in the surrounding landscape. She hadn't intended to be out quite this late, but it had taken her three times longer to walk out, and up, the remote sweep of land than she'd foreseen. The sun had dropped down below the horizon at its lazy winter angle, leaving the sky (grey) and slow to darken fully. Color was beginning to drain from the landscape.
A small rustle behind her captured Morgan's attention, and she drew back from the horizon, turning to seek out the source of the sound. A solid shape was moving among the shadows that were beginning to collect around the stubby vegetation and broken stone strewn around where she stood. It wasn't very large, she thought, a medium sized animal though she couldn't tell much about it from the glimpse she'd caught and the way it moved. Nonetheless, it did spook her a bit, and she found herself stepping back, eyes searching among the inanimate shapes for the one that was alive.
After a second of listening to her own heartbeat, Morgan saw it move again, this time substantially closer to her. It made her clench her hands anxiously at her sides, mind immediately grabbing hold of the sensation that it shouldn't have been able to get that much closer to her, that fast, without having made a sound or a detectable motion through the twilight, especially considering that she had focussed her full attention on looking for it during those moments. Morgan tried to soothe herself, reminding herself that wild animals were crafty in ways that humans didn't necessarily understand.
All the while, she was staring at the shape. It swayed in and out of her perception, seeming to be shrouded in shadow no matter where she caught sight of it. Before she had a chance to get much further away - it must have been coming for the food she'd brought up the hill with her - it was right in front of her, barely more than an arms length away. More unsettling, it seemed to be changing shape, growing and stretching into the frame of a man, or a boy. Morgan's brows knit together, (tension) gathering at the base of her spine and crawling coldly up her back to nest at her shoulders. She didn't have a chance to act; to fight or run, to speak a warning or salutation, before he was there standing in front of her.
He - it - was unlike anything she'd ever seen. His back was to the setting sun, silhouetting his shape and blotting out most of the details. She could, however, see his face mostly for the outline of his eyes which seemed to be aglow, faintly, as if with some unfading remnant of ghost electricity. He wasn't much bigger than she was, the edges of his shadow indistinct and tattered, like the remnants of moss and windswept autumn leaves. He took a brazen step forward and she gasped, trying to pull back, but her heel caught in a bramble and she nearly lost her balance. The creature reached out a hand, and as much as it was not to catch or steady her, it was as un-threatening. Against the blue-grey back light, his fingers uncurled to reveal a ghostly illumination.
In the new light, Morgan could see him as she couldn't before. The argent light rolled like liquid over the colors and textures of him, in browns and blacks and dingy autumn greens. His face was round and grinning, as much like a boy's face as it was an old man's, eyes still lit by the whisper of brightness. The childlike smile widened, and the creature, with his bony digits and leaf-hair extended his other hand toward her, this time reaching. Inexorably, Morgan was drawn to place her fingers against his palm.
With remarkable power, he spun her toward him, whirling in a dance she didn't recognize. Her feet, however, seemed to know the steps. Although she was initially afraid of falling, having entangled her boot in a thorny branch moments before, Morgan was quickly drawn in to the swift rhythm of his sweeping step. He danced her across the even top of the hill, deftly around the brush and stones, dizzyingly close to the steep edge and then back again. She was quickly breathless but uncaring, her other hand finding his. It felt like they danced forever.
Morgan's head spun, heavy. She tried unsuccessfully to pull her eyes open, as if trapped on the edge of sleep. Two bony hands were on her shoulders as she felt her brow sinking into the earthy smell and slightly rough texture of dead leaves. From the corner of one half-open eye, Morgan caught a glimpse of a small stone knife inlaid with impossibly fine filigree that looked like pearl or abalone. It flashed close to her face, reflecting the ghost light back in patterns that looked like the moon through water.
Morgan swayed as he pulled away from her, a shiny lock of her air in the pincer grip of his conic fingers. With a grin, he tucked it behind his ear and went to parting the cloak of leaves that sheeted his form. Lifting her hands to her blouse, as if moving through some kind of impossible space or hyper-dense air, Morgan felt herself undoing the buttons. The blouse and her bra fell back away from the curve of her shoulders, the chilling air - now further fraught with shadow - plucking goosebumps all over her skin. She slipped off her boots, pants pooling around her ankles. It was difficult not to observe as one would from an outside perspective, watching herself and the leaf-boy with equal, if estranged, interest. Their naked shapes were very different... his bony to her supple, her cold-flushed skin to his sallow pallor.
He extended the musty cloak toward her, beckoning with his other hand. The ball of light was at his shoulder now, casting eerie shadows across his spare figure. She stepped away from the fading warmth of her discarded clothing, muscles moving as if of their own volition even as she watched her fingers wrap around the edges of the cloak. He released its weight unto her and bounded toward the pile of man-made cloth. Morgan drew the garment close to herself, feeling with bemused wonder the faint dampness of the ground, the chill as if stone lay deep beneath it, sleeping. Lifting her eyes back to the blurring line of the distant horizon, she wrapped the cloak around her shoulders, letting the heavy smell of soil and organic decay envelop her senses. Her skin prickled against it in a sensation that she initially thought was just a reaction to the cold, but soon felt digging deeper and deeper into her body.
Fear crept sleepily to her throat, unable to gain a real foothold for some reason even as, inexplicably, she felt her body begin to change. It started at the center of her chest, where the cold feeling was deepest, as if her very nerves were recoiling back in on themselves. The soft fullness of her breasts seemed to evaporate away, the arch of her ribs shifting painlessly into a more arched shape beneath skin that felt as though it was growing at once thinner and more resilient. Her belly, too, sank to the hip-bones, tightening into a complex network of tightly corded abdominal muscles. Morgan clutched at it, her fingers acting on their own curiosity even as she was desperately trying to stop it - whatever it was - from occurring.
The chill in her breath and blood did not stop spreading, however. It moved through her hips to her sex and, sinking to her knees on the stony ground, Morgan felt with horror as the softest places in her body chilled and changed, inside and out. Her thighs withered, turning thin but powerful. Her feet arched and hardened, built for running difficult terrain, Morgan's arms went ropey, too. She brought her hands up to her face and watched the skin of her fingers tighten around the bones and tendons Then, finally., her eyes slipped beyond them.
The leaf-boy had, in the mean time, dressed in her discarded clothing and undergone the opposite transformation. Morgan now, impossibly, looked up toward a shape that was growing to look more and more like herself. The (creature) stared at its hands, its bony body filling softly out underneath her blouse and jeans.
The lasting cold sensation had nearly overtaken Morgan's entire body; she felt as though water was closing over her head. She stared at the metamorphosis of the shadowy being into the image of herself, and found that she had to look away. A glitter of light caught the slow-focussing attention of her eyes. The inlaid knife that the creature had used to cut away a lock of her hair lay on the ground between them, dropped in his anxiety to start assuming her identity. Morgan reached out to take it.
Morgan's new fingers closed around the chill stone, hypersensitive to its subtleties of wind-washed texture. The stone was cold, as if its faintly porous surface were still sea-damp from many years underneath the water. The inlay, by contrast, had two distinct streams at this close proximity; one of abalone and the other of bone. Of, Morgan thought, human bone. The white filigree was warm. The moment became one of wonder for her, as she realized suddenly she could feel things that she never could have felt before. The world, it seemed, prickled at her spine... she could feel the uncomfortably minuscule shifts in the pebbles beneath her knees that supported her weight, slipping ever so slowly against one another, as well as she could feel unfathomably small shifts in the wind-currents that swept around them. The horizon, instead of existing only in her vision, existed on the edge of tangibility; a ridge that confined her, rather than some ephemera in the interminable distance.
So, too, could she feel the eyes upon her. After a moment, all these things registered, like the complex blush that follows a sip of good wine rendering fully on the new capacities of her consciousness. The now-human girl, standing cold in the darkening air, was looking down at its former self.
Morgan closed his fingers around the stone dagger and pushed himself to a stand. The remarkably unfamiliar sensation of strength that flooded through his limbs sent a dizzying wave of adrenaline rushing his brain, sharpening his awareness further. Shivering, the girl flattened her hands across her torso, clawing gently at the sensation of warmth beneath the thin cloth. A horror that was slow, but deep, was registering on her features. Morgan straightened, effortless in the glow of this stolen strength, and drew the little knife in close to his chest beneath the cloak of leaves, which now felt as natural as skin to him. The girl reached a trembling hand out, her eyes pleading wordlessly, but Morgan found himself falling back a step, and then another.
He knew the kind of pain she had to be in, in this cold, her muscles burning from the agonizing trip up the butte. ***He could see that she understood, now, that she'd been lured into a trap by a creature that, steadily from moment to moment, she was beginning to lose the capacity to understand. He could see that she was beginning to understand, too, the atrophy that was taking place - at an anomalously accelerated rate - inside her body.
He didn't want to go back in to that fleshy casket.
Morgan gave her one final, long look and, without having a tongue that would grasp the language of men, he turned and bounded off down the treacherous slope of the butte. His fleet strides were silent in the thickening darkness, limbs - of which he ran on all fours - finding an unobstructed path almost effortlessly. Exhilaration swam through him. He was free at last.