This story is by Bo Cramer and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Herman stepped off a jetway sporting a new face and body. Only yesterday, he’d been staring through the window of a café, hoping the freckled woman that passed by would notice him.
It started with an Irish kid and a particularly bad interview. When Herman leveled with the kid and told him a hire wasn’t likely in his future, the kid curled his lips and said, “you seem lonely.”
Before Herman could express the insult he took to that very accurate observation, the kid launched into a spiel about granting powers to change his face, body, and even his language. Herman could be whoever, “Just as long as I can take your place for a bit,” the kid said. “Job and all.”
Herman smiled and nodded through all this. He’d heard plenty of impossible bargains before. People would say anything in this economy to get a job, but this had been the first time someone had offered him something supernatural. He felt sorry for the kid but unable to help and short on time, Herman eventually said, “fine,” and left. That night, Herman pinched the flab around his midsection and wished the kid could follow through with what he’d promised.
The following morning, Herman found his stomach fat had melted away in his sleep, and his face had shaved off at least a decade’s worth of age. Either he was dying from a brain aneurysm that caused hallucinations, or the kid’s promise had been real.
Herman made a call to his office, and when he heard his own voice answer the phone with just the faintest trace of an Irish accent, he hung up. He then looked back in the mirror and thought about his jawline, his height, and the definition of his pecs. With each thought, his body improved, tightened, and reversed itself in age. He truly could become whoever he wanted.
“Look at me, Seth.” He flexed for the cat lying on his sofa. “She’d have to notice me now, right?”
Seth yawned, unimpressed by his owner.
But Herman didn’t care what Seth thought. If he hurried to the café, he might still have time to see her. To pass her in this better body and, at last, catch her eye. He grabbed his coat, which now fit loose around his shoulders, sprinted through the hallway, and just as he made it to the elevator, he stopped.
What would he say to her?
He knew looks could only go so far, and if he were to meet her now, he’d probably ruin everything by saying something off-putting or awkward. Maybe if he blew it, he could change his appearance, put on a new face, and try again like in a video game?
But that would be disingenuous. Manipulative. He wanted her to love him, not some new person he pretended to be.
Then an idea came to him. With the kid doing his job, he’d earned himself a little vacation. He could go wherever, do whatever, and more importantly, he could study.
If he didn’t know how to make the freckled woman love him now, he could practice with as many women as possible until he learned to become a man anyone could love. Then he would return and make a proper first impression. He would be the man she deserved.
“I won’t be gone long, Seth.” He threw a pile of laundry into a small duffel and scrounged for his passport. “A quick jaunt. A fact-finding mission. Someone will check on you and feed you, and I’ll be home soon. I promise.”
Herman ignored the look of pity and disappointment in Seth’s face, then left.
In Toronto, he met a waitress who liked men who were blunt, so he tried to be less polite. In LA, an aspiring actress convinced him how important it was to know people who knew people. And in Sao Paolo, Herman learned to dance. He’d never enjoyed dancing, and his moves were appalling and clownish, repelling women as if he’d been soaked in citronella. It took time and practice to fix his broken rhythm, and though he eventually learned to Samba straight from a club and into a stranger’s bed, he never enjoyed it. Apart from the night’s activities, of course.
In each of these places, he never stayed long, never spent two nights with the same woman, and never kept his appearance the same. It was all data for the freckled woman. He kept mental records of different looks and attitudes to gauge what was desirable and what was not. He would not lose himself to the distractions of these experiences, and he kept his gaze focused on his future.
Until he met a professor in Paris.
She developed his tastes for wine and his eyes for art. She took him to see a play where a man pretended to be insane to seduce an asylum keeper’s wife, which Herman didn’t understand. She had a smoking habit and a wandering gaze, but Herman didn’t mind. For the first time since he’d left, Herman didn’t think about home. Perhaps this was the Herman he’d meant to be all along.
But the professor sensed his incompleteness. Her nose wrinkled when he said things that did not seem genuine, and she got bored with his attempts to dance with her and discuss beautiful things, even if that’s what she usually liked to do. When she told him she didn’t know who he was, Herman responded he was the man she loved. She shook her head and told him he was no one.
Herman wandered from Belfast to Derry, mourning the loss of the professor. Each night he drank until he puked, and every morning he willed away the hangover. He staggered stupid and lovesick and drunk until he met a girl in Galway. Though she didn’t play the fiddle like the song said, she loved live music. Bands played at her pub on Shop Street, a local staple passed from father to son until it landed in her care. Herman sat at the bar every night, nursed a single Guinness, and listened to her tell stories.
She was fascinated with folktales and wanted to go back to school to study them. Her favorite was also about the creature that scared her most, the changeling. According to legend, they were the offspring of fairies, who secretly took the place of human children to live their days for themselves. Why they made this switch, no one knew.
When Herman asked what happened to the children that they replaced, she shivered and whispered, “God, I don’t wish to know.”
One night, after the band had finished their set and Herman was helping her mop beer and sweat from the floor, they bumped hips. As they turned to press their lips together, Herman slipped and bashed his teeth into hers. They laughed.
He walked her home, and she invited him inside, and when he awoke the next morning in her bed, she was gone. Outside the bedroom, he heard the hissing of a skillet, the laugh of a small child, then the word, “Mom.” He snuck out the window and changed his appearance before his feet hit the ground.
He did not learn anything from that.
It took Herman four more months to return home, and when he did, he knew he’d learned enough to impress the freckled woman. He went to the café when he knew she would pass, gathered himself, and struck a confident pose.
He would finally have the only thing he ever wanted.
But his posture deflated when he noticed his reflection in the café window. Nothing about him looked familiar. After so many variations and versions of himself, he couldn’t recognize the man he’d become, or remember the man he’d been. All the boundaries that distinguished him from the men he’d pretended to be had vanished, and with them, so had Herman.
Except trundling down the street toward him came the old Herman. Plump bodied and round-faced, he had his arm wrapped around the freckled woman. She nestled into the crook of his arm. Though the changeling said nothing, he winked at Herman as he passed.
For all Herman thought he’d learned in his travel, he still had nothing to say. He watched, mouth agape, as the woman of his dreams walked off with the old version of himself.
Herman, or whoever he was now, slunk home to his apartment for the first time in months. The door creaked as he pushed it open. Dust lingered in the air. The smell of must filled his nostrils. And plopped on the couch, right where he’d left him, lay Seth.
He feared the cat wouldn’t recognize him, but Seth lifted his head, shot him a told-you-so look, and returned to his nap.
“I should’ve listened,” Herman said, then added, “how do you feel about Ireland?”