Fan Fiction

A Million Shades of Grey
by Tom Irony

The cab slowly ground to a halt under the flickering streetlight and world-weary boots stepped out the passenger side. As Jennifer Stone emerged from the cab, she took a moment to observe the house before them and resisted the urge to light a cigarette. An older woman in the back seat of the cab paid the driver and then climbed out. She looked far more cheerful than Jen who did her best to stay aloof.

“They’re here!” chirped Crystal, clapping her hands with the kind of delight only she could muster.
Jack managed a smile despite being obviously worried. “You know, I’m not sure I want to be here for this.”
“Oh hush, I’m sure Jen knows what she’s doing,” replied Crystal, heading to the front door.
From somewhere in the house came Sam’s voice, “Crap! They’re here already?!” followed by the rustling of a coat and the back door opening and closing.
Crystal opened the door wide. “Jen!”
“Crystal!” smiled Jen, catching her in a warm embrace. Then, over Crystal’s shoulder: “Jack, nice to see you physically.”
“Hey,” he said with a half-smile. Then, quietly and through clenched teeth: “Are you sure this is going to work?”
She shot him a look that said: shut up, she’s behind me.
The woman behind Jen was obviously older than all of them, the crow’s feet at her eyes starting to show when she smiled at Jack and Crystal. “Oh, just look how you’ve grown since I last saw you!” They hugged and she took a second to examine them both. “Oh, Crystal, you haven’t lost your spark. And Jack, my, what a handsome young man you turned out to be.”
“How was the trip?” asked Jack, a hint of desperation barely masked in the edge of his voice.
“Oh, I’m not really one for travel, but could you help me with this luggage?”
They all started to scramble for the suitcases at the door when the sound of a shattering coffee mug brought all of their attention to the entrance of the kitchen. Standing there in a bathrobe, bathed in bright halogen light so that every feature was clearly illuminated, was Sandra, broken ceramic shards at her hooves, warm coffee seeping slowly into the carpet where it met the kitchen’s linoleum. An intensely powerful silence struck them all as Sandra’s three eyes focused past Jen and onto the now equally-stunned woman in the doorway.
A single word escaped Sandra’s lips.

* * *

They stood in the newly-formed hole in the wall, staring up at the night sky in surprise.
“I’ve never seen her react like that,” muttered Jack.
“She jumped right out of her bathrobe!” said Crystal, picking the torn robe from the floor.
“I’d better go find her,” Jack nobly proclaimed, ready to step out into the night.
He was stopped by a finger from Jen. “Halt! Trust me, I figured something like this would happen. Leave it to me.”

* * *

Among the church’s rooftop gargoyles sat the dark and hunched figure of Sandra, a turmoil of emotions causing her to fidget and twist, covering herself with her wings and occasionally clawing at the tiles beneath her hooves. She suddenly froze when she heard footsteps approaching the church from down below. In the dead of night like this, the sound echoed off the alleyway walls. Sandra knew her own voice would carry just as well.
“How could you?” she asked, slumping down onto the roof. She felt herself slowly draining, defeated. “Why couldn’t you wait? Why couldn’t you wait until Jack found a… a cure?” She could hear the female grunting of someone unaccustomed to climbing along the side of the church. Sandra couldn’t help picturing Jen losing her grip or slipping on the tiles and wondered briefly if she would even try to help her. She closed her wings closer around herself. “My mom never had to find out I was like this. How can you not understand that I’ve been doing everything I can to keep my life together…? And then you throw it in my face, like this—“
She turned to face Jen but instead found herself face-to-face with her mother. Her mother’s jacket was torn in a few places and her palms were scratched and bloodied from the climb, but all her attention was on Sandra.
Sandra’s mouth moved but no sound came out. Everything in her wanted to launch away again as her mother gravitated closer, but she was rooted to the spot. Gently, her mother took one of her clawed hands and looked it over. Her gaze scanned over Sandra completely with an expression of sorrow and sympathy only a mother could summon, and she spoke under her breath: “Oh, my poor sweet little girl.”
Struck deeply by the honest emotion in those few words, Sandra felt all her notions of protection and fear and shame fall apart, dropping into her mother’s arm like a child and crying from all three eyes. For a moment, she felt her mother tense as acid tears sizzled where they fell on her arm, but her tight embrace kept Sandra from pulling away.

From several blocks away, Jen could see the two figures on the rooftop. She panted for breath, leaning against a doorframe and pulling her cigarettes from her coat pocket.
“Hard part’s over,” she breathed, her lighter finding its way naturally into her palm. She flicked it once and a bright flame came to life. “Now for the really hard part.”

* * *

A month passed and the town of Miscellaneous was none the wiser for it.
It was on a particularly lively night that a sizeable crowd showed up for the art opening at the local gallery. An exposition by an unknown but supposedly-local artist was on display and this was the perfect excuse for all the small-time and big-time papers to send out their reporters. The biggest question they were asking themselves was who the artist might be and why their anonymity was so important. Speculation was wild but no one would have been able to guess save maybe a handful of film-school graduates.
They only attended to confirm their suspicions.
It was a photography exposé. The entire display was meticulously plotted out, with the lighting set-up in such a way that each photograph, mounted behind zebra-stripped frames and pressed glass, was its own little island of light. People had to travel through absolute darkness to get to each piece.
This set-up had two side-effects that may or may not have been intentional. The first and most curious was that no one actually dared stand in the pools of light. Everyone stood back at the edges, in the shadows, whispering among themselves. The second side-effect was that there was an air of playfulness as people would accidentally bump into each other in the darkness, offering amused apologies and joking with perfect, unknown strangers. These hushed exchanges were the only thing punctuating the reverent silence in the gallery, save for the sound of heeled shoes on hardwood floor.
The photographs themselves were the source of much speculation. The sign at the front door explicitly stated that the photos had been subject to no manipulation beyond the regular chemicals used to develop the film. It was therefore a widely-acknowledged debate as to whether or not this was true since the woman in the photographs clearly wasn’t human. Most simply argued that the apparent effects could be achieved through expensive body-paint products, but some remained sceptical. Doubt became especially prevalent when it came to close-ups of the supposed third eye, or where the wings met the back of the collarbone, or how the tail seemed to curl and twist without any visible strings.
At a length, a new light brightened and illuminated a slightly raised podium. The silence deepened as an older woman stepped into the light. She had a powerful air about her that came from the minuteness of her movements, almost as if she were royalty.
Without a word, she placed a pair of reading spectacles at the end of her nose and peered down at a selection of cards before her. Eventually, she looked up and acknowledged that there were people waiting for her to speak. She began with a predictable opening.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Before anyone asks, no, I am not the photographer behind these works. For reasons I promised I would not share, the artist in question wishes to remain anonymous, so, out of respect, I ask that no one ask me about it after the show.” She emphasized this last point with a stern look in her eyes.
“Let me then begin with the artist’s statement.” Jack, with Crystal and Wally, sat in the back listening. Sandra’s mother began reading verbatim from the cards she held before her. “The mirror reflects the world. It shows us life in reverse, confuses us for just a moment before we understand that we are only seeing ourselves in a new light. And the mirror remains a mirror and we remain ourselves. It is only when we change the way we view the world that we ourselves change, and in doing so change the world around us. Black might become white, and white might become black, if the world were that simple.
“I have learned that this world is far more than black and white. Where some see evil others recognize despair. Where some see charity others recognize greed. There are a million reasons for the choices people make, but for every written story of their lives, each one plays the hero, ever justified in their actions. Where one sees right the other sees wrong. Where one sees black, the other sees white. But I have learned that what this world really is… is a million shades of grey.”
Sandra’s mother removed her glasses and placed the card down on the podium. Maintaining her stern look she continued speaking into the microphone. “I believe what the artist was trying to convey was that this world that we live in is more complicated than any of us can even begin to imagine. The lines that we draw in the sand for ourselves are just that… and only that: lines in the sand. Occasionally we may be faced with situations that make us realize, make us think, that maybe we were a little hasty in drawing those lines. Maybe we should wait, and think, before passing judgement on the world around us.”
She took a brief pause, as if collecting her thoughts or uncertain how to continue. “The subject you see in these pictures is my daughter. It was stated that there was no manipulation in the photography and, from what I heard as I walked around tonight, no one seems to realize what this means. What happened to my girl is extra-ordinary. I won’t go into speculation of whether it was an act of god or the devil or what-have-you. All that matters is that this is my baby girl, and you will give her the respect she deserves.” There was a noticeable increase in hushed conversation. “So, before continuing, I would like to impart a quote I am particularly fond of.” She cleared her throat and read another card in her hands. “’Nothing is so frequent as to mistake an ordinary human gift for a special and extraordinary endowment,’ said by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior. I hope you all understand to what he refers.”
The light dimmed and she faded into darkness. They could still hear her footsteps as she made her way through the darkness to one of the gallery’s ends. Meanwhile, all the other lights dimmed, soon leaving everyone in complete darkness. Anxious whispers could be heard increasing slowly as people were unsure what was to happen next. Silence washed over them again when one of the gallery’s ends was gently illuminated.
The brightened end of the gallery was sectioned off by heavy velvet curtains. There was obvious movement behind it but no one dared speak as they carefully approached, keeping outside the pool of light as they had with all the other works. The silence was so complete, the darkness so deep, that any newcomers might have thought the gallery to be empty.
Sandra’s mother emerged from the behind the curtain. Jack and Crystal appeared from the shadows and each took an end of the curtains. Without any sort of dramatic introduction, the three of them slowly drew the curtains open and there was a collective intake of breath from the crowd.
There she was, brightly illuminated before everyone’s eyes. She wore a modified bikini, but with the stark contrast of black and white stripes forming complex patterns all over her complexion, it was hard to see it. Her wings were slightly folded and she did everything she could to keep from using them as cover. Her tail twitched and curled on its own, every movement eliciting a wave of audible murmuring.
Fear grew on Sandra’s face at being exposed like this, like some sort of zoo animal at a freak show, and the only thing that kept her from escaping was the sight of her mother standing visibly at the edge of the light, a look of stern rigidity across her face.
“I…” began Sandra, not knowing if she was supposed to say or do anything.
A girl stepped from the shadows very slowly, her expression of fear contested only by her expression of fascination. She took very slow and deliberate steps, never taking her eyes off Sandra who, in turn, kept all three on her. When the girl was within arm’s length, she reached out for Sandra’s hand and Sandra carefully obliged.
Holding it with both hands, she explored Sandra’s palm, tracing the patterns with a finger, carefully feeling the sharpness of her claws. Sandra turned her arm to accommodate her as she gently ran her fingers along her forearm. Very deliberately, the girl met Sandra’s eyes with an expression that clearly showed there was no longer any doubt as to whether or not this was for real. She only commented, “You feel so cold.”
“You’re so warm,” was all Sandra could think to reply.
She gestured to Sandra’s strange, rigid hair. “Can I…?”
“Uh… Sure,” Sandra replied, angling her head down so that the girl could run a couple of fingers through the fixed strands.
A few more people emerged but stood back in the light. Without a word, Sandra’s tail snaked its way over and surprised them. Some gasped and retreated to the shadows, but others stayed and gave it a tentative little poke.
The whispers had turned into low mumblings, every now and then loud enough for snippets to be heard. “… For real…?” “… completely amazing…” “… can’t believe what I’m seeing…” Sandra’s fear washed away as she stepped forward to interact with those brave enough to come near. They addressed her respectfully, beginning with all sorts of questions about her physiology, her wings, tail, claws, many of which she had no answers to, and eventually it turned into how she was able to live in such a condition.
Sandra soon found herself enjoying being the center of attention, surrounded on all sides by admirers. With her mother and friends nearby, she was able to remain candid and would occasionally draw a few laughs from the crowd. After a while, her mother came and whispered something and Sandra excused herself to go change.
The lighting was lifted to a normal level so that the entire gallery was illuminated and Sandra returned in her usual outfit. In the light, a table of refreshments was revealed and a sound system hidden in the rafters began playing some music.
While the patrons mingled with Sandra, Jack and Crystal, Sandra’s mother looked up to the catwalks near the ceiling, still hidden in shadows.
A single figure stood on the catwalks between the rafters, hidden from sight. She looked down at it all and smiled, simply stating, “My best work.”

Jen watched as the sun rose over the town of Miscellaneous.
She stood at the edge of the gallery’s rooftop, smoking, her heavy coat protecting her from the morning chill. The gallery was still open with people still enjoying themselves.
The sound of the roof-access door opening and closing brought her attention around. Sandra’s mother appeared wearing a warm jacket. She looked very tired. “There you are, you phantom of the opera.”
Jen grinned slightly. “Morning.”
“That was quite a successful show you put on,” she said, joining Jen near the edge. “You could have made a lot of money on it.”
“It wasn’t for me,” answered Jen. “And there’s no way it would’ve worked without you.”
There was a lengthy pause. “Thank you,” said Sandra’s mother, genuine sincerity in her voice. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know what my daughter has gone through. I feel much better now that she can be open with me about it.”
“I’m glad the townspeople reacted the way they did.”
“It was risky.”
“Yeah,” Jen plucked the cigarette from her mouth. “But it helped that it was in a controlled environment and that they were already expecting the unknown. I don’t know how many will think it was all just a dream, or what kind of press this is going to generate. Are you staying in town?”
“Yes, I’ll be staying for a while. Things might get a little bumpy in the days ahead, but I want to be there for whatever happens.”
Jen nodded, then dropped the cigarette and crushed it. They shared a long, chilly silence as a few people left the gallery. The sun slowly crawled into view, piercing the clouds and the fog, forcing both women to squint slightly.
“Does your mother know you smoke?”
Jen blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“Does your mother know you’re in town?”
“I, uh…” Jen wasn’t quite sure what to say. “That is, nobody knows I’m in town. Except for you, Jack, Crystal and Sandra of course.” Sandra’s mother wore that stern expression that could somehow drill holes into her psyche. “I still have a lot of places to go…” Jen said, trying to somehow defend herself from the gaze. “My travels aren’t finished, and I don’t want… I mean, it’s important that I stay hidden, you know?”
“It’s important for you, maybe,” replied Sandra’s mother, obviously unconvinced, “but until I knew exactly what was happening with my daughter that prevented me from seeing her, I died a thousand deaths. I can’t imagine what your own mother must be going through.”
And with that, she stepped away, leaving Jen feeling somewhat deflated and empty.

* * *

A week passed and the townsfolk of Miscellaneous all shared a secret.
A News van from out of town was seen leaving with some very frustrated reporters. What they had originally thought was going to be the scoop of the century on the “Devil of Miscellaneous” turned out to be nothing more than urban myths and conflicting stories. Most people they interviewed denied knowing anything about it and the others almost seemed to invent stories on the spot.
In a short while, the legend itself would die out and be forgotten.
Meanwhile, Jen had finished re-packing all her things. “My work here is done,” she smiled, giving Crystal the obligatory good-bye hug.
“Keep in touch,” smiled Jack as they shook hands. “I gave you a few more presents. They’re in your bags.”
“Sweet,” smiled Jen, moving her good-byes to Sandra.
“You’ve got guts,” said Sandra, careful not to julienne her as they hugged. “I’ll miss ya.”
“You too, girl. You enjoy all of this, okay?”
She gave Wally a friendly handshake and offered to do for Sam what she did for Sandra, only getting a laugh as an answer. She said good-bye to Sandra’s mother rather awkwardly and eventually got into the waiting cab.
From the front lawn, the entire household waved to her as the cab took off. They slowly filed back inside, but it was only Sandra that remarked, “Hey, they’re heading the wrong way. The airport is in the other direction.”
Sandra’s mother smiled knowingly and ushered her back inside.