Elisa is nervous, because she has come to be changed. She isn’t nervous because she doesn’t want the change, but rather, because she has wanted to change so very much for so very, very long.
She is also nervous because the room is full of people much richer than herself. She can tell by their hair, and their clothes, and the jewelry hanging from their bodies. There are all so much more beautiful than her, men and women alike. Why should they need to be here? Just because they can afford it? They can’t possibly be as unhappy about themselves as she is. She refuses to believe it.
Finally, she is nervous because of who, and what, she is about to meet. The change itself is something she craves, but the method by which she has to achieve it makes her skin crawl. She has to meet with a shifter. She has to allow a shifter to touch her. She has to accept that he can give her something no human could.
Shifters are not human. That fact has been drilled into her by her parents and by her society from the day she was born. They look like humans. They walk among humans. They attend school with humans and work alongside them, but they are not humans. They are something else, something capable of manipulating their bodies in ways no humans can dream of.
She went to school with two shifters. Both of them were extremely average, as far as shifters go. One could change only her eye color. She hid this, and her nature as a shifter, until her sophomore year of high school, when a movement among shifters to be brave and reveal themselves to the world because popular. Then she changed her eye color daily to match her outfit better.
The other could change the color of her skin and hair. When she was young, she had little control over it, and her skin would flush bright red when she was angry or embarrassed, or go paper-white when she was afraid. Everyone knew her for what she was. They were not kind to her. Elisa was not kind to her.
This shifter, the one with whom Elisa will meet today, is different. He is worlds above the girls she knew in school. Shifters can only change themselves. That’s the common knowledge of the world. The extent to which they can change varies. Some can change only their coloration. Others can redistribute their mass into their muscles or fat. The best among them can shift the length and shape of their bones at will, completely shifting their appearance to that of another person entirely.
This man, who she knows only as Mr. Myriad, can change other people. That’s what she’s been told. He is a master of his abilities. He can make one person into someone else entirely, and that’s what she wants. She doesn’t want to look like this anymore.
She has filled out the form given to her by her receptionist. The changes will be drastic. She will have her eyes changed from dark brown to green. A bright, clean green, like newly-grown grass, with a hint of gold around the pupil. Her skin, she’ll have him darken and even out, from a pale, blemished, mottled tan to a true, chocolate brown. And her hair: he will shift it from knotty, thin, and unkempt to a smooth, thick, luscious flow, the color of dark honey.
He’ll trim down the fat that lurks in lumps across her stomach, and smooth out that which collects like cottage cheese around her legs. He’ll move the mass into her breasts and her bottom, then use what’s left to tone her muscles. The change to her muscles, the sheet says, won’t be permanent: She’ll either have to return to get them re-toned, periodically, or she’ll have to take it upon herself to exercise. The exercise will be easier, because he’ll change her body’s natural inclinations.
Returning to him won’t be an option. She paid to fly here, which, under normal circumstances, she would have seen as a financial burden all its own. Next to the cost for Mr. Myriad’s services, however, the cost of the flight seemed like nothing. She has taken every last bit of money that she doesn’t need to live for the next two weeks and set it aside to pay for today’s change.
A woman collects Elisa from the waiting room. By this time, Elisa feels sick to her stomach. She knows she’s going to go through with what she came here to do, and she knows she still wants to, but when she stands to follow the woman, there’s a brief moment where her eyes are drawn to the door, and she’s tempted to flee the room and the city and even the country to return to her home.
The feeling isn’t gone when the woman opens a door for Elisa at the end of a hallway. The rest of the building has been decorated in dark shades: a plum carpet, chairs made of dark wood, and only shaded lamps for light. But this room is all white, from ceiling to floor. Bright lights shine down from the ceiling. Elisa blinks. In the time it takes her vision to adjust, the woman has shut the door behind her, and she is alone in the room with Mr. Myriad.
He is, or appears to be, a man of indeterminate ago. His skin, the color of milk chocolate, is perfectly smooth. Elisa has never seen such a clean complexion. His hair and his beard, though, are pure white. They are white, even, than the walls and floor of the room, and they seem to glimmer in the bright lights. He smiles at her, revealing pearly teeth, and she realizes she has frozen in the doorway, staring. He meets her eyes. His are an icy blue, nearly white.
Elisa shudders, looking away from him. She can’t help but wonder if this is his true face, even though she knows it must not be. He is a shifter. From what she knows of them, he must be one of the most powerful shifters in the world. There’s no reason for him to reveal his true face. After all, his services are illegal. To show what he really looked like would only lead to his arrest, or even his death.
“Greetings, Miss Elisa,” he says. His voice is deep and sonorous. It sends shivers of pleasure down her spine. “Come. Take a seat.”
He gestures at the table in front of him. As she approaches, she hands him the clipboard which lists the changes she wants made. She forces herself to speak. “Hello.”
There is a mirror stretching across the wall behind him. She can see herself, and him. In this room, next to this handsome man, she feels dirty. Ugly. Her clothes are old and cheaply made. Her face is marred by both fresh acne and the scars of the acne she had during puberty. Her hair is limp, thin, and pathetic.
“Ah. The changes you ask for aren’t very drastic,” Mr. Myriad says, eyeing the clipboard. He raises a thick white eyebrow. “Is this truly all you wish? It’s just above a payment tier cutoff, to do this much. You could ask for more for the same price.”
“I…” She is suddenly unsure of herself. She knows what she wants, but she has paid so much. Is there more that she could ask for? She wouldn’t know where to start.
He smiles reassuringly. “You have time to think. Don’t worry. I’ll help you decide.”
He puts his hand on her shoulder. She knows he intends to comfort her, but she withdraws instead, trembling. He is a shifter. Her mother wouldn’t want her associating with him. Then again, her mother wouldn’t want her here at all. She would tell Elisa she was beautiful the way she is, with both of them knowing the whole time it was a lie. Her mother despised plastic surgery, and people who didn’t love their bodies. She would despise Elisa, too, if she knew about any of this.
“Thank you,” Elisa says. “I… I’m sorry. I’m very nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“I see,” Mr. Myriad says. “Well, if it makes you feel better, most people that come here haven’t. Everyone is nervous, their first time.”
“First time?” Elisa asks, her eyes widening
Mr. Myriad laughs, a sound which, for some reason, catches Elisa by surprise. “Yes. There are those who need, or want, to change their face with some regularity. If they can afford it…” He shrugs. “Who am I to say no?”
She tries not to dwell on why a person would need to change his or her face. Elisa knows her own reason for being here. She still wants to look at least somewhat like herself when she leaves. She imagines what a man who can shift the bodies of others could do for people who needed to hide, or otherwise become unknown. The thought disturbs her. She thinks again of the beautiful people in the waiting room, and wonders what sort of business they conduct.
“Why are you here?” he asks, setting down the sheet with her answers on it.
“I want to be changed,” she says.
“Yes,” he says. “Of course. All of my customers want to be changed. That much is obvious. But why do you want to be changed?”
“I…” Elisa takes a deep breath. She does not talk about herself to others, not even her friends. She listens to them talk, and thinks about how she is worse, but she does not burden them with her own ugliness. “I want to be beautiful. I hate looking in the mirror and seeing… this.” She gestures to her body.
“Beauty,” he says. “Ah. Well, I can make that happen. What you have written down is only a starting point. Those are the simple things, the ones that can be expressed with words. I’ll start from there, okay? Then we can talk about whether you wish to go deeper. Please, remove your clothes.”
“My… clothes?” Elisa draws her sweater closer, covering her chest more thoroughly.
“Yes, Ms. Elisa,” he says. “I need to be able to see my canvas.”
She has not allowed a man to see her naked since… Well, she never has. Even her closest friends haven’t seen her more uncovered than when she wears shorts and a short-sleeved shirt in the summer. Still. This man has seen so many people without their clothes. He takes what they are and makes it into something better. If she can’t be remade without revealing herself to him, then so be it.
He stands behind her, at a counter set into the wall, as she undresses. He does not watch her, but she watches him in the mirror. He drinks something as she slowly pulls her clothes off and puts them, folded neatly, into a pile on the table. She hesitates before removing her bra and panties, and then pulls them both off quickly, feeling the hot flush of shame flood up her chest and onto her cheeks. She sits on the table, sweating despite the room’s cool temperature.
“So,” Mr. Myriad says. She watches him turn, in the mirror. Somehow, the fact that her view of him is once-removed from reality makes it easier. He approaches her from behind. “We begin with the simple changes. Before we start, I have to warn you: this will leave you very tired. Have you eaten, as instructed?”
She nods. Yes, she ate the exact meal that was recommended to her in his letter, high in both protein and carbohydrates. She ate the vitamin supplements, as well. This was far too important for her not to follow instructions exactly.
“Good. I am going to touch you, and you will begin to change. Don’t be afraid.”
He places a hand on her back. His flesh is hot, compared to her own. His hand feels like he’s burning up with fever. She gasps. A prickling sensation spreads across her skin, like when she’s been sitting on her foot too long and it falls asleep. Her hand flies to her chest in shock as she watches herself in the mirror.
First, her eyes change color. The change is swift. The deep brown flees to the outside rim of her iris, chased away by the exact, vivid green that she imagined. Streaks of gold appear near the center. The whites of her eyes become whiter, as though someone has given them a good washing. To her surprise, her vision shifts slightly, clarifying. The room comes into better focus.
“Did you just… change my eyesight?” she says, reaching a hand up to her face.
“Yes,” he says. “It was good, but it could have been better. Consider that part on the house.”
Next comes her skin. It is as though a wave passes over her, starting at the center of her chest. Her blemishes vanish. Her skin smoothes out, polished by some invisible cloth. The stretch marks at her sides disappear. The cellulite on her legs and her arms smooths out and vanishes, replaced by smooth, rounded skin. On her face, wrinkles and pimples alike disappear. She looks, in real life, as she did in the professional pictures her mother had taken of her when she graduated: seamless. Smooth. Perfect.
Then her skin darkens, its coloration evening out. She is still several shades lighter than Mr. Myriad, but at least now it as though her flesh has decided on one color throughout. Before there were awkward patches on her arms and breasts, giving the appearance of dappled shadows dancing across her skin. Now she is unified.
“Oh my gosh,” she says. “Is this… is this real?”
“It’s real,” he assures her. “It’s really happening. I’m going to do your hair next. Don’t be afraid.”
She turns her head, questioning. Then there is a tickling sensation across her scalp, and she looks back to the mirror just in time to see her hair receding into her skin, as though it has been sucked inward. Her eyes go wide, and her hands reach upward, ready to grab at her head in disbelief. Then the hair begins to grow again, swiftly, like a flower bloom sped to incredible speed. Thick locks, the color of dark honey, fall around her ears. Where the bright light of the room catches them, they shine golden.
Elisa begins to cry. “I’m beautiful,” she says.
“You are,” Mr. Myriad says.
He continues to work, now shifting around the fat beneath her skin, moving it to more appealing locations. Her breasts become fuller, and lift, slightly, becoming those of a much younger woman. The hair around her nipples disappears, though she did not ask for that. She doesn’t mind it. She would have requested it, had she not been too embarrassed
Elisa shaves her armpits and her legs. She has friends who do not, for various reasons, but Elisa does. She has always done all she can to try to achieve some kind of beauty, and for her, the ritual of shaving is part of that. Ashamed, she lifts one arm to see whether Mr. Myriad has done anything to the hair which grows there. He hadn’t, before she lifted it, but now he reads her hint. The faint stubble of early growth disappears. Her legs go perfectly smooth. Now they shine, like her hair, in the room’s bright light.
“Now,” Mr. Myriad says. “We have covered everything on the paper.”
“Yes,” Elisa breaths. She can’t stop looking at herself. She runs her hands over her stomach, feeling the tone of the muscles beneath her flesh.
“Is there anything else you would like done today?” He places his hands on her shoulders, leaning forward so that he’s speaking in her ear. She no longer feels uncomfortable, despite her nakedness and his proximity. She is beautiful now. “Your face, perhaps?”
This gives her pause. Her face? What is wrong with her face? She reaches up to touch her cheek. He has taken away that which she felt made her ugly. Her face… Is he saying he believes it should be changed? Elisa has never loved herself, but her face is her own. She likes the shape of her nose, the way it curves slightly upward at the tip. She likes the shape of her lips, and the curve of her jawline.
“No,” she says. “No, this is quite enough.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Myriad says. “Are you sure?” He puts his hands on her cheeks, one on either side, and pushes. She feels the bones in her face move. Something inside her says it should be painful, but it is not. Instead, there is only a distant sensation of grinding, like sandpaper across stone. Her eyes shift, moving less than a millimeter: one up, and one down. They are now level.
“That’s enough,” she says. “I’m fine with the rest of me.
His fingers move up against her lips, and at his touch, they fill in. He doesn’t exaggerate them, but now they have shape, curve, and definition. She can still recognize them as her own, but they look, now, like she has puffed them out a bit, and spent time highlighting them with makeup.
“Okay,” she says. “Thank you. That’s enough for today.”
Mr. Myriad peels her lips away from her teeth, pushing a finger into her mouth. She is fatigued. She feels far too weak to stop him, mentally and physically. She lets him force her jaw open. With her new, sharper vision, she can see what the feelings in her mouth tell her is happening. Her teeth move, straightening into perfect rows. The gap between her front two teeth close. In the back, a teeth she lost two years ago to a horrid cavity regrows, piercing through her flesh without a hint of blood.
His fingers withdraw. “There. Isn’t that better?”
“Yes,” she says, for she has no other answer. She is, she believes, objectively more attractive now. She can’t ask him to undo it, even though she didn’t ask for what he did. It was only to her benefit.
He smooths her new-grown hair back over her ear. “Your ears. Do you like them as they are?”
Elisa takes a deep breath, and, with what little willpower she has, forces herself to her feet. “Yes, thank you. That’s quite enough.”
She doesn’t know what reaction she expects from Mr. Myriad, but it is not the amused smirk which he displays for her. “Very well. I only want you to get the most out of your money.”
“I have,” she says, and she means it. Her face is not perfect, but it is hers. She wants to be able to look in the mirror and recognize something of herself. She is not one of his clients who needs to become something else. She only wanted to be a better version of herself.
Elisa grabs her clothes from the bench and quickly begins to don them. She then realizes that they don’t quite fit, anymore. Her bra, in particular, is not a good fit at all. She feels her initial embarrassment return once again as she decides to do without it, for now.
“Hmm,” Mr. Myriad says. “Well, you may see to the rest of your payment at the front desk.”
With her hand on the doorknob, she looks back at him. She sighs. “Thank you. I’m sorry for… how I am, right now. It’s just a lot. I don’t know how I expected to feel about this, but I’m not sure this is it.”
“It’s alright,” he says. “I understand. Like I said, the first time is difficult.”
“Yeah,” Elisa says. There will only be this time. She knows that, in her heart. She couldn’t go through this again, even if she had the money.
As she hands the envelope of cash to the receptionist, she tries to keep thoughts about her future from her mind. She hadn’t thought about the fact that she’ll need to buy a full new wardrobe. The next few months — no; years — will be hard. She has no savings, now. She’ll be living check to check. She tells herself it’s worth it. At least she’ll be beautiful. That matters, right?