Our family seeks run-down campgrounds, the kind where there’s more piss on the bathroom floors than in the filthy toilets. Where only cold water runs from the taps, and once or twice a week, local sheriffs break up drunken brawls. Places with apathetic park rangers who never record license plates, so if a carload of campers disappears into the night, there isn’t a paper trail.
Fresh air. Open spaces. Abundant, nameless campers.
It’s twilight when we pull into Desert Borrego Campground. Ten of us from three generations tumble out of our van, along with two dogs, three cats, a pony, and a rabbit. Nearby campers gawk. Watching us emerge is reminiscent of clowns in a circus act. Impossible, but somehow real.
As Mama always says, “Magic makes fools of us all.”
Mama, Auntie Joe, and her daughter Allie prepare the iron pots and lye, and Papa gets the pony ready to lure the camp’s kids. Six bicycles come off the van’s roof, and me, my sister, two brothers, a cousin, and Grandad mount our metal steeds. Grandad reminds us to mind the rules: no spitting, no farting, no cussing.
“We don’t shit where we eat,” he says.
We dissolve into peals of laughter and split apart like shrapnel from a bomb. Clouds of dust devour us as we scout our hunting grounds.
In the old world, people called us cannibals. But to be a cannibal requires consuming one’s own species, and since we’re not human, we’re not cannibals. Of course, we keep up our humanoid appearance. It’s a Metamorph’s privilege.
I blast across the terrain, jumping over gullies, searching for families with lots of kids. I cut off-road to sneak behind some tents when BAM! My tire blows, and I fly over my handlebars, colliding with a cactus patch.
Dozens of barbs pierce my flesh. My human cloak oscillates from the pain. Animal musk burns my nostrils as fur sprouts on my arms, and rows of razor-sharp teeth fill my mouth. Biting at the thorns, I pluck them out. As the pain diminishes, I regain control over my shape, turning every bit human again.
That’s when I see her.
She watches from a nearby fire pit. Sparks fly about her like she’s the source of the flames. Other figures tend the blaze, poking it with metal sticks.
What did she see?
I stand, brush dirt off my pants, and face her. She’s about the same age as my teenage human body and has eyes the color of a harvest moon. I breathe deeply to smell her scent, but my lungs fill with smoke, sending me into a coughing fit.
She smiles and lifts a hand before turning toward someone behind her. A figure approaches. They lean toward one another, waving their hands. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but gusty winds kick up, and I’m choking on smoke again.
I grab my bike. Clearly, she didn’t see me change because she’s not afraid. I locate my busted tire, which was also a cactus victim, and, rolling the bicycle on its back wheel, return to our campsite.
Papa chats with neighboring campers, offering pony rides to their children, and Grandad strums his guitar. Cousin Allie sits beside Grandad. Soon, her song, as seductive as any siren’s, will compel anyone within range to visit our campsite. And Mama will do what Mama does. She’ll select the plumpest, most delicious family for our sustenance.
Allie begins, and my stomach spasms. Something inside isn’t right. It tugs at me like worms wriggling in my intestines. I want the moon-eyed girl and her kin to stay away. I won’t eat bits of her ground into Mama’s loaf-cakes, and I don’t want anyone else to either.
I refuse to share her.
“You must be tired.”
The speaker startles me. My true self edges toward the surface as I turn and find the moon-eyed girl standing close enough to touch. Close enough to fall into a gaze that’s the color of iron-earth or blood.
“Tired. Why?” I say. My voice sounds high and harsh.
She tilts her head, and auburn curls cascade over her shoulders, falling below her waist.
“I’m Lamia,” she says.
“I’m…” I fight a strong urge to speak my forbidden name before saying, “I’m Bobby.”
Her face lights up as she laughs. “A reliable, human name. Come.”
She holds out her hand, and I take it. Her skin is smooth and cooler than I expected. We leave the firelight and safety of my family. But I’m not afraid. I’m drawn toward her in an unfamiliar way.
Ensconced in darkness, she stops and gazes at me.
“Your family isn’t welcome here.”
I shrug. “It’s public land.”
She sighs, brings her hands to her eyes, and plucks them out. Holding them in her palms, they look more like autumn moons than ever. Her pupils peer up at me.
“You’re not human,” I say.
“Neither are you. Bobby.”
I gesture at her eyeballs. “Can you…?”
She pops them back where they belong.
“This is our home,” she says. “You know how difficult it is to find a good hunting ground. That tug you feel in your gut is a tiny taste of my magic. How I lure my prey.”
Lamia’s legs whip around me, only they’re no longer legs but a serpent’s tail. My body reacts. I’m fur, and fury, and lashing teeth. She squeezes, and I gasp for air as she pins my arms.
“Relax.” Venom dribbles from her mouth, sizzling where it hits my skin. “Our families would destroy each other.”
Hissing sounds surround us.
“Leave tonight,” she says. “I’ll reverse my spell.”
But I’m already enchanted and ache to kiss her.
“No,” I say, pulling her closer.
I think of Papa and Mama, Grandad, and all my kin, and I’m sorry for my betrayal. But it’s like Mama says, magic makes fools of us all.
Lamia’s coils tighten as I lean in and whisper my secret name in her ear.
This story previously appeared in Camp Arcanist.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Andrea Goyan is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a writer, painter, performer, and Pilates teacher. Winner of the 2021 Roswell Award for Science Fiction, some of Andrea's recent stories can be found in The Molotov Cocktail, Dear Leader Tales, Luna Station Quarterly (issue 043), 365 tomorrows, and The Dark Sire. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, a dog, and two cats. Follow her on Facebook @Andrea Goyan Storyteller or on Twitter at @AndreaGoyan or check out her Amazon author page