The Camels of Christmas
Sarah A. Hoyt
There was someone new in the enclosure. And something was very wrong.
The thought flashed through Jason’s mind, and the next moment he realized he’d thought it, and that it had been in words. Real words, not the vague feelings, senses and impulses that had occupied his mind for… how long.
He looked around with a sense of waking up. He was in the camel enclosure in the zoo. As he should be. Beyond the enclosure, there were twinkling lights, and sounds of singing, and of people laughing and kids yelling. That wasn’t right. The zoo didn’t have any visitors at night. Or did it? He listened again. Ah. The songs were Christmas carols. So. This was the time of the year when the zoo decorated for Christmas, and they have visitors close on to midnight. He had a vague memory flit through his head, of walking through the zoo as a human, with a girl on his arm and—
He dipped his head and took a vicious bite of some of the grass on offering. It was suitably juicy and just crunchy enough to give him something to bite. But, to be fair, it tasted like straw. He wanted a cheeseburger. He wanted some of the hot chocolate he could smell in the wind. Which was a completely human thought.
Jason sighed. Okay, so there was no way he was going to be able to go back into just being a camel. The human part of him was awake now, and restless. And it had all started because there was something wrong in the enclosure. No. There was someone wrong.
He squinted at the shadows, in the dark of the enclosure, and counted. There was … He didn’t have a human name for her. She was a darker patch, against the fence, her legs tucked under her. And she might be asleep. His human brain wanted to name her Great Humps. Then there was the elderly female. Grandma. That would do. And there was the other male. Bad Ass would do for his name.
There were two very young juveniles, the progeny of Bad Ass and Great Humps. But there was someone else. He squinted at the dark and saw him. Male, his nose told him, and definitely a half-grown juvenile, moving his legs restlessly, and giving the impression he would run at the slightest provocation.
And then his nose told him something else. This juvenile was, like Jason, a shape shifter.
The shock was so great, that Jason found himself halfway through his shift, coughing and twisting in the pain of grinding-together bones and wrenching muscles. He had just enough mind left to drag himself into the darker shadows at the edge of the enclosure.
I’ll be naked, flitted through his mind, followed by a half amused and half appalled, all we need is for some kid to see a naked man in the enclosure. An arrest would surely make my return to the human world… interesting.
When the pain subsided, he took a half fearful, half curious look at himself. He looked leaner than he had when he’d come into the enclosure… however long ago that was. And he was filthy. Or at least he smelled like the camel enclosure.
He knit himself with the fence, at the darkest edge, behind the feeding through, and looked at the suspicious juvenile. Who was looking right at him, his ridiculously wide camel eyes opened eve wider, his nose twitching.
Part of him wanted to go to the kid and tell him to shift now, but if he did that, he’d be in the full light. He could already see the headlines, tomorrow, in Goldport’s local paper. Mentally Disturbed Man Molests Camels at The Zoo.
Shifters could not afford a sojourn in a mental institution. Well, not that normal humans could. But if they have Jason drugs to help with supposed psychosis, who knew what they’d do. Besides making him turn into a camel? And this time, he might not be able to get away fast enough…
The memory tried to surface and he closed his mind off to it. He remembered only that once upon a time he’d become a camel to forget. He shook his head, and instead of going towards the juvenile camel shifter, felt his way along the fence to the gate, opened it and squeezed out. Outside was a cleverly disguised service tunnel, of the kind used by personnel and hidden from visitors, because all the zoo needed was for someone to find their way to the enclosure and let the animals out. All things considered, the camels were not the worst to let out. Imagine someone decided to release the bears, the lions, or even the elephants.
Jason had only known where the service tunnels were because he’d worked for the zoo, occasionally. He once again tamped down the memories, save for one. Years ago, with the police – or at least the authorities, he wasn’t sure which – hot on his tail, when he’d decided to leave humanity behind and take on his camel aspect forever, he’d left himself an escape hatch. He knew he couldn’t become a human again, and join the crowds stark naked. So before shifting, he’d taken off all his clothes and hidden them.
Of course, he’d hidden them when the zoo was closed. Now, climbing onto the bench on the side of the tunnel stark naked, and feeling about at the top of the wall for the bundle he’d left there was rather more daring, but he saw no other way. Finding the big plastic bag, he dressed quickly. He stank and the clothes would stink, but he saw no way around this. His younger self hadn’t thought of having clothes of convenience till he could shower.
A quick thought of his condo came to him, and the thought that for all he knew it was no longer there. First order of business, find out how long he’d been a camel. Second order of business, which might become first depending on circumstances, find one of the employee showers and hope his contractor badge still worked. Third order of business—
He’d reached the end of the service tunnel and hovered there, with his hand on the latch to the outer gate. Third order of business, of course, could be that he forgot it all and just went back to the camel enclosure. Great Humps and Bad Ass weren’t bad, and Grandma was… well, grandmotherly. And none of this, none of it, had the emotional complications and the complex calculations of human relationships.
Then he thought of the kid in the enclosure. He didn’t know who the kid was, or how old, though he’d suspect he was just a teen, at that age when shifting first tended to occur. If he stayed in the enclosure…
Jason had been able to hold on to some of his own humanity, to an extent, because he was an adult, with an adults sense of self and of self in the world. But a kid, who was still trying to find himself, might become a camel in fact, and forget forever he’d ever been human.
Considering how – not happy, but – content Jason had been in the camel enclosure, the idea that the boy could become a camel forever shouldn’t have been horrific. And yet it was. The idea that someone wouldn’t even try adult humanity, that he wouldn’t ever experience the joys of those more complex realities—
He paused, shook his head, thinking that if he allowed himself to pursue that line of thought, he’d end up applying it to himself. Which would be sane and just, except that right then he didn’t want to do it.
Instead, he thought the kid must be convinced to join the human race, at least long enough to know what he was rejected.
With this thought in mind, he opened the gate and strode out into the zoo.
It wasn’t the part of the zoo thronged with visitors, but those byways and alleys, surrounded by tall hedges that only employees knew. Which was good because just the proximity of garrulous humanity on the other side of those hedges made him shiver a little. It was weird, because of course, while he was a camel he’d seen humans. But they’d been safe distance away, on the other side of barriers, never coming close.
Now it seemed that the idea of humans that near was unnatural and a little scary.
He lucked out though. He’d clipped his zoo ID to his shirt, hoping no one looked too close and realized it was outmoded, and the only person he met, a woman going the other way, only looked at his id and said, “oh, excuse me, doctor,” before hurrying away, probably afraid of his stink.
He hurried to the little building that housed showers, in case doctors and workers got dirty while dealing with the animals. It was still there, and nothing had changed. He took his clothes off hurriedly, got under the shower and washed away the camel stink with the rather astringent disinfectant soap.
Dressed once more in the street clothes which now only smelled faintly of dromedary, he took a deep breath, and decided to brave the byways of the zoo on his surely outdated id again.
He was about to leave the utility building, when it occurred to him that being seen with a naked young male might actually be worse than being caught naked himself. He found the closet where coveralls were kept for those people whose clothes got ruined in the course of their zoo duties. They were cheap coveralls, of the sort people wore while painting. But they would do. Supposing of course, he could talk the kid out of camel.
He walked back into the enclosure, noting the way the others shied away from him. The only one who didn’t was the young male, who stood, looking awkard and ill-at ease as Jason approached. Jason laid a hand on his neck and said “Shift back to human. Now.”
The kid blinked his ridiculously fringed camel eyes and snorted. He took a step back and it looked like he was contemplating kicking Jason, but he didn’t.
“Listen, buddy,” Jason said. “I know things look bad, but they’re not that bad. And I understand what you’re going through. I get it.”
The young camel visibly shook his head. “Yes, I do. You know I also shift shapes.”
“Okay, tell you what, you shift and come with me. I’ll buy you a burger and you can tell me why you decided to be a camel. If you convince me that you have reason to stay here, I’ll bring you back. If not, I’ll help you deal with whatever it is that drove you here. How about that?”
It hung in the balance. Jason could sense that the juvenile really wanted to be persuaded to do this. On the other hand, whatever had driven him here must scare him enough he didn’t think he had a place on the other side. Jason bit his lip. Then gambled it all, by standing on tiptoe and whispering as close to the camel’s ear as he could, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cheeseburger with onion straws. Between you and me, that grass,” he nodded towards the trough with his head, “tastes like straw.”
The camel snorted, and Jason moved back, then realized the more-than-camel eyes were laughing, and that the snort might have been a burst of laugh. The juvenile nodded, and allowed Jason to lead him out of the enclosure to the little tunnel, where he shifted. It took a long time to shift, and Jason had the impression the kid was fighting it. When he was done, he revealed himself as a tall, stringy teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen, with the sort of build that betrays a rapid growth spurt and no filling in, or muscle. He had a tuft of ginger hair atop his head, a longish face that reminded Jason of his camel face, and big, confused grey eyes.
He put on the overalls, turning away to do it, which meant he couldn’t be used to shifting. Not that Jason had met many shifters, at least not before coming to Goldport, but it seemed like once you’d shifted a few dozen times, even the most modest of girls started dressing and undressing wherever, with no problems.
When he turned back, Jason said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Jason Fleming. What’s your name?” He hadn’t given his full name, of course, because he never used his first name. When pressed, he’d sign himself D. Jason Fleming. Because Dimas was not a name anyone should be forced to confess to, and what had possessed his parents?
The kid hesitated, perhaps feeling the lack of complete honesty, then sighed a sigh that reminded Jason of the camel snort. “Codie,” he said, and hesitated. “Codie Smith.”
Jason nodded. “Come on, Codie.” And headed towards the exit of the zoo.
“Dressed like this?” Codie asked.
“Well…” Jason said. “Did you think to hide some clothes somewhere before shifting?”
“Always hide clothes somewhere. Lots of somewhere. You can get thrift store t-shirts and sweat pants for a couple of dollars, and it will help—”
“I didn’t know I could shift,” the boy said, and gave a moist snort with the impression of holding back tears. “And I just want to go back to the zoo and stay there. It’s what I deserve. I’m just an animal.”
“I don’t think so,” Jason said. “Animals don’t argue because they have to go out of the zoo in uncool clothes.”
“Oh,” Codie said, as though this struck him. And then, in a rallying tone, “And I can’t go out barefoot.”
“Oh dear,” Jason said, noticing this for the first time. “No, you can’t, not in December, even if it’s mild. Come on.”
He took Codie to the utility building and grabbed a couple of the spare socks kept there, as well as a couple of the patens supposed to be pulled over shoes. They weren’t shoes precisely, but they were black rubber and stretchy, and the smallest ones covered the kid’s feet well enough that he wouldn’t get frostbite. Anything else would have to wait. “I can’t lend you my shoes,” he told Codie. “We don’t wear the same size.”
“No…” Codie said. “But look, I have to go back. I can’t go back to school. If—”
“Never mind. I promised you a burger, remember?”
As they walked out of the zoo, Jason fumbled for his wallet and phone and keys. “I don’t suppose you know what year it is?” he asked.
“Sure I do. It’s 2015. Why?”
“December or January?”
The realization that it had been a year and a moth sank into Jason’s brain, followed by a strange relief it had only been a year and a month. His condo was paid for, and he had paid the HOA dues for a year and a half in advance, so he wasn’t even delinquent. He didn’t intend to take a skittish new-shifter to his condo, because the kid was likely to imagine all kinds of nefarious stuff. He remembered the paranoia of the newly-discovered shifter.
But at least Jason knew that once this was done, he would be able to go home. He felt a strange longing for his shower, his clothes, his computer. He wondered what had been happening in the world in the year he’d been a camel.
He put his key back, tried to turn his phone on but the battery was gone. Which meant they’d have to hope a cab went by, never a certainty in Goldport. But at least when Jason, at the time convinced he’d never want to be human again, had put money by in case the impossible happened, he’d put money by, and not just credit cards.
They walked two blocks, in the cold, crispy evening air, before they flagged a taxi. There was only one place to take the boy.
When Jason had first come to Goldport, he didn’t know he’d been lured by shifter-pheromones laid thick around a diner downtown. The former owner had needed to attract shifters for his and his girlfriend’s purposes. Now, under new management, the diner remained a shifter haven. Shifters of all kinds gathered there, and the owners were a male dragon shifter and a female panther shifter, and what was more important, Tom and Kyrie were almost foster parents to the entire community, and unusually kind to youths and lostlings.
I should have gone to them instead of running to the zoo, he thought. And for the first time he felt as though he’d spent an entire year running from himself.
He told the cabbie to drop them off at the George, handed off a handful of grubby bills, and go out of the cab. Codie followed, but stood still on the sidewalk, staring at the diner’s neon sign.
“Nice, isn’t it?” Jason asked.
“Why– Why is the dragon flipping pancakes?”
“The cook is a … a dragon shifter?”
Jason grinned. “Bingo.”
“Why couldn’t I have been a dragon shifter?” Codie asked. “Camels are lame.”
“Oh, now,” Jason said. “I’ll have you know the camel is a noble animal, a symbol of exotic travel and enlightenment, and also of resilience.”
He didn’t know if what he heard from the kid was a snort of amusement or confusion, and he didn’t turn to look. Instead, he opened the door, and went into the diner.
It wasn’t busy. There were a couple of booths occupied in the main part of the diner, and a couple of tables in the annex next to it, but not the crowd that normally thronged the tables. Jason had a momentary pang of fear that The George was going under, but a glance at the clock showed him he was just between times. It was four in the afternoon, despite the full darkness outside.
He picked a booth in the row parallel to the front window, mostly because all of those were empty and the only people likely to hear their conversation would be those operating the register, and most of those were shifters or knew about shifters.
In seconds, a young woman with long brown hair, the ends dyed in a tapestry pattern came to the table. She gave a little start of surprise on seeing Jason, “Doctor Fleming,” she said. “We were so afraid– That is, we thought something had happened to you.”
“Something had,” he said gravely. Once more he felt he had been an idiot. He should have come here, instead of running away. But just becoming a camel had seemed so right, so worry free. He cast his mind over the last year. Just eating straw and sleeping. Why had he thought this would satisfy him? He basked in the glow of the lights from the ceiling, the subdued conversations from the various tables, and he longed to find out what was going on in the world at large. Why had he given it all up to become a camel?
He ordered two double burgers, and milkshakes, onion straws and fries, then as Kyrie, the co-owner of the restaurant and its waitress at least for some shifts, walked away, he turned to Codie.
“So, why were you being a camel?”
The kid flushed. “I- I—I– It started happening like three months ago. Always when I didn’t mean it to. At first I thought I was going crazy, and then I thought it was stupid. Of all the things one could turn into, why a camel?”
“Why not a camel?” Jason asked. “One of the guys around here turns into a giant squirrel. Sent him a little funny in the head, I tell you. He became a Marxist and keeps trying to organize a rodent liberation front.”
The boy blinked and Jason realized he probably hadn’t got most of that. He said, reassuringly, “Never mind. So you had some inconvenient shifting. But why did you decide to become a zoo camel?”
The boy flushed. “I was in the football team.”
“I don’t think I’m going to be now.”
“Uh oh. What happened.”
“I shifted. Right in the middle of a game.” He covered his face. “I ran away and kept on running. I can’t go back. Can’t. Then I thought there were camels at the zoo. I’ve been there three days. I want to go back. I can’t go back to school. Everyone will know I’m a lame camel.”
Jason didn’t say anything. He was struck by the idea that Codie had been at the zoo for three days, and he’d only now noticed it. Or had his first thought in words taken three days to wake him fully. The burgers arrived. It struck him, suddenly, that their cases were very similar, which made him laugh suddenly.
Codie looked mutinous, until Jason said, “I just realized how similar our cases are. I was about to say your solution was that of a kid, but I did the same thing at thirty six.”
“You changed in front of the football team?”
“No… I… My wife left and I was really depressed, so I went to a doctor, but the stuff they gave me made me change. Since I went to emergency, I shifted in front of a crowded emergency room. I ran all the way out, made some preparations and ran to the zoo, because I thought there would be a warrant for me.” Towards the end of this he realized Kyrie had stayed nearby and was listening. He realized it because she sighed.
He looked at her, “I should have come here,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “You know you can always come here for help. But that was not why I was sighing. Neither of you have anything to worry about, you know. People won’t see what’s actually in front of their eyes, when they believe it to be impossible. They see what they think they’ll see. Your team probably thinks a camel just ran through and you ran after it. And you, doctor, they probably think there was some weird camel intrusion. No one has searched for you, that’s for sure.”
“I thought that, when Codie told me his story,” Jason said. “I mean people must shift without meaning to often, and if every time were reported, everyone would know about shifters.”
“If only I knew for sure,” the boy said with the anguish of the early teens.
Kyrie smiled. “You can, Codie, is that your name?” When the boy nodded, she continued. “You can call your parents. Do you get along with them?”
Codie stopped for a moment, looked forlorn as though he’d just realized how his actions affected his family, then nodded.
“So, call them,” Kyrie said. “They must be pretty worried, right? And if they know you shifted into a camel they’ll tell you.”
“Or I could go on being a camel,” the boy said miserably.
“You could,” Jason said. “But then you miss on burger and fries. You miss on learning stuff about the world. You miss out on being able to create and live, and try out all the cool things that adults can do in the world. You can never travel as a camel, except as a zoo transfer. You can’t pick your own food. You can’t even pick whether you live or die. If you’re a camel, you’re a thing. The zoo makes that decision for you. I don’t think that’s what you want.”
The boy shook his head. “I’ll call my parents,” he said.
Kyrie got the phone out of her pocket and handed it to him. He dialed. He said, “Hi, this is Codie.”
Even though he didn’t have the phone on speaker, Jason heard the shriek of a woman on the other side. There was a flood of sounds from the phone and it was a while before Codie said sheepishly, “Yeah, mom. I’m fine. No, I didn’t get killed. I just—” a pause while the woman talked. “I chased the camel, and then I got lost. I lost my phone. And someone stole my clothes.” Jason would like to know how the kid would explain that one, but he suspected that the mother wouldn’t probe too hard. There was more squawking.
“A doctor helped me, and I’m at the George. Yeah, downtown. The one that has a sign of a dragon making pancakes.”
When he hung up, he looked surprised and relieved all in one. He handed the phone to Kyrie like a kid in a dream, “My mom says she’s coming to pick me up,” he said. “It was as you said. She thought it was a camel that came in, and that I chased it out…”
“See, I told you,” Kyrie said, and hugged him.
“Oh, and I’m not a doctor,” Jason said. “I’m a veterinarian. But you know, sometimes I treat shifters, so it’s the best of both worlds.”
“I always wanted to be a veterinarian,” Codie said.
“You can be one. But not as a camel. Camels can’t be vets. They don’t have opposable thumbs.” He knew things were going to be all right when Codie laughed at the lame joke.
The kid finished his burger in seconds, and ate all his fries and onion straws and Jason’s, too.
By the time Jason was done with his hamburger, a middle-aged red-headed woman in a tailored, expensive suit came in. She rushed to the booth and hugged Codie who looked suitably embarrassed. Then she paid the bill for their dinner, and it had taken all of Jason’s stubbornness to keep her from paying him for rescuing Codie.
Somewhere in the middle of her effusions, he realized it was Christmas eve.
Once they left, Kyrie approached the booth. “It was a good thing you did there, Doctor, bringing that kid back.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “He brought me back too. I realized my flight into … well… non-human was as stupid as his with less excuse. It seemed to me my life was broken beyond recovery, and in believing that, I almost made it true.”
“Will it be hard for you to… to recover from this?”
“Nah. I’ll make up some excuse. I went to look after my aged parents, or something. I might have to find another job, but most of my work as freelance and as a contractor, anyway. I’ll recover. My car was left in the condo garage, and it might need repairs, but it will recover too. And for the rest…” He shrugged. “It might be difficult at times, but I’m sure I can figure it out. Being human is more complex than being a camel, but it has better rewards. Like burgers, and sleeping in a bed. And friends.”
And then Kyrie hugged him too, which was very nice, and didn’t even complain about residual camel smell.
And that reminded Jason of another good thing about being human. Sometime in the future there would be a human female, or maybe even a shifter one.
His wife had left, unable to cope with his long, unexplained absences, and his irregular schedule, the combination of veterinarian and shifter too much for her. But if he found a shifter girl, she’d understand. And perhaps he would meet one.
As he left the George it was starting to snow. His condo was three blocks away, and unfortunately his fedoras were in the closet there.
But a little snow wouldn’t hurt him.
He walked down the street, with his hands in his pockets, enjoying the snow, and the lights, the people driving by and the sound of music, faint, from the doorways he passed.
Being human was a lot more complicated than being a camel. But it was more rewarding too. He thought of Codie and his mom. And most of the complications and most of the rewards were other people. And that was fine too.
He walked on, softly singing to himself, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to camels.”
*This story takes place in the Shifter/Goldport universe. For those who don’t know the world, the first book in the series, Draw One in the Dark is free for the kindle on Amazon:
Or you could buy the omnibus of the first two books:
End of promo.*