Hard Choices

(This flash story originally appeared in Brain Harvest in 2009, but the magazine is no longer magazining and the text left behind is wonky, so I am reprinting it here. It's also in my collection!

Hard Choices

Tina Connolly

A. Your little sister is tired of picnicking and wants to explore a cave. She says if you don't come, she will tell mom what you were doing last Saturday. If you grudgingly accept her blackmail, go to B. If you let her tell mom that you were skinny dipping with Bitsy on the shapeshifter reservation, go to Z.

B. The cave is dark. You try to scare your sister with tales of carnivorous shapeshifters who eat bad children. She says everyone knows that shapeshifters are cowardly beasts, easily beaten by the first planetary settlers. You ask why she knows so much history when you are flunking. If you vow to stop looking at Bitsy's shirt in history class, go to C. If you tell your sister to be quiet and respect her elders go to D.

C. You think about Bitsy's shirt as you explore the moist dank cave. Stalactites drip on your head. Go to D.

D. A swarm of glowbats fly out. They have a wingspan as wide as your chest, and are phosphorescent during mating season. It is suddenly so bright that your sister sees you drop and cower, trying frantically to get the feeling of claws and wings out of your hair. "Let's go back!" you squeal, but she says if you don't press on, she will tell Bitsy you're afraid of mating season. If you grab your sister and march her out of the cave, go to Z. If you dry your tears and press on, go to E.

E. By the light of three hanging bats, you see cave paintings. One painting shows many differently shaped shapeshifters greeting a rocketship. One painting shows the shapeshifters bringing stalks of grain to humans. One painting shows a yin-yang picture -- a shapeshifter eating a human who is killing him with a spear. One painting shows the shapeshifters huddled in a circle, surrounded with lightning bolts. "Graffiti," sniffs your sister. If you think about the struggles inherent in the coming together of two sentient species and how we always seem to flub the hard choices, go to F. If you think about Bitsy's skin in sunlit water, go to F.

F. Past the pictures, the cave forks in two. One tunnel smells like rotten eggs. One tunnel smells like the strawberry shampoo in Bitsy's hair. Your sister goes down the eggy path. If you follow her, go to H. If you follow the memory of Bitsy's hair, go to G.

G. Your cave adventure was a funny prank by Bitsy, who paid your sister ten bucks to bring you to her. Bitsy is waiting for you, arrayed only in long locks of strawberry shampooed hair. Unfortunately, Bitsy is a carnivorous shapeshifter and you die.

H. At the end of the eggy tunnel is a bear. Since there are no bears on this planet, it is likely a carnivorous shapeshifter. If you proffer a handshake and recite the Human-Shapeshifter Protocol, go to I. If you throw your sister to the bear to buy time, go to J.

I. The bear's paw becomes a maw and bites off your hand. It chews it up while it recites some manifesto about how it rejects the Human-Shapeshifter protocol. You throw your sister to the bear to buy time. Go to K.

J. You feel a little regret and try to save your sister. The bear bites off your hand. It spits the fingers on the floor. You feel ashamed that your fingers aren't worth eating. Go to K.

K. Faint from blood and sister loss, you wrap your wrist in your shirt and run for the entrance. You lose some time when the bats fly over your head in a triumphal finish to their mating flight. Suddenly Bitsy is there to save you. She helps you stand and dries your tears. She takes off her shirt and uses it to bandage your wrist. You feel a lot better. Then she eats you.

Z. Your mother grounds you from the prom. Bitsy finds a new date. When you are 31, the great Shapeshifter Revolt comes to fruition, the human settlement is overthrown, and the electric fencing destroyed for good. Bitsy finds you cowering in a bathroom, weeping that you will die a virgin. She makes love to you, tenderly, sweetly, and you remember a day of sunlit water and glorious splashing. There is no fumbling, there is no miscommunication, there are no tears. Then she eats you.