“Hey! Hey! Let me out, you fucker!”
Jianyu banged hard on the metal door of the tiny walk-in freezer, to no avail. The heavy door didn’t move a millimeter, and for all the sound his blows were making he might as well be tapping politely with the tip of his index finger as smashing his fist against the shiny steel with all his force. Sure, he worked out and had a fit, toned body to show for it, but he wasn’t that strong. All he was doing was making the side of his fist sore.
He flattened his palm against the door and leaned his forehead against it, his pulse picking up as the import of his situation became impossible to ignore.
It was too cold in here. All he had on was a thin white dress shirt, cheap black polyester trousers, thin dress socks, and his old black shoes. If Emilio made good on his threat not to let him out until he’d “cooled off”, it was going to happen.
He was going to change.
He focused on regulating his breathing. As he did so he thought he could hear faint cursing from the other side of the six-inch-thick barrier that separated him from the restaurant’s otherwise empty kitchen. He was probably imagining it. Not that it was a stretch—it wasn’t that Emilio didn’t take criticism well, he didn’t take it at all. Even when he was picking dropped steaks up off the floor and tossing them back on the grill in obvious violation of health code.
He thought about banging again, but there was no point. So close to closing it was just him, Emilio, and Dave. Dave was all the way up front, minding the podium, and Emilio had already snarled that he was going to stay locked in the freezer until Emilio was ready to let him out. That was assuming Emilio didn’t just go home and leave him in here until morning. Jianyu thought he might almost be capable of that level of heartlessness, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Jianyu glanced at the handle. He jiggled it, half-heartedly. It didn’t budge. In other restaurants he’d worked the interior handle overrode the exterior lock that was there to restrict access to the precious frozen supplies, but that hadn’t worked in this place since before he’d started here six months back.
He dropped his hand limply to his side, his forehead pressed against cold steel. The cold air seemed to wind around him, seeping into his skin, icy fingers reaching for his soul. His blood reacted, heating slowly. It was starting.
There was a single anemic forty-watt bulb in the little space, enough for him to see what was about to happen. He pulled off and discarded his hairnet, shook out his longish, fast-growing black hair, and drew in a slow breath. All he could do was stand here and wait.
It began on his back for some reason. Hair erupted gradually, a hundred tentative strands at first broaching his normally smooth skin from new-formed follicles. Then more, the outbreak spreading across his long, well-shaped back like a dark puddle fed by a slow-pouring pitcher. The hairs tickled intolerably against his skin as they curled against his cold, thin shirt, every single member of the multitude bending gently back against his flesh as they grew out against the flimsy fabric, and Jianyu hurriedly straightened and began fumbling with his shirt buttons with shivering fingers even as he felt the eruption spread across his shoulders and down onto his chest and arms.
He pulled open his half-unbuttoned shirt and stared. His defined, thinly muscled chest, normally completely hairless, was now crawling with rapidly spreading jet-black hairs. He snorted. Most of the Americans he knew probably thought Chinese guys couldn’t even be hairy. He almost wished the assholes who’d teased him in the high school locker room for his perfectly smooth (i.e., unmanly) chest could see just how hairy he could be. It wouldn’t be long now, either. The inch-thick pelt was creeping down his torso and around his sides, too, and he was starting to feel its itch testing the smooth skin of his neck and jawline. He continued unbuttoning his work shirt, already starting to feel new eruptions tracking past his waistline and down onto his long swimmer’s thighs. His legs were normally as hairless as his upper body, but soon…
He got the last button free and wrenched his shirt free, tossing it behind him. The cold almost seemed to cringe from him. Between his heated blood, the escalating spread and silky thickness of the early stages of what could only be called his pelt, and the shock of the transformation itself, he was in no danger from the frigid temperatures he’d been trapped in. He could live in here indefinitely like this, once the change was complete, or leave civilization and dwell in the icy reaches of the far-away snowcapped mountains of his ancestors. Indeed, some of his extremely distant cousins had chosen to retain that very existence through hundreds of generations, disdaining the seamy and vicious “civilized” world for a simple life above the treeline. They were happy to remain removed from others’ concerns, spotted only occasionally over the centuries by wide-eyed mountaineers whom no one ever believed.
The itch spread along his jaw and lower cheeks and down his legs at the same time, while the pelt on his torso bloomed and thickened. The growth of the first wave of hairs had stopped—the hairs themselves never got very long—but new hairs were still erupting everywhere, crowding in-between existing shafts in ever-growing numbers like a Malthusian nightmare. The tickling reached his ankles, his thin stocking-like dress socks making the sensation almost intolerable, and he quickly kicked off his shoes and stripped his socks, stretching his toes in relief. He thought about taking off his pants, too, as the discomfort there grew from his burgeoning crop of hair down his thighs and calves. He knew he shouldn’t, though. While this particular scenario—being exposed in full change to regular people—had never happened to him before, Jianyu knew instinctively that his stupid, cheap dress pants and shiny black belt, the accoutrements of normality, were the only things keeping hold of the slimmest chance of his coworkers seeing him as a man and not a beast.
He huffed his breath. It misted in to the freezing, wafting cold of the narrow compartment, but Jianyu felt as warm as if he were standing in an open field under a bright summer sun. The change was slowing on him, but only because it had run its course. He looked down at himself, shaking his head. There was no mistaking him as anything but a tall, very fit guy with long black hair, a thick beard that reached his high cheekbones, and a short, but extremely dense, pelt of glossy black hair that covered every inch of his long, defined body from his cheeks and neck down to the backs of his hands and the tops of his toes.
Time passed. It was probably only a few minutes, but the change always did something to his perception of time and self. His breathing slowed, and his pulse along with it. He closed his eyes. It was like eternity stretched before him, and individual minutes were of no consequence. A little food once in a while, fresh cold air, clean, frigid mountain water, and Jianyu thought he could endure for centuries. If this were a mountain, that is, and not a walk-in freezer in the restaurant franchise from hell.
Maybe those distant cousins had the right idea after all.
Jianyu thought he could hear muffled shouting. The lock rattled, and Jianyu’s breath caught. The door opened a crack, and he heard Emilio shouting, “No! Let the dickhead learn his lesson!” before the heavy door slammed shut again, shifting the air in the freezer around him in a gust. Jianyu bared his teeth, fury welling up within him. He didn’t get angry often. Only when it mattered, he thought. He stared at the door, waiting.
It yanked opened again a second later, this time all the way. Emilio was expostulating to Dave, his face contorted with hot self-righteousness, while Dave, the good-looking willowy blond management kept up front for his cheery smile and calming attitude, gave Emilio an uncharacteristic glower, his hand still on the external door handle. Emilio was holding a tray of dirty plates and glasses supported on one hand, and his impulse to gesture as he shouted was giving them an ominous clatter.
“It’s fine!” Emilio was arguing. “It won’t hurt him, and he he needs to be taught—”
Dave cut him off. “It’s not fine, Mil! It’s a freezer! Freeze—er!” he shot back, then turned to Jianyu. “Jian, are you—” Then he stopped.
Emilio frowned. “What?” he said, then he turned as well. Immediately his eyes bugged out as if he’d come face to face with Death itself.
Ignoring Dave, Jianyu directed his scalding glare at Emilio. Showing his white teeth, he took a single step forward, knowing the terrified Emilio would see a hairy beast stalking toward him from its darkened lair into the light of the world. “You… are… so… fucked,” Jianyu growled.
Emilio screamed, dropped his tray with resounding crash, and bolted out of the kitchen at a dead sprint like he was being chased by the hounds of hell. Jianyu never saw him again.
Jianyu turned finally to look at Dave, to reassure him in case he was scared, too. He was closer than Jianyu thought. He didn’t look scared.
Licking his upper lip, Dave reached up and, after hesitating for just a second, his hand suspended, he let himself gently stroke the coat of new hair on Jianyu’s left shoulder. He stared at where he was stroking, then met Jianyu’s eyes. “It’s so soft,” he said.
Jianyu nodded, slightly confused by Dave’s reaction. Dave said, “How long are you like this?”
Jianyu sighed. “A couple days, at least,” he said stolidly.
Dave smiled, kindling something unexpected and wonderful somewhere in Jianyu’s chest. “Cool,” Dave said.
Jianyu looked at him a second. Then they were both smiling.