The Chameleon

January’s short story contest theme was metamorphosis. The story had to include a reptile, a change, and a surprise.  I thought of Kafka and the salesman who turns into a cockroach.  But more realistically it is growing old that’s hard to deal with in our world. Here is the story that came off the keys.

The Chameleon 

Eleanor lay in bed staring at the chameleon in its cage.  The lizard stared back its eyes rotating to the left and right.  Where’d it come from?  Eleanor looked around. Slowly the room came into focus.  There was her bookshelf, her dresser.  She looked down at the bed.  Those were her blankets.  She must be back home.  Her room was smaller than she remembered. She sighed.

Why had she been gone?  She moved her arm.  It was in a cast.  She couldn’t remember how that had happened.  Soon Otis would bring her something to eat. Would it be breakfast, lunch? Maybe dinner? Where were the children?  A photo on the dresser startled her.  She was standing in a group of people.  Her hair was white.  She pulled the picture closer. Otis stood beside her. He looked so old, and her children?  Suddenly she remembered.  Otis had gone on ahead of her, their children were grown .

Eleanor heard a light knock as the door opened. A woman entered with a tray of food.  “Hi mom, how are you feeling?  We’re glad you’re back –you had us worried after your fall.”  The woman bent down and plumped the pillows.  “Let me help you.  You’ll have a hard time feeding yourself with that arm.” The woman cut up the food and held out a spoonful of something warm.  Eleanor chewed, wondering what it was.

“Are you my daughter?”

“No mom, I’m Matt’s wife.  He came in this morning to help you get settled.”  Eleanor shook her head. The woman seemed like a complete stranger to her.

Eleanor looked at the chameleon.  “Did you see my son?”  The chameleon flicked its tongue.

Sometimes kids came in.  Usually they stood in the doorway and stared. One girl insisted she was her granddaughter.  The woman offered her pudding. Eleanor lay back on the pillow and waved the spoon away.

She didn’t notice the woman leave.  She watched the chameleon.  Somebody had filled its water bottle and put cockroaches in the dish.  She watched a cockroach stuck on its back struggling to turn over before the chameleon’s tongue flipped out and ended its dilemma. Eleanor waved her arms and legs in the air like the cockroach, stuck, abandoned. Outside the door life went on.  Her son went to work, his wife ran errands, the children were busy with school and sports. They left her here in a corner waiting.  She squinted to look at the trees outside the window, still in the afternoon heat.  Eleanor fell asleep watching the chameleon. No one came to her room.

Another day passed. The chameleon sat on his wooden branch.  Something was different today.  Eleanor watched closely.  He puffed up; he shook; he shrank in.  His skin began to come loose.  He puffed up stretching the old skin.  Then he held still.  The chameleon hadn’t eaten all morning.  As she watched its skin slid away.  He reached up pushing at stubborn patches on his face.  Finally the chameleon was a new and dazzling creature.  He turned on his perch letting the light catch the sparkling newness of his skin–the emerald greens, the chartreus, the deep blues.  He faced her, seemed to smile, then winked. He tried to tell her something, but she couldn’t understand.

Eleanor watched the chameleon until Matt came in with dinner.

“I can’t eat. Will you tell my son the chameleon shed its skin.”

Matt patted the bony hand, the papery skin.  “It’s me mom.  Don’t worry about that old lizard.  I can take it away if it’s bothering you.”

Eleanor’s eyes opened wide.  “No!” she shrieked.  “Don’t take the chameleon.” She pushed at the tray.  “Take that food away.  I can’t eat.”

Matt sighed, stood and left the room.

Eleanor lay still, her eyes shut.  She inhaled, puffing out her body.  Her skin would come loose soon. She would be free.  She heard the door; she didn’t turn or open her eyes.  Someone picked up her hand.  She concentrated on breathing.  “Mom, it’s Matt.  Do you wanna talk?”

“Not me, the chameleon—he’s the one who has things to say.”  But she couldn’t get the words past her throat.  Her chest rattled.  She puffed out her body, holding in the air. Matt counted her breaths.  She inhaled very slowly.  She exhaled.  He counted the seconds; she inhaled again.  “Cindy,” he called his wife.  “Mom’s not doing well.”

Cindy finished what she was doing in the kitchen, dried her hands and walked in to sit by Matt.

Now he talked, “Mom, I love you, we all love you.” Cindy looked away; Eleanor breathed in and out.

“Are you leaving us Mom?”  An hour passed, two.  Cindy got up and walked out of the room. The children needed attention.

Matt hung his head, tired, waiting.  Tears filled his eyes.  He talked to his mother, remembering stories from the past.  She breathed in and out.

Suddenly Eleanor’s eyes flew open. She looked over at Matt only her eyes moving.  “Good-bye,” she shouted, “I’m free!”  No sound escaped her lips as she stopped breathing.  Matt looked down waiting for the next breath.

The chameleon winked, catching Matt’s eye.  “She shed her skin.  Can’t you see her?  It’s never easy, but she’s done it.  Look!  She’s glorious–sparkling even.”

Matt looked past the chameleon.  He stared down at the cockroaches with distaste, their legs waving in the air.  He’d have to get someone to clean the room.

He turned back to his mother and tucked the blankets around her.  He better get started. There were calls to be made.

He walked toward the door.

The chameleon watched him leave eyes rotating to the left and to the right.

About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States" in Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, and a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico. Karen and her husband traveled extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, spending many summers in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala . Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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