By Bethany Willis
2nd Place Winner for Teleport’s 2019 Fantasy Contest
Shanon paused the video just in time. She knew Adblock would handle the normal “Like, Share, Subscribe” compulsion spell, but why take chances now? Time was tight. She couldn’t afford to let anything slow her down or make her stand out in any way.
This chance might not come again.
THoc31 had given her true name.
She’d caught it during today’s unboxing video – a bike seat with her dog’s face printed on it. Just before a cut, as THoc3l was ooo-ing over the details of the wargi’s ears, she’d heard it in the background.
It had been faint, muffled, barely there. But THoc3l’s head had turned instinctively, just a little. There’d been a flash of response in her eyes. Then a cut, and she was squinting critically at the blush-pink background, comparing it to her glamorized nails.
Shanon knew what she had heard. She still went through the steps of increasing the volume, balancing out background noise to the best of her abilities. Checking, checking, checking.
But not for long. Because if she’d caught it, so had others.
They wouldn’t all be seeking bodyswaps, of course, although she couldn’t be the only one. Some would blackmail her, demand money or shoutouts or pictures. Some would demand fingernail clippings, vows, promises of future offspring.
She bet none of them would succeed, or not for long. Unless the first message came packaged with a crazy-good mesmer, THoc3l would race to damage-control. A name-sweep was painful and pricey, but better than the alternative.
She had to be the first. And once she was anchored in that body, her own true name hooked in, any compulsions would be ineffective. Perhaps the video-wide discovery would even work to her advantage. THoc3l (Vai) might not be willing to attempt outing Shanon to the public. Not if she was smart. Reveal yourself to your horde of fans who know your true name – without the protective resources of an internet celebrity? Shanon knew her own resources couldn’t buy a name-sweep, and Vai wouldn’t even know her PIN. Not for the first few weeks, anyway. Eventually Shanon would send her the information she’d need to live Shanon’s life. Once they’d settled in.
But she had to be fast.
She was currently as prepared as she could be. She’d accumulated the necessary moonstones over the last year, never too many in one place. Jewelry stores, museum gift shops, geology conventions, and even once the Spell Supply aisle at Target, although that had been risky. At least she’d had the sense to avoid Amazon. Even so, her computer had fed her gemstone and chakra bracelet ads for weeks. No good. It meant she had someone’s attention, even if that someone was an algorithm.
And her coworkers had noticed. “Starting a rock collection?” Roland had said casually, glancing over her shoulder at her phone. “Moonstone, that’s cool.”
She’d forced her shoulders to lower, her jaw to relax. “I bought ONE necklace. One. You know how the ads are.”
He’d grimaced. “Word. I googled “natu” once – wanted to homunculize a plushie for my little sister. Still getting Pokémon popups now.” She’d breathed a little easier.
The quicksilver had been easier. Many spells used a quicksilver base, so she felt safe making one bulk order under the pretext of handling an ant infestation. The cashier had winced sympathetically and wished her luck. No ads.
She’d let two months go by before trying to accumulate anything else. Mustard seed from Walmart? No problem. Starwort? Problem. It wasn’t a culinary ingredient or a health additive, so the only option was a spellstore. Should she try to send someone in her place?
No. Who could she trust with that? And anyone even slightly worth considering had to be avoided. It was unavoidable that they’d notice “her” personality change even if the swap went off perfectly; it could be catastrophe if they remembered her collecting obscure spell components.
So after a little research she’d breezed through the store collecting powdered starwort and magnesium nitrate and Grade A pigeon feathers and chatted (just a little – not enough to be memorable) about this eczema charm that just had to work.
She’d made the candles at home.
But the DNA. Without the DNA it was all pointless.
She’d been as careful here as anywhere else. Incognito tabs. Indirect phrasing on message boards. Word-of-mouth among the discreet at conventions. And she’d gotten what she needed: a single black hair that had cost her three times the amount of every other ingredient combined. And somehow, she’d caught no one’s attention. No malware, no too-casual-yet-too-specific conversations started online. No-one shadowing her at the cons.
But the ads had been immediate. THoc31 merch peppered every page she searched; THoc31 videos filled her YouTube recommendations. People noticed.
“Isn’t she one of those people that makes all their money opening boxes?” her mom asked, looking over her shoulder on a random-visit day. “I don’t understand why people find those so fascinating.”
“I didn’t know you’re Thockey fan!” said Roland, and she didn’t dare use the same excuse twice.
Shanon had a choice. The revelation of the ads was a double-edged sword. If she leaned into her supposed “obsession”, maybe everyone would assume she’d cracked when “she” started claiming to be the vlog-celeb THoc31. That was the best-case scenario. That was the best cover she could hope for. Vai might even be institutionalized.
The worst-case scenario was, of course, that her parents would say, “Thockey? Wasn’t she that computer-person our daughter was so obsessed with?”
And Roland would wander in and say, “Oh, you mean Shanon? She totally likes moonstone, too.”
And then some random cashier would pipe in, “And starwort.”
And then Shanon would go to jail forever. In her own body.
But it was worth the risk. It was worth it to break into a perfect world, a world where she could have the perfect clothes and the perfect pet and the perfect hair and the perfect apartment. A world where millions of clicks showered her with attention and approval and money – just for opening a few boxes.
She’d risk jail for that world.
In the end, Shanon decided to downplay the videos. “Oh yeah, she’s kinda fun to watch. I let them autoplay when I’m driving to work. Lets me veg out.” Her mom had disapproved, but had given it no more thought.
But the spell was almost guaranteed to fail without THoc31’s true name. Shanon had been prepared for another months-long circumspect search – and then the idiot dropped it into her lap this morning. Sloppy editing. But it was time to go.
Or it would be that evening.
(What if that wasn’t the full name? whispered her brain. What if it’s short for Vairana or Vaizleyva or something?)
Then this won’t work and no one will know, she answered herself. Besides, what else am I gonna do? Not make a move? Not grasp at something, anything that gets me out of this boring, pointless life?
I’m gonna be worth something. To someone.
But she had to get through one last day of work. No way was she going to miss a shift last-minute just before she underwent a radical personality change. Don’t stand out. Minimize the trail of breadcrumbs. If someone pounced before her shift ended….well, she’d find a new target and start again. As long as no one connected the dots.
Shanon clocked in, adjusted her visor, slipped behind the register. She managed to keep her customary glued-on grin in place even though her entire body wanted to vibrate with anticipation. She managed the customary sigh and eye-roll when sent back to stock, even though that meant her shift was half-way over. She kept to routine, slouch-huddling in the walk-in cooler with Roland with their phones.
And the accompanying ads.
“Freaky Friday”? said Roland. “Isn’t that movie like fifty years old?”
“Yeah, my mom must’ve been ordering stuff on my phone,” she lied, sweat beading in the cold.
“Sucks,” he said disinterestedly. “I had to charm mine so they couldn’t pull up Amazon.”
“Mm.” They sank back into their own worlds.
Shanon didn’t open her phone until, shift over, she could retreat alone to her car. More ads jumped out at her.
The Shaggy Dog.
Something out in that wide world had followed her breadcrumbs. Some grinning algorithm had connected the dots.
Would anyone else? Would anyone who wasn’t trying to sell her something be able to gather up the clues?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Shanon turned her car toward home. She had to take her shot.
Bio: Bethany Willis grew up in the Midwest but now wanders the DFW Metroplex with her husband and dog. She loves stories in all their wonderful forms but has a soft spot for those that take our own world and make it just a little weirder. Bethany spends most of her year teaching teenagers, who show her daily how wonderful and crazy people can be. This allows her to spend her summers consuming even more stories. This, clearly, is optimal.
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