LTF: If Life Could Only Be a Catnap — Part III

Steven Bergom

Breathe in through the nose, breathe out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Listen to the sound of the jet engines, roaring outside of the plane. Feel Marie's fingers as she scratches between my ears. Experience all of these sensations, intimately, and then divorce the conscious part of the mind from the sensory processing section. Meditating apart from emotions, suspended in a field of pure logic.

Every time I do that, however, I find the faces of my coworkers staring back at me, fear writ plainly on their faces. I see the policemen back at my apartment hastily grabbing at their sidearms when the caught a glimpse of me. Foremost, I see the eyes of the soldier, laying on the ground, afraid to take a breath for fear that it would be his last.

I thought I could handle all that had happened to me, though, just like I had handled the rest of my life. I could stare down anything that was thrown at me, and anything that I was thrown at. I was picked on, dumped on, beaten up, but I just shrugged off every harsh word as if it never happened. My peers ignored me but I found friends in my books, turning page after page of solace.

When I went to college, I found that the big things never bothered me. Figuring out what classes I was going to take the next semester were a breeze. Grading students' homework and teaching recitations twice weekly didn't bother me. Packing up my apartment and moving half way across the country didn't even phase me.

I guess when I first found that I had transformed into a tiger the psychological shock of it all must have masked any other thought I may have had. Then, of course, getting tranq'd is enough to scramble anyone's wits. I didn't start to get upset with everything until Marie, Shawn and I were taken into the custody of the United States government.

We didn't leave the zoo right a way. They kept us waiting in the examining room for two hours with nothing to do but stare at concrete walls. Except for a brief walk around my apartment complex in the morning, I hadn't had a chance to really exercise and I was beginning to feel a little bit edgy. It didn't help that Marie, while we talked about everything but what was going on, swung her legs off the edge of the table she was sitting on and I had to fight an overwhelming urge to pounce. That was one.

I understand the guards' need for strict professionalism in remaining silent for the entire time they were around us but, in my opinion, the fact that they constantly had their weapons at ready was overkill. At the end of our detention we were led through a hallway to a van that smelled strongly of antiseptic and bleach, a combination which was not lost on Shawn and Marie. Our guards sat safely in their plastic suits and the only response to our questions was the steady whuffling of their respirators.

After much ceremony the van was locked and we were left with only a small overhead light to keep us company as we imagined our trip through the streets of Tucson in our windowless carriage. The seasonal wear on the streets had begun to produce the ubiquitous potholes and the driver was determined to hit each and every one of them. The fur on the top of my head protected my skull somewhat but I still felt the increasing need to consciously raise my ears from flattening against my cranium. It was also with a monumental effort that I didn't growl at the lack of shocks. That was two.

The ride that was lasting too long finally stopped on a relatively flat surface. After more ceremony outside the van which included the sounds of compressed air and intermittent bangings on the sides of the vehicle, the rear doors were opened and we were let out. I sneezed from the suddenly fresher air but noticed that we were a long way from being out of the ballpark. Around the van and continuing in front us was a corridor of the same green plastic that our escorts were wearing. Every few yards there were transparent windows, ostensibly for our hosts to make sure we were all right.

It was through one of those windows that we could see a group of people walking obliquely from us. They paused and, after discussing something between themselves, walked directly towards the window that I was looking out of. It was only after I put my paws on the plastic to smooth out the wrinkles that I could see the figures with any clarity. The men in fatigues were easy to figure, out but it wasn't until the group was fifteen feet away that I recognized the shapes of Mike, Jeff and Jeff's daughter, Tina.

Their first attempt at talking to me failed since the plastic corridor muffled everything. Their second attempt worked somewhat better, but it still took quite a bit of concentration to make out their words. "It looks like you're getting the red carpet treatment there, bergy!" Mike shouted at me.

"Well, green is more like it," I said, noting their surprise at my voice. I guess they would be since the last time I saw them I had just turned into… well, this. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, some military guys asked us ever-so-politely to accompany them on a field trip and we just couldn't refuse." Mike nervously looked at his escort who answered his rib with a stoic silence. "Anyway, what's up with you?"

One of my own guards took that moment to pull on my arm and say, "Come on, we've gotta' get moving. We're on a—" before I spun my head to look him in the eye, bare my teeth and growl.

"Easy, Mr. Bergom. We can give you fifteen minutes to speak with your friends before we absolutely have to be on the plane." Dr. Smith was an extreme model of congeniality as he defused me and the overzealous guard. "Now, the rest of us will stand back and give you some privacy, okay?" The other guards relaxed their grips on their guns but I didn't stop staring down the guard who interrupted our conversation. They moved off a dozen feet before I turned back to Mike and Jeff.

I took a few deep breaths before I dared to speak again. "Well, Mike, I know you like to have at least six weeks notice but, do you mind if I take off some time off? It seems that I'm going to be using up a bit of vacation time right about now."

Mike swallowed. "Sure, I think we can let you have off all the time you need."

"Mike," I said, "I, um, I do still have a job, right? I mean, even though I…"

"Oh, yeah, you still have a job with us. With one stipulation, though."

I flexed my fingers on the plastic window as I thought of a suitable reply. "Oh?" I tried to ask nonchalantly though a hint of a growl crept into my response. "What?"

Mike involuntarily stepped back as I realized that I was staring rather intently at him. "Well, you'll have to deal with salesmen now."

I blinked for a moment before widening my mouth into a feral smile. I relaxed somewhat to chuckle at the picture of an RTOS vendor trying to convince a tiger to switch to their own real-time operating system that has a new scheduling algorithm that makes the context switch time of their competitors look positively glacial. Mike followed with his own nervous laugh.

Jeff, too, smiled but didn't move much as he was currently holding a very sleepy three-year-old. "We, should probably get going now. They had us up early this morning and it's been a very busy day. They took quite a few samples," Mike said indicating fresh bandages on his arms, "and didn't even feed us. I don't want to hold you up too much, so, see ya' later?"

I nodded and they started to move away before Jeff stopped Mike and talked quietly with him and handed Tina off. He trotted back to our window while Mike and most of the guards walked away. "Hi!" he said. "Can you here me okay?" I nodded. "So, uh, how'd they get ya'?"

He was working up to something but I didn't know what. Maybe he wanted to borrow various circuit boards off of my desk while I was away. It wasn't uncommon for one or more persons at our office to see unused computer equipment and yearn to put them to good use. "Tranquilizer," I said after some thought. Jeff's brow furrowed and he began to chew on his lower lip. "The zoo, actually. Someone at my apartment saw me and called the sheriff. The zoo came out and tranq'd me. Why?"

"I, uh… That is, I'm sorry, bergy." He was looking everywhere but at me.

"For what?" I asked trying to catch his eyes. "For picking up Tina? If I were you, I'd probably be…"

"No," Jeff interrupted me, "I called them."

"Called who, Jeff?" I noticed I was starting to breathe more deeply, and I was focusing my stare on Jeff. "The zoo? Did you call the zoo?"

Jeff was now nervously scratching his head. "No," he finally said in a voice I could barely hear. "I called the base. I didn't know what to do I was…" Jeff stopped as he looked me in the eye.

"Scared," I completed for him in a preternaturally calm voice. "You were scared. I understand your reaction completely. If I were in your place, with a child, I would have done the same thing. You don't need to be sorry; they would have found me anyway." Jeff reminded me more of a scared rabbit at this point. "Go home, Jeff. I'll keep in touch." Jeff turned and walked in the direction that Mike went, giving furtive glances behind him after every few steps.

My paws were still on the plastic as I closed my eyes and worked to calm myself. I wasn't angry; I never get angry, or stressed, or any of a number of negative emotions. I was just… excited. I took a final deep breath and pulled my hands off the plastic, making soft 'thok' sounds as the my claws left behind twin arcs of holes.

My little tour group was still waiting for me as I walked slowly down that plastic corridor. Dr. Smith nodded to me once before motioning for our guards to form up around us and proceed to the waiting cargo plane. We walked quietly except for the soft shuffle of plastic on plastic when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my tail.

That was three.

I blanked momentarily and when I came to I was facing the opposite direction in a twisting stance with my right arm extended in a raking motion that could have easily come from the gong fu that I had learned so many years ago. My ears were flat against my head and I was growling low at my target, who was now flat on his back where he had fallen. He had been thrown back several feet by my strike and sported a wide horizontal rip across his contact suit that was starting to show blood.

I blinked several times before awareness fully returned to me and I realized what I had done. My ears came back up and I relaxed from my stance only to find several cocked guns pointing at me. Dr. Smith pushed me back issuing orders and Marie pulled on my arms, insisting that I follow her.

I don't remember much of what happened until we were secure and in the air. Shawn sat opposite Marie and I in the big box they had made for me in the back of a cargo plane. Guards sat on the other side, cautiously keeping their firearms at the ready in case they needed to take quick action. Marie sat beside where I lay on the floor, scratching my neck and head and speaking soothingly to me. I try to relax, but I can only see the faces of Mike and Jeff on the other side of the plastic, and of that poor guard who accidentally stepped on my tail.

I am frightened of what I have done. I don't want to hurt anyone, but it is so easy for me to do now. As a martial artist, one has to accept the fact that he can easily maim another human in a fight. The years of training has made our actions like a stimulus-response reaction, much like pulling your hand away from something that is hot. Only instead of pulling away, you learn to block, or punch, or kick. This time, out of anger, I…

That is another thing that you learn: how to control and focus your emotions. You learn to channel all your emotions so that it, too, is a reaction to your environment. Anger, frustration and pain can all be focused to guide and strengthen a kick or punch, much like adding nitro to a race-car. And I focused my rage into that one strike.

And a man got hurt.

And I can't get his face out of my mind.

I took pride in the fact that I have never acted out of pure anger, but today that pride was broken. I hurt someone when I was feeling my worst. As I listen to the drone of the engines, I try to push all thoughts out of my mind and pray.

I know God forgives me all my actions, but the question is, can I forgive myself?