by Steven Bergom
part 2

  When we reached the Fort Collins, CO branch of the CDC, I was set up with a room that briefly reminded me of the room that Gary Sinise was in in the movie adaptation of The Stand. The walls were white, there was a big plexiglass observation window and a sealed metal door adorning one of the walls, but instead of a large, wheeled bed I was given a pallet on the floor that consisted of a thick mat and several wool blankets. When the door closed I stared for a long time at the camera placed surreptitiously in the corner of the room, sighed and went to my bed where I dreamt of people -- my coworkers and my family, mostly -- running away from me in terror.
  Over the course of the next few weeks I was subjected to every test imaginable. I was poked, prodded, run to exhaustion, had fluids drawn from me and submitted to psychological exams, all performed by faceless PhDs in contact suits. I didn't ask about Shawn and Marie because I knew that they were going through something similar, and all because of associating with me; two more people hurt, just because they happened to be breathing the same air that I was.
  I soon tired of spending my time thinking about all the things I had done wrong in my life, so I asked for -- and received -- a computer to work from. I hadn't checked my mail since the day I changed, and the inbox after ten days was pushing several megabytes worth of messages. Luckily my home machine was on and sucking down email from my provider, so that I didn't have to worry about overloading any size restrictions placed on my account. All I had to do was kill the running Netscape session, zip the ensuing inbox, transfer it to my borrowed computer and set up my local machine to contact my provider directly for email. I knew that every packet I sent out was being closely monitored by some tech in a computer lab somewhere on the premises, but it felt good to finally be putting my computing knowledge back to use.
  Time passed, as it is wont to do, and the brains around me still knew nothing about what happened to us.

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  Marie visited me one day while I was logged into my company's computers and doing some work. That's the one of the many things that I like about my employer; since we are a software engineering firm, we can work remotely. This is great if you wake up in the middle of the night with a bugfix and want to work on it right away, but it makes taking a day off because you are sick nigh on impossible. Right now it served as one way to keep my mind off of everything that was going on.
  "Steven! I'm told that I'm not infected by any bacteria, virus or parasite that I didn't know about before, so I can finally get out of that boring room. Of course, I still have to wear this funky suit if I want to talk with you. Steven? Did you hear me?"
  I heard her, but I kept my back turned resolutely toward her, concentrating on the keyboard in front of me. I heard her walk closer and reach out to touch me, but I shrugged away when the air stirred by her movement brushed at my fur. I just wanted to be left alone and soon she understood that. I spent a long time staring at the sealed doorway, thankful that she was now safe from me.
  Was I doing the right thing? Yes, I told myself, the only way to keep from hurting anyone else was to keep them away, so that when I went crazy, no one would be in my path. I sighed and bent back to my work.

---==::==---    ---==::==---    ---==::==---

  Marie continued to visit me daily, telling me of all that was going on at the Center and how she was drafted into working with the scientists since she had much more experience with big cats than anyone in Colorado. I didn't know why she didn't go home; I thought that as soon as they had declared her free of contagion, she would be on the first flight back to Tucson and her job at the zoo. Of course while she talked to me I studiously ignored her, hoping that she would keep herself as far from me as possible.
  The testing did not stop during this time, and the procedures that I was being subjected to became more exotic as the researchers' imaginations ran to new heights. I took all of this in stride, and calmly submitted myself to every pin prick, follicle sample and endoscope that they wanted.
  It is needless to say that they found nothing.
  On a day in early March I was working at my computer in trying to fix some bugs that had been graciously forwarded to me, even though I hadn't set foot in the office since January 24, when Marie came in again. This time something was different. "Well," she said in a voice no longer filtered by plastic, "as far as they've been able to determine, you're not contagious. They've loosened some of the restrictions and'll let you out of this room for a while. Supervised, of course; whatever that means."
  I could hear her footsteps as Marie walked closer to me. She was unsuited -- unprotected -- and she was getting near me, and I shook, hoping that I could control my actions. "You know, you do need to get out and move around. Even with all of the treadmills they've put you on, you haven't gotten much exercise. There's an enclosed track here in the complex that you can use. How about it? You can work off some stress, take a little break and..."
  She didn't get any farther. When she got close enough she put her hands on my shoulders and I immediately hunched in on myself, growling with my eyes shut tight.
  "Fine!" Marie said at last. "If you want to be that way..." I listened to her walk to the door on the other side of the room, and untensed only when I heard it shut again. I was still shaking when I looked back to the door and saw Dr. Smith in the window, watching me as he did from time to time. Marie was out shortly, and after a glance at me pulled the doctor to the side and left me alone with my work. I took several deep calming breaths and turned back to my keyboard. I hoped that she wasn't planning on anything that might get her hurt. The Lord knows that I have frightened and hurt enough people as it is since that day back in January.
  I heard the hatch to my room open and close again in the afternoon. Whoever it was didn't say anything at first but stood there for a long time, quiet. My nose itched so I rubbed it with my paw before returning to my typing. They tried to be quiet, but with ears several times more sensitive than what I had when I was fully human, I could hear every footstep as if it echoed down an empty corridor. I itched at my nose again.
  "You're not going to ignore me this time," Marie said when she was halfway to me. "Tigers aren't social animals, but you're human, and avoiding everyone like this is bad for the psyche. I didn't study Freud -- I'm a veterinarian -- but I do know people, and you need to get out of this slump." I rubbed my nose again and blinked my eyes at the screen as my concentration began to waver. "This time you are going to pay attention to me, and you can't help it!" She had finally reached me and leaned forward, putting her arms around my neck and her head next to my face.
  My heart was beating strongly and I felt like I was going to sneeze but no sneeze was forthcoming. I opened my mouth to tell her to go away, but as soon as I took in a deep breath a little part of my mind switched on and shunted all conscious thought into a little corner to play.

---==::==---    ---==::==---    ---==::==---

  Consciousness reasserted itself some time later, with me on my pallet and my right arm firmly around Marie. Occasionally I would chuff and nuzzle my head against hers, giving her hair a lick in mutual grooming.
  Okay, now! For those with your heads in the gutter imagining a salacious sex scene, please remove them, and if that is not possible by dint of the fact that the rest of your body is there accompanying said heads, then ask for help in removing that, too! We were not naked; Marie was still wearing a t-shirt and a pair of jeans that she had borrowed. I wore a pair of hospital-style pants that had been tailored to fit my tail and legs as a concession to modesty. We were only in that position because... well... I don't quite remember that much.
  "Marie? What happened?"
  Marie shifted in my arms to look me in the face. "I drugged you," she said happily.
  How do women do it? Whenever they do something to men to make them look like idiots, they always have this ability to look insufferably smug.
  "That's twice you've done that now. I would be more interested in how you did it this time."
  Her smile grew even broader and I felt even more the butt of a huge practical joke. "Well, there's this little plant called nepata cataria that has been known to calm upset stomaches, cure insomnia and reduce headaches. Nepata cateria also contains a little chemical called nepatalactone that tends to act like a euphoric in cats, which is why it's also called catnip. Unfortunately there was no catnip here at the center, but since all members of the mint family contain varying amounts of nepatalactone, I was able to find a concentrated mint oil and dabbed a bit behind my ears. You, my friend, just spent the last forty-five minutes rolling on the floor, chuffing and licking my face like a kitten on happy pills!"
  She couldn't be serious. She just couldn't be! A hundred scenes flooded my mind before I groaned and leaned back. "Steven, are you okay?"
  "Just fine," I grumbled. "I was just remembering how when I was younger, we had a cat that absolutely loved mint flavored toothpaste. Have you ever had a housecat try to crawl into your mouth?" I shook my head at the thought. "For some reason, the thought of acting drugged and crazy every time someone opens a York Peppermint Patty does not appeal to me."
  Marie laughed at the image. "Don't worry, I don't think that would happen. I specifically asked Dr. Smith to mix up a super-concentrated form for this. The most you'd get from a breath mint would be a light buzz. Besides, I wouldn't recommend eating any York Patties; they have chocolate and that's not good for you. Eat some and you'll have an upset stomach. Eat enough and you could die."
  "I guess Marcel DeSoulniers was right," I said to myself. "Death by Chocolate is an apt title for that cookbook."
  "So, Steven. Are you going to let me up any time soon?"
  I quickly lifted the arm that was restraining her against the mat. She rolled away and sat in kneeling position facing me. "Sorry, I didn't realize... I mean, I didn't know what I did..." Under my fur I was blushing furiously at this point, and was extremely thankful that no one else could see it. A thought suddenly occured to me and I quickly raised my head to look to the front of the room.
  Marie caught my movement. "Don't worry. I had Dr. Smith blank the window before I went in, and the only person in the monitoring station was warned not to say anything on pain of being eaten by a very irate tiger!"
  While the comment was made in jest I didn't find it the least bit amusing. "That was not funny!" I said after I rolled to my feet and stalked several feet away from her. "I'm not a man anymore -- I'm an animal! -- and I don't need you rubbing it in!"
  Marie tsked and walked over to where I stood with my arms folded across my chest. Pulling my pants out from my waist by the elastic, she looked in. "Well, looks like you're still a 'man' from this angle! It's nothing I haven't seen before."
  I slapped her hand away rather harder than I wanted, but I wasn't paying attention to that. "Oh, sure! Of course it's nothing you haven't seen! You're a veterinarian! You work with wild animals and I'm just another one ready for the zoo!"
  "What in the world is with you? I just try to help and you go all ballistic on me!" She had her hand around her forearm where I had slapped her and when she took it away to look, I saw the bright crimson of blood.
  My heart dropped and the anger drained out of my shoulders. "Marie, you're bleeding!"
  "This?" she said showing me her bloody arm. "This is nothing. I got worse working with an angry warthog once. It left a huge gash up my leg."
  I could only stare helplessly at the damage on her arm that I had left with my claws. "Marie, please. Please go, before I hurt you worse."
  Marie stared at me unmoving while I pleaded with my eyes for her to go. "You're afraid," she said silently. "You're afraid of hurting people!"
  "Yes. Now please, Marie, go away!"
  "No! I'm not leaving, because you can't hurt me! Here," she said pulling her collar down to show her left shoulder to me, "see that? That's where a female lion decided to gnaw on me! If you look at my arms, they're crisscrossed by scars from working with large birds. And one of these days I'm going to have to have surgery on my knee from an angry cheetah that we didn't have completely tranquilized when we were transporting him to a new area. You can't physically hurt me any more than I have put myself through!"
  "But, I'm an animal, I could snap any minute, like with that guard..."
  "That was an accident, Steven! He tripped on the plastic and stepped on your tail. He even sent his apologies! You reacted the way anyone who was having a bad day would react and the guard realized that. He just had a few stitches, got bandaged up and was as good as new, except he won't be doing pushups for a few weeks.
  "Whatever you may think, you are not an animal. You may have a few new instincts, but you still have a human mind controlling your actions. There is still a very intelligent human being in there. Besides, how many tigers do you know that can program a computer and -- what is it you're doing with that thing, anyway?" Marie said pointing at the computer I was using.
  "Uh, writing a device driver..."
  "Exactly! How many tigers do you know that can write device drivers? You. Are. Not. An. Animal!"
  I didn't realize I had been backing up from her until I felt the wall behind me. While I stopped Marie had continued coming and punctuated each word of the last sentence with a sharp poke to my chest. "But how do you know I won't hurt you?" I asked, nervous about her proximity.
  "I don't. But I'm pretty sure no pain will come to me even if I do this." In one motion she pulled a chair close, stood on it, put her hands on both sides of my face and started to pull on my cheek fur. While I bared my teeth in agony, Marie just looked at me with a sweet expression on her face.
  "See? Even though all your instincts are screaming to throw me away, you won't; you are in complete control of your actions."
  "If I'm in complete control of my actions," I said through clenched teeth, "then you will understand when I do this." Like I said earlier, I studied gong-fu for several years and one of the things we learn are some of the major pressure points in the human body. With easy movements I pressed her hands into my face, pried her thumbs away from their grip and rotated her wrists gently in a direction that wrists don't usually like to be rotated in.
  This is a technique that can be tricky to do right for the first-timer, but once you know how to do it, it can cause a lot of pain with no damage. I could tell Marie felt all of it, since her mouth and eyes were wide as I guided her down from the chair. When she had her two feet safely planted on the floor I let her go. She shook out her wrists and rubbed them to get rid of the lingering ache. "Where the heck did you learn how to do that?"
  It was my turn to be smug and I gave her one of those mysterious looks that cats have been giving humans for centuries. "It's a little technique I picked up," I replied. "It's rather effective against people who do mean things to you, don't you think?" I was starting to feel a little better now and a bit of my humor was coming back to me. I stepped up to Marie and enfolded her in a big hug. "Thanks, Marie. I really needed that."
  I held the hug a moment longer before releasing her but I still kept my arms on her shoulders. "You should really get that looked at. I wouldn't want your arm to get infected or anything."
  Marie looked at her arm and then at me. "Yeah, maybe you're right. And I'll bring a washcloth back to get that out," she said pointing to where some of her blood had rubbed off on my fur.
  "Don't worry about it. I've got it covered." I bent my head down and licked at the blood. It had felt odd grooming myself in this manner at first, but I quickly adapted. "Hmm," I said after a moment. "Salty." I looked directly at Marie for the next part. "I may not be a man-eating tiger, but that doesn't quite rule out women!" and I licked my chops in emphasis.
  Marie laughed, and then calmly hit me upside the head.
  Ah, women!

---==::==---    ---==::==---    ---==::==---

  This is not to say that I had an Annie "the sun'll come out tomorrow" disposition for the rest of my stay at Hotel CDC, but at least I was done with my brooding. Afterwards, however, when I was feeling morose Marie would talk me into taking a walk around the compound to discuss whatever came to mind. We never discussed anything earth-shattering, unless you count a detailed rendering of the differences between the intestinal tracts of humans and tigers to be crisis causing.
  "Where's Shawn?" I asked one day when I suddenly realized that I hadn't seen the other zoo worker around for a while.
  "He left shortly after the CDC declared him free of contagion. He wanted to get back to his wife and son back in Tucson," Marie said. "Besides, the zoo is preparing for the arrival of a white tiger so they need all the experienced personel that they can get."
  "So, why did you stick around?"
  "Well, Shawn can handle everything at the zoo right now," she answered after a moment's thought. "And I've already laid out instructions for what will be needed. Plus, they were needing someone here who had experience with exotic cats."
  "There's no one in Tucson waiting for you?" I asked as nonchalantly as possible.
  "No. Not really. Never had time for dating much. After I got my veterinary degree, I went almost immediately to Namibia and worked with a man specializing in cheetah conservation. After a few years there I came back to the states, and found a job working with big animals as soon as possible. Look at me," she laughed ruefully. "I'm thirty-one and haven't had a real date in over six years!"
  "Gee, and I thought I was doing bad at twenty-five!" I teased. "I feel much better, now!" Predictably she laughed and tried pushing me over.
  We walked in silence for a little while. "So, Steven, do you have any family in the area?"
  "Naw. They're all in the midwest. I like to call them up in the spring, and laugh at them when we have seventy degree temps and they still have a foot of snow on the ground!" We laughed companionably and walked a little bit more without talking.
  "Have you told 'em yet? I mean, about you..."
  "No, I haven't. That's actually one of the things that I'm afraid of doing. What would they say if I called them up and said, 'Hi! How's everyone doing? Great! I'm fine and, oh, by the way, I'm a tiger now.'? I don't quite think they'd believe me."
  "You could send a photo with a letter explaining everything. That should help convince them."
  "Yeah, but not totally. I'm the computer expert in the family, and they know I could probably fake a shot like that pretty easily. Plus, I've pulled some fancy April Fools jokes on them in the past, so they suspect me in anything that I do."
  "Well, you've gotta start somewhere! Try the letter first, and get someone down here -- or fly up there -- so that they can corroborate your story. Sooner or later you're gonna have to do it!"
  She was right, and the sooner I got started, the better. After a few false starts, I was able to draft a letter to my mother in Iowa while Marie borrowed a camera from one of the lab personnel. The photo wasn't glamorous, but it would do the trick and show that the tiger in the picture wasn't your normal zoo specimen.

  Dear Mom,
  How are you doing? I'm not too bad, myself. I know I usually call, but I had all this paper and a bunch of stamps that weren't doing anything excepting waiting to be obsoleted by another postal hike so...
  How's the babysitting business going? Are you getting enough exercise chasing around rugrats all day? I know, you only have the one, but one toddler is more than enough from what I've been able to hear.
  My life at the moment has been relatively boring. Work hasn't been very exciting, unless you count the new circuit boards we've been evaluating. It's starting to get warm in Tucson so I'm glad that I work in an office where air-conditioning is a necessity.
  Do you remember last year when I said that I wanted to get back into writing? Well, I did and I've written a couple things that I'm proud of. They still need some work, but I found an e-mail list that goes out to people around the world that I can get feedback from.
  Now, do you remember reading in the news about all those people suddenly turning into weird creatures? You probably saw that lizard guy on TV around the same time. Mom, guess what list I was subscribed to.
  The good news is I won't be shaving my head anymore. I know you didn't like that much. The bad news is I've got a lot of facial hair, and you've told me that you didn't like my goatee. Inside the envelope you'll find a picture. That's Marie on the right, and I'm the really hairy one on the left. I met Marie at the zoo, and she's been helping me learn about myself. (Did you know that modern tigers are not descendants of sabre-toothed tigers?) No, Marie isn't that short. She's about 5-foot-8, but since I'm now a couple of feet taller than her I tend to make everyone look short! Hey, I always wanted to play basketball (ha ha). Oh, and in case you were wondering, that isn't a pot-belly that I have. Marie assures me that it is a normal extra-thick section of skin that all tigers have to protect them from getting their stomachs ripped open.
  At the moment I'm helping the government with figuring out what happened in January. I'm currently splitting my time between normal work and helping the researchers. I am currently spending my time in Colorado and don't know when I'll get back to Tucson. When I do, the offer of a plane ticket down still stands. I'll show you around and stuff, you don't have to worry about anything. I'd fly up to Iowa to see you, but I doubt the FAA would allow me on any flights at the moment.
  Which reminds me, is Deb allergic to cats? I remember that she's allergic to lots of things, but it would just be too funny if she were now allergic to me! Then again, I guess little brothers are supposed to be annoying; it's part of our job description!
  Well, I've got things to be doing, so I'll try to call you later. Until then, can we keep this little development in the family? Thanks.
  Your loving son, Steven

  There. I didn't tell her any more than what she needed to know and hopefully my omissions weren't too transparent. I love her, but I don't want to worry my mom, and the full details would make anyone fly off the handle.
  Now I just needed to send it, and wait.

---==::==---    ---==::==---    ---==::==---

  The guards were actually pleasant to us when they understood that Marie was not bringing a 'pet' into the Tucson International Airport. Of course, if a full-grown tiger suddenly stood up and started insulting your intelligence, you'd be unfailingly polite, too! This probably wouldn't have happened if I was walking on my hind legs, but as I said once a long time ago, it was much more comfortable to walk with all four feet on the floor.
  I am admittedly nervous, and I have noticed that lately when I get nervous or confused, I shrink into myself and become just a little more catlike. It wasn't completely healthy, but it's a lot better than what I was like at the CDC.
  This time, though, I feel that I have a very valid reason for being more nervous than usual; my mother is arriving today and this is going to be the first time in months that I will have seen her. Marie had accompanied me, both to provide emotional support and because I did not yet have a driver's license -- or car -- suited to my new form. At the moment I am sitting on the floor at the end of a row of uncomfortable airline seats, while Marie sits next to me in one of the aforementioned uncomfortable chairs, idly scratching me between my ears and watching the planes take off.
  The public's reaction has been varied. Some ignore me -- or look like they're ignoring me -- and some hurry past, looking over their shoulder at me and hoping that they won't get mauled. Teens look at me curiously, and the younger children get told by their parents that it isn't nice to point whenever I walk past. Their reactions are as varied as sand on a beach, and a little part of me is always playing armchair psychologist and cataloging all this away for later study.
  "Hey, Missus! Can I pet your cat?" asks a little girl in front of us. She's about six and reminds me a lot of my niece.
  Marie quirks a smile and tells her simply, "Ask him."
  The girl, with the faith of one so young, seriously asks me if she can pet me. Just as seriously I look back at her and say, "Yes, please." She is stunned for a moment, but quickly reaches out to scratch me just behind the ear where I can't easily get at.
  She stays for several minutes until a person who I assume to be her mother comes up to us and starts pulling her away. "I'm sorry," she apologizes. "Tonya's always getting away from me and I hope she didn't bother you or your... uh... pet?"
  "No," I said noting the look of surprise on the lady's face and forcing my whiskers just a little bit more forward in feline smile. "Tonya was no trouble at all." Tonya's mother is silent for a moment before nervously tugging her daughter away, giving us backward glances.
  Marie chuckles. "You like doing that, don't you? The surprising people thing. 'Look at me, I'm just an animal! Nope, I can talk. too!' "
  "If it'll get more people scratching my ears, I do!" I'm completely honest in my response; if you've got, flaunt it! I'm a good looking tiger, if I may say so myself, and the more people come up to me and talk to me, the less likely they are to run away gibbering in terror. It's my little way of desensitizing the public, and it's worked pretty well so far.
  My transition into 'normal' life was rather smooth when I left the CDC compound. At first I didn't think it would be, but Marie, who I found out actually minored in Journalism in college, acted as my public relations advisor. With her advice I figured out how I would deal with the curious public, how to avoid open conflict with discriminating people and, most importantly, how to get the press to avoid me altogether.
  That's right, I got the press so bored with me that they left me alone after a while. That's why you haven't seen much of me on national television; first, I was whisked out from under the news organizations' noses by the timely interference of the CDC. Second, by the time I got back, much of the furor over the transformations had died down, and third, I didn't give them what they wanted. I freely gave interviews to several area news teams, but whenever I started to get bored with the conversation -- usually about five minutes in -- I started directing my answers to the plight of several species of feline who were facing extinction in the African and Asian continents. After a while, they stopped calling and that was just fine with me. Remember that: don't give the press what they want, but don't provoke them either, and you'll get the general populace to love you and the media to be bored with you.
  The converse of this is that I was approached by various animal rights groups to be a spokesperson for their organization. The Reid Park Zoo, of course, got first dibs on my services because they are involved in several conservation programs; Marie works there; and I could get free medical benefits. Hey, who else is qualified to work with someone of my species? The University of Arizona even offered me a free season pass to all sporting events if I would play mascot for them. Their mascot, however, is a wildcat (whatever that's supposed to be) and, like I told them, since I attended a different college I would be forced to cheer for my alma mater if the teams ever met. They didn't bring up the offer again. As a result of this local attention I became a fixture of the community, as lovable and irreplaceable as Smokey the Bear. I would have it no other way, as it made me an integral part of the city and not some outsider whom no one knows anything about.
  And now I sit here, trying to keep my mind off the fact that my mother will step off a plane and see me in the fur for the first time since that fateful day in January. It's nerve-wracking, and the only thing keeping me from flying apart is Marie's calming presence.
  The crowd around me is oblivious to the tension, chatting on cell phones, pressing their faces to the windows, getting a capuccino from the coffee bar in the concourse., I notice that there is a maintenance worker collecting trash somewhere off in the distance, and that one wheel on his cart is in need of oiling. The squeaking stops when the cart does, but it shocks my sensitive hearing each time it starts again.
  There is a boy not too far from me with too much energy, running the same path that he picked ten minutes ago while his dad just sits there tapping something important on his laptop. Behind me, someone laughs a bit too loud at a joke that probably wasn't all that funny to begin with. Someone else snaps their gum continuously, newspapers get folded and refolded, a baby cries, an amateur drummer taps their fingers against a briefcase, someone sneezes, and...
  ...the plane taxis into the gate. Zero hour has arrived, and an anxious crowd presses against the door where they expect to see their loved ones any moment. I hold back, but with a supporting nod from Marie I move closer, holding my position in the second rank of family and friends, just where I can see between two bodies. The door opens and soon the passengers begin to trickle out. The bodies around me press closer, as hugs go around and I wrap my tail around my feet so that it doesn't get stepped on -- again. I watch the door anxiously and then I see her, looking around the unfamiliar gate for her son. It's now or never, I tell myself. If you're going to do it, do it now.
  Taking a deep breath, I rise up to my full height of something over eight feet. There are a few gasps, and one shriek, but the crowd parts before me like the waters of the Red Sea before Moses. My mother sees me then and mirrors my nervousness as she walks forward and stops a few feet in front of me. "Steven?" she asks. "Is that you?"
  I don't trust my voice so I nod. Tentatively she touches my furry stomach and then, with what I could only describe as wonder in her eyes, she puts her arms around me and hugs me.
  We stay in that embrace for several minutes, the world around us all but forgotten except for the flashing of cameras from various directions about us. I ignore all the distractions, concerned only with the woman, three feet shorter than I, sniffling into my fur. We pull away at last, and I bend down to bump my forehead against hers in ancient feline greeting. "I missed you, Steven," she says while wiping at her nose.
  "And I missed you, Mom! Welcome to Tucson." I pick up her carry-on bag and put one arm around her shoulders. "Now," I said guiding her down the concourse and to the luggage carousel, "you can help me find a house."


  I know, I know, you wanted to hear a tale about a sordid, bestial love affair between Marie and myself. Well, get over it, because the fact of the matter is that this account will probably fall into the hands of children and I don't think they need to be reading that sort of thing.
  If you really want to know, all that I'll say is that Marie and I didn't part company, but have stayed friends and close companions for quite a while now. That house that I told Mom that she was going to help me look for, I share with Marie. Of course, I had to have it specially zoned for exotic animals; the county would have no less, and their request was quite reasonable. After we had gotten settled in I found out that the zoo worked with various animal conservation groups, and I soon found myself sharing my house with ocelots, servals and the occasional bobcat when Marie brought her work home.
  Our neighbors weren't too enthusiastic when I first moved in and we started having our 'houseguests', but once they noticed that the housecat disappearances and coyote sightings went way down, they didn't complain!
  There was a certain amount of tension at work when I arrived back to take my old place, but it quickly disappeared since I had continued working while in Colorado. I still wore only the modified shorts; it's not like we had a dress code, and even the company founder could occasionally be seen roaming the hallways barefoot. The only problem I ever really had with any of my co-workers was that some of them were vegetarians, and at company picnics I ate my hamburger -- usually five pounds' worth -- raw.
  Occasionally I had a few religious zealots scream Bible verses at me, with a fervor that would have been funny if it wasn't so scary. Mostly, however, the community was on my side because of my association with the zoo and other community programs. Maybe I'll write about those confrontations some day. We'll see.
  All in all, my reintroduction into society was relatively uneventful. The people of Tucson are a very laid-back group in general, and seeing me in public didn't cause too much of a stir. I guess that it's because the tiger along with many other felines have played such a generous role in the folklore of many cultures, and have retained an air of mystery about them. I still get a thrill every time a wide-eyed child comes up to me and pets me, because I know that they will be just a little less afraid of the monsters in the world. They have caressed the tiger, and have lived to tell about it.
  And now my tale is done. There may be others in the future, but this is the one I wanted to tell; the one about my greatest crisis in dealing with my transformation. Maybe it'll help you a little, maybe it will give you hope; I don't know. But whatever you take from this story, I ask you to take this: Do not be afraid. Black-suited men with weird guns and fancy sunglasses do not wait around every corner, and the only fear that you need to conquer is the one of who you are. I am a tiger, and I am proud of that. That fact cannot be taken away from me and no one, especially me, needs to be afraid of me because of it.
  Now, if you would... excuse me while I take that long-awaited catnap.

part 2