These are the great questions of history: Where were you when
Francis Ferdinand was assassinated? Where were you when Kennedy
was shot? Where were you when the Challenger shuttle exploded?
Where were you when all the members of the TSA-Talk mailing list
were remarkably transformed?
For the first two, I wasn't even born yet. For the third, I was in the third grade gym class. For the last, I was sitting at work, staring at my computer monitor.
I can't really describe to you the sensations I felt; you know, the fur growing, gaining about 300 pounds, growing really big teeth. I just zoned out and came to about 15 minutes later, staring at bouncing sheep splattering on the ground. (Okay, before you ask, that's my screensaver. I never claimed to be sane!)
You're now going to ask, how come Marcus didn't see anything? Even though Marcus, the guy I share my office with, sits right across from me, he is like every software engineer in the world: when they're face-down in code, they won't move except for an announcement of fresh-baked cookies available in the break room. He broke me out of my own shock of discovering that I suddenly had orange-furred hands by slamming into the wall behind him and trying desperately to climb it backwards.
Mike, my boss, paused in walking past our door to stare incredulously at me. What I meant to say was, "What happened to me?" but it came out as a series of deep rumblings and snarls. Mike took the time to repeat Marcus' performance but opted instead for falling into a fetal position.
I still didn't have an answer to my question, so I decided to head to the restroom where the mirror could provide me with more information than either Marcus or Mike could at the moment. I could still stand and walk, but as I tried to hurry I automatically fell to all fours. It was much more comfortable but I didn't stop to consider the implications.
The restroom was empty save for one person who screamed and rushed into a stall, locking the door behind him (and no, I refuse to use that trite phrase here!) I ignored him and instead lifted up onto two legs, looked at my reflection and stopped.
Black stripes? Check. Three inch canines? Check. Long tail? Check. Wang mark? Check.
Buddhist monks at the Shao-lin temple in China had in ages past studied the fighting techniques of felines, reptiles, birds and drunks. Over the centuries they incorporated these movements into their own fighting style, or gong-fu. I had the opportunity to learn five of these animals in my study of Shao-lin chuan-fa, but there was one that intrigued me most. One that struck me with its beauty and grace, and its deadly ferocity.
And now I had the opportunity to study it much more closely than I had ever studied it before.
I looked down at my hands -- no, paws. Well, they looked like hands. They still had four fingers and an opposable thumb, but they were stubbier. Flexing a muscle I didn't know I had, I found that my fingernails had been replaced by the ubiquitous claws. These new utilities would wreak havoc on my keyboard when I finished writing the client code for a demonstration I was working on.
A sound from behind me broke my reverie. I moved my head just in time to catch the unidentified restroom user duck back behind the door of the stall he was in. I sighed. I knew somehow that he was not the only person that I would see react in this way. I wondered momentarily at why I wasn't jumping around in panic at my predicament and why I was taking everything so calmly. Glimpsing my golden, almost glowing, eyes in the mirror again, I had my answer; I was the predator, the lord of my domain, the top of the food chain, and predators as a rule don't panic.
I would have to go out and greet the world before long, and if I was lucky, that world would not include men in khaki clothes, pith helmets and monocles carrying guns and repeating, "Heah, wot! Good show, I say!" every two minutes. Growling an apology to the whimpering man in the stall, I stepped to the doorway and pulled open the door.
The crowd stepped back as one as I moved from the doorway. I realized I was standing straight up and probably looked ready to pounce on them. I picked up from the air a scent I had never smelled before; a scent of sweat, urine and what could only be described as tension. I flared my nostrils and breathed deeply, drinking in the sweet aroma of a frightened animal.
Ultimately it was my tail hitting the door that brought me back to my senses. I really should have known better, since the one way that mammals have survived so many millennia is by developing an acute fight or flight mechanism. In humans this is balanced by an almost equally powerful curiosity factor. In some people this curiosity is actually of greater strength than their desire for flight, and the Darwin Awards would have a new candidate to vote on.
Since I didn't want any of my fellow engineers to win any of those awards in the foreseeable future, I calmed my predatory instincts and sat down, trying to look like nothing more than an overgrown tabby. I sat like that for several minutes waiting for everyone to start breathing again, which they did, eventually. They still did not come any closer to me, and several times I had to forcefully push from my mind the thought of a deer caught in a car's headlights. (Hey, it was lunchtime and I was gettin' kinda hungry!)
Finally I felt a small hand stroking my shoulder. I turned to face Tina, Jeff's four-year-old daughter, visiting her daddy at the office for the day. "Nice kitty," she said while patting me. "Meow!"
The carefree innocence of youth works wonders on the soul! A sound not unlike purring came from my throat, and I pointed my whiskers forward in smile as I put my arm around her tiny shoulders. She giggled when I pulled her into a hug; wouldn't you giggle, too, if you were suddenly hugged by a giant plush animal that you could only win at a carnival? Tina did more to assuage the fears of my colleagues than any action I could have performed. I stood, gently cupping Tina in my arm. Walking to one side, I deposited Tina in her startled father's arms and motioned the crowd to follow me into the conference room.
I couldn't talk at the moment, but the giant whiteboard in the conference room would serve adequately for my purposes. While everyone filed nervously in, I wrote, wrinkling my nose at the strong odor coming from the markers. When everyone was in the room I stopped my ministrations and stood back from the board, giving everyone a clear view of what I wrote.
[Yes, I am still Bergy.] (Note: You will often see me being referred to as 'Bergy' in this narrative, because there was already someone named Steve working for the company when I started. At the time there were only a dozen people working for the company, so things got confusing real quick. To this day, if you were to mention my given name, most of my coworkers would stare at you blankly before realizing who you were talking about!) [No, this isn't a costume. No, I don't know what happened. Yes, I'm having trouble talking. No, I won't bite, but the first person to call me 'Tony' will learn what disembowling feels like!]
There was a moment of silence before I began to hear a few stifled laughs. A confused voice came from the back, "What? I don't get it. Who's 'Tony'?" In lieu of an explanation someone tossed a red handkerchief to me, and I dutifully -- if not somewhat annoyedly -- wound it around my neck and struck a pose, holding one finger in the air and staring vapidly ahead.
The laughs weren't stifled anymore as the entire room degenerated into the sounds of guffaws and slapping knees. Let's face it; it's hard to be afraid of something that you see in advertisements for a sugar-coated breakfast cereal.
There were a few questions, which I answered as best I could before Mike finally chased everyone back to their desks to do work that probably wouldn't get done now. I tried speaking again when Mike turned back to me, and was able to get out a semi-understandable, "Thanks."
"So," he said to me, trying to hide his nervousness. "What do you want to do now?"
I wrote [home] on the whiteboard.
"You wanna go home? Yeah, it'd probably be a good idea. I mean, I don't think anyone'll get much done now, huh?"
[Can I bum a ride? Don't want to drive like this yet]
Mike had to think a moment. Yes, I know I was probably frightening him, but what choice did I have? He had an SUV that I was pretty sure I could fit in, and the tinted windows were a definite plus at this time. Besides, I was hoping that immersion therapy would dull the edge of his fear.
"Sure," he said finally. "Let me get a couple of things from my office first." I nodded and watched him scamper out of the room. I was left alone, but the concentrated smell of fear lingered on.
A half hour later I was back at my apartment looking for something to eat. I forced myself to consider everything in my kitchen but my eyes kept coming back to the steak I had in the refrigerator. My will power kept my instincts at bay for a full ten seconds before I pulled the package out of the fridge, ripped the wrapping off and tore into the meat with my teeth. It was exquisitly delicious and it knocked the edge off my hunger to some extent. Conscious of trying to eat balanced meals, I next tried some carrots, but they didn't seem to taste right anymore.
Afterwards, I went to my bookcase and began work on a skill that I would need to survive: speaking. I considered carefully my choices and eventually chose a compendium of Edgar Allen Poe's works. I reasoned that the poetry would be an ideal source of practice for my new facial structure; the vocabulary and cadence of the rhymes should be perfect and, if I got bored I could always read, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether."
Predictably, I did not open to 'The Raven', but to a little poem entitled, 'Sonnet -- To Science'. I chuckled at the second line, wholly appropriate to my circumstance: 'Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.' The poem is actually a lament at how science has stripped all the wonder from the author's world, but now, this author has a whole new world to wonder about.
I'm sure, gentle reader, that you would love to hear me tell you of my travails as I attempted to move lips and tongue in configurations for which they were not meant, but I have to tell you that I had spent some time learning ventriloquism. Though I never became adept at it, I still remembered how to speak without using too many facial muscles, and my practice soon yielded an understandable sort of speech.
Soon, however, is actually a relative term, and a glance out the window informed me that it was well past sunset when I finally looked up from my book. I had often had the habit of reading in an almost dark room (a habit born out of pure laziness, since when I am deep into the pages of a novel, I don't like to interrupt my train of thought to perform a trivial task such as turning on a light!), but I was nowhere near a window where I could catch ambient light. And yet, I could still see rather clearly.
I could get to like this.
It was only then that I also realized I was tired. My bed was a bit small for my form now, so I pulled the mattress off my futon, laid it on the floor and curled up on top of it. A blanket seemed unnecessary with my fur and even the mattress seemed superfluous as I was sure that a good, thick tree limb would do nicely to sleep on. My last thought before somnolence claimed me, though, was that I was going to need to invest in 3M when shedding season came around, and plain-old they have some amazing products for picking hair and lint off of clothing and furniture.
---==::==--- ---==::==--- ---==::==---
I have no one to blame for what happened the next morning but
myself. Waking up was a wonderful feeling; opening my eyes, taking
a deep breath and then stretching. (I now know why cats look so
ecstatic as they reach forth with their paws and extend to their
full length! Yawns are much more satisfying, too!) It was mid-morning
and, thinking that everyone would be at work, I left to check
The mail center of my apartment is in a kiosk by the main office. It was a long walk and I opted to do it on all fours. I didn't see anyone, but then again, on the way back I was concentrating on not putting holes in the letters I held between my jaws.
Bill. Bill. Flyer. Credit card application. Flyer. An unlisted number cuts down on the amount of unsolicited mail you find in your mailbox, but trust me when I say that it doesn't completely stop. I practiced working a pen in my paw for a while so that when I got around to actually writing checks for the bills, they would be somewhat readable. It was when I got up that I could hear noises coming from across the way. The view from my balcony was not the best for the angle they were coming from so I decided to wander out my front door to get a better look.
Between my apartment building and the front entrance are a wash (a stream bed -- normally dry -- to divert the flow of water out of the mountains) and the main office. The wash, of course, has a railing around it since the sides are quite steep, and I was leaning on it when I saw a group of people round the office corner. Two were wearing the apartment uniform (tan pants and white polo shirt -- half the time it made you feel like you were living in a racquetball club!), one looked to be from the sheriff's department and the last two were wearing khaki-colored clothes that I remembered seeing somewhere before.
Then they saw me. All froze except for the duo in khaki-clothes who moved quickly. The first set down the metal briefcase she was carrying and the man pointed at me what looked like a...
Curiosity doesn't always kill the cat. In this case, he got tranquilized.
---==::==--- ---==::==--- ---==::==---
"So, is it healthy?"
"Well, I guess he's healthy, whatever he is."
"What d'you mean?"
"From his markings I'd swear that he was a Bengal tiger, but when you look closer, there are things that are all wrong. Take, for instance, his front paws; the digits are longer and the thumb is almost opposable. His pelvis is shaped strangely. His cranium is thirty percent larger than normal, and though I didn't get a real good look, his throat and mouth do not belong to the panthera family!"
"Then what is it?"
"He is like nothing I've ever seen before! I don't know what to call him!"
Waking up from a tranquilizer is a slow process. My sight and hearing were the first senses to come back to me, but my sight was blurry leaving my ears as the only decent part of my body at the moment. I didn't even think of moving and concentrated instead on the conversation taking place in front of me.
"It -- sorry, he -- is a tiger, plain and simple. I don't see why you're making such a fuss..."
"But what if he's one of those transformed people, like what's-his-name, that lizard guy in New Mexico -- Luke! What if he was a human that changed into a tiger?"
"Marie, consider the chance of something like that happening; they said there were around six- or seven-hundred people on the mail-list, and seven billion people on the planet. The odds of having even one person in Tucson spontaneously transform into a weird creature is astronomical!"
There were others? I guess it would have to be logical that I wouldn't be the only one... But what was this about a mail-list? The only mailing lists that I belonged to were two tech lists and...
For some reason it didn't come to too much of a surprise when I figured out that most -- if not all -- of the members of TSA-talk got turned into some strange creature. It even sounded like a strange plot device that might have been used in one of the stories. I sighed and hoped that I wouldn't have to contend with space-aliens, wizards with a penchant for annoying people, or perverse clocks that liked to mess with your life.
I breathed a little more deeply and found that I could move my arms a little. They still felt like they had hundreds of pins and needles stuck in them, like when your foot falls asleep, but the more time passed the faster I recovered.
"Okay, Shawn, but what are we going to do with him in the meantime?"
"How about putting him with Leopold?"
"Are you nuts?! Leopold is a Siberian tiger and I don't think he'd take it too kindly if we just stuck a strange male in his enclosure with him. Even if we kept them in separate areas they'd probably go crazy!"
"We could just leave him in the cage..."
"Which is a cruelty I will not be a part of. That cat has already been cooped up in that cage for long enough. He needs to move around."
"Well, I'm fresh out of ideas; can anyone else think of something?"
"Well," I said, unlatching the spring-loaded bar at the side of the cage, "you could just take me back to my apartment and hope I'm not annoyed enough to eat you." With that I pushed open the cage door and stepped out on unsteady legs.
Shawn and Marie were, to say the least, surprised.
I took another one those long stretches. To tell the truth, they were actually very addicting. I think that the stretching released endorphins and produced something akin to a euphoria. Whatever happened I felt better than before and almost ready to face the world.
"Now, Marie -- Marie is your name, right? -- my mouth is a little dry right now. Do you have any water available?" Marie pointed to the table next to my cage from her location across the room from me. I picked up the squeeze bottle that was setting there and nodded my thanks to her. The water quickly refreshed me and I sighed with relief. My mouth had felt the same as after a night of drinking, a feeling which one of my college buddies had described once as "having swallowed a cat." I could not argue with his observation and I started to wonder what it would be like to groom myself with my tongue, since taking a shower seemed a little bit silly right now.
Marie and Shawn continued to stare at me wide-eyed and so I stared right back. I know staring is rude, especially when you are a large, hungry carnivore, but they had just shot me full of weird drugs this morning and I wasn't really in the mood to be nice!
The silence dragged on and I felt a little funny about maintaining my belligerent look. Instead I leaned against the table and continued to swig my water while studying Shawn and Marie. Shawn was the taller of the pair. He had short-cut brown hair with the build of an athlete. He didn't look very old, maybe about my age, 24, but then, I've never been a good judge of ages.
Marie was definitely the cuter of the two; she wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, mind you, but she had that wholesome look that was refreshing after growing up seeing the waif look come into style. Her eyes sparkled beneath blonde hair and there was a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. She also had muscles which...
I need a date. No, really; it's been several months, and I really need a date! Of course, now that I look like this, I don't know if any woman would ever go out with me, much less kiss me. I could maybe lick her cheek, but then, since a cat's tongue is designed to rip flesh and gristle from bone, I don't think that would be too good an idea.
"So," I said finally, "where am I, anyway?"
Marie pointed to the logo over her left breast unconsciously and answered, "You're at the Reid Park Zoo. We, uh, are the only place in the county that can take care of an animal, that is, um, someone of your size. I hope we didn't, uh, inconvenience you too much?"
I raised one eyebrow in response. "Nah! I always set aside a day or two to get drugged and studied by unknown people. It seems to be happening quite often lately!" Marie smiled and ducked her head. "Now, what's this about others who've been transformed? After this --" I pointed to myself "-- happened, I didn't really pay attention to TV or read any of my email." It was at this time that my stomach decided to make its own discomfort known in very understandable phrases. "As you can hear, I've only had a small steak I had in the fridge to eat since yesterday."
"Oh, right! I think we can do something for that. Shawn, go and get our guest tub 12 from the cold room. It's on the top shelf on the left." I almost laughed when Marie had to send a backhand to his gut to break Shawn's wild-eyed stare. "He'll be back in a short while. From what I can tell so far, you should have no trouble eating what any normal tiger would be eating. Unless, of course, you know something that I don't..?"
Laughing aloud I responded, "At this stage of the game, you probably know more about what's happened than I do. And back to my earlier question..."
"Right! I was watching the news last night and they were re-running the interview with some guy in New Mexico that turned into a big lizard and he was saying that all the members of some email list got transformed, something about transformation stories. Are you on that list?" I gave her my best Do you really need to ask? look and she blushed in response. "Yeah, right! Dumb question! Anyway, he said that there were probably over six hundred people who might have gotten transformed, so don't be afraid if you see a werewolf or centaur next door."
"Of course, who woulda thought the statistics would put something like that happening in Arizona!" Shawn said as he stepped back into the room carrying a large plastic container.
"But Shawn, didn't you know that nine out of ten statistics are wrong, anyway?" Shawn blinked in confusion while Marie covered a laugh. At least my humor wasn't completely lost on my audience, like it usually was. "What've you got there?" I asked while motioning to the tub with my nose.
"It was supposed to be Leopold's breakfast for tomorrow," Marie answered, "but I think you need it more right now."
Shawn took the top off the tub and as the aroma started to waft in my direction my nostrils flared catching the scent of fresh meat. I restrained myself while Shawn set the tub on the floor and prudently backed away, at which point I fell back to all fours and made my way to the meat, sniffing it before I began to eat.
The two zoo employees watched me silently before I stopped and growled, "Keep talking, I'm still listening." As I ate, Marie listed off all the things they had learned about me. I was a healthy tiger -- or whatever -- at 437 pounds and 9 feet 3.5 inches from nose to tail. Though they didn't measure, I would probably be around 8 feet tall standing up. (I wonder if Shaquille O'Neal would be interested in playing a game of one-on-one?) I had the markings of a Bengal tiger and should survive quite well in most environments, though a Tucson summer would put a strain on my internal cooling system. I was probably a strict carnivore, though more testing would be needed to confirm that.
During this time I ate my meal with a greedy pleasure. I've always eaten my steaks cooked rare, but if this was any indication of my future eating habits, I would be saving a lot on electricity for the stove! "This tastes good, what is it?" I asked when I was down to stripping the last remnants of muscle from the bone in front of me.
"Horse," Marie said. "It's cheaper than beef and there are quite a few ranches around the city. We actually don't feed our big cats a complete diet of meat; we generally feed them a diet of a specially formulated feed mixture with the occasional fresh meat and vitamin supplements."
I had stopped listening at her pronouncement of my dinner. I hadn't thought about the other listmembers beyond Luke, but hearing that I was gnawing on a horse made me think of Bob, Cody and Bill. Could this..? Is it possible..? I mean, could I actually be eating..?
No, I told myself, shaking my head. It's too early after the change for something like this to happen. Still, the thought of the many stories they wrote tumbled through my head as I hesitantly finished cleaning the bone with my tongue. I guessed I would need to find a good butcher when I left the zoo and, hopefully, he wouldn't have any sales on that kind of meat.
Finally done, I groomed myself unconsciously for a few minutes, trying to get certain unsettling thoughts out of my head before turning back to Shawn and Marie. "Well, it looks like I'll be using the two of you as an information sink, since my knowledge of cats extends only so far as the housecat I had when I was younger." I again stretched and stood back up on my hind legs. "But right now, if I could get a ride from someone back to my apartment, I --"
"That won't be necessary." Shawn, Marie and I turned to stare at the doorway, which was now blocked by a figure in a contact suit. "We don't know what agent has caused Mr. Bergom's change, nor do we know what organisms may have accompanied him, so we would like to extend an invitation to our Center for Disease Control. And that includes you, too, Mr. Martin and Doctor Callahan, since you have been in direct contact with him for an extended period of time.
"I am Dr. Miles Smith. My friends here," he motioned the similarly costumed figures behind him, "are on loan from Davis-Monathan Air Force Base, and will make sure that nothing untoward may happen to you. Now, if you will excuse me, there are some preparations that I need to make. If you need anything within reason, just let me or one of my friends here know and we will see what we can do.
"Good day, gentleman, my lady." With that Miles turned and walked through the wall of military men.
Men in black? No. Men in green-colored plastic with a transparent faceplate? Yes.
---==::==--- ---==::==--- ---==::==---
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 they 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 faze 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 away. 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 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 with 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 hear 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 tried 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 one can easily maim another human in a fight. The years of training have 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?
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.
---==::==--- ---==::==--- ---==::==---
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.
---==::==--- ---==::==--- ---==::==---
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.
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.