by Bill Keiffer
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I'd forgotten what numbers were really like... what it felt
like to hold on to them with something resembling a mental grip.
It took me back to the days when numbers danced in my head with
mechanical precision and quicksilver grace rather than being insubstantial
ghosts. When I was 16, I was playing with college algebra for
kicks. When I was 20, I took finite mathematics without buying
the book and ignoring the homework.
But now... now I couldn't even balance my checkbook. The seizures and everything else had destroyed my conscious interface... I could still sometimes spot a wrong equation or answer, but I wouldn't be able to say why. Sometimes at night I would dream of the numbers, pure and unencumbered by the alpha-numeric proxies, of the answers they might hold for me had my genes not betrayed me.
My throat closed and my eyes grew moist. I'd counted to million at the age of ten, for the pure joy of it, writing numbers down before bedtime, to start them up again in the morning. 356. 19,011. 41,345. 100,000. 120,453. 132,000. 150,567. 170,000. 197,648 was the number when my step-father ripped the phone out of the wall in a drunken rage. 197, 900 was the number when he slapped her. 198,000 was the number when I wished he would die. 198,000 was the number when my mother apologized to him.
Three days later, I skipped ahead to 300,000 and pretended I had counted too loud to hear any of it at all.
398,000 and I had cried, into my pillow protected by an abstract world of numbers in a silent house waiting for the yelling that would tell me it was safe to sleep. My teddy bear, inanimate and numb, caught my tears in the dark. 398,000 and I knew envy for the first time in my life. I envied the bear its unknowing acceptance of his fate. And mine.
I gasped slightly and looked away from my friends. I stared at the monochromatic image of the odd horse's head, as tears fell from its eyes. Still my throat closed and I had to force air into my lungs to breathe. I couldn't breathe. I tried to control myself, but suddenly I was weak and all the voices in my head were silent in the face of those numbers. 412,078 and I almost lost count watching Happy Days. 523,987 and I am rescuing my teddy bear from the garbage. 609,000 and snow falls a foot deep, turning the landscape of my yard into numbingly cold void of white brillance.
I started gasping repeatedly and then I feel a loss so profound, only Debbie's death surpasses it. I'd never finished counting to a million. I thought I did, but I hadn't. I simply had convinced myself that I had. And whoever had done this to me had given me the one thing I had imagined as having someday, once again, if I were ever to be whole again.
This I could not deny... not without ripping my own heart out. I could deny the horse head, the sex, and even the health I could feel beneath this ebony skin, these are all things I had imagined as having. Hoped to have, if given the choice. Things that would be "nice" to have. But the numbers were something I prayed for, no matter the cost to me.
I cried then. I'd been crying, I suppose, for several minutes, but I finally gave into it and let loose with great racking sobs. I'd sold out the universe, but I didn't know how. And, with all the answers the numbers had promised me as a child, they were remarkably numb on this one sticking point:
What was I going to do, now?
First off, an internal voice growled softly, you're going to stop wasting energy feeling sorry for yourself.
I cried for a second longer before I felt my head pulled up so sharply, so forcefully... I had to swallow convulsively. I was almost as if I could feel the bit bite into the corners of my lips, pushing cruelly into my jaws. Instantly, I was alert and aware that Mike and Neal had left me alone and that there was no one here but myself.
The sensation of the bit vanished the next second.
As long as you're thinking about yourself, the annoyed voice said, Think about staying free.
The Stand, the softer, fatherly voice said.
Horse Thieves, Charger said a bit worried, pacing in the back of my mind. No safe words, no safe signal... they think they know best.
"We're from the government and we're here to help." I said aloud, just under my breath. This wasn't Stephen King's The Stand, but the paramedics would contact somebody sooner or later, if only to improve their skills for the next time someone turns into a horse-man. But I didn't want to run. I didn't believe the FBI would swoop down on me like I was Hannibal Lector. That would be so... wrong.
In my skull, I heard a rumble like distant thunder... Fight them. Fight the Good Fight.
It rocked me to the core of my being. I clutched for a sword that was not there. A sword that had never been there. I sucked in copper flavoured air as I felt the enemy sneaking up on me and stood my ground, arm raised.
NO! No! No! The growling voice said, Don't listen to him. Relax. Relax!
Red haze had somehow clouded my vision, and I felt incredibly stupid... but still... oh... my heart was pounding in my rib cage. Had I really been concerned that I had too much self control only minutes before?
I closed my eyes and centered myself, slowly my heart rate carefully. I still seemed to have control over my body, but it was becoming painfully obvious that the emulations could reach out and flip a few of my buttons if they had to. They were me, after all. In the story I had intended to write for Kodiak's story universe, most of the emulations existed outside of the base Bill Kieffer, a few only existed until their deeds were done, and one existed as a shadow in the back of all "our" minds. The climax of the story would have been after all the emulations merged, one would hold out and refuse: Wicked, the evil tiger morph from Metamor Keep.
But, in this story, he turns out to be the hero and all the emulations come to the fore and take solid shape including the one true Bill Kieffer... a ten year old boy full of wonder and acceptance for the new millenia. It would have been an incredibly uplifting story, not my usual fare, I think... but I was hung up on trying to describe the ultimate expression of myself in physical form.
That was my form now, but the voices in my head, the emulations couldn't seem to manifest themselves in the physical universe. Perhaps that would be something I could learn.
Or perhaps it was something I had to earn.
Don't go there, the growl said firmly.
In my mind's eye the growling voice grew a face, white tiger and man melded together. He stepped from the shadows of my mind. Wicked.
I hate that name, the tiger morph said in my head. You used to know me by another name.
I felt eyebrows I no longer had furrow into my forehead. Wicker? And the tiger morph laughed at that.
You used to call me C.C., the cat said, almost sounding betrayed. I was your invisible playmate, I walked with you in the woods and the swamps. I was the cat you could never have and before I was C.C., I was Casper Cat. Before that I was a Casper the Ghost.
I recalled those moments as he spoke of them. He'd been my friend, the only male I could trust. The boy my mother had baby sat, Johnny, had been a snob. He wasn't a really bad sort, but he didn't get any of my jokes. None of them. I remember now, yes, I agreed. Yes, you were.
Now, look over there at that horizon. And he pointed to a distant mountain so huge, so huge the base was obscured by blue clouds and sky, seemingly floating over the tree line, like Mount Fuji. I nodded and he said nothing. Then I knew what I was looking at, the source of the distant thunder that had put me in battle mode.
That's Gonzo, the tiger said needlessly.
It was a dragon so huge, so large that the weather patterns tripped over themselves to avoid him. He was a mountain of rage and hatred, too huge to fly but ready to raze the world once the furnaces within him were fully stoked.
That had been me, at one time.
I had always been an emotional child, and while I didn't exactly have a happy childhood, I had always enjoyed a thick sense of wonder and whimsy. Like an old comforter, it provided a warm insulation between myself and the cruel world.
Yet, in total contrast, I had always admired Spock. The logical and unemotional Vulcan was my hero. When my emotions began dropping from me like autumn leaves, I was actually quite logically pleased. When I was 19, I was perfect by my own measure, and freed of my emotions I began untying the knots of morality that had bound me down to Earth. I saw for the first time, truly, how pathetic the human race was and I saw then that my whole life I had avoided violence thinking it wrong in and of itself.
Yet, I had wanted to fight the good fight... I wanted to really live... but smothered in my own numbness I had to build myself a tower to see above the fog of it all. Then the tower was built into a fortress, from which I would ride out from to battle injustice. Then the fortress became a castle, where I fought to defend its walls against all reason, simply to feel the thrill of battle, to feel anything. I became one with the castle, becoming a mountain sized dragon in time while going through the motions of a mundane life.
It was all just a flowery way saying I chased all my friends from my life. I had but one true friend left by the time I was 30 and it took his death to make me realize I had buried myself under that mountain. I wasn't a furry then, but looking back now, that is how I see myself then.
I owed that dragon a lot, but, honestly, I had hoped never to "see" him again.
I opened my eyes and stared at the remains of the missing wooden file cabinet... the half wooden, half yellow glue residue shell of my paper free desk... truly seeing the implication of it all before me.
In the story I had never written, but seemed to be living, 100 characters and incarnations of aspects of my personality escaped from my head. I had never even really cared where the mass came from, the rules of the Mind Over Matter universe gave me a dodge around that. But here...
If Gonzo got out of my head... his near murderous rage, held in check only by his sado-masochistic desire to frustrate himself, would be the least of my problems. I sincerely doubted a creature that large could exist in reality without crushing itself, anyway. In fact, that's exactly what happened to him from an emotional point of view. To me, I should say.
No, the real problem would be the organic mass.
How many metric tons were there in a dragon the size of Mount Fuji?
How many people were there in a metric ton of organic matter?
I cut the thought off as soon as I felt the numbers begin to crunch. I really did not want to know this.
In the story I had toyed with, obsessed on, and never had gotten around to writing, the thinly disguised version of myself deconstructed himself in what I hoped wouldn't be a heavy handed remake of Pandora's Box. The MoM Bill existed in a pseudo-science fantasy world, where disaster is deserted by the simple application of childlike hope and wonder at the urging of the least likeliest of heroes, one of my darker characters.
I existed in no such universe and even the voices inside my head could not deny reality for long.
I forced myself to sit down. I was hearing voices inside of my head; it seemed natural and as long as I was girding myself to face reality; I was really going to have to be careful not to listen to them. They would want to get out: I know I would. They will want to control me: I know I would if I was them.
And, short of considering them as psychic invaders from the Eighth Dimension, these emulations were obviously me or an aspect of me. I literally could no longer trust myself.
Doug came into my room with my sneakers, each with cotton socks stuffed in them. I tried to smile, to achieve some normalcy. He smiled back, so I must have been a bit successful. "Thanks, Doug. I guess I left them in the bathroom, huh?"
He nodded and put the sneakers on the desk. "I also found this in the sink," he said as he held out a small silver chain, a bit tarnished. The chain had snapped, but the silver charm was still on it. It, too, was tarnished, looking a bit like Africa, but it was really a woman's head and it was one half of a set of charms. Its twin was a man's head and my wife was wearing it on the other side of the county right now. The two charms fit together to form a heart.
My wife had gotten the charms when I was at my sickest, when I had chased her away. It symbolized how much she had put up with and how much I owed her. She had been with me when I changed for mild to wild to cold to violent to the older, but wiser, bruised writer that I am.
That I had been, that is.
Damn it, another change for her to deal with... this one being a bit more... radical than most. I took the chain from Doug, feeling more moisture behind my eyes. I wasn't the man I used to be, that was for sure. On the other hand, I'd be able to balance the checkbook for her. I smiled softly at that, knowing that would be the last thing on her mind once she saw me, knowing that she would probably appreciate that most of all given time.
Provided that the Zoo Crew in my head didn't drive me crazy. Provided that I didn't give birth to Gonzo. Provided that Michele found the strength to stay with me, too, this wasn't the same as when I had been sick.
Or... was it?
Doug sat down at John's computer, and I realized that they were taking shifts watching me. It was nice that they were concerned for me. I liked the attention and I didn't want to be alone. If I was left alone, I was afraid the next person would see me as monster and then I'd never be Bill Kieffer again to anyone.
I looked at the webcam's recording and I tried to see my face the way Michele would see me. I thought I was kind of a handsome devil, but I was a bit biased. Already, the horse looking back looked to me like me. I had the same tiny scar over my left eye that I had gotten from my Dad giving me a hug, forgetting that he a cigarette in his hand. My eyes, other than being slightly further apart and blood red. Did she like my eyes? I didn't know.
I hoped she hadn't liked my ears... they were gone, who knew where. I didn't like my new ears, but it could have been worse; in some circles I am known as a Ferengi. For some reason, I touched my left ear gently on the edge and felt an electric thrill tighten my pants. All thoughts about Michele fled my brain as my body went full vulgar bliss. Spreading my lips in toothy equine grin, I stroked my crotch in time with the stroking of my ear before I remembered that Doug was sitting right behind me.
I quickly grabbed my mouse and tried to think about a naked F. Lee Bailey.
OK... I am going to be in trouble. Putting on the T-shirt hadn't elicited that kind of response. I gently touched my ear again and nothing happened. Great -- variable g-spots. I don't recall ever wanting that or even writing about that. On the other hand, I have imagined berserker rages so maybe I was getting off lucky.
A pun. If this was all some kind of set up for a pun, I was going to kill the god who had done this to me.
All four lines were busy on the phone. There were only 6 of us in the office, which meant everyone but me and Doug was on the phone. If I had Spider-Sense, it would be tingling now. I got up and went into the programmer's room, where Mike and Neal were on the phones, with Mike at Christine's desk. Mike seemed to forget what he was saying when he saw me, but Neal continued to talk. I liked that about him. Neither of them seemed to be talking to the press or the cops, so I just nodded my horse's head as casually as possible and went over to Phil's office.
Amy was sitting on Phil's long leather couch. She looked like she'd been crying. Even though I'd been crying myself not too long ago, I couldn't fathom why she'd be crying. Phil was talking on two different lines, I saw, but they both went mute when I poked my head in. Trying to keep my voice as mild and as level as possible, I said, "I have to call Michele."
Phil looked flustered for a split second. He was probably speaking to Lab-Volt's vice-president of engineering on one line and some ass from marketing on the other line... lines of communication in this company often had to be manhandled with a crowbar of titles and politicking that Phil fought tirelessly against. Yet, at the same time, he knew I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't important.
Amy touched my forearm lightly and gently steered me out of her husband's office. "You can use my cell phone." Her eyes were bright and moist and I could smell them. Salt. Salt. Salt. I suddenly had the insane urge to lick them from her face. I hated salt, and it wasn't good for me, anyway. I stared at her and her tears as she fumbled with her backpack sized pocketbook at her desk. I wanted to taste the salt and discover if her tears would burn my tongue.
Amy held her phone out to me and then blushed when she saw me staring at her tears. She wiped a sleeve across her face and smiled unevenly. I returned my version of the same, in sympathy, and took her cell phone gently from her tiny pink hands. I didn't understand why she was crying, but I had other things to worry about. "It'll be ok, Amy." I said. She sniffled and threw herself into my chest.
I looked from Mike to Neal to Doug, who was staring from the doorway. All wore the faces of mourners at a funeral where the guest of honor was arriving late. I hugged Amy while wondering what was going on here. It was like being surrounded by pod people.
The tiny StarTac felt even more ridiculous in my hand then ever before. I hate phones and I really hated the really tiny ones. Maybe it's because I'd never broken myself of the habit of nodding to what was being said on the other end. Maybe it's because I always really had to concentrate to follow verbal innuendoes, not to mention out and out facts without getting them mixed up. Maybe it's because I could be distracted by something shiny (I was constantly being teased by the local group of furs that I should have been a ferret and not a horse).
Still, it was good to be able to dial Michele's work number without looking it up. While the phone rang at the other end I added all the digits together: 41. With the area code added: 53. I tapped in her extension and added them together in my head: 23. Adding those digits together got me 117. While the phone rang, I also brought the cell phone as close to mouth as possible while still being able to hear it. Amy helpfully zoomed up the volume, but I still felt ludicrious holding the phone halfway between my ear and my mouth. No wonder the TBP Greyflank had tossed his cell phone into his beer.
I felt pretty brave when Michele answered her line. I could hear her just fine. The office was as quiet as a crypt.
"Hey Babe," I said, trying to get Greyflank's voice to come out of my mouth. Stubborn horse! I was mostly stuck with the deep and rich tones and accent that I loved, but I think I pulled it off rather well considering I wasn't quite myself. "Listen, I have to go to Robert Woods tonight."
"Freddy, again?" she said. "No, Freddy's... elsewhere, isn't he?"
Freddy's behavior problems had gotten him put in the system. Neither she nor I really wanted to try to fill our office mates on all that. I nodded and then whusked with annoyance, realizing that some stupid habits even a cosmic event couldn't shake. Michele blessed my sneeze on the other end and I smirked. It was a distinctly odd feeling with these lips. "He is, yes. This is for me."
"What?" Her voice took on an edge of panic. There was only one reason I would drive to New Brunswick besides seeing Freddy, and that was my becoming sick again. I had avoided going up there for the mild sodium poisoning, but that wasn't exactly life threatening. "What's happened?"
I sighed, resisting the almost overwhelming urge to tell her I was just a little hoarse. "I... can't say."
There was silence on the other end. I waited until she realized that I wasn't alone and that I didn't want to mention anything my officemates could hear. I could always tell her they were hanging on my every word later. Amy looked up at me, almost as if she was ready to take the phone and try to explain what was going on. I shook my head. I was serious about Michele starting a new position. "Are you ok?" Michele said, as she came to the conclusion that if it was very serious, I would never bother calling.
"I'm just going to get some tests done," I sighed, disliking even the very thought of the tests I had taken there. I briefly I wondered if there were spinal tap scars on my back. Michele always claimed she couldn't see them, but I didn't quite believe her. Anything that hurt that much had damn well better left scars. "Nothing to worry about, just that salt thing, probably."
I looked at Amy and the tear flowing down her cheek as my wife seemed to sigh with relief. She'd been after me to get some tests at Robert Wood Medical Center. They never billed me, instead they gave me a full battery of tests. They even had my "genetic fingerprint" on file there like I was some sort of rapist; I had aberrant genes; I was a walking miscarriage; a freak of nature before any of this happened. It was the last place I wanted to go, but it seemed the logical thing to do.
Michele and I said our good byes and then I made one more call to Marilynn, my therapist. I recalled her number, too, although it had been over two years since I called her. I smiled, realizing that the digits of the first three numbers added up to the same as the last four and the total was 22. Adding the area code made it 34 and then the machine picked it up. Of course, she'd have more than 20 minutes left with her last patient for the day, it really made things easier.
"Marilynn, this is Bill Kieffer," I began, "And I need a really big favour. If you go on your computer and... " Damn, she was an AOL user and over 50. That meant using words like URL and stuff would probably needlessly confuse her. "Call up the news. You'll notice some weird news reports. They aren't fake. I'm going to send you some pictures in an e-mail and I really, really need you to believe what you are going to see. I need you to help prepare Michele for this. I have to go to the hospital and get some tests."
I hung up, grateful to have dodged the question of insurance. I had no clue if she was covered in my insurance for this. I really didn't care.
I handed Amy her phone back. I tried to smile bravely. "I'm going to go to Robert Wood Medical center up in New Brunswick. They have all my medical folders there so..."
"Would you like one of us to drive you?" Amy volunteered.
"Naw, I'm just going to head up Rt. 18 and I'll be there in an hour. I need some alone time, any way." I went back to my desk and sent off the email the pictures to Marilynn, her email address also coming back to me easily.
I told Mike he might want to reload my computer's OS... in fact, he might want to back up everything they had offsite as quickly as possible. He looked startled. "In case the FBI comes by and gets a little... grabby." He nodded sadly, but I got the sense he didn't quite take me seriously.
I waved to everyone and told Phil that I was taking the rest of the day off. He seemed to think I should have come to that conclusion an hour ago. I hugged Amy, whose eyes were still leaking mysteriously, and pecked her softly on the check. My reward for that bit of boldness was the special saltiness of a tear and it was heavenly.
I suddenly craved more salt and it was a battle not to lick more off of her face. I pulled myself away and then went downstairs, got into my car and drove right onto the Garden State Parkway by way of the commuter parking lot.
I could have gotten onto Route 18 from 138, but I could save 15 minutes by avoiding it's meandering along Route 35. And I enjoyed cheating the state out 25 cents just then.
There were so many things to think about, but I could not get over the taste of Amy's tear in my mouth. It was like manna from heaven. I knew the taste for saltiness, yet, I was knocked over by the absolute difference in the way it tasted to me now. Not sweet, but... it reminded me of candy somehow. I was vaguely aware that I was distracting myself from the bigger picture, but, on the other hoof, the doctors at Robert Wood might ask.
When I got to the park where the parkway divides, I automatically looked to me left to head for the express side of the GSP. I knocked my sensitive nose into the window. It didn't exactly see stars, but I huffed angrily any way... which fogged up the window dangerously.
I panicked for a moment and then I realized I needed to be way over on the right to get to Rt. 18. I slipped into an E-Z Pass toll both, paid the toll electronically, and then pulled ahead, easing through to the far right lane as I sped up. The next exit was the one I wanted.
I worried, with the paranoid writer's ease, that I could be tracked via the E-Z Pass, but the voice of reason told me that I had made it clear to everyone that I was heading to Robert Woods in New Brunswick. I even told them the route I was going to take. If the government wants me, they'll just meet me there. It'll be more cost effective and there's a FBI HQ in Newark, twenty minutes or so east, so they won't waste time tracking me. Going to Robert Woods was the logical thing to do.
It was odd that it didn't occur to me to be nervous that there would be Federal Agents waiting for me, but I soon found myself obsessing over the taste in my mouth, instead.
Then I passed my exit.
Now, I've done this a 1,000 times before. I had always been prone to going on "auto-pilot," especially if I was working a story out in my head. Today, I was stuck inside one of my stories for all intents and purposes, so I should have not been too surprised. Yet, I was startled... I saw the exit roll up. I knew it was important for some reason and then it was gone. Exit 105.
My mind had seemed so sharp and focused since the transformation, instead I seemed to be thinking about everything but what I should be thinking about. By mile marker 106, I knew there was something wrong. There was something wrong and I couldn't put my finger on it.
It had something to do with Amy's tears. It had something to do with Jeff, too. And Cody Pony. And... I should have called Delphi for some reason, too, and it has something to do with that. I began to tremble like I was sitting in ice water, but I hadn't a clue what was going on. I felt like I forgot something... important.
Pull over, the fatherly voice advised and I frowned. Pulling over on the parkway was likely to attract attention, 100 good Samaritans whizzing by at 70 mph grabbing their cells phones to advise the authority about some poor stranded soul.
Then I felt the invisible reigns being tugged to the right, but I stubbornly held my course. I was safe here, in motion, with the herd of cars pacing me. As long as I was in motion I was one of them and they just can't get us all.
Damn it, Charger, the growling tiger roared up from the dark side of my mind. I'm herding cats back here! Pull over, NOW!
The shock of being called Charger was enough to make me obey. I was being bad, but I didn't know why. I pulled over, following every rule that I knew. I used my blinkers, I looked in the mirror, I slowed gently and braked to the stop. I behaved the way I was supposed to, but I'd been bad somehow... I knew that, I felt it, but I didn't know how. I knew I couldn't trust myself anymore, that much I was sure of.
There was something wrong with me.
I put on my flashers, put the car in Park, and closed my eyes.
I tried to think about all these things and I couldn't add them together in my head. I realized that I should know why Amy was crying, but I just... didn't. I should have understood why everyone was standing about me like extras at a funeral. I couldn't understand why I thought seeing me like this might ruin Jeff's business meeting, yet, at the same time, I think I understood it then.
The greatest super power, I once told Bluenight, the patient and calm voice of my inner horse morph said, was the ability to relate to people on multiple levels.
I told him that, I agreed internally, stressing the pronoun.
Are you still me? Greyflank asked, importantly. Because that is the power I have, that I earned. You do not.
I opened my eyes at this. "I earned it, I'm the one who went to hell and back to find my place in the world. I'm the one who..." and I suddenly couldn't remember what I was going to say. My own churlish voice had distracted me from what I was going to say. I actually felt churlish at myself over this.
If you earned it, why don't you know why Amy was crying?
I couldn't answer that. It was illogical to be even asking myself a question like this... I just didn't have the knowledge.
You do, the growling voice insisted. You closed yourself off from it because you refused to trust us.
He trusted me! Charger said proudly and I could feel Wicked glaring at the pony.
"I can't trust ANY of you!..." I whispered, feeling hollow inside and not understanding why. "I didn't even realize I let you drive."
I'm a very good driver, Charger stated, unaware of his Rain Man imitation.
I heard the tiger sigh. Tell him, Grey. Tell him why Amy was crying.
Amy was crying because she thinks you're very sick, Bill. She thinks you are going to die. Her body betrayed her years ago; gave her the cancer. She fought hard, very hard to get back to normal. She sees your Transformation as a cancer and she is reliving her pain now. She is crying for you. Praying for you, too. Most of all, she worries about your soul.
My jaw dropped. The ring of truth came from what Greyflank said, and it sent ripples through-out my mind. How could I have been so blind? And the others, didn't know what to say to me. They thought they might never see me again, at least not the overweight white guy they had gotten used to. They saw me type with these new fingers without looking at the keyboard and they wondered how much of me was left in the horse's head.
Heck, I was beginning to wonder how much of me was still in the horse's head.
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