"Bob Stein -- You're needed in the Virginia Room. Bob Stein,
please go to the main conference room."
I frown in annoyance when I hear my name over the speaker system -- I do have a telephone. A quick glance at the device in question explains the problem -- one of the diesel engine tech manuals piled on that side of my desk has slid off its stack and knocked the handset off the cradle. Then I look up at the giant Garfield alarm clock perched on the shelf over my head. One-fifty-three. There was a customer scheduled for one o'clock -- they must be having trouble with the Capabilities briefing.
Launching myself out of my chair, I head for the stairs at my normal fast walk. Moving to a new project a few weeks ago also required a move from my old quarters on the first floor to a different cubicle on the third. Naturally, the main conference room is on the ground floor, so I have to go to the other side of the building and down three levels. Oh, well. At least it's all downhill.
The boss is going to be in a panic when I get there. They only call me when the boss is in a panic. I guess I'm his walking 'winkie', a human security blanket. The briefing setup hasn't been my responsibility for three years, but whenever he has a problem he wants me there. While our Systems Administrator can run rings around me on most computer stuff, I know enough about all the software and equipment used that I can usually get things fixed faster. Jack of all trades, and master of none -- that's me.
I shoot through the conference room without slowing down -- nobody ever introduces me to the customers anyway. It's obvious what the problem is as soon as I see the projection display -- they have a black box where a demonstration movie file should be playing. Tim, the SA, hands the remote mouse to me while Dr. Bill, the boss, glares daggers and hisses through gritted teeth. "Fix the damn thing! I've got a customer out there!" Pleasant and grateful as ever.
Tim turns off the monitor and I bring up Explorer. Yep, just what I thought. They moved the video source file. A click and drag pulls it back to the main C drive directory, and I toss the mouse back to Tim. "You guys have got to stop messing with the folders -- the links get broken every time you move it."
He flushes -- I'm sure it was his helper who moved it anyway, and mutters a quick thanks as he powers the display back up and restarts the presentation. We are rewarded by the thunder of distorted music -- Bill just loves to blast people's eardrums. I check the time display on the corner of the projection room status monitor. One fifty-eight -- a five-minutes turnaround. Not bad from the third floor.
Normally, I would hang around and make sure that everything continues working. These rushed fixes almost always end up with a second call -- Bill doesn't appreciate the value of checking things out when he has a customer is waiting. However, I have a lot to do on my project. They'll call me if they need me again. Heading back to my cube, I decide to be lazy and turn from the stairs to the elevator. For once, the doors open as soon as I punch the button. As I step in, I feel a little flushed, and then slightly queasy. Damn! Hope I am not coming down with the flu bug that's going around. All I've had today is coffee and a bag of fat-free popcorn, so there isn't much to revisit.
I lean against the back of the car as it starts to rise and grab the handrail with both hands as a cold wave of weakness passes through me. Obviously the flu -- moving awfully fast, though. My hands and feet cramp, and that weird chilly shudder runs down my back and causes both legs to shake so bad I nearly fall.
Ding. Passing the second floor, that coldness rushes to my head and the elevator car seems to flicker around me. My gut tenses and I suddenly am very concerned. This doesn't feel like the flu. God, am I having a heart attack? It can't be! I'm too young, and I'm in good health. Just like a thousand other guys who drop dead for no reason.
I shut my eyes, realizing that I am probably overreacting. OK. I'm sick. Food poisoning, maybe. Then my hands slip suddenly can't grip the railing any more, and I sit down hard and painfully. Very painfully. A stabbing sensation at the base of my spine spreads out as a dull ache over my whole body, and my clothes seem to constrict around me.
There have been plenty of times that I have been scared in the past. A few times that I have been really frightened. However, this is the first time I think I have been truly terrified. My head is throbbing, and vision blurs as a hand seems to reach through my flesh and yank my the front of my skull outward. Panicking, I try to get up, but my arms won't bend properly.
Ding. Third floor. The doors slide and a woman I don't recognize starts to walk into the car. Her eyes go wide as she sees me, and she jumps back with an ear-piercing scream. Dimly, I wonder if I am bleeding from the nose or mouth. Is this an embolism? A stroke? She looks as terrified as I am, backing away in obvious horror. What's the matter? Hasn't she seen anyone die before?
"What's going on?" A familiar voice, followed by a familiar face that peers around the door. Vinnie. He'll help me. Call the paramedics, if it isn't too late already. He recoils, looking an awful lot like the woman does. So much for help.
You know, the movies always have these really poignant scenes when someone dies, where they profess love, or make some witty comment. My last intelligible statement is "Oh, shit." Then my throat twists and pulls, and all I can manage is a weird squeal. I convulse again as the doors start to slide shut. Seams pop in my shirt and pants, and my sneakers pull apart. I can't help thinking of an old James Bond movie, where the baddie is force fed a CO2 cartridge and ends up blowing up into a human balloon. Funny how my mind works -- here I am dying in some really weird and horrible manner, and I'm worried about bloating?
The car is going back down. I shudder again, and feel the tattered remains of my pants and shirt pulling apart as I slide heavily on the floor. A specific pain cuts through all the others, and I realize I am suffering from an extreme wedgie. Then my briefs join the rest of my ruptured clothing. Great. Bloated and naked, sprawled across the floor of an elevator. Just the way I always imagined going out. What was that Donald O'Conner sang in Singing in the Rain? Oh, yeah. Dignity. Always Dignity.
Ding. The pain ends suddenly as the doors open on the second floor. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? It's almost a repeat of the woman upstairs, except that Debbie, another long-time friend is staring down at me with a startled expression. Startled is better than terrified, I guess. I feel very strange and confused. There is something wrong with the way I am seeing her. Sorta blurred and distorted. Then I hear the pounding of feet followed by the slam of the stairwell door being thrown open. Vinnie. I recognize his smell. Coming to help at last.
Vinnie comes to an abrupt stop at the door. His mouth falls open and a stunned expression glazes his eyes. Debbie steps closer to peer at me, her expression a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. Nice to know I'm providing entertainment. Then she turns to Vinnie and asks, "OK. I give up. What is a horse doing in the elevator?"
Her words cut through the dull panic. Maybe I'm not dying -- just going absolutely stark raving mad. For my head lifts impossibly far as I try to lift and turn it, and I seem to be seeing almost 360 degrees. One eye is reporting the muted brown panels of the elevator wall, the other is showing the other side of the car and my two friends. Oh, and the gawky, black-furred body of a very large and very young colt.
"Bob Stein, please come to the Virginia Room. Bob Stein, you are needed in the main conference room immediately."
I drop a very long and heavy head on the elevator floor and close my eyes as the announcement is repeated. Let them wait.
The elevator doors try to close again, but this time Vinnie sticks his foot between them and blocks it open. He swallows, wide-eyed and pale. "It's not a horse. I mean, it wasn't just a minute ago. I don't know what the Hell it is."
"Oh, right." Debbie can't see his face, and probably thinks he's pulling some sort of bizarre prank. He's been known to do a few wild ones. So have I, for that matter. "Look, you can't stick a animal in a little space like that. Can't you see he's scared?" She starts to reach in, but Vinnie knocks her back.
"Don't touch it!" He backs away as far as he can without pulling his foot from the door. "You didn't see it before. It was all deformed, like something out of a horror movie." Vinnie flushes when he sees Debbie's expression. "No, really! I'm not kidding!"
While being described as a refugee from a horror picture wouldn't normally make me happy, it slowly dawns on me that I might not be crazy. I lift my head for another look at myself, finding it easier to cope with the strange divided eyesight. While I'm certainly no expert, my size and coloration indicate that I'm probably a Shire colt, perhaps a couple of weeks old.
Maybe this is a dream. A very vivid, detailed dream. With scents, sounds, feelings, even pain. Right. I can hear my heart pounding, feel the carpet pulling at my fur as I shift slightly. My tail hurts where I sat down on it, not bad, just a dull ache that is fading. It moves when I flex my butt muscles, and I can feel the flesh pulling across my lower back. The stink of fear is almost overwhelming, part mine and part Vinnie's. Under that is a harsh chemical smell from the carpet, and a mix of metal, sweat, electrical circuits. Too much to separate.
"What the Hell?" Some other people are starting to gather by the door. "Is this some kind of joke?" A guy from one of the other companies we share the building with frowns. "I'm calling the police!"
It's tempting to just continue lying there and let the dream continue. However, I can't block the elevator like this -- and there's no point in wasting a perfectly good dream. Getting up is awkward, but also educational. I know how to work my legs -- they are long and a bit unsteady, but the mental process of standing seems natural. The growing crowd moves back uncertainly, but Vinnie keeps his foot in the door. I shake myself, ending with a hop-kick that hits the wall of the elevator with a resounding bang. The noise startles me, for the kick hadn't been planned. It just sorta happened.
Remembering the pulling in my throat, I try to talk. A high-pitched whinny emerges. Swallowing, I try again, struggling to make my oversized lips and tongue form human sounds. There is a short-circuit between brain and muscles, for I can't quite comprehend how to work my face that way. I can think of words, I just can't quite remember how to say them.
"Let's get him down to the first floor." Good old Debbie -- ever practical. "If he gets out up here he might hurt himself." She pushes past Vinnie and holds out her hand cautiously. "That's a good boy. Take a sniff."
I find myself actually doing that, snuffling her outstretched palm and pulling at it with my lips. She reaches out with her other hand and starts to rub the underside of my jaw. Her odor makes me hungry. Female, but not right. Her belly is flat, missing the twin projections I am looking for. Mare's teats. Where is my mare? Anxiety flares suddenly, and I feel unsafe. Vinnie steps into the car as the doors slide shut, but presses himself into the corner. I know these two are friends. That helps calm me, even if his fear scent is still strong.
We don't move at first. Debbie twists around and hits a button on the panel. I quiver as the floor lurches under me. It's just the elevator going down, I know that. Yet I am also confused and a little afraid when the standing place isn't steady.
"Whose stuff is that?" Vinnie squats down very carefully and grabs some of my shredded clothing. "It's all torn apart!" Halfway through standing up again, he freezes and stares down at my hind legs. "He's wearing socks."
Ding. The doors open into the lobby, where a crowd of the bored and curious have already gathered. Faces known and strange blur into a wall of noise, stink, and movement that has my ears laid flat and my eyes showing whites.
The female gets a firm grip on my mane and leads my out into a larger space with lots of light. It smells like the elevator, all chemicals stone, and metal, but one wall isn't really there, and I can see the outside through it. There is a word for that. Glass. As I let the dream continue, my mind is melting down. It is an odd sensation, feeling my thoughts simplify, to find myself curious and amazed by walls that aren't quite there. Is this how a colt thinks? How do I know to dream like this?
A new fear joins the confusion and bewilderment that assault me. What if this isn't a dream? I know that it is impossible for a human to transform into an animal, no matter what I have written in stories. There is no real magic, no known science that can alter the structure of existing cells over years, much less a minute or two on the elevator. Yet I also know what I feel. New and different muscles pulling in my chest and rump, the taste of spit in my mouth, skin quivering on my back. I could not be dreaming these, because I have never even imagined them before.
Even backed by the adrenaline rush of sudden realization, I have trouble stopping the downward slide into animal mentality. It's like an ice chute, all slick and hard, with nothing to grab onto. My efforts are not helped by another part of my mind that doesn't understand the human confusion and complications, or the fact that my mental self is trying to grab the walls with hooves.
Hands. Fingernails. Arms. The descent slows as I rebuild myself in my head, gaining legs that will spread apart to serve as brakes. I push out with all my strength, screaming with frustration as bits of my self continue to crumble.
And then I am back in the lobby, surrounded by startled humans. I must have actually squealed, lost in the internal battle. How much of me is left? Debbie is still there, as is Vinnie. We are near the back doors, and I can make out the little man-made lake just beyond. Glass doors. I know what glass is. A shiver of relief runs through me. Dream or not, I can't risk letting myself fade away.
Debbie leads me outside, followed by the crowd. The colt in me wants to yank free, to run across the open field and kick up my heels. I clamp down on it brutally, afraid to enjoy this lest I lose myself completely. The hardest thing right now is trying to accept the situation. I do not believe that I am dreaming, or that everyone around me is sharing some mass hallucination.
When you have examined and discarded all other possibilities, the answer that remains, however improbable, is usually the truth. Sherlock Holmes said something like that once. It was Basil Rathbone, actually, but he was playing Sherlock Holmes in the movie. I wonder what old Basil would say about this. For the answer that remains is that I am a horse.
Having something is not nearly as pleasant as wanting it. Another saying, this one vaguely remembered as a line by Data in the old Star Trek TV series. At this point, I may be inclined to agree. After all the years I have fantasized about turning into some sort of equine, the seeming reality is pretty scary. The weird thing is, I don't know if I'm more frightened that I am somehow imagining all this, or that it is actually happening.
In my stories, the transformed character usually kicks up his heels and revels in the freedom and joy of his new form, treating the loss of his human identity with casual disregard. That's a mistake I won't make again -- I have a death grip on that human identity, and I won't give up any more of it without a fight. Then another cold splash of reality hits me -- I won't be writing stories of any kind. Or drive any of my old cars. Hell, I may not ever see my house, my friends, my family ever again! As far as the world is concerned, I'm an animal that somehow wandered into an office building. Sudden despair almost loosens my hold, and my resolve to fight bestial thought weakens. Why bother?
My ears perk up, and I realize that Vinnie is standing beside me. He has something in his hand. My wallet. I snort and toss my head in sudden joy. He knows! He can tell everyone! However, my friend stumbles back, his eyes frightened.
"No." His voice is a whisper, but I can pick it up. "It can't be." I can see denial building. Why should he believe? I barely believe it myself. Yet I also know that he is my only chance to communicate. Nobody else would even consider the possibility. I have to stop him from rationalizing what he saw away, from seeing me as just an animal.
I pull at the wallet with my lips, then paw the ground. He frowns, and I realize I am acting the way a colt would. The ground. I can write in the dirt! Or can I? Finding an open patch of grass, I try to drag one forehoof to make a line, only to find myself unable to remember what a line is. A mark. No! I can't have forgotten that. My hoof slides slowly, gouging the manicured lawn. It's not enough. A letter. My name. Just three letters. What is the first letter of my name? Bah-bh. Buh. Bu-ah. Bee. A 'b'. Two circle shapes and a straight line. A flash of memory, struggling with a huge pencil to copy what the teacher is drawing on the board. Greenish-white paper with wide, bold lines. The scene is clear, like something from yesterday, not kindergarten. Has the colt brought me back that far? Dragged me down to where my human mind is as childlike as it is?
A five year-old wouldn't wonder about that. But while I have been struggling internally, Vinnie has gained the bemused expression of self-doubt. I can almost see his mind closing out what he saw that first time the elevator doors opened, ignoring the evidence of his eyes for the rationalization of society. I'm losing him, and if that happens, I will lose myself.
I squeal to get his attention, and dig at the ground again. A line. The circle shapes are harder, requiring twists of my whole body. My results could be a capital 'B'. Or random marks. Frustrated, I try again, this time hoping to make an 'o'. It's lopsided, but readable. Finally, a lower-case 'b'. Straight line. One circle. It doesn't look right. Damn! I reversed the position -- At best, the marks spell out 'Bod."
"Oh, shit." Vinnie squats down to stare at the marks. Then he looks at me. "Oh, shit."
I know the feeling.
I guess it's been a half-hour or so since I transformed. The ache in my belly makes it even harder to think, and I feel tired and listless. Grass doesn't satisfy me -- I have torn up the surrounding landscape trying to graze, but I must be young enough that I still need to nurse. Problem is, I'm a foal without a dam. Well, I do have a mother, but she isn't exactly of size or age to breast-feed a Shire colt.
Vinnie has gone back inside the building, but I still have a couple of people with me. Debbie, of course, watching me as she talks to someone on her cell phone. She has always been the maternal type, fussing at me when I went outside without a jacket, or have one of my diet popcorn lunches. I don't think she is completely convinced that this is for real. Even after Vincent showed her my clothes and the crude writing on the ground, she still thought this might be some elaborate joke. Happily, she thought to ask some yes or no questions that I could answer by nodding or shaking my head.
My other watcher is Brian, the kid webmaster for one of the other projects. He was hired right out of high school, and dropped into the same kind of position I was doing for my project. That is a weird feeling, I can tell you. However, despite our age difference, we have become good friends. I've helped him out with some of the web animation stuff, and he's shown me some tricks with HTML and Java. He is also into fantasy and science fiction, which may be why he didn't have that much trouble believing I had somehow turned into a horse.
I wonder how many other people Vinnie has tried to tell. From some of the comments I have overheard, the majority thinks I just wandered into the office park from a local farm or stable. It's not all that farfetched, actually. Langley Air Force Base, just a mile or two away, has a stable. And the area is still pretty rural, so it's not uncommon to see horses wandering some of the larger properties.
No newspaper reporters or TV cameras have descended on me. Neither has the city Animal Control Bureau. I can probably thank Vinnie and Debbie for that. Except for some curious stares from the windows, everyone else seems satisfied to let my two friends take care of things. Including me. Just what are they doing? Not calling my parents, I hope. Actually, I have no idea who to call. Not that I can use a phone, anyway.
God, I'm hungry. It's hard to concentrate on anything but the emptiness of my belly. A frustrated squeal escapes my lips, and Brian reaches out to give my neck a reassuring pat. "It's OK, fella. You're gonna be OK." Fella? I snort and shake my head, and he flushes. "Oh, sorry. It's just hard to remember that you're, well, you."
I guess I can understand that. For a while, I wasn't sure I was still me. The strange sensations, that weird mental falling, and the trouble I have remembering and thinking all combined to make me feel like I was going animal all the way. Now that I've had time to adjust a little, I think I had it all wrong. Or at least, partly wrong.
All of my knowledge and memories are still there. I have to work to find them now, but nothing seems to be lost. In fact, a lot of things are popping up sharp and clear that I thought were long forgotten. Childhood memories, old friends from my Air Force days, even some of the French and Spanish that I took in school. It is a little ironic to find myself able to remember foreign languages now that I have lost the ability to speak.
As best I can figure, the transformation changed the shape of my brain. I know a horse's brain is physically a little smaller, but I don't know if it is divided into lobes like a human's. On the other hand, humans only use a small part of their brain capacity, so storage space shouldn't be an issue.
Maybe it's like my move to the new office cubicle. The drawer layout was different, so I had to go through my papers and books and re-file them. Found a lot of stuff I'd forgotten about, and organized it all with dividers as I set the new place up. This colt's brain is definitely laid out differently, and the stuff from my human life has been sorted and neatly filed. Unfortunately, someone else handled this move and I don't know the filing cabinet layout yet.
Debbie waves to someone. It's a car pulling into the parking lot. Who drives an XJ-6 Jaguar? Her husband. Harold. Who is a Captain in the Air Force. Commanding a maintenance squadron. For flightline support equipment.
I blink, surprised at how much I remember from scraps of past conversations, and also by the way I think of it. Logical links following a straight line. Is this how a horse thinks? Or just the way my transformed mind works? No way to tell, really.
Harold pulls to a stop and gets out, giving me an odd look. He reaches back into the car and pulls out a couple of bags as Debbie walks towards him. "I got everything you asked for except for the lime water. Nobody knew what I was talking about." He hands one of the bags over to her. "I washed the bottles out, but didn't have time to sterilize them."
"That's fine." Debbie pulls a pitcher and some glass baby bottles out of the bag and sets them on the ground. "I don't think mare's teat's are normally sterilized, anyway."
My ears perk up. Mare's teats? Brian grabs at me as I prance towards Debbie, and I force myself to stop. Hunger flares suddenly, and I squeal in anticipation.
Debbie looks at me as she pulls two half-gallons of milk from the second bag. "Give me a minute, Bob. I have to mix this up and dilute it." She hands the pitcher to Brian. "Run inside and fill this halfway with warm water." As he takes off towards the building, she looks back at me. "I called a friend who has horses. There's some sort of mare's milk substitute available, but she gave me a formula from her vet for now. Regular whole milk, with powdered dextrose and water added to it. It's safe, and it's pretty obvious you are hungry." She pauses a moment. "I asked her to bring over a horse trailer. We need to get you out of here, and I don't think you'll fit in a car. Hope you don't mind."
Her husband looks at her oddly. "Um, Deb? I left a meeting with two bird Colonels because you said it was an emergency -- then you call and tell me to pick up baby bottles and milk. Now you're talking to a horse. If it's not too much to ask, what the Hell is going on?"
She points at me. "That's Bob."
"So I gather." Harold scowls. "Who does he belong to?"
"You don't understand." Debbie chews her lower lip a moment and then sighs. "That's Bob Stein. You know? The guy with all the cars?"
I see his eyes flicker around, looking for the human me somewhere. Then he focuses back on me and shakes his head. "What? Bob bought a horse? Why did he bring it to the office?"
"No. The horse is Bob."
There is a long pause as Harold looks from me to Debbie, and back again. His eyes narrow. "OK, I give up. What's the joke?"
She shrugs. "No joke. It sounds crazy, I know. But Bob turned into a horse about an hour ago. It happened on the elevator."
"Uh-huh" He takes a step back and shakes his head. "I gotta get back to the base. Look, Deb -- I know you love animals and all, but somebody else's hungry pet isn't what I consider an emergency. I mean, anybody could have gone to the grocery store."
"This isn't just a pet." Debbie bristles slightly, and then slumps. "Oh, never mind. I'll explain later, if I still have to. I promise that this really is an emergency though. Just trust me for now."
"OK." Harold leans over and pecks her on the cheek. Then he starts back towards the idling Jaguar.
Before he reaches it, Brian bursts out of the front doors and runs towards us, sloshing water from the pitcher all the way. "It's happened other places!"
"What has?" Debbie takes the pitcher, looking a little annoyed at how little water remains.
"Changes! People turning into stuff. And not just animals!"
What? I suddenly find something more interesting than the potential meal.
Brian stops to catch his breath, flushed with excitement. "It's on the TV in the break room. So far, the news programs are treating it like a hoax, but they have supposedly verified reports of a guy turning into a centaur, a woman turning into a werewolf, and at least two others who have turned into normal-looking animals. And it all happened at two o'clock."
People are starting to stream out the doors. Guess news is spreading. I can make out a blur of faces staring down through the office windows again -- so much for anonymity. Somebody is bound to be calling the media. I push that nightmare out of my mind for now, more interested in the fact that I am not alone. A centaur? Why didn't I turn into one of those? Or at least a humanoid horse. Why a normal animal?
"What the Hell is going on?" Harold comes back over, looking bewildered. "People are turning into animals? That's crazy!" He stops suddenly and gives me a wide-eyed stare. "Wait a minute -- you're telling me that's Bob?" He blinks, and then grabs for Debbie. "Get away from him! What if he's contagious?"
She twists away from him. "Contagious? Don't be ridiculous! This isn't the flu, or some sort of cold. If he was contagious, half the office would be on all fours right now."
"Dammit, Debbie!" He isn't giving up. "You have two children at home who need a mother, not a mare. Are you willing to risk all our lives on something we can't even guess at yet?"
Ouch. A flicker of concern passes her face, and then she sighs. "If we follow that line of reasoning, then I can't go home. And neither can you. We've both been exposed to him." She chews her bottom lip for a moment. "I'm sorry. I guess I really didn't think this through. I mean, I thought he was just a baby horse at first, and after I found out it was Bob, well..." Her voice trails off, and I can see her eyes start to water. "God, honey. What are we going to do? Maybe I really can't go home!"
I get a sick feeling as the pain in her voice hits me. What if I am contagious? I have no idea what cause the transformation. Magic? Some alien space ray? The situation is hard to take seriously. I'm a horse! Some small part of my mind finds the idea of Debbie turning into a mare appealing -- the hungry colt, no doubt. I crush the thought viciously as I look at her.
"So far, the reports are just individuals. And those that have been reported so far all changed at exactly two o'clock, so there shouldn't be any problem for us." Brian frowns a little bit and then goes over to Debbie. "If you will mix up the formula for me, I'll feed him until your friend gets here with the trailer. I'm sure it's safe, but just in case, I don't have a family to take care of."
Debbie gives me a guilty look, and I try to nudge her hand to let her know I understand. She snatches it away and backs up, then looks horrified. "Oh, God! Bob! I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." Tears start to run down her cheeks, and then she spins and runs back to the building.
I get a cold feeling in my gut. If someone as levelheaded and caring as Debbie is afraid of me, I am in for a really bad time. That feeling is amplified when I see the anger and fear in Harold's glare. He stalks back to the Jaguar, slams the door, and peels off. The stink of burning rubber makes me sneeze.
Brian looks at the pitcher and the other ingredients and sighs. "I'm gonna try mixing this stuff about two-thirds milk to water. It may not be exactly right, but you can try it." He pours the milk into the pitcher and sloshes it around before pouring some into one of the bottles. I have to really work not to lunge for the nipple when he offers it, fighting to control the foal's instincts as much as I can. However, once my lips close on the rubber tip, nursing becomes automatic.
I am on the second bottle when the first police car arrives, followed by a faded green older Ford pickup towing a white double-stall horse trailer. The officer gets out looking a bit puzzled. He's young, maybe early twenties. "Uh, I got a call from the Precinct Station about a... dangerous animal?" Obviously he either didn't get the whole story, or doesn't believe it. "Is this little guy causing problems?"
"I'll take care of it, officer." A wild-haired woman in coveralls and boots is striding up from the truck. "It's amazing how far a colt can stray when someone leaves the gate open." She crouches down next to me as I finish off the second bottle and whispers in my ear. "Look, I don't know what the Hell is going on, but it's all over TV. Get on the trailer now. We gotta get you out of here fast."
I'm confused only a moment before realization hits. If Debbie is frightened of me, there will be a thousand others who figure I am a threat to life. Including people in Government. Brian helps by started to lead me towards the trailer using the bottle, and my improved hearing can already pick up sirens over the dull roar of traffic from the interstate. The woman already has the tailgate down, and throws it back up the moment I climb inside. Scents of horse, hay and leather fills my nostrils, mixed with fresh paint and the sawdust smell of wood.
"Lady, wait a minute." The officer may be getting suspicious, or he's unwilling to make a decision with the approaching sirens now audible to everyone. "You're gonna have to answer a few questions."
I hear her slam the door and start the engine. "Officer, you have no right to detain me unless I have broken some law. Those sirens are going to terrify a very valuable colt. Unless you want to be responsible for a multi-million dollar lawsuit, I suggest you let me get him home." After a moment, the truck surges forward. I can only assume that the young policeman has waved her on.
The trailer leans hard right, throwing me against the wall as the woman speeds through the parking lot. This is obviously Debbie's friend. How much does she know? Enough to realize that the Government is going to be after me. The trailer bounces over the speed bump at the entrance, and then I slam against the opposite wall as she turns right onto the office park road. I can hear police or fire cars shooting past in the opposite direction -- they haven't made the connection between a 'dangerous animal' and a horse trailer.
I brace myself as best I can for the turn out of the office park, spreading my legs out awkwardly. No matter which direction she turns, I should be able to keep from hitting the walls again. Except that I get launched forward into the front as she slams on brakes, and do half a forward roll before hitting the front of the trailer with a resounding thud. Stunned, I haven't even started to untangle myself before a deep voice booms from some sort of PA system.
"This is the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Get out of the truck with your hands up."
I stay where I am, afraid to move or even make a sound. My rescuer has no such reluctance.
"You unbelievable idiot!" I can hear her screaming through the walls of the trailer. "How dare you pull a stupid stunt like that? I have a foal in this trailer -- if he's been hurt because of your incompetence, I'll make sure you have your God-damned badge stripped from you permanently!"
Other cars are screeching to a halt around us, doors being opened and slammed shut. The conversations are muffled and confused, but after a minute, the trailer ramp is lowered. I haven't moved yet, even though the pain of hitting the wall is already fading. Better to look as unthreatening as possible, assuming a foal can look threatening.
Happily, it is the woman who is checking on me, not one of the police officers or men in suits behind her that I assume are FBI.
She pales when she sees me still sprawled on my back. "Oh, God! Are you OK, fella?" Jumping into the trailer, she helps me stand, stroking my neck and sides soothingly. "Can you stand? Come on, boy. That's right. Take it slow and easy." She isn't really talking to me -- she's responding as if I was a normal animal, using the tone of her voice to calm me. I am a little bothered to realize that it is working. Even so, I tremble as she checks me over, carefully feeling my legs and back. It is hard to tell if the fear is mine or the colt's.
"He seems OK. Thank God for that." She turns to look at the men in suits who are still standing outside the trailer. "Now, what the Hell is this all about? If I didn't have electric brakes on the trailer, I'd have plowed right through that Government-Issue sedan of yours when you came bouncing over the divider."
"I'm sorry about that, Ma'm." One of the suits is talking. I can't make out much detail, but he sounds older. "This is a matter of National Security." He even capitalized the words with his voice. "We're trying to avoid a panic here."
The lady snorts. "Oh, right. Just exactly who does a newborn foal represent a threat to? Do you think he's gonna try to assassinate the President? Or build an atomic bomb from straw and clover?" She pauses and looks past the police and agents. "And as far as avoiding a panic, you're doing a real great job. I almost had him out of here with no one the wiser. Now you are going to have major media circus on your hands."
"You have no idea what you are dealing with!" I can hear anger and frustration in the lead agent's voice. "This isn't a normal animal, and you damn well know it!" He twists around to glance at the growing crowd. "Dammit! Get that TV crew away from here!"
"And I suppose you have an explanation for this?" My Rescuer takes a deep, shuddery sigh. "Look, Agent, uh, Stanton?"
"Agent Stratton. Nobody knows what the Hell is going on. Not me, not you, not even our little friend here." She points at me. "To be honest, I didn't really believe my friend when she tried to explain it to me on the phone. All I knew was that there was a horse involved. But I heard reports on the radio as I drove over here. So far, all of the changes reported happened at two o'clock. Almost an hour ago. Right?"
The man throws up his hands. "We don't know enough to make that kind of generalization! He could be contagious! This could be some sort of genetic plague, or an alien threat..." His voice fades suddenly, and even my weaker eyesight can make out the red flush on his cheeks. "God, I can't believe I said that. Look, Ms. Parker. This is like being sent to arrest Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny. It could all be some really good hoax. Except that right now, there is a chance, however slight, that whatever happened to this, er, man, could happen to other people. We can't risk letting him escape, possibly infect more people."
There is a brief silence, and I can hear the murmur of a crowd outside. This is going to get bad. I am really frightened again, this time thinking of all those Alien Dissection TV specials. A lot of horrible things could be done for the sake of National Security. Wasn't the Holocaust a result of Nazi Germany's National Security?
The woman, whose name I now know is Parker, shakes her head. "Take a look at this colt, Agent Stratton. He is no more than two weeks old. It doesn't matter if he was a middle-aged man an hour ago. He is completely helpless, confused, and scared. Even if he was capable of escape, which I assure you he is not, he has no voice, no hands, no way to communicate at all. What I do know is that he is in desperate need of feeding, and a thorough checkup by a competent large animal vet. He also needs appropriate facilities and some sort of surrogate dam. Are you prepared to do any of that right now?"
"Well, not yet, but..."
Parker cuts him off. "Let's cut to the chase. I have all of the above waiting, plus the transportation. I've already been exposed, so there is no additional risk involved. You can have someone follow me to the stables, and keep watch if you need to. But the longer you screw around here the harder it will be to keep things quiet." She waits just a beat. "And if you try to take him off on your own, I promise I will start a media circus that will make Ruby Ridge look like a Christmas Party."
Stratton stiffens, his fists clenching. Then he glances back at the crowd again. "The best thing for everyone involved is to get him out of here as soon as possible. So I'll go along with you taking him to your stables. Your place will be quarantined -- no one in, no one out. Communications will be strictly controlled." He looks directly at her. "But you have to understand this, Ms. Parker. Regardless of what rights you think you have, I can lock you away without charges for as long as needed -- no phone calls, no lawyers. Just you in a holding cell, maybe for months. I don't want to do that. Please don't force me to."
Parker looks back at me, and my gut clenches as I see that same frightened look that Debbie had. However, she nods her head. "That works for me. I don't want to cause any trouble. I just want to look out for his safety."
"Believe it or not, that's part of why I am here." Stratton manages a weak smile. "I've got a wife and two kids, a basset hound that chews my paper before I can read it, and a neighbor who likes to work on his Harley at two in the morning. Forget the TV shows and movies. I'm just a guy doing his job. And part of that job is protecting him from the weirdoes and fanatics that are going to freak out when this gets out."
I feel a chill. The Religious Right is headquartered here in Tidewater -- good old Pat Robertson and his bible thumpers will probably denounce me as an abomination, the work of the devil. Or at least call my transformation a punishment from God for my unknown, untold sins. Could be. I've never been a particularly religious person, and that in itself is supposedly enough to damn me forever. I have to admit that I'm a lot more open to the concept of God right now than I have ever been before. It's as good an explanation as any other I can come up with.
Parker pats my neck and squats down to look me in the eye. "You'll be OK, boy. Just a few miles from here, and then I'll fix you up with some dinner. The mention of food has a disturbingly strong effect on my attention, and she is closing the trailer up before I realize that nobody ever tried to talk to me directly. Not Parker, not Stratton, not anyone. It's as if I don't exist anymore. Maybe I don't -- not as Bob Stein, anyway.
The trailer lurches slightly and then starts to roll. Parker is driving a bit slower now, probably getting a police escort. I wonder what she is expecting out of this. Fame? Some sort of financial reward? All of my assets combined wouldn't bring much. Not that I have much use for any of them now. My house isn't zoned for horses. I can't drive. I don't need clothing any more.
Alone in the trailer, I find myself wondering about all this. There has to be a reason I turned into a Shire colt. At least two of the other victims of whatever this is became fantasy creatures. A centaur and a werewolf. I wonder who they are, or were. God, I wish I could call Eric up in Boston. After sharing all those stories and pictures about equine transformation, I'm experiencing the real thing. He might even be a bit jealous.
I wish I knew where the other victims were. From what Brian said, the changes had happened all over the world, at the same time. That pretty much ruled out any kind of biological agent. This is no Martian Flu, like the Blind Pig stories on the Transformation Story Archive. Actually, it doesn't fit any of the categories. The closest thing I can figure is magic. Of course, any sufficiently advanced technology is the same as magic to someone who doesn't understand it. Which brings me back to alien invaders, or maybe some mad scientist. And the biggest question -- why me?
Part of the answer might lie in the fact that I have always wondered about the possibility of being a horse. Long before I ever had any real contact with the animals, I can remember being fascinated with them. The Budweiser Clydesdales were favorites until I discovered Shires -- black ones in particular. I have no idea why -- they just seemed right. Come to think of it, I also tend to imagine becoming a foal, not a grown stallion. The practical side of my fantasy, I suppose -- why give up four or five years of life to start out as an adult animal?
Practical side? God, what am I thinking? What is practical about being an animal? No hands, no voice. At best, I won't lose much life expectancy overall, except that I will die as a horse, not a man. Does that make a difference? What has happened to my soul? If there is an afterlife, will I face it as a human or an animal?
I suddenly think of my parents. Has someone called them? What would they do? Probably think it is a joke, at least at first. Damn, they don't need this. While they get along OK, neither Mom or Dad are in the best of health. However, they are also both surprisingly adaptable and open to new things. If I can somehow let them know I am still here, that I am OK, I think they will be able to handle the situation.
Am I OK? I mull that over for a moment. I'm a Shire colt locked in some strange woman's horse trailer, escorted by police and the FBI, heading off for some stable I don't even know the location of. I've got a thousand things to be scared of, no idea how any of this happened, and no expectation that it will reverse itself. Still, I don't really feel threatened. Stratton and Parker both seem to be decent people trying to do what is best. I am really lucky about that. Of course, my experience with people has been generally positive all through my life. Either I am extremely fortunate, or the world isn't quite so bleak a place as it seems on the evening news.
Which I will be on, most likely. There was at least one news crew out there. Probably interviewing that woman who saw me in the elevator by now. I hope Vinnie or Brian talk to them. It would be nice to get described by someone who didn't scream and run. How are people reacting to the others? The centaur would be really strange. At least he can talk. But he is going to look like a freak to everyone. Different usually means scary. I guess I am safer from the weirdoes like this -- it is hard to imagine a dangerous foal.
Funny how I have slid around the original question -- Am I OK? Physically, I seem to be strong and healthy. Pretty, too, all glossy black and soft. Actually, I am exactly what I would choose to be if someone gave me a choice of equine forms. Or at least, what I would have chosen. Maybe that's part of all this. It explains why I ended up a foal and someone else ended up a centaur. When I think about transformation, I have always looked at it as realistically as possible. No magical abilities, or mental tricks. In most of my stories, the person always survives with his personality, but skills and knowledge retention levels vary. Even with hands or a voice, do I still have the ability to use a computer or work on a car?
Maybe all that doesn't matter any more. Writing and tinkering have always been a big part of my life, but that was a different life. I am starting fresh here, more so even than if I woke up as an infant. This time, I am going to experience a totally fresh perspective. Unless my mind regresses later, I won't exactly view the world as a horse, but I sure won't be seeing things as a human.
The trailer lurches and bumps, distracting me from my contemplation. Then we come to a stop. I find myself sniffing at the air, excited by rich familiar scents. Horses, hay, wood, dirt, manure. Curiosity burns, and I want to explore, to track down these odors. Dimly, I know that the Colt is taking over for now, but my own curiosity is mixed in with the foal's, and I make no effort to fight him.
I prance eagerly by the back, shying a little from the noise as the Parker lowers the wall. A new place. This feels better somehow. I can see some other horses in an open place, and squeal to them. One whinnies back, a female. I do not scent a dam -- there is an empty spot in my head there. The Parker is making noises, but I am not interested in her. I step onto the sloping wall and then hop to the ground and trot to the other horses. Big sticks are between us. The Parker opens a hole in the sticks, and I bolt in. The scent of herdmates fills my nostrils, and for a while, I forget everything.
Ouch! I scamper away from the cranky male with an indignant squeal. He'd warned me off a couple of times with a half-hearted swing of a hind hoof, but I hadn't been expecting his sudden lunge and nip at my side. The stinging fades quickly, and I shake my head and vent frustration at the air with hind hooves.
It is getting dark now. They'll have to get a light for that video camera -- I wonder if it's digital? I have a digital camera. A Ricoh. It takes good pictures, but it is such a battery pig. I don't smell any pigs around -- I stop and shake my head. Why am I thinking about pigs?
I sniff the air, searching for the Parker. No, not the Parker -- Ms. Parker, the lady who rescued me. Confusion. The activity in my head is very weird. Sorta like sitting in the front row of an IMAX theater, the ones that have the monster sixty-foot screens. If I really make an effort, the big picture of my human thoughts is spread out before me. However, it's hard to catch everything going on, and the detail stuff seems fuzzy. Maybe that's a bad analogy. How about a computer with a fifty-gig hard drive and eight meg of RAM? Yeah, that's my new brain. Plenty of storage, but no processing power.
Except that I am thinking OK now. At least, it feels like I am thinking OK. Part of the weirdness is that I have total recollection of the time I have spent in the corral here, and those memories feel totally normal as well. Simpler, perhaps. Energy, curiosity, absolute concentration -- total focus on whatever caught my eye. No sense of time, though. At least until old Grouchy snapped at me.
Time. Another weirdness. The concept is clear now, but the memories of my colt thoughts have no associated minutes or hours. Everything is now. I review memories of the past few hours. Scents, sounds, tastes. Oh, God. Tell me I didn't eat horse droppings. I have read that foals do that instinctually to get some sort of special bacteria they need for grazing. It had faint flavorings of grass and grain, with a slight bitterness. Great. I've become a manure connoisseur. On film, yet. If I could flush, my muzzle would be glowing red right now.
I push that image aside and try to focus on other things. Like communicating with the other horses. The gelding doesn't feel like company right now -- I really shouldn't have kept after him, but I am so bored. The older of the two mares will tolerate me if I just stand next to her, but then I find myself lipping at her teats, and she chases me off. The filly actually played with me a little while, but then she tired of chasing each other around the turnout and ignores me now.
With the sun on its way down, I know that time has passed. The transformation happened at 2 p.m., and the sun usually sets around 5:30 p.m. About three hours total. I am happy that I can still manage the mathematics, but that is the only way I can judge the passage of time.
Why don't I feel different? I mean, I've changed species here. Being a colt seems perfectly natural. I remember my fingers, and walking upright. Yet I now have solid hooves and four legs, plus a tail, fur, and everything else that goes with being a horse. If I really concentrate, I can make myself aware of some of the changes. Moving my tail, for example. Flaring my nostrils and curling my upper lip. Those are pretty obvious.
What about hearing, and sight, and smell? I know I didn't see the same way before, even with my contacts out. I wonder what happened to them, come to think of it. Probably fell off when my eyes enlarged. Vision is a little blurred and colors are faded. It's like I am seeing the world through a pair of low-quality digital cameras -- everything is grainy and dull. I have great peripheral views, though. It's weird to see your own butt all the time. Or should be. The split field of vision doesn't bother me at all now, in fact, I have to consciously think about it to even find it unusual or different.
The same goes for my ears and nose. I can smell all sorts of things, dirt, sweat, wood, even the faint stink of cars I can hear in the distance. The other horses each have a unique scent, and I can tell their age, health, even their moods just taking a sniff. I suppose the same might work for me. Yeah, I know my own odor. Always there in the background. It is sorta comforting.
My ears perk up, and I trot towards the fence. Parker is walking to the gate. The woman working the camera backs away as I approach, her scent nervous. I guess she is afraid of joining me in here. Come to think of it, there is no one else around. I sniff the air cautiously. Only a few fresh human scents are close, though I can detect a large number of them not too far away.
"Robert. If you understand me, I want you to move your head up and down." Parker nods her own head slightly, as if signaling a trained animal.
Excited by the contact, I squeal and shake my head, kicking up my hind hooves and prancing in a circle.
"No! Robert, please. Stand still and nod your head if you understand me." She has a funny sound in her voice. Fear? Concern?
I have to clamp down on my foal's emotions and plant all four hooves solidly. Then I nod my head.
Parker chews her lower lip for a moment, and then tilts her head slightly. "Paw the ground four times with your left forehoof, and once with your right."
That takes a bit more concentration, but I manage it OK. She must be afraid that I have become an animal all the way. That's easy to fix. I will simply write in the dirt here. Just write in the dirt. Drag my hoof across the ground and make marks. What kind of marks? Letters. Letters from the alphabet. To make words. Words to write. In the dirt.
I shake my head suddenly, startled by the mental loop. Why can't I focus on writing? I spelled my name out for Brian before. B-O-D. No, wait. That is wrong, isn't it? B-O-B. That feels right. Yes, I can see the letters now in my head. How did I draw them before?
"Nobody has figured out what happened yet, but hundreds of people all over the world were affected." Parker must see my ears perk up, for she nods in confirmation. "Hundreds. All exactly at two o'clock eastern standard time. There's been a real live werewolf on TV. I saw the interview just a few minutes ago. And they showed film of a centaur in Canada, and a weird sort of dragon creature. One man got turned into a little boy, and they even have witnesses who swear that another man turned into a teddy bear. A toy, stuffed teddy bear."
The mix of transformations has a strange familiarity. I can't help wondering if there is a unicorn somewhere in England, and a donkey sphinx up in Boston. No, wait. It couldn't be. Damn, I don't follow enough of the other list members outside the equine group. Still, a mass transformation of humans into such a variety of creatures. The list?
Parker gets a funny look on her face, part bewildered and part amazed. "They found a common link to everyone they have found so far. Just one. An internet site called the Transformation Story Archive. It was already shut down, but I did a search on your name and found your web site for Posti. And some of your stories. You wanted this to happen!"
No! I shake my head violently, exploding in a kicking fit of rage. Not this! I mean, I've written all sorts of transformation stories, and even wished for the chance. But why a dumb animal? Why not a little kid, or a centaur, or the humanoid equine? This isn't what I wanted!
Parker opens the gate and approaches me, her voice soothing as she holds out one hand. "It's OK, boy. Calm down. You're among friends here."
The foal wants to run away, to snap at the air in frustration. I can control him, just barely. Control myself. Part of the sudden rage is directed at myself, for I realize that it is true. I brought this on myself. All those stories about being transformed into a horse -- they had to outnumber any other theme at least two to one. And the end result was usually the same as well -- a glossy black Clydesdale or Shire colt. A foal who accepted his existence as a normal animal and adjusted to it.
That is why I can't make the marks on the ground any more. Damn all that stupid 'reality' I wanted to work into the stories. Working to make a transformation logical, to account for the lack of magical evidence. If the transformed person looks and acts the way his new form is expected to, it is easier to believe that such changes could really happen without anyone knowing about them.
Except when several hundred people all change at once. With witnesses. Oh, God. I think of the teddy bear. So many people on the List with strange interests. OK, wanting to be a horse is a strange interest, too. But there is some logic in my choice. A horse lives longer than most animals, equine medicine is pretty advanced, and they usually get decent treatment. What about someone wanting to be a hamster? Or an otter? Or worse, inanimate objects like mannequins and stuffed animals. Was the teddy bear dead?
I suddenly want to call friends from the list, to make sure they are OK. To let them know I am OK. What has happened to them? Is Eric an animal like me? I can only hope he really did become the sphinx form he liked to imagine. But did the transformation only affect those who really wanted change? Poor Matthew has written about becoming an equine for years, but that interest ended with his marriage. It would be a cruel trick to grant that old wishful thinking now that such a change would be a curse.
Parker is stroking me, calming me. Why has she helped me? This is a terrible risk for her, and I don't even know the woman. At best, Debbie might have told her we have been friends for years. Debbie, who ran from me when she realized her family might be endangered by her kindness to me.
"It's OK." Parker hugs my neck. "People are scared, of course. But the Government has already announced that whatever happened was not anything contagious. Nobody knows what actually caused the change, only that all the victims were members of that transformation group. So far, all the real attention is focused on the oddballs. Centaurs, werewolves, the creatures that don't exist. Didn't exist."
Until now. Just how accurate had the transformation been? A lot of the List members had written about creatures with special powers, like that horse goddess who could transform others. If the author had become her, did he have her abilities? A scary thought, especially if she also had the character's personality. And if the werewolf bites someone, will he make that person a werewolf, too? Come to think of it, can he transform back and forth between wolf and human?
Lots of my stories have had the character able to shift between human and horse! I struggle to recall some specifics. My character in the Blind Pig universe can take on any equine shape, or become a little kid! A flicker of confusion. What does a blind pig have to do with anything? I don't smell any pigs around here. Why am I thinking about pigs again?
"Robert!" Parker's voice is sharp. She has been talking, but I was not listening. She must be able to tell that. "I said that the quarantine is being loosened. You parents are on the way."
My parents?! Thoughts clear suddenly and I feel a stab of panic. What will they do? What will they say? I've shared some of my stories with them, of course, and I guess they know about my interest in transformation. It hasn't ever been a subject of discussion, though. They've pretty much assumed it was just another one of my hobbies, like tinkering with old cars and writing science fiction. Which, in a way, it has been. After all, no matter how seriously I have considered transformation philosophically, the impossibility of anything actually happening pretty much kept it in the same league as werewolves, unicorns, and genies in bottle. All of which might now exist.
"Nobody else knows where you are right now. Thankfully, there aren't any markings on my trailer or truck, and Debbie hasn't told anyone. We're off the main road, and they have kept the number of cars down. But it's only a matter of time before the press tracks you down." Parker looks down at the ground. "Look, I want to help you. But I'm a little afraid of what might happen. This place is all I have. If people get crazy..." Her voice trails off, and she stares at the ground.
If people get crazy. I shudder, and have a flash of resentment against Parker. Can't she see I am helpless? Then I feel shame. This woman has put herself at risk, possible even serious danger for someone she has never met. That realization doesn't help me any. Nobody I know has space or facilities for a horse, assuming that zoning restrictions against livestock aren't enforced. Would people still consider me to be human? Then I feel a chilly hand close around my gut as an even harsher truth hits home.
I am a horse. An animal. It isn't a matter of philosophy, or physical appearance. I still know who I am, and seem to have my human intelligence and memory. Yet in the very core of my being, my soul or heart or spirit, I know that I am a Shire colt. I can't even force myself to question that conviction. It simply is.
Something else from my stories, perhaps. Could it be some sort of punishment from a God I have never really believed in? This could just as easily be a reward from that same diety. I can only imagine what this event has done to World religions. The Christians will probably call this God's wrath against sinners who don't appreciate the human form. Buddhists will say this is proof of their belief that humans and animal are the same. Reincarnation before death. The Muslims? Well, they hate everyone anyway. But most of them love horses, so I might be ahead there. A least I still have a sense of humor. I may really need it later.
"The Government has a couple of places nearby." Parker scuffed the ground with one foot. "They have already set things up, if that's what you want to do. They aren't going to force you anywhere, but it's the only way they can pride protection. We can't really hide you, even with other Shires. You're black."
Huh? That gets my attention. There are lots of black Shires. I've seen them in person, and lots of pictures as well. My confusion must be apparent.
Parker shakes her head. "Foals aren't born black. They start out gray, and darken as they get older. Until you mature some, you'll be easy to spot." She pauses. "If you mature."
There is no such thing as a black Shire foal. My ignorance of some things is surprising. You'd think I would have noticed that. Whatever has transformed me must have used my mental picture instead of reality. Guess I am not so different from that werewolf after all. But just how set is that image? Some of my stories have ended with the character permanently stuck as a foal. Eternal youth, equine style. However, there was always a Dam as part of the package, a plot device which is sadly missing here.
As an orphan colt, I am almost helpless and very much alone. It's not a bad situation as long as I expect to grow up, but I can't imagine relying on bottle feedings for the rest of my life. That possibility worries me more than the actual transformation, even when I realize that living as a horse also means dying as one. A moderate equine life span might be twenty-five years -- which means I lose a decade or more of life from what I might have had as a human. I can handle that easier than the thought of essentially being an invalid forever.
That point is brought into sharp focus by the arrival of a familiar silver-gray station wagon. Even with this fuzzy vision, there is no mistaking the covered electric cart hanging off the back as the car pulls up near the corral. My parents have arrived. Both are older and not in the best of physical shape. Up to now, I always assumed I'd eventually be taking care of at least one of them. Now I am in no position to help anyone.
The car crunches to a halt on the gravel parking lot. Parker gives my neck a last pat and goes out to meet them, closing the corral gate behind her. I hear the car doors open and have a sudden urge to run hide myself behind the other horses. What will they say? What will they do? It seems ridiculous, yet I find myself feeling a kid caught for shoplifting, or stuck in a parent-teacher conference. I'm a grown man! Or was one. I don't know what I am now. Based on my own convictions, I am more a pet than a son now. It doesn't matter, for the most important thing in the world to me is their acceptance, either as parents or masters.
I see Parker talking with them for a moment, looking almost casual as they go through introductions. This improved hearing is a curse now, for I can hear a ragged edge to Mom's voice that is most likely the result of a lot of crying. Dad is very stilted and formal, a far cry from his normal outgoing nature. I have to assume they have been told everything. The big question now is, just how much are they going to believe?
The ground is too rough for Mom to cross using her canes, so Dad makes his way to the fence alone while she lowers her cart from the rear-mounted rack. He seems a little unsteadier than usual, holding onto the wooden railing for support as he glances around the corral and then focuses on me. He stares intently, probably trying to see something that might identify me. About all that might match is the coloring of my hair and eyes.
Why am I just standing here? Because I am afraid to see Debbie's fear show up in their eyes, terrified that they will snatch their hands back and run away. We have always been very close -- not just family, but best friends. Dinner every Sunday, cutthroat Scrabble games, phone calls during the week to share news and bad puns. A scowl flickers across Dad's face, and turns into a worried frown. He looks so old and frail and lost -- it hurts to think that he must be terribly upset and confused.
Steeling myself, I move slowly towards him, ears up and tail flagged. His scent is instantly tagged as herd-mate by my foal's mind, and much of my uneasiness vanishes. I practically leap towards him with a squeal, only to freeze when he jerks back from the fence. Oh God, no! I slip my head between the railings and snuffle the air, trying to fill my nostrils with his scent, as if I could pull him closer with the suction from my lungs. I try to call out to him, but can only manage a high-pitched whinny.
"For God's sake, Tony, he isn't going to hurt you!" Mom motors past him, her cart bouncing slightly as she crunches over the gravel. She rolls right up to the fence and stops directly in front of me. Twisting the seat around, she looks into my eyes with that same puzzled expression that Dad had. "Rob?"
I nod my head as much as I can within the fence rails, and lip at the sleeve of her coat. Dad moves next to her, and reaches out cautiously to touch the side of my snout. It occurs to me that he isn't used to large animals at all. No wonder I startled him! His scent is full of confusion and concern, but there is no stink of fear.
Parker comes over to the other side of Mom's cart. "He can't talk, but he can answer yes and no questions with his head. A friend of mine works with your son, and she told me there were witnesses to the actual change. It is definitely him."
Mom reaches out and strokes under my chin, her expression a mixture of amazement and stunned disbelief. "Debbie called us. At first I thought it was a joke, but she was so upset..." Her face crumples suddenly and tears stream down her cheeks. "Oh, God! I didn't want to believe it, not even with all the news on the radio. Are you OK?" That last is directed to me.
I nod my head again and drop my chin to rub her shoulder. It's the closest I can get to a hug now, but she seems to understand the gesture. I feel her arms around my neck and then she buries her face in my fur and sobs.
"Hello, Hoss." Dad blinks and pales as he realizes that his usual nickname for me has a new meaning now. "What happened?" He frowns. "Oh, wait -- yes and no questions only. Are you OK?"
I am not sure how to answer that one. After a moment, I nod my head very carefully.
"Were you a member of that list they talked about on the news?" He rolls his eyes before I can respond. "Never mind. Stupid question. This is that online writer's group you have told us about?"
Another nod. Several of the list members have been down to visit me, and a few have met my parents. Happily, I never did go for the fantasy personae on the web -- it would have been embarrassing to have an internet friend show up at the door expecting me to be young, rich, and handsome.
Mom pulls back and wipes her eyes. "I'm sorry, hon. I promised myself that I wouldn't make a scene, and then I fall apart as soon as I see you." She sniffs and chews her bottom lip a moment. "Rob, they are saying that all of the people on that writer's group turned into something they wanted to be. Is it true? Did you really want to be a horse?" She is staring at me, obviously bewildered.
Well, I can't exactly deny it now. I nod my head slowly and deliberately.
When she frowns at that, I feel my chest tighten. I can't expect her to understand, but I have been hoping that my parents would be able to accept this. Am I wrong?
"Look, son." Dad reaches out and pats my neck. "This is going to be hard for us to deal with, but we can adjust. All that really matters is -- are you happy?" His voice breaks, and his eyes fill suddenly. "Oh, damn. Rob, we just want you to be happy."
I want to cry, to hug him, to try to explain -- and I can't do any of that. This equine form has no way to express normal human emotions, and my parents can't read the signals my equine instincts are sending out. Grief and pain well up inside of me, and have nowhere to go. My guts are being wrenched out, and all I can do is nod my head.
This is so unfair! If I had been given some warning, some time to prepare, none of this would be so hard. I could have made arrangements for everything, had a chance to talk to my family. This is almost like I had died. They will have to sell my cars, my house, give away my things. And what if this isn't permanent? I could change again at any time. Considering the different stories I have written over the years, I could end up as almost anything from a cow or pig to a five year-old boy. Or I might wake up a year from now as my original self -- with all of my belongings gone.
Unfair or not, this is all I have now. Just how much of a hypocrite am I? After all my musings and declarations of how I would choose to be transformed, I am moaning about how inconvenient the reality is. This might be punishment from an offended deity. It might just as easily be a miracle. The final choice is really up to me -- am I blessed or cursed?
Mom strokes my nose. "I don't know much about horses, but you look beautiful."
"He's got perfect conformation for a Shire colt." Parker steps up beside her. "When he grows up, he'll be magnificent. The question then is going to be whether he is a stallion with a human mind, or a human with a stallion's body."
"How long will he live?" Dad lays his hand on my neck. "If he grows up normally?"
"Maybe twenty-five or thirty years." Parker shrugs. "Barring any unusual illnesses or injuries. I suspect he'll get the best of care."
My parents look at each other, and then Mom cups my chin in her hand. "You know, I'd pretty much given up hope of getting any grandkids from you. Think you might provide some with four legs?" Her voice is still shaky, but the familiar humor is like cold spring water to a man dying of thirst.
Dad sighs, and then manages a faint smile. "At least I have a better chance of beating you at Scrabble now."
The miserable weight of doubt suddenly lifts as I feel the bond between us. Not broken, not lost forever. A thrill of sheer joy fills my heart, and I spin suddenly and leap into the air, kicking up my hind hooves with a squeal. My future is far from certain, and I know that there will be many obstacles ahead, many problems to solve. Some people may fear me, or hate me. But for now at least, I have two people who love me no matter what form I have. They have accepted this, accepted me. And in that acceptance, I know that I have been blessed.