by Brian Eirik Coe and Jon Sleeper
© Brian Eirik Coe and Jon Sleeper-- all rights reserved
I wasn't sitting at my accustomed spot around the bar tonight. After a few weeks, I'd become a regular and usually could be found in the same general part of the bar that I'd sat in that first night.
No reason. I'm just a creature of habit.
Tonight, though, I'd felt the need to be a little more alone. When I came in, Donnie had handed me the small stack of paper, a favor from Lisa. I'd missed most of her series about SCABS in the newspaper, and I wanted to look back on them.
So, I took my tea and moved to a dark booth in the back. One advantage of being able to shift your eyes raccoon is that you find you can read most anywhere. I'd gone through all of the articles over the last few hours. Occasionally, I would look around and see the people depicted.
Donnie, Wanderer, Fox, Buck, Edwina, Jack, Rydia, and others who filtered in and out through the night. I'd heard some of their stories before, but oddly, seeing it in print made it more real.
Reading about their pasts had triggered my own memories. Now, I was thinking of another list of names, one that comes through my head like a mantra now and then.
Karl, Tony, Mark, Cynthia, Haldor, Eirikur, Christopher, Maria, Orn, Frank, Jon, Heine, Joe, Timothy, Marco, Philip, Robert.
They were aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and colleagues. All people I'd lost in the first years of the Flu. I'd been to a lot of funerals in those days. In five states, two provinces and three nations.
Karl, Tony, Mark, Cynthia, Haldor, Eirikur, Christopher, Maria, Orn, Frank, Jon, Heine, Joe, Timothy, Marco, Philip, Robert.
A friend once told me that you've made a difference if your name is remembered twenty years after you die.
He's the third one on my list.
Karl, Tony, Mark, Cynthia, Haldor, Eirikur, Christopher, Maria, Orn, Frank, Jon, Heine, Joe, Timothy, Marco, Philip, Robert.
They're in no particular order. Orn, a cousin on my mothers side back in Europe, was the first to die. Joe, an uncle on my fathers, the last.
As I've said before, the Flu hit my family pretty hard.
Karl, Tony, Mark, Cynthia, Haldor, Eirikur, Christopher, Maria, Orn, Frank, Jon, Heine, Joe...
I thought back along the list, to all the funerals and memorials. All the bodies in state, the closed caskets...
There wasn't a body at one. It had been a memorial, but no body.
It had been early in this cycle of death. I'd buried the memory after going to so many funerals in such a short time. He had disappeared and been declared dead.
Why was I remembering that?
I looked at the stack of papers in front of me. At first, I scanned the top one, then flipped up the page and scanned the next. Then the next. Then the next. I didn't really know what I was looking for, but something in me must have. Then I came onto the line. I read it once, then again. I read it over and over again. I started to feel my hands sweat.
"I'd gone on a roadtrip to visit all my Internet friends, and was on my way up the east coast to see a friend of mine..."
My hand started to shake a little. I felt my heart beat a little faster.
"I'd gone on a roadtrip..."
I looked across the bar at Buck.
"...to visit all my Internet friends,"
It wasn't possible. It simply wasn't.
"...and was on my way up the east coast..."
Jon was dead.
"...to see a friend of mine..."
That day started out very interesting for me. It turns out the strange noise that comes out of a thing called a "stereo" is called "music". I had not remembered what exactly music was before, but once I remembered I started to listen and listen and listen... I listened so long that it was evening before I stopped, and remembered to go to the Blind Pig.
Because I don't normally have hands, when I wanted to change CDs I had to have Spots or someone else do it. Zach had come in at one point and listened with me, and actually switched the old single CD player with a 50 disk CD changer. Sounds great with these big ears, doesn't it? he'd said through his vodor. I just nodded in response, and resumed listening. The last CD I listened to was by an artist known as "Sting", and that for some reason tripped a memory. I seemed to recall liking "Sting" a lot before... Though I could not imagine why, I did not understand much of the music's meaning.
I shouldered into my neck pack, a kind of carry-all that would not slide off of me when I switched forms at the door to put on clothes.
For once when I opened the door the cacophony of noise from within did not scare me out of my wits. One of the major problems of being what I am (that is, a whitetail deer, fully-morphed most of the time.) I am constantly aware of everything that goes one around me. And when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. Every sense is geared to picking up signs of potential danger (and you have NO idea how hard it is to stay in the bar when the Lupine Boys are around). I can deal with it in full-morph, but it's much harder in a lower morphic level, as my humanity is closer to the surface. Counterintuitive, I know.
For those that have not seen me before, in either shape my fur color is a rusty red, with white around my eyes, throat and chin, a bit around my black and wet nose, inside my big ears, and on my belly. In morphic shape I'm basically I deer that can walk on his hind legs. My body is rather stocky, my neck long and flexible, my legs long, and my feet are hoofed. My hands are three fingered, plus thumb, and the two inner fingers are large with inwardly-curving dark nails. When I bunch my fingers together they look like a distorted cloven forehoof, complete with dewclaws. The skin on the palms of my hands is covered with a fuzz of that rusty fur. My head is really no different from the full- morph's; and I've still got that signature tail that is usually put through a tail hole in my shorts.
Last, (and definitely NOT least) are my antlers. I'm a ten-pointer, five tines on a side, and frankly think I look quite majestic, the does seemed to like them, I recall. But I also recalled that they were not just for decoration.
When I walked in Jack suddenly started to play a tune that I recognized from the "holiday music" CD. I walked up to him. "Jack. Why do you play 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' whenever I walk in? I'm a whitetail." He just smiled back a toothy grin. This was not the time of year to get me angry. I hate fall. "I'm sorry Jack, but I have to say this. If you don't stop playing that I'll have to shove that piano up your muzzle." He stopped playing. I quickly apologized of course, "I'm sorry, Jack. I've been really short tempered lately."
He stared at me for a moment. "It's OK. But isn't this mating season for your species?"
"The rut. Yeah. I really don't want to think about it though. I've got enough trouble as it is." Then I startled slightly at a noise from the bar, every muscle tensed, ready to bolt, but I resisted. My tail did go straight up, though. Good thing I wore those shorts... "See what I mean?"
"Yeah. Sorry about the Rudolph thing. Heh. But is there anything I can play for you?"
"Do you know anything by 'Sting?'" In response he started to play "Be Still my Beating Heart". For the rest of the evening he played more music like that. I don't know how long I stood there listening. Jack is very good at the piano (when he isn't drunk, that is), and since music was really a new experience for me I ate it up (and chewed cud while I listened).
The best thing about the music though was that it brought to the surface more fragments of memory. It was then that I noticed the raccoon-man staring at me from a booth. Now, I'd noticed him before, by scent more than sight however. But there was something disturbing about the way he was looking at me. Something that made me not a little bit nervous. ::He's only a raccoon,:: I thought. My deer mind dismissed him after a moment's thought. Raccoons were no threat. They're too small. But my buried human mind kept me looking right back at him. Then some long-hidden, but very vague memories briefly came to the surface. And suddenly he looked familiar. My heart started to beat fast.
Normally I don't think much about my past. In fact I try to ignore it as best I can. The deer mind is not concerned with such things, immediate survival takes precedence over anything else. Especially memory. And I tend to let that run my life.
But the feeling I got (perhaps due to the so-called "sixth sense" whitetails are supposed to have, but don't bother asking me about it because it's impossible to put to words) did not go away. I got up and walked up to him, the raccoon-man's face going furry, and his scent screaming "anxiety" in my nose. What was he worried about? Not like I was going to "steal his crawfish" or anything (Though I seemed to remember doing that a couple times in the forest).
Just as I was about to say, "Do I know you?" my time was up. My pelvis buckled, throwing me forward, my hands changed into forehoofs before I could tell them not to. Lucky thing my clothes a built to just split off instead of rip off. Something one of my friends at ZB devised. I grunted in pain as my chest barreled, and it was over. I was left standing there, on four hooves, unable to speak, and then I remembered I'd forgotten my vodor. ::Idiot,:: I thought. ::Not only do I lose track of time, but I forget my only other way to communicate back at ZB!:: But I was still curious, though less so now since I'd changed. I noticed incidentally that the raccoon-man's face now had a short muzzle, and there was a twitch under his pants.
I had to satisfy my curiosity, though. So I motioned for him to follow me and we left (him in a daze, it seemed.) for ZB.
I kept telling myself that it wasn't possible. Jon died. He died near the beginning of the Flu. He'd visited a friend in Florida and was on his way here when he vanished.
When he didn't show up at my apartment that Saturday, I got angry. Looking back, I shouldn't have been even if Jon had shown up late. By that time, though, my life had already started its downward spiral. I was at the beginning of what would become a three year nightmare. As of that weekend so long ago, I'd already helped bury two relatives in Reykjavik the previous month and a friend in Toronto the previous week.
My nerves were shot already, and Jon wasn't helping by being late.
Then he didn't show up at all on Saturday.
No one knew exactly where to look. There was a lot of ground to cover, and Jon had never told anyone exactly which route he was going to take from Florida. Hope began to dim when neither he nor his car turned up.
I tried to help in the search, but didn't have time to do much. Other concerns started to push my friend out of my mind. An aunt in Nevada died the following month. A month later I caught the Flu myself. My practice began to fall apart. People I loved started to die faster. Jon's disappearance was slowly pushed out of my mind.
A year later, Jon was declared dead. It was assumed that he died of the Flu somewhere, somewhere overwhelmed. Even in the modern United States, a lot of people were buried in mass graves in those years. Some were never identified.
They'd found his car, I remember, a couple years later. It had been washed into a stream and been partially buried at some point in Virginia. They'd done a search then, but nothing turned up. No one could be sure if Jon had been in the car when it went into the stream or if it had somehow ended up there later. They couldn't even be sure how far upstream it had entered the water.
At that point, though, he had been written off as just one of the millions lost to the Flu.
But all that was so long ago. Twenty years. In Lisa's article, Buck had said he only remembered being a whitetail for about two. So, it couldn't be Jon.
Why, then, was I staring at Buck? What was it about him? I'd never met him, never talked to him.
I tried to match the morphic deer that I saw in front of me with the man that I had known. We'd only met in person a few times. We'd communicated via Internet and letter for years, though. There didn't seem to be much the same.
I was gripping the papers tightly, feeling them soak in the sweat from my hands. I was vaguely aware that my anxiety was causing the fur on my face to grow out. I tried to get myself out of the booth. I needed to talk to Buck. I knew I needed too.
But what was I supposed to say? Hi, are you Jon? Do you remember the five bucks you owed me?
How do you open a conversation with someone you may know, but that doesn't remember his own name?
Buck was still leaning on the piano. He was gently, almost unconsciously, nodding his head to the music. His eyes slowly moved back and forth across the room. Every few moments, his eyes would settle on me.
Every time Buck looked at me, I felt my feet grow cold. I started to smell more variety of scents in the bar as my nose darkened and became more raccoon-like. Even as he walked over, I felt my face fur out, my tail get fuller. I knew that he was in rutting season, and knew from casual observation that he had a short temper right now. I started to panic that he was angry at me for staring. When he fell to full morphic shape abruptly, I felt a stronger twinge of fear. I knew my own muzzle was growing out.
Buck looked at me for a long moment. I could tell that he was thinking. I realized suddenly that he wasn't angry, more curious. He motioned with his head for me to follow. I noticed then that he didn't have his vodor with him. I nodded, gathered up my case and the pages in front of me and followed.
A few people in the bar had seen Buck fall to full morph right in front of me. That wasn't completely out of the ordinary. He did it now and then. But most also knew that I had a tendency to go raccoon when I was scared, nervous or excited. Even then, it was odd for me to gain more than a mask. My head was almost fully raccoon as I crossed the bar, which certainly upped the curiosity level. Jack tapped me on the shoulder as I walked past.
"Is something wrong, Brian?"
I almost didn't hear him. I took another step before the question registered. I turned and tried to speak, but my head had gone so raccoon that all that came out was a light trill. Jacks eyes widened a bit in surprise. I'd never lost my voice in the bar before. I coughed, and gathered my wits a little. After a second, I managed to croak out, "No, everything's fine."
I don't think he believed me, but he let the matter drop.
By that time, Buck was already headed out the door and I jogged a little to catch up. We walked the streets in silence. He was looking me over a lot as walked. A couple times, as we stopped on a street corner waiting for a light, he would run his nose up and down my body, breathing deeply. I stayed still and let him. He seemed even more curious, if a little confused.
He wasn't alone.
I suppose I could have started talking then. I still didn't know what to say, though. Besides, I didn't even know what he wanted. For all I knew, he was having problems with his eyes and wanted to talk to me about them.
But somehow, from reading the article, I doubted that Buck really understood the concept of ‘optometrist'.
Part of me hoped that was all it was, though. Part of me wanted this to be something mundane, something that I could take care of in a minute and then leave. Something I could take care of in a minute, race home and forget this absurd idea. I'd managed to bury my ghosts, all of them, a long time ago. That included Jon's. I didn't need to relive that nightmare again.
A bigger part of me wanted this confused whitetail to be my old friend. A link to my past.
A name to take off my list.
We arrived at the ZB's warehouse. I'd suspected that we were headed here, where I knew that Jon...Buck rather, lived. I followed him into a small room.
It was apparent that he lived here. There wasn't much. Some heavy pads arranged in a bowl-like shape, obviously where he slept. A few knickknacks here and there, probably gifts or things given to him as memory cues. Someone had put up a few posters in the room, mostly of mountainous landscapes. An old CD changer sat in a corner, a pile of ancient disks next to it.
I hadn't seen one of those in close to ten years.
Buck picked up something in his mouth and walked over to me. I recognized it as his vodor. I helped him with it. Almost as soon as it was on, he looked me right in the eye.
Do I know you?
Despite my thoughts over the last couple of hours, I think that these were the words that I least expected to hear. I stammered for a moment, unsure what to say. After a seconds pause, I decided to come right out with it.
"Does the name Jon Sleeper mean anything to you?"
It was a feeling I could not shake.
He did not look familiar, he did not sound familiar; and most of all, he did not smell familiar. Smell is my most important sense, I don't trust something without smelling it first. That's why I'd sniffed... whoever-he-is over to see if he was familiar.
I'll put it this way: If it looks like a human, than it deserves a second look. If it sounds like a human, I'll give it my undivided attention for awhile. But if it smells like a human, it IS a human. Period. At least to my deer mind.
But I could not shake this eerie feeling of knowing this raccoon. Knowing him pretty well. I tapped the 'on' button on the CD changer, and lay down on my futon mattress bed, folding my legs underneath me. I looked at him, I don't know said the emotionless voice of the vodor. I really don't know. I'm so confused... I lay my head down on the mattress, head swimming and slightly dizzy.
The raccoon's clothes started to get just a little bit baggy, he was even more nervous than I was. His head was fully raccoon, but he managed to croak out, "What about San Diego?"
That only made me more confused, but it got the mind working. I did seem to remember endlessly boring weather, part of what made go into... into... into what? In the background the CD changer clicked, and changed to a random CD. I recognized it as "Thunderstorm: The Music of Nature". With all these memories running around in my head like, well, like startled deer, something stopped for a moment. Briefly, I saw an image of myself (?) sitting in a van, saying something like, "the storm has a fully developed mesocyclone Professor, we might see a tornado yet!" and it was gone. The music rolled like the thunder it was, echoing the rumbling bewilderment in my mind.
The deer mind is not built to remember such human- things. He continued to ask questions, and I shook my head at most of them. The music changed a few times. It was about midnight when Spots came in, "Who's this?" she asked.
Then, for a fleeting moment, all my confusion stopped. I knew this person. I knew him, if only for a moment I finally put it together. A moment that came and went in a flash, and I was afraid it might never come again. This is my friend Brian. I said. And then it was gone. ...what did I just say? I don't know who this is, but he seems familiar somehow. My confusion grew to be almost unbearable, and I put my head down on the bed again.
"Well, Brian. Good to meet you." I smelled her concern. "And I hope you remember again, Buck." And she left.
I could tell he was staring at me. I did not need to open my eyes to see it, I can just tell. And it was unnerving. Please... please leave. I said. I'm so confused. I need to get some sleep. Just... just go. Please! But I'll see you tomorrow, eight o'clock, at the Blind Pig. I just need time to sort this out. In the background, from the speakers of the ancient stereo, a female voice sang: "I feel like I've been blown apart. There are pieces here I don't know where they go..."
As he reluctantly left the room, I fell into a troubled sleep that was fraught with confusing images of memory.
I left the warehouse convinced. Even if Buck couldn't answer most of my questions, even if he had been bewildered by what should have been basic facts, despite all that, I knew now.
Jon was alive.
I'd never told him my name. Oddly, it had never come up. Buck hadn't asked and I'd been so focused on Jon's past that I never thought to tell him who I was. Yet, when Spots asked him who I was, he'd known. If only for an instant, he'd known.
I leaned in the alleyway outside for a long time. Slowly, I felt myself return most of the way to my normal self. I was about to head for home when Spots stepped out and walked over to me.
"Brian? What did you say to Buck? He's really tossing and turning in his room."
I sighed. "I think I know who Buck is, or rather, was. I was hoping that he would remember."
She seemed a little taken aback, then concerned. "Anything I can do to help?"
I looked at her, "No. I don't think so." I fished a business card out of my wallet and handed it to her. "Look, I don't know what might happen, but if he starts asking questions, if he starts to remember, you can call me at this number. I always have my pager with me. I'm supposed to meet Jon...I mean Buck back at the Blind Pig tomorrow at 8, but if he starts to remember before that, give me a call. Anytime."
She nodded, "You said Jon a second ago. Was that his name?" I nodded. She held the card up for a moment. "If anything comes up, I'll call."
I thanked her and started to head for home, thinking about this evening as I went.
Even when I had started talking to Buck, I didn't remember many details about Jon myself. Then, as we talked, I started to remember. I hadn't thought about Jon, I mean really thought about him, in a long time. In those last days, Jon had been a Ph.D. candidate somewhere in the Midwest. Texas? Oklahoma? I couldn't recall. Neither location rang a bell to Buck, anyway. He'd just finished defending his thesis when he'd left on vacation, never to return. What had his Ph.D. been in? I searched my memory for a minute. Astronomy? No, it had been meteorology. That was it.
Jon didn't remember exactly what either word meant.
His thesis. I remembered that he sent it to me, but I never really read it. I didn't understand most of it. I'd hung onto it, though. When Jon disappeared, I'd tossed it into a box...
I stopped abruptly on the darkened street. My heart started to beat fast again. I needed to get home. I signaled for a taxi, got in, and told him to hurry.
It was close to one in the morning by the time the taxi arrived at my small home. I raced up the walk, fumbling with my keys. I threw open my door and hustled in. I looked around the mess for a minute, wondering where to start. It wasn't a big house, but I'd managed to fill it pretty full. I started with the hall closet. Recklessly, I tore boxes and crates out. If they didn't have what I wanted, I just tossed them into the center of the room.
I moved from the hall to the guest room closet, and then the master bedroom. I tore stuff from under the bed, behind the couch and off the garage shelves.
I finally found it at around four in the morning. It was in the rafters in the garage, still in the dull blue Rubbermaid box. The dust was thick on top. I realized that I hadn't opened this box in close to fifteen years.
I climbed down the ladder holding it. I walked into the house and set it on the kitchen table. I opened it slowly, like I expected something to jump out. The lid came off easily, and I looked inside.
There was a stack of papers, all different sizes and colors, all held together with an ancient and rotten rubber band. I picked them up. On top was a yellowed page from a newspaper.
Jon's obituary, a year after he had vanished.
The other pages were a mixed bag. Jon's thesis was here, the articles I had saved when he disappeared, a missing persons poster, some of his short stories. I looked at that stack for a minute before I remembered that he had written stories back then.
In the rest of the box, I found all sorts of things, stuff that I couldn't bear to have end up in a landfill. Postcards from California and Oklahoma, pictures he'd sent, a Christmas card from 2002, the year before he disappeared.
I remembered finding it in my Christmas box in 2003, where I'd dropped it the year before.
I found an old CD-ROM disk. The label simply said "Sleeper". I struggled to remember what was on the disk, but couldn't. I turned on my computer and slid the disk in. Even as the computer told me, I remembered that the formats for CD-ROM's had changed years ago. My computer wasn't even able to recognize it.
In my bedroom, I heard an alarm go off, and I looked at my watch. It was time to get up and go to work.
I thought about calling in sick, telling my office manager to cancel my appointments. But I wasn't tiered. I was feeling a little numb, my head was swimming. I walked to the sliding glass window that opened to my small yard and opened the window. The sun streamed in, and I felt the cool fall air across my tired skin.
And for the first time in years. I felt true happiness.
I took a fast shower, changed my clothes and gathered up the stuff about Jon. I wanted to go through it when I could today. I looked again at the computer disk. I most wanted to see what was on that.
I took a cab to the office. I kept looking over everything. I even tried to read Jon's thesis, but even after twenty years I still couldn't figure it out.
Then I realized with a start that Jon couldn't either. Not anymore.
I wanted more than anything to help him remember.
I saw a couple patients that morning. One nice thing about being in a career for so long, it tended to be routine. I was more than a little distracted, though. But it was a light day. After my last patient of the morning, and finding that my three afternoon patients had canceled or rescheduled, I found myself sitting in a chair and looking at the disk again. Where could I find someone who could access it?
Then I got an idea. I picked up the phone and called the paper. After passing through a couple people I heard Lisa's voice. "Feature's Desk"
"Lisa? It's Brian Coe."
"Oh, hi. Did you get my back articles?"
"Yea, thanks. In fact, I'm sort of calling you about them. I need some help with something. I need help accessing information on a twenty year old CD-ROM disk."
There was silence on the other end phone for a moment. "Well, the disk isn't a problem, the paper still has some of those old computers around to access some archives. What's this about?"
I paused. I suddenly realized that Jon, or Buck, may not want his story out. "Lisa, I wish I could tell you now, but I can't. There is someone else involved, someone who may not want his story out."
"Okay. I'll stop by your office at lunch. What's on the disk?"
"I don't remember."
She sighed, "Well, you're not much help. I'll see you in a little while."
True to her word, she came to the office an hour later. She picked up the disk, and thankfully didn't ask any questions about it. Three hours later, she stopped back in, this time a little upset. She was carrying an ancient laptop computer.
"Why didn't you tell me this was about Buck?"
"How did you figure that out?"
"Please, I'm a better reporter than that. You said it was something about the articles I gave you. The disk is loaded with information about someone named Jon Sleeper. I stopped by the Pig and talked to Donnie. He said that you left last night with Buck, and you were more agitated than anyone had ever seen. I'm guessing that you read something in my article about Buck, something that made you think that he and this Sleeper fellow are the one and the same."
I took the laptop from her and opened it up. "Please, Lisa, don't write about this. Buck doesn't even know yet."
Her eyes got wide, "You haven't told him yet?"
I shook my head, "I told him, but he doesn't remember. Please, don't write about this."
"Okay, okay. Don't worry about it." She handed me a printout, "Here."
I took it from her hand. "What's this?"
"All the current information about the Sleeper family. I got curious when I saw what was on the disk."
I took it from her. "Thanks." She nodded and left.
I started looking at the disk. Memories began to flood back. The majority of what I saw were saved e-mails. They spanned about four years. I knew I'd known Jon longer than that, but I didn't know where the older messages were. There were some scanned photos, pictures that we'd sent each other. Photos of ourselves, our families, our home towns and our vacations. Dozens of Jon's stories were here, the same ones that I'd printed out at some point and had in a stack on my desk.
A few hours later, as the sun began to set, I gathered up everything from my desk. The printouts, the pictures and the computer. I dropped it all into a duffel bag and headed down to the Pig.
I was early, very early. Jon wouldn't be here for at least a couple hours. But I was too anxious to wait. But tonight I wasn't frightened. I was excited. I was in a mood brighter than any that I'd been in for years. I killed the time reading through the ancient e-mails, remembering the friend I'd lost so long ago.
The friend that I hoped to regain tonight.
That night I dreamt of being chased. Chased by a thunderstorm that looked almost wolf-like. A strange phrase leapt to mind: "An Examination of Mesoscale Convective Complexes, with a focus on the formation of Supercell Mesocyclones and their Attendant Tornadoes". The word that sprung to mind to explain it, "Doctoral Thesis", even made a little bit of sense.
A "Doctoral Thesis" was something that I'd wanted ever since... since... when? It somehow showed that I knew a lot about a subject, and that I could make a lot of money doing something called "forecasting" with it. And "forecasting" was... was... deducing from a bunch of numbers plugged into a computer model what might happen in the future.
In the dreamscape, I stopped running from the wolf-storm and looked at it. The storm did indeed look like a wolf. It ran on lightning-claws, and it thunder-howled. Part of me was screaming: -RUNrundanger! RunrunDANGER!- But another part was curious. Intensely curious. I forced myself to look at the storm more critically, and it actually started to lose some of it's wolf-like look.
Then suddenly I was no longer afraid.
I started to run again, this time towards the storm.
I was swept up by the raging twister beneath, lightning claws tried to rip the hide off my back, I turned and clashed with it, my antlers arcing with electricity...
...I was sitting in a classroom, looking at the flat country beyond the window outside. My arms were furless and I could feel glasses resting on my nose. I was vaguely aware of the droning voice of the instructor, "The first thing to know about weather is that it's chaotic. You can put the same data into the same computer twice and come up with a clear day on the first run, and severe thunderstorms on the second... Mr. Sleeper? Are you paying attention?" I turned back to the instructor and...
...I was sitting in a van, surrounded by all kinds of flickering computer screens, one of which said "Doppler Radar". Large hail was falling outside, and the noise inside the van was almost too loud. Dr. Bernstein was saying; "I don't know, Jon. You say that the conditions are right for a tornado. You've been right seven out of nine times. If you're right this time, then and only then will I believe your theory for tornado prediction is valid." I smiled, and only replied in three words: "Look behind you."...
...I was standing in a snowy landscape. It had been a tiring Rut. But I was victorious many times, which the does seemed to like very much. But I felt as if there was something missing from my life. So I started to range farther and farther, ignoring food and predators alike, searching for something that I had lost, I knew not what. I easily avoided the predators I'd scented. For some reason, I knew I was much smarter than the other deer. How I did not know or think to ask myself. Then one day, after wandering I know not how far, I scented a predator that made my head feel funny. I tried all the tricks I knew to avoid... her. I knew it was a her. But they did not work. After a day's tiring chase, I heard a strange whistling sound... "AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!" I yelled, my body feeling strange for a moment as the arrow plunged into my flesh, falling to the ground as the snow began to fall...
...and I was gazing at the large flakes falling from the sky out of the window at an airport. "Well, geez Brian, I guess you were right about Boston winters. Now I'm stuck here until this blows over. I like the snow though. Do you happen to know where the local NWS office is?..." We went through a door, zipping up our jackets. I looked up at the sky...
...the sun was shining, and I was facing a familiar-looking person. "Good to meet you Brian. Face to face at last..."
...Then grazing with my other herd-mates on the succulent freshly-grown leaves of Spring. Content, yet not content. There was something, something missing? The word confused me. Whatever a "word" was. Thunder rumbled. The other deer jumped and ran off, started and frightened by the thunder. I did not run. All I felt was curiosity...
...The wolf-storm suddenly started to dissolve into mathematical formulae, each individual part becoming incomprehensible, yet also not, and falling apart each time I took a stab at it with my antlers, which were glowing a bright blue.
I awoke dazed and panting, my mattress ripped open by the points on my antlers.
I said nothing the rest of the day. I got a job running a letter for into the local forest country, and I took the time on the way back to examine my chaotic memories.
The memories where there, but I had no idea how to use them. No clue, no hint. They were there, fragmented and broken and mostly inaccessible. At least for now. The only thing I really knew for sure was my original name, "Jon Sleeper", and the name of the raccoon-man, "Brian Coe". Other than that I was almost worse off than before.
In point of fact, I found myself looking critically at the clouds. Some meaningless (because it was out of context, I was sure) mathematical dribble poured through my skull. "Cloud Physics" it was called. I shook my head, ::This is impossible...:: I thought. But I seemed to recall liking that subject, and lay for a time on the side of the road just watching them form and dissolve like the images running through my mind. It was a good spot, high on a hill with a cliff on the other side of the road. I have no idea how long I lay there.
It was six by the time I got back to ZB. I was still very confused, and when I talked to Zach and Frank about it, they said It's up to you. And so it was.
I paused at the door of the Pig. My mind was still awash with things that made no sense, encompassing a great amount of time.
Apparently I'd been a normal whitetail for more than two years. How much longer I did not know... Those memories were mixed up with my newly apparent human ones in such a way that I could not make head or tail of them.
I walked inside, going straight to the booth where... A name came to me. ::Brian.:: Where Brian had placed himself inside.
It's a good thing Donnie had had the booth benches modified for those with tails. I sat down heavily across from Brian, who was looking at me with anxiety and excitement on his scent and facial expression. I rested my long muzzle in my hoof-like hands and rubbed my pedicles. "I think I know you. Brian."
"You... you do?" He smiled.
"But I'm still so confused. My mind is all a jumble with stuff I don't understand. I think I can, though, if I work at it. But I need help to put it together. You seem to know me. And I seem to remember you. At least a little." My anxiety, was actually helping me. I thought I'd be able to keep a semi-human form for a record time.
"What can I do to help... Jon?"
"First, don't call me that! Not yet anyway. Just, just... where do we start?" Wordlessly, he pushed some papers across the table, and I looked down at them.
The vodor I use in full-morph is an experimental kind. It works by sensing words through nerve impulses, and fits on my neck. I don't actually have to speak, just want to speak. The electrodes don't have to penetrate the skin or anything, but they touch the area around my vocal cords. It's not "mind control", but the technology is still experimental. The software was designed by a half-dolphin friend of mine, and only I have it at the moment. I'd done a favor for Flipper at one point that he repaid me with this. It's not perfect, but it helps. Especially since... "I... I've forgotten how to read."
That, for some reason, stuck me to the very core of my being.
I have to deal with it at least once a week in my office. A patient sits down and says that they can't read anymore. For more than twenty years, it's been easy: A new pair of glasses, a diagnosis and treatment of some minor disease, a referral to an ophthalmologist. Better than nine times out of ten, they were reading again. Even SCABS with altered eyes could usually be helped.
But this was different. I couldn't prescribe something for Jon. I couldn't just do something with his eyes and he'd be better. This was deeper. I didn't even know where to begin.
I sighed. "Okay. Let's start with something else." I flipped through the papers for a minute and came out with the yellowed newsprint. Jon's obituary had been run with a picture. "Do you recognize this?"
He looked at it for a moment, then at me. "This was me, wasn't it? But...why was I in the newspaper?"
"It's an obituary that ran a year after you...left. As far as we knew, Jon...Buck, you were dead."
He stared at the print for a long time, running a finger across the picture, slowly tracing out the lines of a face he no longer had.
I booted up the old computer and ran the image viewer. I'd found a lot of scanned photo files in the past few hours. They were jumbled together, filed on the disk in no particular order. The first that came up was from the last time that we met face to face. I'd been in my final year of school in Boston. Jon had come into town for a holiday weekend, and then ended up getting stuck when Logan airport was closed due to severe weather from an early storm. The picture was of the two of us standing in front of the snow covered statue of George Washington in Boston Common.
Jon looked at the picture for a long time, then looked at me. "You look a lot older, and different."
I sighed again. "This was a long time ago, Jon. A long time. Just before the turn of the century. This was the last time we met face to face. You were gone three years later. I caught the Flu myself a little later."
He looked at the old picture again and back at me, concern and nervousness all over his face. He was remembering, or realizing, something else. "When...Brian, when did I disappear?"
"Late in 2003, about 20 years ago."
He looked back at the picture for a long time. "Twenty years." he repeated dully. The words didn't seem to have any meaning to him. Then his eyes got wide suddenly and he jerked his head up and looked at me. "Twenty years?!" he said loudly.
I was aware that a couple heads turned at the bar. Jon had practically yelled it above the background din. I nodded.
He shook his head, "That can't be! I don't remember more than two or three..." his voice trailed off. "I was coming to see you, wasn't I? I was on my way to visit you."
I nodded, "You had just finished school a few weeks before. You were making a circle around the county, taking a few weeks off before starting a job with the weather service in Illinois."
He nodded vigorously, "Yes! I'd left Oklahoma, stopped in Little Rock for a couple days, and then Orlando for a weekend...and then started up the east coast. I was headed here. But I stopped."
"You never told me you were going to. I don't think that it would have helped us find you, though."
He continued as if he hadn't heard me. "I stopped near a campground, an old abandoned campground. It was in...Virginia? West Virginia? I can't remember. I was going to spend a night in the woods..."
His voice trailed off and he shuddered a little. He looked at his arm a moment, covered in that rusty red fur. "I spent a little more time out there than I planned." He said without a trace of humor.
Over the next two hours, we spent a lot of time talking. Jon seemed to remember his past now, even if it was a jumble. If prompted, he could recall certain events. He remembered us meeting in California a couple times, though it took a little while for him to sort out what had happened on each visit. He remembered some of the stories he had written, but little else about them. Slowly, the pieces began to come together.
It was like putting together a puzzle that you haven't seen in 20 years, without all the pieces, and when a lot of the pieces you did have could be fit anywhere.
Somehow the realization of the length of time that had gone by had helped him start to figure out what order the memories were in. We started looking at pictures and I started reading him e-mails. Over time, we had reached the point where Jon could piece together some of the years just before the turn of the century to about when he vanished.
There were still a lot of memories that he couldn't place, and many more that I couldn't help him with. A person lives a life with so much detail that no one can know it all. I suppose that if I had to remember something twenty years ago, I'd have a hard time myself, even without all of his extra baggage. I managed to help with a few things, but not nearly everything.
As we reached the end of the chronology that I knew, I slid the yellowed thesis across the table. Jon picked it up. "An Examination of Mesoscale Convective Complexes, with a focus on the formation of Supercell Mesocyclones and their Attendant Tornadoes", he said slowly, seemingly from memory. He opened the document slowly, trembling a little. For a couple of minutes, he slowly flipped through the pages. One by one.
I studied his reaction. He looked at page after page, but didn't seem to pause long enough to read anything. He studied some of the graphs, some of the charts and some of the pictures, as if trying to remember what they meant. A few times he shook his head in frustration, others he smiled as a memory came together.
Finally he looked back at me. "I remember writing this. The nights at a computer, the days in a lab. The field tests." He deliberately started turning the pages quickly until he reached one about a quarter away from the end. There was a picture of a storm cell and a tornado funnel, obviously taken at close range. "I remember this! I remember! It touched down about thirty miles outside Levenbrook, Kansas! It started to move west then shifted to the north, straight at us! We had to take shelter under an overpass when it passed by."
He had fragments of memory like that for another couple of hours. Sometimes he would remember an event with incredible detail, only not be able to recall when it happened. Sometimes I would read off something from an e-mail message he had sent and he couldn't remember when he had said.
It was close to midnight when I noticed that he was having trouble holding onto the papers. His hands were beginning to lose their form. He noticed it and stood from the table, grunting in pain as he fell to all fours again. He looked at me with his dark eyes for a long time again, but there was familiarity behind them tonight, which hadn't been there before. He nudged the vodor sitting on the table, and I helped him with it.
I think that I need to go home. I need to keep sorting this out. Do you mind?
Suddenly, I felt very tired myself. I was dimly aware that I hadn't slept in close to two days. I'd been running on empty for hours. I needed some sleep myself. "Sure, no problem. Look, my office is closed tomorrow. Do you mind if I come to the ZB's warehouse in the morning?"
He seemed to think about it a minute, then nodded once. Not too early.
He turned to leave and I stopped him. "Buck. Do you mind if I start calling you Jon?"
He turned back. Why?
I thought along that list of names again. Seventeen names. Seventeen lives lost to me in a span of less than three years, taken by a virus that nearly took mine, and tried to take away my humanity.
"I...I have my reasons."
He looked at me intently for a long time. Okay. I'll see you tomorrow.
Before I left, I decided to ask Brian one more thing. You think... you think I could have my thesis? If there was anything I thought that could jog my memory on how to read, it was that thing. I knew I'd spent two years of my life on it. Two years!
He hung it on my neck pack inside a mesh pouch. Thanks, Brian. See you in the morning. And I went back to the ZB warehouse.
I had to grab the large book out with my teeth. I was too soon after being in morphic for so long, and I could not shapeshift even if I wanted to. The thesis was long, two hundred pages. Two years of my life, and I could not even read it. And I knew that reading was the beginning of knowledge. Without regaining the skill I was sunk for the future.
But other than the reading, the other thing that disturbed me was how much time had passed. Twenty years! Before Dr. Bob disappeared, he'd told me that I had the body of a five-year old buck. And whitetails only live for ten years at most! But if he was right about the time... >From what I'd been able to piece together, I'm pretty close to fifty years old in human years.
So it seems I'm more human than I thought I was. But, Dr. Bob had said, I'm fit as a fiddle. I'll probably have a very long and healthy life, what with my high-fiber diet and all the exercise I get. I guess I'm a chronomorph of a sort. Normal human lifespan, but my deer body remains at the age equal to whatever my human age is at the time, and I age at about a tenth the normal deer rate (though I do get a new set of antlers every year). My mind started to race... So a five-year old buck equals about fifty human years. According to Dr. Bob I'm in my prime.
But twenty years gone! Lost to me forever, fruitless... Well maybe not fruitless. I seemed to remember a lot of does. A LOT of does... I must have a few fawns running around out there. The thought made me blush, my ears turn red.
I opened the book, hard to do when you have no fingers. I tried to read it, and a few letters, what they looked like, started to click: "C", "A", "G", "B"... and so forth. I could now read the less complex words. "The", "But", "How". But it was slow going.
In my morphic shape my vision is more human. That means in dim light I don't lose my color vision, and it's easier to focus on things like words on page.
Take away hands and that vision ability, and you get one minute to turn a page, and to look at a page I had to close my left eye and tilt my head. This was not working. There had to be an easier way... Then a memory clicked.
I remembered having to spend $500 on publishing for this thing. I'd had four hardcopies made: One for me, one for my mother, one for the school, and one for Brian. Then there was the hypertext version for the Internet... Internet.
My vodor has a computer interface, so I turned on it's IR transmitter and rung up Webmaster. No problem! He'd said. Two minutes later he found it.
It was much easier to read over on a large screen, and all I had to do was use my vodor to command it so I could navigate. I started with the pictures, the one of that Levenbrook tornado really did something for me... though I could not remember the exact date it'd happened. I flipped back and forth, remembering a word, a phrase, a formula. A graph of the temperature observations transmitted by a weather balloon looked familiar.
Eventually my eyes started to droop, and as I was looking at a photo of another tornado, I fell asleep...
I was walking up a stairway, Professor Bernstein was just ahead of me. I raced to catch up with him. "Will you at least tell me WHY I only got a C on my thesis?" He looked at me.
"Your theory is a good one Jon, but there's a really basic flaw in it. I'm surprised you missed it, really. But it's not like you did not get your Ph.D. though. So chin up, dear boy. Not like you can't correct your mistake. You just need to watch the storms more carefully." Thunder rumbled...
...Driving my car, I crossed the border into Virginia. "Flaw? What do you mean flaw? I don't see one..." I muttered to myself. Three days at Disneyworld, and a new car from my Mom as a present had not improved my mood any. Nor did the sore throat and racking cough I'd started to get. ::Must be getting sick,:: I thought. Brian was a friend. I'd not seen him face to face in years, but I knew he'd let me vent my frustrations. I was due for a eye exam anyway. On the radio they were talking about some kind of "Martian Flu", but the last couple months for me I'd been focusing on my thesis, and so paid no attention. I did not connect my cold with the Flu at all.
The only thing I thought that would cheer me up was a stop to try to see some whitetails. Maybe I'd have better luck this time. I had to pull over a moment as a wave of dizzyness overtook me, but that did not last long so I drove on. Incidentally noticing the hair on my arms seemed to have a rusty tint to it. ::I really need to get my eyes checked again:: I thought...
...Unlike the other deer, I did not run from the thunder and lightning. Instead I stood there and watched the storms form and dissolve. There was something that I was missing. Somehow I knew it. But I did not know what it was. I watched many appear and disappear, heedless of predators, but I just watched and watched. Again and again. Storm after storm. Year after year...
..."You just need to watch the storms more carefully"...
..."Done!" My equation was finished. If this worked, then it should improve tornado forecast accuracy by at least 10%. A nice round figure. For a moment I felt as if I left something out, but decided against correcting anything. I'd spent enough time on it as it was...
I awoke with a start. "THAT'S IT!!" I yelled. Quickly, I jumped out of bed, grabbing my thesis from the floor and reading it over. ::Wish I had my glasses...:: I thought. I reread it, seeing where the flaw was. "Zach! Spots! Someone get me a pencil!" I typed into the terminal, hoping Webmaster was awake, [get me some raw weather data that looks like this... Thanks.] I would need the data to test the new, corrected equation.
A minute or so later Spots came in. Strange, I saw her before I heard or smelled her... Very unusual. "Buck? Is that you?" She seemed almost alarmed for some reason...
"Who else? Gimme that pencil." I grabbed it from her and the notepad she had in her other hand, and started to scribble down equations from memory. Copying them from my thesis and making minor corrections. I have no idea how long I was there, but some time later I vaguely heard a couple voices.
"How long has he been like that?" Asked a voice I recognized as Brian's. Another strange thing, my hearing seemed muffled. But oh, well. But I did not even think about it as I worked. "About six hours," said Spots. "Is that really what he looked--looks. Like?"
"Yea. Unbelievable." I looked at the both of them for a moment. "Would you be quiet please? I'm on a roll, here." But I was close the solution anyway, and a minute or so later I was finished. I stood up, picked up a pen, crossed out my flawed formula, than wrote in the corrected one. Then, as a last bit of closure, I plugged the data into the equation. And there it was. The Midwest was in for a bout of bad weather. "YES!!" I yelled, jumping upward waving my... hand?. Then saw my reflection in a mirror.
It was the face I'd seen in the newspaper clipping, older to be sure, but there was a resemblance. I did not even have a chance to take a step. Something within me broke, pain struck like lightning, flowing through every pore like fire! I felt my body contort and change, my feet elongate, my face too. Ears expanding like a sail, the end of my spine throbbed as my tail grew back in. Vision blurred and shifted as my muzzle grew out, and my skin felt like it was on fire as my fur spread like honey. I could see my fingernails darken and my smallest finger wither away. And I blacked out...
I awoke in morphic shape, no more human than I could make myself before. But my mind was clear, and my memories clearer. Spots and Brian helped me up, and I looked in the mirror again. The reflection was one I'd gotten used to over the past few months. One that was myself just as much as the one I'd briefly seen only a moment ago. "Are you OK, Jon?" Asked Brian.
"Never better, Brian. Did you oversleep or something?" In fact I felt complete, body and mind. I would never be able to become human again, though. But once more had been enough. And I would eventually find out I had an absolute morphic shape time limit of eight hours. But what did it matter what I looked like? I'm still the same person, antlers or no. Frankly, I liked the face in the mirror now better than my human one. The only thing now was the pesky death certificate, and my family... "I just have one burning question though."
"What happened to my new car?"
I woke that morning to pounding on the door. For a long time, I lay in bed listening to it, trying to figure out what part of the dream I was in. Abruptly, I realized that it was no dream, someone was at the door.
I stumbled from the bed, my striped tail twisted oddly from sleeping on it. I ran a hand through the pelt that doubled as my hair and opened the door to find an anthropomorphic antelope. By sight, I knew him from the Blind Pig, but off hand I couldn't think of his name. He spoke first.
Are you Brian Coe?
Still sleepy, I nodded.
His vodor betrayed no emotion, but I suddenly realized that it was all over his face. You have to get down to the warehouse. There is something strange going on with Buck. Spots tried to call you, but you didn't answer.
I was suddenly very awake. "What's wrong? Is Jon okay?"
"Buck! Is Buck okay?"
He hesitated a moment. I'm not sure...
I threw on whatever clothes I could find laying around and followed the antelope to the ZB warehouse. Spots waved me inside. "Brian! You've got to take a look at this."
I stepped in, worried that I'd find Jon dead, or worse, feral again.
I think my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw Jon laying on his mattress scribbling in a notebook, completely human again. I wasn't sure what to do. In all the years since I got SCABS, I'd never heard of anyone completely regressing back to normal, unless they were a polymorph. I recognized his thesis laying on the floor next to him. Spots and I just stared at him for about ten minutes before either of us spoke. "How longs he been like that?"
"About six hours. Is that what he looked...looks like?"
I nodded, still stunned, "Yea. Unbelievable."
Jon gave us a dirty look and frankly told us to shut up.
A few moments later, he abruptly jumped up and cheered. Then he noticed himself for the first time. I'm not sure that I'll ever forget the look of absolute bewilderment as he saw his reflection in the mirror, or the sound of his scream as he painfully morphed back to his familiar deer shape.
A few hours later, Jon and I were sitting in the backyard of my house. Well, more accurately, I was sitting and Jon was absently grazing on my overgrown lawn while we talked about the past. I caught Jon up on most of the big events of the last twenty years, both in the world and in my life. Jon told me about what he could remember about his time in the outback.
We reached a lull in the conversation as the day began to wane. Jon looked up to the setting sun and sighed deeply. Brian, what happened to my family?
I hadn't stayed in touch with his family after the memorial, and hadn't talked to any of them in at least fifteen years. Then I remembered the printout. "I don't know Jon, but when you're ready to look for them, I've got their locations, courtesy of Lisa."
He looked back at me, looking rather stately in his full deer shape against the setting sun. Do you think that they'll accept me? Do you think that they'll believe that I'm Jon?
I looked at my hands, "You would know better than I would Jon. If it helps you make the decision, I'll be with you, if you want. Whether you want to contact them or not, whatever you decide, I'll be there. But it's up to you."
He sighed again, and looked back at the rapidly fading sun...
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