Tiffani was starting to get tired, channels on the television were starting to turn off for the night, and I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I squinted at my watch, pressing the small light button to read the display: 4:00 A.M. It was amazing how much time you could kill when you weren't paying attention.
"Hey, it's really late," I said quietly, realizing it was actually quite early, but too tired to care.
Tiffani raised her head from my knee and looked quizically at me. "Oh, yeah, I guess it is."
"Guess I'd better be going. I'm never going to make it to work on time tomorrow," I explained.
Stretching, she stood up and turned off the television. I yawned and turned on the light, suddenly wishing I still worked second shift.
We walked up the stairs and out onto the front lawn. She still lived with her parents, so we didn't want to wake them by talking inside.
It was a cool morning, the slightest glow beginning to show above the mountains in the east. She folded her arms in response to the temperature and took a few barefoot steps on the wet grass. I looked at her warmly, thinking again how beautiful she was, especially in the shallow moonlight.
I reached out and held her arms, trying to take some of her chill away. At the same time I had the sickening feeling that we were growing ever closer to breaking up. Few words passed between us these days. Our interests seemed to be increasingly conflicting. She was reluctant to find work, and I could not support us both. It was difficult enough to make payments on my apartment as well as a new vehicle.
"Guess I'll see you Wednesday?" she said more than asked.
"Yeah," I said, recalling my schedule. We had planned a trip to Salt Lake to visit some of her friends, and also to stop by HawkWatch to get some more mice for the Hawk I took care of.
Sky was an injured Red-tailed Hawk, whom I'd taken in three years ago. She was now part of educational programs that took us to schools and environmental conferences teaching people about birds of prey.
Frankly, when I'd first met Tiffani, I thought she was going to love that kind of work. But as I got to know her better, I found that while she loved animals, small pets and domestic animals were more her fortĖ.
But tomorrow morning was my regular job, a computer network technician at a printing shop. And I would get a healty three hours' sleep if I was lucky.
"Okay, don't fall asleep driving home," she warned, half-joking. Although as light as my head felt, I welcomed her advice. Already my knees were wobbling from lack of rest.
"I'll turn the radio loud."
We kissed each other goodbye and I walked to my truck. Sometimes I just wished things were simpler. I had such a hard time figuring out girls. The evening had gone well. We'd watched a couple movies, ate popcorn, and laughed a lot. It had been fun. But somehow, something was missing. We just weren't right for each other anymore. She was more into parties and alternative music while I would have preferred to take her to the mountains and watch a good sunset. She liked the city and all the attractions. I guess I was more of a silent outdoor type.
But gosh, she was cute. Red-brown hair cut to the perfect length, deep brown eyes and a wonderful smile. She was as white as snow; for some reason dark tans just didn't do it for me. Thus, she fit my description of stunning.
I turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the driveway. The roads were still glistening from the mild rain, and the smell of clean air was great. I watched her in the mirror as she went back inside. Then my attention defaulted to the road.
I was in the unpleasant situation of liking someone very much but for the wrong reasons. It was inevitable that we would depart each others' company for opposite directions, but the agonizing questions were when and who would get the honors of announcing it.
Shaking my head, and opening my eyes wide to push sleep away, I turned onto the main road and headed for home.
As I shifted into a comfortable cruising speed, I shifted my thoughts to other matters. The new fiber op network equipment had arrived and the busiest week in my life was upon me. Yet, here I was staying up to the most ridiculous times and barely managing to stay on top of things. At some point I had to fail.
I realized I was going to need to buy a third alarm clock just to wake up on time.
I turned the radio on and browsed the stations. Nothing good was playing, so I turned it back off, noticing for what seemed the first time the sound of the tires on the road.
The dotted yellow lines never seemed to end, but finally I pulled into my car port and glanced at the clock. 4:34 A.M. With a lengthy sigh, I turned off the engine and headed straight for my apartment.
Once inside, I threw my keys and change into my desk drawer and gladly slipped off my shoes. I promised myself I would never stay up late on a Sunday again, although I knew I probably would.
I went to the kitchen for a drink of water, then stopped by the bathroom for a bit of last-minute business. Turning off the light, I headed for the bedroom, relieved to be home.
I looked for a moment at the computer, but decided not to bother checking for email. I could have cared less at that point.
I slipped out of my clothes and got into bed, making sure the alarm clocks were armed and ready. I contemplated with animosity the thought that it would only be a short while before they began their morning serenade.
Just before turning off the bedside lamp, I stared for a moment at the picture above my bed. A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a piece of desert wood. A very old poster, actually, but one that had somehow become an important reminder of what I wanted to do most. Helping birds and educating people were only part of my life, but it was a rewarding one.
I switched off the light, and hoped for dreams of flight and freedom.
I was rewarded superbly. My dreams were more vivid and intense than any I could possibly recall. Every feather felt real, every beat of my Hawk heart. I could hear the wind calling to my soul, saying I belonged to it. I could taste the freedom that beckoned from the clouds.
I was soaring above the world, not hunting or traveling, but flying for the simple reason that I could. I was navigating a wide thermal, adjusting my tail and letting my wings guide me, when quite suddenly a rather strange pain erupted within my body. For a brief moment I thought something I ate had caused sickness, but reasoned it would be much different. No, it was a jolting, weakening sort of sensation.
I lost altitude and began to swirl helplessly downward. I could not concentrate on my flying. The pain changed, and became intense through my legs and wings. Cringing, I folded my wings, which only led to faster descent. Quickly, I opened them to slow myself, and the pain intensified again. I was caught in some sort of strange paradox.
Barely able to glide, I approached the ground shakily and prepared for a rough landing. My tail began to hurt, and my beak ached. Something was incredibly wrong. I winced with the intensity of it all, and when I opened my eyes again, I was staring at a white ceiling.
It had been a dream after all. My mind tried to sort through the elements of the dream, which remained quite solid. Shortly, something became apparent; there were still residual effects: A gentle pain was emanating from my arms and legs. All over my body, in fact, when I tried to focus on it.
My mind snapped to attention and I awoke fully, trying to determine what was going on. Hoping that the strange sensations would cease when I sat up, fully conscious, I was rather worried when they instead increased. It was an itching sensation, almost like the childhood nightmare of chicken pox but not as aggravating. I turned on the bedside lamp with a familiar motion. I looked at my arm and noticed the small hairs on it were standing up. It didn't feel like goose bumps (all these conditions with bird names in them!), but when I touched them, they felt stronger and wiry.
I cocked my head in wonderment and breathed heavily. My lack of sleep must be having adverse effects on my imagination. I looked at the clock. 5:02 A.M.
I considered calling in sick to work. But with the network the way it was, I couldn't afford to. Neither could the company. Damn.
I turned my attention back to my condition, and was startled with my hairs' development into small 'shafts.' I peered closely at them, trying to match what I was seeing to a disease or problem I knew about. Nothing even came close. I wondered where my medical encyclopedia was, but then as the pain began to increase, I began trying to think of ways to make it stop.
I rubbed an arm, and felt seething pain where I touched. My arm was too sensitive and felt as though I'd been burned. I left it alone, but watched in horror as the shafts became longer and thicker. At the same time I noticed them on my chest and legs. It was as though every small hair follicle had suddenly decided it was on steroids. The pain subsided some, and as long as I didn't move much or touch anything it was bearable. I laid back again, slowly because the same weird phenomenon was occuring on my back. Staring at the ceiling revealed no answers and I could only guess as to what sort of fate I was destined.
The pain came in a few erratic tremors, but subsided within several minutes. I dared not move for fear it would return, but as I laid there, a warmth began to creep into my body, and a very comfortable soft feeling. I took a deep breath for the tenth time, and decided to explore once again.
I raised my right arm, testing for surges of pain. None came, so I moved it into view.
I didn't know whether to scream for sanity or in pleasure. My arm was covered in feathers. Not as though I'd dipped my arm in glue and tossed feathers onto it, but genuine, patterned, real feathers. They were evenly spaced, and as on a bird's wing, were smaller on the forearm and longer beneath. I noticed some larger shafts were still growing with feathers emerging.
The same was true of my left. I raised my head, and saw feathers covering my entire body. White down feathers were in some places still uncovered by larger countour feathers, but those were growing and fanning out at an amazingly fast rate.
I threw the bed covers aside and looked closely at myself. Brown feathers on the top of my arm, dull white underneath. Ivory feathers on my chest and mottled brown and rufous flecking on my abdomen; completed by more ivory feathers from my legs to my ankles. I felt my head and determined that my hair had been replaced by feathers as well.
My heart rate increased and my breathing quickened as adrenaline began to course through my veins. I didn't know what was happening or what caused it, but I was incredibly excited by it. The pain had mostly ebbed away, and the new feeling of warmth from the feathers was very intoxicating.
But it left me to wonder: Why was I still human? My body still resembled that of a human. I looked carefully at my hands. Definite fingers. My arms were not wings. My toes were human toes. My feet seemed a little yellow, but in the dim light of the lamp it was hard to tell.
I swung out of bed, standing up and feeling very different. The feathers were absolutely beautiful, but I simply couldn't understand why they would grow as they did. It would have surprised me less had I simply woke up as a Hawk. It was a private wish, anyway, one that I had come to hope would be realized. But this was totally unexpected.
I walked to the bathroom, not bothering with clothes. My reflection in the mirror startled me. It was still me, recognizable, yes, but it looked as though I had put on a form-fitting suit of feathers. Seeing myself fully as I did, I swallowed in freak satisfaction, realizing I had very close resemblance to a Red-tailed Hawk. But why would a thing like this happen? It was like a half-change or something. Maybe that was it. A change gone wrong. It figured. I was an accident waiting to...
Pain again. This time I didn't know where it was coming from. It wasn't as bad as my dream, but nevertheless, I knelt down and winced as it shook me. I felt a shrinking sensation and my limbs felt very sore. My head ached as though it were being squeezed.
I forgot about having feathers and began wishing for death. This was far too much. As I set my jaw and waited for... something, I quickly considered all the possibilities.
Was I hallucinating? I didn't know much about hallucinations, so maybe they really did feel real and everything. If so, was it a drug or something? Maybe Tiffani had put something in my drink.
But I dismissed that idea quickly, knowing it was probably more unlikely than a sudden case of feather growth.
Was it really happening to me? I didn't believe in magic, but I was beginning to think otherwise. Other than a few misguided thoughts, I had nothing to do but try and cope with the apparent reality of the situation.
As before, the pain eventually subsided, and I opened my eyes. I felt very strange. The comfortable feeling of feathers returned, as well as a host of other types of physical information. I felt lighter. The floor of the bathroom was pressing into my side much less than when I'd first kneeled and dropped to my side. Not slightly less, a lot less. It felt as though gravity had changed density by about half. I looked around, almost expecting objects to be floating away from their places. Everything was where it was supposed to be, though.
I also felt smaller. I had not spent much time lying in the bathroom floor, but I knew I occupied more space under normal circumstances. When I'd dropped to the floor, I'd been close to hitting my head on the wall, while my feet had been near the sink. Now my feet seemed just as close, while my head was a foot or so away from the wall.
Cautiously, I stood up, feeling stronger and lighter despite a growing headache. I looked in the mirror again, and knew I was indeed shorter. The relation of myself to the rest of the furniture and things was wrong. Or rather, different. I guessed I had lost a foot and a half in height.
Feeling like some kind of mad scientist who had forgotten he'd even performed an experiment, I looked at my arms again, and saw that they more closely resembled wings. Longer brown and white feathers trailed from their bottom edge and my fingers were getting smaller. It appeared that I might soon lose my smallest finger altogether. It was a condition that might have worried the ordinary person. But once the pain was fully gone, I experienced odd sensations of joy. Perhaps I really was going to get my wish.
So this 'change' progressed in stages... I became a bit frightened with the idea that the pain would return. But my fears were replaced by curiosity as I looked more closely in the mirror.
My eyes were orange-yellow. They had no resemblance to the human eyes I had owned just moments ago. I was thoroughly fascinated, and even more so when I discovered that my vision had improved as greatly as my eyes had changed color. Once upon a time they had been blue-green and seen images in relatively good detail. That was no longer the case. Where I had seen feathers before in the mirror, I now saw incredible detail. Without any effort I saw the individual barbs of each one. I could read the small print on the bottles of hairspray on the counter. With a wry smile, I realized I would not be needing those any longer.
I spent a few minutes poking myself and pulling on feathers and looking at things with new sight. It was filled with incredible discovery. My legs had gotten thinner and my feet more yellow. My arms had somewhat flattened from their round human shape. My neck was longer, my height reduced, and my forehead lower. My pelvis was smaller as were my genitals, but still not like a bird's.
I began looking around for a scale to weigh myself on, but realized I didn't have one, when a third series of changes began to happen.
This time the pain seemed less, but I knew where it was coming from. I felt distinctly my face changing, and knew without a doubt that my beak was forming. My neck elongated slightly more. My feet changed dramatically, a more digitigrade bone structure finalizing itself. My toes shifted and transformed themselves into an unmistakable four-toed bird foot. Yellow scales had appeared and covered my feet from ankle to toe. Long, black talons emerged from each, forever erasing the ugly, pink, useless toenails I had known for so long. A tail grew from the base of my spine, creating a brand new set of sensations. Muscles I had never before posessed became part of my body. Finally, I felt my insides quiver with internal changes and my reproductive organs altogether become internalized.
The physical changes alternated from nearly painful to almost pleasant (you probably can guess which). When I again tried to stand, I found that my legs were so different it wasn't going to be a simple matter. My knees were higher up and my toes and ankles were much farther apart. In addition, my raptorial feet, with their incumbent hallux, were designed eloquently for perching. I was sure I could stand quite comfortably, but I was totally unfamiliar with an opposable toe.
By grabbing furniture with the remaining four fingers of each hand, I was able to pull myself up and stand. Shakily at first, but with growing confidence.
My concentration was drawn from my legs quickly, however, when I caught a glance of my face in the mirror. A black and yellow beak had replaced my nose and mouth. My eyes and the ridge above them created a very piercing expression; one I had come to admire in birds of prey. My face didn't seem quite right, though. After a few moments I determined it to be because my eyes still were too forward-facing, and my beak had not become long enough. But the effect was dramatic enough to keep me staring at my reflection with a newfound appreciation for good looks.
One thing concerned me, though. My tail was pathetically small and the feathers only half-formed. But I realized I was probably in for any number of additional phases of Change. I sighed, somehow wanting to get it over with in one huge ordeal. But I realized that much physical strain would probably kill me.
There I was, almost a Hawk. An incredible, unbelievable thing had happened to me, and I had decided it no longer mattered how or why. I would savor the moment for the rest of my life.
A loud crash in my kitchen brought me out of my self-admiring mode and into a panic. And it wasn't as if some object had simply fallen. My hearing did not seem to have improved nor degraded, but the crash sounded horrible and unidentifiable. I walked, tediously, to the entrance to my kitchen, to find a wall smashed and my microwave on the floor in pieces. Through the hole in the wall I could see the next-door apartment, and in that hole... Was a very bewildering combination of human and elephant. The elephant morph seemed out of sorts, but soon stood up and realized what had happened.
It took us both a moment to gather our bearings and realize who each other was. The elephant was Eric, my neighbor. After a couple of minutes of regaining stamina, Eric found his ability to speak and apologized for the damage. Apparently he had just woke up and went berzerk when he realized what was happening was not part of a dream. I admitted that had I not been awake for most of the changes I myself might have had a crazy moment. (It took several tries for me to figure out how to talk with a beak. There were a few consonants I am still having trouble with!) But my strength could never have totalled a wall quite as effectively. Given the situation, we both thought the giant hole rather funny. The pain and discovery of the Change forgotten for the moment, we talked about our own ideas and concerns. Apparently I wasn't the only one to have developed an incredible likeness to an animal. Eric was not quite as overjoyed as I was with the latest developments. At least he resolved not to be pessimistic about it: "Nobody's going to mess with me ever again!"
"It looks like your trunk could pulverize someone's skull!" I commented, wondering if that was really possible.
He shrugged, a strange sight with his huge grey shoulders. "I doubt it, but you could probably shred anything with that beak."
Now it was my turn to shrug. "I wonder what this will do to our eating habits..." I began to consider the consequences. They suddenly became quite numerous.
Eric was silent. He was sitting on my kitchen floor while I stood nearby. I looked around again at the room in general, trying to think how some things would be useless: My cups and glasses, probably. I doubted drinking would ever be the same with my beak. But I had no disenchantment with it. I noted that in order for me to look directly at something I had to turn my head. My eyes were much less mobile of their own accord.
"I wonder how many people this happened to?" Eric wondered aloud.
I considered the possibility of everyone in the world changing into something or other. It seemed like such a huge, impossible thing. But the idea of humans becoming extinct in this way was actually rather appealing...
"I don't know," I finally answered. I tried to think of something else to say, but nothing seemed appropriate. I wondered what Tiffani had changed into.
Eric went back to his apartment to "work things out" while I returned to the bathroom to stare some more. Several minutes had gone by since the last phase. I wondered if this were it.
Almost as soon as the thought entered my mind, It happened again. This time my face hurt slightly, causing me to close my eyes again. I had been expecting it, really, but it still came as a shock. My eyes burned for a while, as did my beak. Then my tail seemed to have caught on fire, for it grew and became complete with twelve large red tail feathers. Each had small brown bars on them, ending with a white band. Only a few seconds had gone by, but somehow I knew it was over. I felt different. Like something inside of me was telling me that I was better after a long sickness.
I looked at the last place of activity, my tail, and tried to smile as I discovered I was a western Red-tailed Hawk, exactly as I'd hoped. However, my smile was intercepted by a feature on my face called a beak. While I had some movement left in the corners of my gape, my beak was, for the most part, immobile. I opened it in the mirror, experimenting with facial movement. I was astounded by the awesome extent of the Change. My tongue was long and thin, and the roof of my beak (palate) was covered in an upside-down V-shaped line of backward-pointing 'barbs.' To this day I still don't know what they really are.
I closed my mouth with a satisfying clicking sound, and noticed my expression finally seemed correct. I almost scared myself.
I let my mind drift elsewhere, and understood for the first time that this was no game. It was real. I wasn't dreaming anymore. No more wishes.
Then I wondered if I was to change fully into a Hawk. My arms looked somewhat like wings, but I knew they were hardly going to bear me aloft. They did not fold against my sides as wings did, and instead of large primary feathers on the end, I retained four rudimentary fingers (counting the thumb), now a yellow scale texture that matched my feet. Each was equipped with a smaller talon. My thumbs had become much smaller, and while still opposable, I estimated that picking up objects was going to require much practice.
Just then, the telephone rang twice quickly. It was the priority ring I had programmed in for my work number. Habitually, I glanced at the clock. 7:22 A.M. Late again.
I picked up the reciever, and noticed I no longer fit the phone as it was designed. I held the speaker end to my ... well, where my ear was supposed to be.
"This is a prerecorded message from Jon B. Printing Company. Due to current situations beyond our control, all shifts have been suspended until further notice. Please do not be alarmed. Thank you."
I remembered that several times last year when the power grid was being updated work got called off. In fact, the owners had installed that calling system because it was so bothersome to get in touch with everyone. Apparently someone had decided this Change was worth taking the day off. I was quite relieved.
I hung up the phone and it became clear that everyone must have Changed. It was an overwhelming consideration. My own imagination faltered at the attempt to visualise the future.
I looked down again at myself. I looked just like an overgrown Red-tailed Hawk, except my wings were absent. I spread my arms and noted that they could almost pass as wings. The long primary and secondary feathers were present as they would be on full wings, but the width and length of my wing-arms was plainly too small to function. I was rather disappointed. Even so, they looked impressive.
I spent a couple of minutes checking myself over a final time. I seemed to have all the physical abilities of birds of prey, according to the books. I could turn my head very quickly and easily, and as far back as to look directly down my spine. My red tail feathers were there, long and unfanned. Thinking about those new muscles I'd felt earlier, I eventually managed to move it. I fanned the feathers and was amazed at how much surface area they had. I could feel the wind generated by my slight movements. Feathers covered me, and if I thought about it I could feel the tremendous warmth they provided. Ordinarily when I woke up and got ready for work, my apartment was kind of cold. Now I was comfortable, if not perhaps too warm.
I found the oil gland above my tail, present just as in normal birds. I wondered for the first time exactly how they used it. I knew that when preening with their beak they spread the oil through their feathers to keep them water resistant and in top condition for flight. I supposed those kinds of activities would eventually become routine.
I felt my head again, perplexed with the new shape of my forehead and beak. The sides of my head were feathered, ears internal. I poked around and found them behind my eyes, and functioning just fine. It felt strange not to have any sort of skin or cartilege surrounding them. But that's not to say I wasn't happy about it. I was quite ecstatic, in fact.
I confirmed that between my legs there were no longer the human parts I was familiar with. It was a difficult thing to accept in a way, yet satisfactory because I knew it could simply not be otherwise. The aerodynamics of it were great, even if I couldn't fly with my hybrid wing-arms.
I found myself looking at the phone. I wondered what my other friends and family had become.
I picked the reciever up and dialled Tiffani's number. I had to press the flash button once because I accidentally pressed the wrong buttons. It definitely was going to take some practice to become accustomed to having real talons instead of pointless (literally!) nails. I got a fast busy signal, meaning that the system was using all available lines.
I hung up and decided to try later.
I shuddered to think of her or my family as animals. It was not something I had pictured before. I was not as shocked by my own transformation given that it was something I had thought about before. But when I tried to think of my friends as something else, I drew a blank. Eric had changed into a morph I never could have imagined. It was incredible, when one considered the complexities, how everyone was so drastically altered. I questioned for the hundredth time what kinds of things could have caused such an event. Was it global? Maybe some kind of localized disease? A strange scientific project (secret, no doubt) that had been accidentally released? My mind could come up with far more questions than answers.
I almost laughed. I almost wondered if the solution was beyond my ability to think. Was my mind altered in any way? Was I really a bird brain?
There was too much to consider. I walked carefully back to my bedroom to sit on the bed to think things over. Almost as soon as I'd turned to sit down, I realized it wasn't going to happen when my tail feathers encountered the mattress and notified me of my error. Sitting was out of the question.
So I stood in the middle of the room, finding that it was really not tiresome as it had been before. My legs seemed suited for standing, just as a bird's were.
I was hungry for information, though. The questions kept adding up, and I had to get some sort of feedback. It suddenly dawned on me that my computer was probably my one best source of news. I turned it on and made a mental note to thank the apartment staff for installing a network node for the 'net in our complex. It was always accessible, and didn't rely on the telephone lines. It took me a minute or two of experimentation to get used to how different the keyboard and mouse felt to me. I accessed my email account first, and received nothing. I had almost expected as much. I clicked on the send button, and began entering a quick message to my friends who had accounts.
"Phone lines are tied up. Not sure if what's happening is just where I live or everywhere, but I am a Red-tailed Hawk. It's what I've always wanted! :) Not joking around. Reply ASAP."
I copied it to everyone on my list and started browsing the news sites. Most still had yesterday's information, but TNC's news page had a giant banner across the top that said 'NEWS FLASH!' flashing in red. At least they were on top of things.
There was a couple of paragraphs saying mostly what I already knew. It seemed everyone was Changing by various degrees into apparently random animals. It was global, and there were no reasons given. Not even any speculation. Then some usual safety-type information like not to panic and use the phones as little as possible, etc.
I logged off and looked towards the window. The world as I knew it was gone. What was going to happen now? Everyone Changing was enough to throw the entire concept of civilization out of balance. Or was it? People in emergencies seemed to pull together and survive.
I returned to the bathroom and looked at my reflection. A sharp-looking Hawk peered back. Hooked beak, orange-yellow eyes, brown feathers; the works. I wondered if It really was over. I didn't feel human anymore, but I didn't feel completely like a bird, either. I'd never conceived of an in-between transformation before, but that was exactly what had happened.
While I felt somehow let down about not becoming 100% bird, I was excited about the Change. My thirst for adventure had been effectively quenched, and yet my adventure had not yet begun.
All of a sudden, my apartment seemed like it was closing in. I had an intense desire to go outside. I felt like running around and stretching. I walked out the door and was stunned by everything I encountered. First, there was the detail in everything. The grass, the sky and the buildings. I could *see*! I had never known what I was missing. Then there was the sun on my face and feathers. It felt so inviting and warm. The wind was blowing a little, and I could feel it rustling my feathers. Lastly, there was the assortment of other animals ... er, people venturing into the outdoors. I was taken aback by what greeted me. A deer; a horse; another, smaller bird; and two dogs. Across the street a couple had come out to their lawn. One looked like a (incredible!) dolphin, the other was a panther.
I sat down on the steps of my apartment, overloaded with surprise, and screeched in pain. My poor tail. I just had to learn!
Several of the other tenants looked over, but in contrast to the morning they were experiencing, my situation was rather unimportant.
It was then that I realized I still had not put any clothes on. It was that habitual thing, causing a brief moment of embarrassment. But I noticed that I was not the only one appearing outside my house naked. Fur and feathers had more than made up for the need for clothing. I was content with that.
Noon approached and I was getting restless. I was torn between wanting to stay and watch the news to absorb every tiny detail about this Change -- and going somewhere. The problem was I didn't know where to go. Even though I realized everyone was different, I still felt strange at the thought of going somewhere in my present condition. Not that I was embarrased about my looks or anything; on the contrary. I was quite proud of myself.
I'd turned on the news channel and heard pretty much the same thing over and over as they repeated things. But I did find out that younger children still remained fully human. I wondered why and if they would grow up normally.
The president came on at one point, with a short speech about how there was no conclusive evidence about why the Change had happened and how every top scientist in the country was working on the problem of understanding it. The usual "don't panic; stay calm" routine. The most fitting thing, though: He was a Bald Eagle.
He was similar to me in that his arms were a cross between raptorial feet and wings, but attached to his back was a set of very normal-looking wings. I examined my back more closely, wondering if I simply hadn't completed my own metamorphosis. There were no telltale signs of wings nor any indication there would be. I got a sinking feeling and for the moment forgot about how great every other change in myself had been. All I wanted to do right then was fly. That had been a good portion of my wish. And suddenly everything was granted except that one part.
I turned off the TV with an angry jab of a taloned finger. I felt shortchanged. Every other bird morph I'd seen had wings. And they could fly. I was never a great student in physics, but it seemed impossible that their wings could provide sufficient lift for their mass; but the fact that morphs of bluejays, robins, meadowlarks, magpies, and crows were flying about outside proved otherwise.
The feeling of being earthbound and left out had never been so complete. I walked back to my open front door and looked out across the lawn. Why did life have to be so unfair?
It struck me suddenly that I hadn't fed Sky yet. Birds of prey were capable of going for a few days at a time without food, but there was no reason why she had to.
I went to my fridge and looked for mice. Then I almost hit myself for being so forgetful. I was out. That's why I had planned on going to Salt Lake to get more.
So I opened the freezer and found some beef heart. It had no fat and was the next best thing to natural food, provided some bone meal or undigestible matter was mixed in. It was important for birds of prey to get bones and fur for their crops. In the wild, that sort of thing was brought up later as a pellet and cast aside. The whole process cleaned their crops and contributed to proper digestion.
Noticing the microwave in several large chunks on the ground, I decided to thaw it on the thermo-plate. As I stared at the ice dissolving on it, I suddenly realized I was hungry myself. And the bright red meat on the plate was beginning to appear very appetizing. Before, feeding Sky was somewhat of a one-way understanding. I took mice and rats out for her, thawed them, and fed them to her. She'd rip them apart and for all purposes, appear to quite enjoy them. Needless to say, it was something I couldn't understand as a human, and consequently never really cared. In my desire to be more birdlike, however, it was something I had not overlooked. I figured I'd learn to like it if I ever got there.
And now I was.
I could feel saliva building up across my tongue. The red of the meat was uncannily homing in on my hunger. I'd never felt like that before. It was raw meat, for crying out loud!
But as the turntable stopped and beeped its completion, I picked up a warm slice and promptly opened my beak to consume it. I stopped myself, though.
What was I doing? Certainly I would get sick! I looked at it again, which was a mistake. I couldn't resist. I had to know.
I popped it in my mouth and swallowed.
There was little taste to it, really. I wondered if that was because it really had no taste, or if it was a result of birds not having as many taste buds as mammals.
I stopped at the thought that I was no longer a mammal. All the unusual questions and concerns that were popping into my mind lately!
I felt the warmth of the tender bite slide into my crop, just below my neck. It was an altogether funny feeling, but one that provided immense satisfaction.
Without thinking about it, I repeated myself with two more slices. There was only a small one left for Sky. I checked the freezer again. No others.
Thinking how strange it was for me to be eating my bird's food, I searched the cupboard where I usually kept the "seasonings" for Sky's food. I sprinkled some bone meal onto the last slice and then looked for some down feathers or something to add to it. They acted just like mouse fur and would help form pellets later.
The box I kept those kinds of things in was empty, and at about the same time I was giving up, I realized I could just grab a couple from myself! I shook my head at the irony of the whole situation, almost hysterical with it. I stuck my fingers under my chest feathers and pulled lightly on a white downy feather. It pulled against my skin uncomfortably, but came out without much effort. I looked at it for a moment, remembering how many times I had stared at Sky's feathers with envy. The fact that it was mine was intensely satisfying. It was large enough to practically wrap the slice of meat in, so I pulled it in two and used part of it.
I was eager to see what Sky would do when she got a look at me...
I walked out the door again, trying my best not to trip with the odd new movements of my legs. I found that the high-stepping, somewhat hopping style birds' used to walk actually worked best for me as well. Behind my apartment was the mews I had constructed for Sky to live in. I couldn't see her beyond the wooden slats, but I knew she would be anxiously awaiting.
I unfastened the lock on the door and heard her jump from one perch to another. I knew she would be on the closest one.
I opened the door and expected her to jump to the feeding block as usual when she saw the meat I was carrying. Instead, she saw me and stayed right where she was. I almost expected her to spread her wings, open her beak, and raise her feathers in defense, but she just stood there, staring right at my face. I wondered what was going on in her mind just then. Did she realize it was me? I was pretty sure that I was too convincing to be taken for some sort of costume. As I stared back at her, I realized it was sort of like looking in a mirror. Her plumage was a little different than mine in that she was rufous on the chest and in general. I was a 'typical' or in-between morph. Red-tails had several colorations that were fairly common. Dark, light, typical, and rufous. There was also Krider's Red-tail, a very light plumage, and Harlan's -- very dark. Most rare of all were the albinos.
Finally, she angled her head one way, then the other, trying to figure me out. It was almost funny.
I did the same, finding out that I could copy her intricate head movements. That nearly confused her, and I could see for the first time a real expression of bewilderment in her eyes.
I set the food on the feeding block and stood back to let her do what she wanted. She glanced at it, but didn't seem very interested. I guessed if a Hawk two or three times your size walked up and set some food down in front of you, you'd be more interested in the oversize bird.
But at least I was glad she didn't get largely defensive and panic. I stepped back further, just outside the doorway, and leaned against the frame. Watching her was totally different now. Seeing her talons curled around the perch meant something new. I could feel my own toes' similarity. Seeing her feathers and knowing how they felt. It was strange and wonderful.
Finally, deciding to allow her some privacy, I closed and locked the door, walking away so she'd have a chance to eat.
I looked around at the world again. Cars and houses and trees. All looked normal. The grass was still green. But everyone was Different.
I felt a giddiness like a child; a happy euphoria. Something had Happened. I jumped up and spread my arms as though they were wings and let out a scream of bliss. Instead of being a "Whee!" as I'd expected, it sounded much more like the raspy call of a Hawk, which was even more exquisite.
But as I looked up at the same sky and the same clouds, I realized I could not go there. It wasn't meant to be. Much as I appreciated the new abilities and attributes I now posessed, flight was not to be among them.
A Western Kingbird Morph flew swiftly by, his yellow chest shining brightly in the sunlight. His arms seeming somewhat out of place, but nevertheless beautiful. I sighed, and thought again how nice it would have been just to be a normal bird...
...and encountered a strange sort of mental barrier. It was as though my thoughts abruptly stopped and an almost tangible wall was there. Like dredging up a memory where you can remember all the details except one, and you're struggling to recall it. I wanted to know what it was I had come up against. What was it about Hawks I didn't know? What couldn't I remember?
I pushed against the wall, trying to get to the other side, and felt much more than a mental burst of energy. My body lost weight and size at an alarming rate, my arms lost their small fingers and became...
Wings! As I looked at each of them, I saw fully-formed wings! And as I got my bearings again, I swallowed hard when I realized I was a true Hawk. There was nothing even remotely human about me any longer. I was less than two feet high, my feet, legs, and tail all smaller. The building to my right rose much higher and seemed much larger. I was the same size as Sky.
And then I felt something:
I felt a contraction in my shoulders, a readiness to spring. Something was making me feel ... some way. I couldn't identify it. It was like a voice, but not using words. More like directly encouraging emotions and feelings in my mind and body.
I let go of my inhibitions and found myself looking for the nearest suitable perch. A simple lawn mower was carelessly parked near the back of the building, its handle making a perfectly good target. I ran closer to it, and sprang with incredible strength. Before I knew it, the slippery metal handle was grasped in my feet, and I was struggling to maintain balance by raising and lowering my tail crazily. I found my center of balance and let myself relax.
I bobbed my head and tried to find the next reachable spot. I couldn't see any that looked close. Regardless, I was intent on finding something. I didn't care about anything else.
There was a storage shed at the other side of the grassy lawn. I would have to fly to it. It seemed easy enough.
I spread my wings and pumped them hard, pushing with my feet to become airborne. It seemed almost natural and familiar.
I approached the shed and flapped hard three of four times to get high enough to land on its peaked roof. It was a slightly rough landing, but I did not falter. I folded my wings up, roused my tail and looked around.
I felt better. Something seemed strange about being too long on the ground. It made me nervous. From where I was, I could see much more, and that made me more comfortable.
I slipped a bit on the rough surface beneath me, and climbed to the very peak, looking out over the edge. I was in such a strange place. There were large structures all around and few trees with suitable perches. A variety of animals (or something) were wandering around below, most far enough away to not be of concern. Still, I felt conspicuous...
There had to be some higher place.
A skinny tree caught my eye, it looked just right, and if I gauged things right...
I took off again, flying with almost a natural ability. After all, I'd done it forever. I looked down and saw the ground far below. I hadn't realized I could gain so much height so quickly.
Suddenly I panicked. I had no idea what I was doing. I looked around quickly and remembered I was a Hawk. A normal Hawk. Flying. But how? I didn't know how!
Helplessly, I tried to steady out, but I was starting to lose the feel of the air. I was losing speed and altitude. Then I remembered I had been heading for a tree. It was still reachable...
If only I could keep enough momentum...
But the apartment complex was starting to loom closer and closer. I flapped harder, but it only made me slip more. The wall started to grow bigger in my field of view.
I couldn't slow down, I couldn't pull up or anything. There was only one course of action. Brace for impact!
I winced, expecting the surface of the wall to kill me. But I felt a strange softness and then a dull thump on my head and chest. I tried to breathe but I couldn't get a breath. My mind spun madly and I started to black out.
I woke up startled and nervous.
I stood up and felt soreness in my wings and bruises on my chest. My head hurt, too. I shook myself carefully, trying to recooperate. I looked around, there were no immediate threats. Just strange surroundings and a soft, brown ground.
I blinked a couple of times and felt somehow familiar with things.
My mind shifted again, understanding once more. I was a bird. But how did... Why was I a bird? Oh, yeah. Changes.
It took me some time to review things, but eventually I cleared up things as best I could and tried to puzzle out what had happened last.
Apparently I had some strong instincts. I'd felt an incredible need to follow them. And it had felt right. Right and good. But somehow I'd gotten hurt. Moving either wing reminded me of it. I'd been heading for a tree, unable to stay in the air. And then, did I hit the wall?
I looked behind me, and saw a solid wall. Yet I knew that was where I had hit. Unless I did hit it and someone had brought me inside my apartment.
Impossible. No one knew me now. Eric had went somewhere a couple of hours ago.
A curious thought crossed my mind again. I wondered if I was really having difficulties thinking about things because of my bird mind. It was starting to make me wonder. I'd never been so confused in my life.
I decided to shift back to my Morph form. I found the mental barrier and pushed again, reversing the process. This time it wasn't nearly as disorienting. I knew what to expect.
Even so, I still had to stop for a moment to get used to my form. I'd been human for so long.
Feet, tail, wing-arms, beak, feathers. Balance. Yes, I felt okay.
My mind cleared a little and I decided to just sit down and think things over. Even before I approached the couch, I realized sitting was still not going to be an option. I fanned my tail and felt its muscles to verify it was still quite a part of me.
Right then I wanted to find some kind of perch. I looked quickly around the apartment, but couldn't find anything suitable. Everything was just too small or too big. Finally, I gave up. I was starting to feel very tired, the excitement wearing off and my lack of sleep coming back to haunt me.
I looked at the clock habitually. 12:58 P.M. I sighed and wondered if it was even remotely possible I could get some sleep. I had so much to think about my brain felt tired.
Without really thinking about it, I returned to my bedroom and crawled up onto my bed. I pulled the covers out of the corner where they had somehow gotten stuffed. Kneeling on the edge of the bed, I curled my big blue blanket into a sort of half-moon and then climbed in. Tucking my legs under me and lying on my stomach I found that I was extremely comfortable. I'd never known my legs in Morph form could fold up like a bird's.
I tried to reconstruct what happened again and again, but there was a weird blank space. The day had been strange enough by waking up to the Change. But the mental confusion that followed and the lack of memory about some details left me hopeless.
Slowly, I let my head down and drifted to sleep. I fluffed my feathers out and fell into a very restful sleep. Perhaps the best I'd ever had.
My dreams were varied and confused, just as my waking thoughts had been. But they were peaceful. Feelings and images of being a bird surrounded me, having much more realism than ever before. They were scattered and made no sense, but the overall message was obvious: I was a bird now; or at least mostly bird. There was no getting around that fact.
I woke up around 11:00 P.M. It was a strange sort of awakening. It happened quick almost as though I had been startled. But I didn't feel startled or tense. It was just as though there were no transition from sleep to wakefulness. It took only a moment to recollect my thoughts and let things sink in.
I looked at the clock and then at the window, verifying that it really was late by the darkness outside. My first thought was how I was ever going to get back on my day schedule. I'd spent too long trying to stay up late.
I had no real desire to go anywhere or do anything just then, so decided just to stay put. I felt warm and comfortable, and as though all my problems had been solved somehow. I knew, however, somewhere they were lurking. Lurking and Changed, just as I was. But for the moment -- with no job to worry about; no obligations or overlooked responsibilities; and the fact I'd been granted a most powerful and awesome wish -- I felt free and alive. I didn't care.
In the hours that followed, I preened my feathers, flexed my taloned toes (accidentally poking holes in the mattress), and discovered an urgent and distressing feeling building inside me.
At first I was worried because I didn't know what to expect from this new body, but I felt like an idiot when I realized it was nothing more than a call of nature.
But with that arose new questions and little time to answer them. So of course I got up and went to the bathroom, pausing briefly at my reflection in the mirror. Much as I might have wanted to, I couldn't smile. But it was the thought that counted.
The next few minutes were spent trying to figure out the best way to use a familiar facility in a new way. Needless to say, it didn't quite go according to plan, but that's another story.
Strange as it might sound, I was rather pleased to find out that I was completely bird. I thought: Hasta la vista, TP!
Eventually, I resolved, I would have to come up with some other sort of design for myself and other bird transforms.
Which made me wonder just how many others like me there were. I'd seen many "smaller" bird Morphs, but no raptors yet.
I wandered around the apartment, getting a feel for the digitigrade stance I posessed and the long, scaly toes I stood on.
I peered into Eric's apartment from the hole in my kitchen wall, but didn't see much. The lights were off and the place was stone silent.
I found myself back outside my front door, looking off into the dark sky. I momentarily considered sitting down on the steps, but remembered the new appendage I had. I decided I had nothing better to do than take a walk and look around. I'd try and find a good perch while I was at it, too.
So I stepped down and felt concrete under my feet for the first time. Eiich! The hard surface made my toes bow up and didn't feel all that great to the tips of my talons. So I sidestepped onto the grass and started walking towards the road.
It felt wonderful to be out on the grass with bare feet. The sense of power I got from having huge "claws" and strong, scaled feet was euphoric. I leapt forward, spreading my wing-arms and letting the wind blow across my feathers. I really did feel free.
And so I continued, walking beside the road on the grassy strip, absentmindedly heading towards the center of town. There was not much going on at people's homes. Most of the lights were out, which I thought seemed somehow strange. Once or twice I came across a big picture window with assortments of species framed within. A caribou, alligator (yike!), and feline in one; and a lizard, skunk, squirrel and a couple unidentified in another. There seemed to be no order to the Changes. I suspected that the houses I saw were families, but none of the inhabitants were even of the same genus! Some looked more animal than others, too. Leaving some more 'human' than others in appearance.
How was this going to change the world as I knew it? In remarkable and vast ways. I contemplated some of the problems it might have, like chairs, for instance. Humans had gone on for so long without tails that chairs and similar accomodations didn't have that particular design feature in mind. I wondered how long it would take before such things began to be modified. In my own case, I figured if I could find a large branch to curl my toes around I would be quite satisfied. I was quite content to stand; my legs didn't get tired as fast. But I was getting somewhat uncomfortable with always standing flat-footed: Something I never thought would happen. Besides, I didn't have much of a posterior left for sitting purposes, anyway.
Other things, though, like restaurants. If I was already eating different foods and liking them, then certainly the population was going to cause some severe shifts in the food-related economy. For economy in general! I thought of all the clothing shed for good, the shoes that would either disappear or be redesigned, the entire way of life reshaped. Heating and air conditioning would all shift direction considerably. It had been quite cool inside my apartment, as it was now outside. Just the other night I'd worn a sweater and had the heat on a little. Tonight I was perfectly fine, if not just a tad warm. I figured furry and feathered species like myself would probably be turning up the air conditioner more often, and leaving the heat low in winter. But some others out there were going to be the opposite. With so many built-in 'features,' people were going to cause a lot more changes besides the One that had just happened. Personally I thought of it as somewhat of a huge joke. Like for some reason humans had been just some sort of a 'test.' 'Back to normal!' I thought whimsically.
And it felt nothing short of a fantasy. I could have cared less about the rest of the world at that moment, taken up with my new self...
"Hey!" came a harsh, forced voice.
I stopped prancing about in the grass, looking about. I noticed for the first time that I couldn't see as well at night as I could before. I saw well enough to get where I was going, but beyond several yards it was blurry blackness. And the moon was better than half-full! Thank goodness I had such acute vision in the light to make up for it.
"Aat?" I asked, finding I still couldn't pronounce some things with my beak. It was going to take some effort before I could adapt to talking fully again -- assuming it was possible at all.
I couldn't see anyone, and was waiting for them to speak so I could pinpoint their location.
"What kinda bird you?" the voice was gruff and sounded almost mean. It was off to my left, probably behind some bushes and trees. I backed off a step or two, unsure as whether to be scared or calm. Fight or flight!
"Uhh," I started.
"Sorry," the voice said again. A shape moved from beyond the trees, and a patch of brown fur emerged from between two junipers. It was what looked like a huge rat. When we saw each other, we both gasped in recognition of the other. Predator and prey.
But was it to be in this Changed state?
The rat held up his paws, stepping back, whiskers quiverring and a look of fear in his black eyes.
"Oh, don't urly! I loln't eat ya," I managed to say.
There was a long pause, but finally the rat seemed to accept that. "Hawk?" he asked, tentatively.
Another pause. "What are you doing?" he asked.
He seemed full of questions.
I was at a loss for any exciting explanation. "Alt lalking. Guess I'm getting used to my neul self."
The rat seemed to understand: "Me too."
We spent a few moments looking at each other. I had a hard time seeing him clearly in the darkness, but I was almost glad, for I was salivating as I examined him. For some odd reason that I couldn't identify, I was made hungry just by the sight of him. I had never had such a reaction to a person before, and what almost frightened me was the pure possibility that I was getting hungry not for some kind of food, but for a person I was talking to! I shook my head, feeling the slight weight of my beak, to try and dispel such thoughts.
I noticed that it didn't take him nearly as much time to figure me out. I suspected his vision was more adapted for the darkness. It was obvious by the way he flinched and stepped back a bit that he'd seen my feet . It was unnecessary to point out that both of us were feeling instincts to a degree now. It was just a matter of allowing them only so much influence on our minds.
In a way it was quite thrilling, to have feelings and urges much stronger than any before, that welled up from deep inside somewhere. To have instincts that directed you and made you feel a certain way. At other times, like now, it was disturbing to think that they were going against every ethical lesson you'd learned as a human.
I pushed it aside, and extended a wing-arm very slowly, "I'm Jared."
Ever so cautiously, the rat came forward and extended a short arm which terminated in a paw. "Frank," he announced.
Not actively grasping his paw, I let him touch a long toe-like finger and we carefully 'shook' hands.
A moment of truce, perhaps, between Hawk and Mouse. An incredible and unbelievable step. My mind was dizzied by the idea. I didn't know how to feel, being a Hawk doing what I was doing. I almost felt like some kind of ambassador for a nation of species.
"Isn't this crazy?" I asked, lowering my wing-arm.
Frank started to laugh, which sounded very peculiar. "Very!"
We both felt more at ease, and with that, after a moment of identity, we began walking towards nowhere.
It figured that there was no stores open in town. First, it was rather late, and second, nobody was quite themselves. Frank and I talked quite a bit, needing a friend more than anything.
"...it's really strange, this whole thing," Frank was saying. "Every person in the world, halfway turned into an animal. I wonder what did it? Some kind of wierd radiation from the sun?"
I chuckled slightly, "I don't know. But halfway wouldn't be quite right."
Incidentally, I had figured out how to approximate sounds I knew before and was speaking a little more legibly. Birds' didn't have the same kind of voice-making ability that humans do. I now had a syrinx, in addition to a now smaller and noiseless larynx. I paused to consider all the stuff I'd read about birds. It amused me to think that they could now almost classify as a medical encyclopedia for myself.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, earlier on I somehow turned into a Hawk all the way."
"What's 'all the way' mean?" Frank stopped, his black eyes looking puzzled.
I turned and looked at him. Noticing his tension build with my gaze, I quickly looked another direction. "I mean completely, as in the real thing."
"Woah, how did you do it?"
"I honestly don't know. I was thinking about it, and all of a sudden I just 'felt' like I knew how."
Frank looked up towards the faint stars. I did the same, trying to consider all the possibilities. A cool breeze blew up and I felt its touch on the feathers of my neck. I closed my eyes and let myself feel the wind. I was reminded of flying. I felt a great euphoria then, realizing that I could. Tomorrow... I promised myself.
"Are you happy being what you are now?"
I sensed a hint of unhappiness in his voice. "Well, I've only been this way for about a day, but I would say so."
"I can tell. I was watching you standing there. Can you fly?"
"Not like this," I admitted, looking back at him.
"When you're completely a bird?"
He looked saddened.
"What is it?"
"Nothing, just that... I would have loved to be a bird, too."
I suddenly realized how lucky I was. The reality hit me full force and I knew I had been fortunate. The random nature of the Change was beginning to make itself known. If he knew of my long history admiring birds, it would have been worse.
"I'm sorry..." I said.
He didn't say anything, but a thoughtful expression came into his eyes after a while. "I wonder if I can do it too?"
"Fly?" I asked, my mind lost in thought elsewhere.
His teeth bared in a grin, "No, you birdbrain! You know, change completely."
"Oh," I said, feeling dumb. An old insult with new meaning! I wondered just exactly what my brain was like now. Some odd combination of the two? More bird than human? I felt instincts, much more than any gut feeling before, but I could still reason fully and think about complex things. I didn't feel much different mentally, really. I was still me. But new thoughts kept rising to the surface and I couldn't ignore them.
Frank lowered himself to the ground, his face twisted up into some strange expression of concentration. "Errrh!"
"Uh, Frank?" I asked.
He opened his eyes. "What?"
"I don't think that's how you do it."
"Well how then?"
"I don't know. I was just wishing... I can't fly like I am now, and someone, er, somebird flew by. So I started wishing I could have just changed all the way. And that's when I hit upon the weird mental wall."
The rat's eyes lost their focus, and I could tell he was trying somehow to replicate my story.
I was surprised when all of a sudden he said, "There! I can feel something!"
"Really? Okay, now just 'push' on it. Just let yourself feel like what you think it's like to be a normal rat."
And right before my eyes, he began to shrink and rather quickly became a normal, average, ...appetizing, delicious, savory, juicy, plump rat.
I closed my eyes and put my wing-arms to my head and tried to get ahold of myself. "Whoah, what just happened there?"
I heard a series of faint squeaky noises and looked down. The rat was running around in circles and apparently excited about something.
I couldn't get over my uncontrollable desire to catch and eat it. It was totally unexpected. I'd never felt that way about any kind of food. I was ravenous.
"Frank, change back!" I told him.
Another couple of squeaks and the rat looked up. Then a really loud squeak and the rat bolted for a nearby bush.
I resisted the immediate impulse to run after him, and reminded myself that it wasn't just a rat. It was my new friend. Crazy as it might seem.
I realized as I analyzed my feelings that I was still hungry. I hadn't eaten enough before -- what with all the excitement, and it had been a while anyway. I wondered if there was anything left in the fridge at home I could eat.
A figure emerged from the bushes, considerably larger than the one that had vanished into them. Frank was in Morph again.
"Holy hell is all I gotta say," he muttered.
The way he said it, I wanted to break into laughter, but there was a serious edge to it. "What was it like?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"Well, it was pretty cool, actually. I felt like I could go anywhere. I mean, I was so small and fast! But then I heard you, looked up, and realized I smelled bird. I never felt so scared in my whole life. It was like someone had lit a fire under my tail. I mean, somewhere I knew it was just you, but I totally felt like I was going to die."
I nodded in agreement, "I know what you're talking about. I was so hungry when I saw you I had to fight myself to not do anything. That was me telling you to shift back. I have got to somehow learn how to deal with these new feelings."
I could tell Frank felt less comfortable around me. The knowledge that your best friend had wanted to kill you was definitely cause for concern.
"I'm sorry, Frank, I would never intentionally hurt you," I offered, hoping it would make him feel better.
"No, it's okay, really. I have a lot to find out, too."
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
"Starved, actually," he admitted.
"Let's go to my place and see what we can find."
So we walked back to my apartment, a little more tension between us, but at the same time, more understanding.
Taking a different route, I found some tree trimmings that some people had in their front yard. I figured they wouldn't mind if I took a large branch from it at about one in the morning. It was hard finding just the right size. After all, I had no idea just how big my feet really were -- until I started checking them out. They were a good foot long from the tip of my longest front toe to the talon on my hallux. When I curled a foot up, it made a circle about five or six inches wide. Which meant I was looking for a pretty big branch.
I couldn't see very well in the dark, but with Frank's help we finally managed to locate a suitable size...tree trunk. Apparently the trees that had been pruned weren't that big. And it was rather lucky that everything had been cut into seven or eight foot sections. I hefted the largest piece up and carried it along. It was fairly straight so I'd have to mount it on some kind of stand or other, but at the moment wasn't too worried.
I showed him my apartment, explaining the huge hole in the kitchen wall. I took the tree trunk into my bedroom, trying to decide what to do with it while Frank rummaged around in the refridgerator. I returned to find him eating Captain Crunch and drinking a glass of milk.
It was a funny sight, this large rat perched atop a stool with a box of cereal on his lap. It felt like I'd walked in on some commercial shoot for a bizarre advertisement.
My laugh sounded like a couple of mutated chirps. "Is that good?" I asked.
"Actually it is," he said, taking a drink and dribbling milk all over his fur. "This isn't easy," he explained, reaching for a paper towel, "drinking with a muzzle like mine."
"You should try a beak."
He laughed, and shoved a paw into the box again.
I started looking around for things that looked appetizing, but found that almost nothing did. Only meat. In a way I felt disturbed by that. Switching from omnivore to exclusive carnivore was not something I had quite prepared for, at least with my mind still considering things like fruit and bread to be food. Curiously, I grabbed a slice of bread and tore into it with my beak. Frank didn't seem to notice the peculiarity of it all.
I let my tongue moisten it for a bit, trying to taste it, but could only feel its odd texture. I decided what the heck, and promptly swallowed it. Another new aspect of myself: The swallowing of things without first chewing them.
After a moment, I began to feel a bit queasy. I wasn't sure bread was going to be on the menu anymore.
So I looked in the fridge and found some hamburger meat; not much, really, and I was afraid it was too old.
"Eww!" Frank exclaimed, smelling it. "That stinks."
"Like it's old?" I asked, holding it like it was about to explode.
"I'm not sure. My nose is so sensitive to everything. I can smell your breath across the room."
"And?" I asked, prying the humor from him.
"Well, you've got bird breath."
I took the hamburger to the opposite counter and opened it cautiously. It didn't look old. I poked it with a taloned finger. It didn't feel funny. I discovered I was salivating again. My mind was full of confusing thoughts. Dozens of reminders from my mom about how raw meat was full of bad things like bacteria. An incredible urge from my body to just dig in. It was pinkish in color, and looked both disgusting and delicious. I huffed a breath of indecision. I was hungry and there was nothing else.
I was unsure exactly how to go about eating it. All my silverware was pretty much out of the question. I didn't exactly feel like tearing it to pieces with my fingers, so I stuck my beak down and tore off a chunk. This time I got a much different feeling than that the bread had produced. I swallowed and felt immediate satisfaction. It was like somewhere in my throat I knew what stuff was. Of course; my crop.
Frank had accidentally looked up, and quickly turned around, my eating habits apparently not in his best interest.
I finished what little was left of the meat, and threw away the wrapper. I felt much better, and the hunger I'd felt around Frank went away.
"You know what?" I began, "You can have pretty much whatever you want around here." I gestured towards the cabinets and fridge.
Frank seemed lost for words.
"I mean, it's no good to me now. That bread I ate made me feel sick. So you might as well take what I don't want."
He realized the truth in it, and started going through the rest of my kitchen. I cleaned up some of the debris from the hole in the wall, and peered again into Eric's apartment. Still nothing.
Then I noticed something. His bathroom was just down his hall a bit, but I could see into it well enough to see a scale. He'd left some lights on, so I had no doubts about it.
I figured he wouldn't mind if I just checked it out for a second. So I wandered over and stood on the scale, taking a moment to get my toes to agree on where they wanted to be.
I was startled at the needle's position. I jumped a bit to see if maybe it was stuck or something, but it didn't move much. 85 pounds? Half what I weighed before... I blinked and made sure I was completely on the stupid thing. Still 85.
Well, unless Eric's scale was broken... Yee-hah! I felt a happiness and bounded back to my own apartment, turning off Eric's lights on the way.
Frank was still looking through my cupboards, and I couldn't have cared less. I needed to clean them anyway. I felt very excited about everything. It was a whole dawn of Change.
"Bird bird bird... Bird is the word... do dee dah dah..." I found myself singing. Like most songs, I didn't know all the words.
I decided since there was nothing else to do, to start going through the place and sorting what I could and couldn't use now. Frank helped and we had a lot of laughs about things.
"Look, Frank! A hairbrush!"
"Hey, I might be able to use that."
"Here you go."
"Oh look," he said, amused, "toothbrush!"
He tossed it into the garbage.
I laughed, "this is great!"
He nodded, pulling another drawer from my bathroom.
I stood up and turned on the stereo, letting the DVD changer play whatever was in.
"Hmm," Frank looked puzzled, "deoderant?"
I cocked my head at it, then decided it was certainly no good to me. "I don't care."
He tossed it, too.
And so it went, we were having fun mocking all the stuff we used to need. I felt a renewed joy in myself and the things we'd been missing. Things that animals had all along.
At one point, I got a sick feeling that maybe this was all just temporary. Maybe in a couple of days I'd wake up and be human again. I thought about bringing it up, but decided against it. That was too awful a thing to think about.
We cleaned the entire apartment of all non-bird things, except for stuff I'd still want like books and my music collection, timing it all to the beat of Crash Test Dummies. Then things slowed down a bit and I put some Enya in, trying to get over the excitement. It was very easy to get caught up in the euphoria of it all.
Finally, Frank and I retired to the living room where I turned on the TV. He sat on my sofa, a feat that didn't seem to bother his long slender tail. I laid down on the floor, quite content and comfortable.
We watched the news, which apparently repeated the same stuff over and over. Nothing new had been discovered about the Change, only that it had happened everywhere and suddenly. Apparently young kids hadn't Changed, though. They were still completely human. Babies were still human. I was confused, wasn't this supposed to be the end of all humanity? Wasn't this our extinction? A rebirth? That had just been my opinion, anyway.
I zeroed in on what was being said.
"...so it remains unclear at this point as to whether they will go on to continue human DNA or if they will one day Change, as we did, in this brave new world.
"Thanks, Deena. In local news, a number of reports have come in about people going berzerk, apparently in response to the Changes they've underwent. Everything from crazed destruction of private property to complete disappearance. It has been estimated that not everyone retains their human mind. Apparently in some extreme cases the person in question succumbs completely to the animal's mind and body which they resemble. We'll have more details on this later."
The reporter was a big yak, which I thought was rather fitting, but I was too interested in the story to think much about it.
"To recap once again, for those who have not, for some strage reason, noticed: All humans in the world have genetically and physically transformed into a new hybrid species that appears in all rights to be a cross of human and animal DNA. So far, every conceivable species has been seen except insect and other invertebrates. This includes some rare cases of otherwise extinct species. The cause for this Change is as yet unknown. Worldwide panic has been incredibly avoided, and while there are many localized disturbances and social concerns, there has been relative peace. Again, young children do not seem to be affected by this phenomenon, and retain their human features.
"In a message from the President yesterday, it is advised to remain calm, and be assured that scientists from around the world are at work on trying to answer some of your questions.
"No patterns have been found nor have any exceptions to the rule. There has been some initial findings on what appear to be 'special powers,' but no concrete evidence yet. As always TNC will keep you informed."
The newscast continued, showing unusual scenes from around the world. The most crowded cities and the impossible-looking array of species on the sidewalks. Some unusual shots of a vulture-morph alone in the desert, a polar-bear morph that had been on assignment in the Antarctic, and a group of horse-morphs who had found each other and formed a 'herd.'
Then some interviews started. The media was fast! No one family had changed into the same thing. And not everyone had changed into what they thought they should have. Some hadn't really considered ever changing into anything, and didn't really care, apparently. Then there were those that wouldn't exactly be considered animal lovers, and they hated what had happened. I felt sorry for them. There were a few people who were very depressed for other reasons, like they had always wanted to be one thing and wound up as something else. I was reminded of Frank, who seemed absorbed in what was being said. Finally, there were a couple of interviewees that couldn't have been happier. They'd got what they always wanted. There was a horse-morph and a cougar-morph. I would have fit nicely into that category.
So the Change was for the most part random. I felt very relieved that I was what I was. It could have been very different. I was quite grateful.
A commercial came on then the news was repeated. We turned off the TV.
"So are you okay about things?" I wanted to know if he was still a bit disappointed.
"Yeah. I'm liking things better as time goes."
"Say, how did you wind up out on that corner? Do you live around here?"
"Actually, no. I was driving an all-nighter from Phoenix to my parents' house in Montana. It was about five or six in the morning yesterday when I started getting really sick. So I pulled into town thinking I'd just stop and rest at a convenience store or something. But the lady that was running the place was starting to get really crazy about something. Her face was getting all contorted. It was really unnerving. Finally, she started to look like some kind of bat, and started running around wildly. She was breaking things and screaming nonsense.
"I got out of there before I knew what was happening. Then I started noticing the same kind of thing was happening to me. I started getting scared and ran off, but eventually collapsed behind someone's house. I didn't know where I was and actually, I was more concerned about what I was. I guess you were going through the whole Change routine, too?"
"Yeah," I agreed. I explained to him briefly how I'd woke up and started turning into a Hawk.
"Sounds a lot nicer to me," he mused. "Anyway, I've been kind of hiding out ever since, because I thought I was one of the only ones. Like some kind of freak accident or something. But I noticed there were more and more people around that looked like animals.
"It was about that time that you came along and I wasn't feeling quite as spooked out." He sipped at the last of the milk that I had.
"Hmm," I contemplated things. My brain was getting too much of a workout. This was the kind of stuff I figured advanced trig would have in store.
I checked the time. 4:00 A.M. Geeze, I was never going to get back to normal. I thought jokingly, if I'd been an Owl I wouldn't be so concerned!
"Well, Frank, it's all right with me if you stay here for a while. I've come to think of you as a good friend."
"Hey, thanks a lot."
Suddenly I was reminded of Tiffani. I needed to call her. Without thinking about it, I picked up the phone and dialled her number. Again, I had to try a couple of times because I slipped using my long talons.
Finally, it rang.
"Hello?" the voice didn't sound all that sleepy. Or all that strange, either.
"Hello. Sorry to be calling so late, is Tiffani there?"
"Oh, yeah, hang on." It sounded a lot like her mom. I wondered what she'd turned into. It didn't have any 'accent' as to provide a clue.
"Hello?" came a new but familiar voice. I sensed an odd whine to it.
"Tiffani?" I asked.
"Um, Jared?" she asked back.
"Hey, how are you?" she said excitedly, as though we hadn't talked for ages.
"More like what am I..." I answered.
"Yes, of course... I meant that," she was falling all over herself.
"Yep. An official Red-tailed Hawk."
"Oh my gosh, isn't that... I mean, woah. That's cool!" She sounded quite happy for me.
"What about you? I can't figure it out."
"Oh, I'm a fuzzball. A grey wolf, actually."
"What's Benjamin think of you?"
Benjamin was her white rat.
"I ate him."
"No you didn't."
"You're right," she giggled, which sounded rather funny. "I didn't. But what's Sky think of you?"
"She thinks she died and went to bird hell or something. There's giants running around all of a sudden."
We laughed together and I decided I wanted to see her again. Especially now that we were Different.
"Hey," I said, an idea suddenly coming to me, "we could do a remake of LadyHawke!"
"Yeah, and you're quite a lady, too!" she giggled again.
"Huh? Oh, nevermind. You know what I meant."
She just laughed some more.
"I just had to know, sorry for calling so late," I apologized.
"That's okay. I haven't been able to sleep much anyway."
"Yeah, me either. Except I'm going to try and get back on a regular daytime schedule."
"Okay. See you tomorrow?"
"Sure," I agreed.
"Goodnight!" she said, sounding rather happy.
"'Night," I echoed, and hung up.
Frank was looking at me quizically.
"My girlfriend," I said.
He smiled. "That's really cool!" Then he seemed to think for a few minutes as I turned off the rest of the stereo and TV system. "Hey, wait a second."
"Huh?" I asked, looking over my back at him.
He started. "Yipes! That's really bizarre."
"You looking at me like that."
"Huh? Oh. Sorry," I turned the rest of me around. "Guess I'm just getting used to being a bird." Another attempt to smile failed, so I shrugged my wing-arms.
"What were you saying?" I asked.
"I mean, if she's a Wolf and you're a Hawk, well... you know..."
He stopped dramatically, an odd tone in his voice. It didn't take me long to catch on. And when I did, the same confusion hit me.
"Cripes. I don't know... Now you've got my brain twisted another time around."
"I think we'd better get some sleep."
"Yeah," I admitted. "Want to help me with my perch?"
We returned to the place of my Change, to examine the perch situation. I looked around for some kind of way to attach a log, basically, to a couple of things that would be high enough yet sturdy enough to support me. I considered a couple of chairs, but didn't know how to keep it from rolling back and forth.
Finally, Frank appeared with a hammer and some really huge nails (I still don't know where he found them). "Anything goes?" he asked.
"Uhh, to a point, I guess." I really wanted to get a perch up since my feet were desperately wanting to curl. I began to get an idea of what he had in mind.
He hefted the log up and put an end on my bedpost. Then he started pounding a nail into it. So far, so good. Then I realized the log was the right length to go from one end of the bed to the other. And the bedposts were strong and square. Perfect! I helped him nail the other end down, putting a few nails in each side, until the perch was as sturdy as a rock.
Eagerly, I hopped up to it, and immediately fell in love.
"I may never leave this spot!" I declared, elated. My toes curled around the rough bark and it felt great. I let myself balance and felt my own weight keep my grip. It was a new experience, to a point. I remembered perching somewhere else...
My dreams? Oh, no, it was earlier on, when I'd become a normal Hawk. The lawnmower handle. But it was too small and slippery. It hadn't been the same.
Then my thoughts sorted out and I remembered waking up after my 'crash.' Suddenly I started remembering little details about the approaching wall and the imminent crash.
It became clear to me in one half second. I'd passed through that wall. I don't know how, but I'd done it.
Frank noticed I seemed more than content with the new perch, and left the room with a subtle "Goodnight."
As the lights turned out and I settled down into my natural coat of feathers, the comfort of tree bark under my feet; I let my mind come up with as many ideas as it wanted about everything, because as far as I was concerned, I was too tired to care.
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