It was 12:15 when I began my first solo cross-country drive. Marisa hadn't been joking or exaggerating about not being able to drive herself. According to her, she was the same height she'd always been, but a lot more of it was body and a lot less was leg. That made her too tall for the car if she sat up in the seat and wouldn't let her reach the pedals unless she put her rear end in the floorboard. To make matters worse, she didn't really have any place to put her tail. Finally, she decided to lie down in the back seat. In some places, people with appropriate powers had reconfigured things like that, but that service was unavailable in Searcy. As for me, my tail was accomodated a lot more easily just by moving it to the side. I couldn't lean back long, but no matter -- I was on the edge of my seat anyway.
Marisa kept having to stop for water. She preferred salt, but found that fresh was adequate. I didn't object; it was hard for me to stay seated for very long. Even my tail got tired after a while.
Arkansas seemed pretty much the same as it had before, partly because there weren't many towns in the northeastern part. The people I saw mostly looked like they had at least resigned themselves to the Change, and a few even seemed downright happy about it. But on the other side of the Mississippi, things began to change.
Here and there, smoke rose over the treeline. I detoured around the withered shell of Memphis (which had never really recovered after the Plague), but it made no difference. Burned-out houses began to appear. Sometimes the buildings had also been crushed. Twice, I saw houses that seemed to have exploded. Near the second, a small head on a long neck browsed placidly and stupidly on the treetops. The apatosaur didn't even glance at our passing.
"My God," came a voice from the back seat. "I don't like the look of this at all."
"This is no time or place to take God's name in vain," I warned.
She stared me in the eye in the rear-view mirror. "Who said that's what I did?"
As we traveled deeper into the area, the amount of destruction gradually increased, more and more homes and places of business wrecked. In some places, abandoned cars were scattered on the roadway, some virtually intact, others totalled. Marisa surmised that the drivers had gone on on foot. There had been some places where most of the people had left, concerned that the stores would soon run out of food and supplies. Most of the towns here were tiny affairs, little more than clusters of a few houses and a truck-stop/grocery store where roads crossed.
The last place we had stopped to get water for Marisa, the cashier had stared at us as if we were crazy. "You people," she declared, "are the only people I've seen going further into Tennessee." But she pointed us toward the makeshift racks they had made to sell bottled breathing water from, and even pointed out a water heater. "Most fish morphs are cold-blooded. You wouldn't want to dry out that skin of yours at night with a regular heater, would you?" Marisa looked at it sceptically -- it seemed to be someone's new design -- but bought it anyway. Now that I thought of it, I had seen her shivering before while the air conditioner was running. I was broiling, myself. The cashier shook her head at us and shouted, "You don't realize how lucky you've been so far!" as we pulled away and continued northeast. But it wasn't until Union City that we finally understood exactly what was going on.
The first sign of trouble was the fireball that suddenly blocked the road ahead. Blazing white, it engulfed the trees and fence on both sides of the road. I spun the wheel, veering onto the median, but it was far too late. The brakes squealed a ragged protest, then locked. Rear end sliding forward, we skidded helplessly into the inferno. I waited for the inevitable alcohol-tank explosion.
Only, it didn't come. The tank didn't erupt. Fire surrounded us without so much as warming the metal on the door or singing my whiskers. I realized I was screaming, and stopped. Realized I wasn't the only one. Then Marisa stopped, too, as the flames vanished.
"An illusion," I wheezed, as a small army of animal-forms stepped out of the trees and into view. My voice sounded strangely quiet. Reaching up, I found that I had instinctively rolled my ears into tight cylinders and flattened them against my head. The motor died. I twisted the key and pumped the accelerator. No response. I locked the doors with the front switch.
A low-degree bobcat morph moved forward, gesturing to a medium rabbit-type to follow. The latter raised a megaphone.
"Get out of the car." Well, I knew why abandoned cars were lying around now. Uh-oh... they're going to try and rob us. Well, I'm not going to be that much of a fool. As he spoke, some kind of mental wall coalesced in my head, slamming down so hard I almost didn't hear the back-door lock come undone. I flicked the lock switch again, turning in my seat.
"Hey, punks! I said out of the car!" Marisa, a peculiar glint in her eyes, popped the lock again and grabbed for the door handle. What the? With my tail on the switch, I still barely managed to lock it in time. I wasn't used enough to using it yet.
"OUT!!" They were closing in. That mental barrier wavered. The door unlocked. I locked it again. If they pushed any harder... On what? With what? One of those powers?
But the rabbit-morph didn't bother trying again. Maybe he's reached his limit... fingers crossed. The whole group suddenly rushed forward and started pounding on the clear plastic windows. I spun in my seat and tried the ignition again. Nothing happened. We're dead. Are we ever dead. Through a brief gap in the crowd, I saw the bobcat standing aside, concentrating. Blocking the car's systems somehow. They're gonna have us for breakfast. Maybe literally, the way some of these people looked.
I pounded the dash; turned the key again. I can't give up. Something in the back of my mind gibbered, trying to spread black across my field of vision -- my instincts, trying to make me pass out and play dead. No! I won't make it that easy for them! I filled myself as full of cold determination as I could and turned the key yet again. And again. Spider-web cracks filled one of the back-door windows. Then my window. I screamed again, as much in fury as in fear. Marisa screamed again. It was hopeless. No it isn't! I'm not gonna let them kill me! I turned the key.
The engine roared to life.
Not about to let a lucky break pass me by, I yanked the gear shift and mashed on the pedal. Some of the desperate mob fell off the car. I swerved, sending more flying but nearly losing control of the vehicle. A high-degree skunk morph was still clinging to the front. Refusing to bow to either biology or common sense, this one had shaved the top of his head. No matter how I swung the car around he held on. Another power, for all I knew. I didn't dare risk higher speeds with him blocking my view.
"Watch out!" Marisa pointed at another fireball ahead of me. Smaller, and red. I ignored it. Major error.
A horrendous smack! nearly shattered the passenger-side windshield and sent cracks across to my side. Howling and burning, the skunk fell away. What with the broken plastic, my view didn't improve all that much. I accelerated anyway. The mirrors showed the gang's survivors falling behind.
"How'd you do that?" Marisa almost whispered.
"The fireball? You don't think I made the thing?"
"No, no, no! Starting the car!"
"I turned the key. We were lucky."
"Uh-uh. That guy hadn't let up. I saw him out the back, still trying to shut us down."
"Well, you must have done it. I didn't lift a finger. Mentally or otherwise."
"Me? I... well, maybe I did. You don't have the sense to dodge a fireball."
"I thought it was a fake! And you're the one who nearly got out of the car back there and got us both killed!"
"He was mind-controlling me somehow, or didn't you notice?" I had, sort of, but I hadn't fully realized how strong it was. That wall... maybe I was immune somehow. "And as for the fireball being a fake, it's my car you risked! And wrecked!"
"Should I drop you off here or keep going? Your car, your choice."
She shut up. And of course, I immediately began to feel guilty. Irrational... I wasn't that great a driver, and with both the cracked windshield and her shouting, I might get us killed... but that didn't stop me.
Now that we had passed Union City, we were only about an hour from my home. To our relief, as we traveled into Kentucky the signs of violence grew less frequent. They didn't disappear altogether, though. Once we passed an Army caravan, which stopped us to ask where we were going and what we had seen. The officer just shook his feathered head when he heard about our encounter. "There's more than just that one gang of bandits out there, and a lot of them have Powers at least that dangerous, if not more." There was that capitalization again, the same as people had started using for "the Change." "You should never have come through this area," he said, "but there's no real danger ahead now."
The sun was still fairly high when I finally took us off the parkway and onto the back roads that would lead into Benton near my house. There were still occasional signs of some destruction, probably results of the Change itself, but no more than I had seen when I first left Searcy. I woke Marisa, who had dozed off, to let her know we had arrived.
Not long after, we entered the zone of trailer parks and housing developments that marked the real boundary of Benton. Officially, the city limits were a couple of miles further on; many of the families who lived here on the edge were blacks who had moved here in the wake of the Plague, and the well-to-do white families further in wanted Benton schools kept clear of "troublemakers." Working-class whites like my own family generally agreed for their own reasons, but they weren't the ones with the muscle to do the job. No one actually lived in squalor, but the houses and trailers were small and tightly packed, and their residents looked a touch ragged. Local authorities would point out that less than have of the people here were black, and that they were no worse off than the poorer whites in Benton proper. So far, that had been enough to stave off federal attention. It was a bizarre arrangement by pre-Plague standards -- the slums on the outside -- but naturally no one wanted to leave the more pleasant surroundings that had already been constructed in the interior. It was really only an institutionalization of the way things had been right after the Plague, and it wasn't entirely alone among medium-sized Southern towns in looking this way.
Some of the farmers here had refused to sell, leaving patches of rural land inside the maze of developments. My own family was one; our house was on the inner border of the "Flatwoods Strip," a sort of redneck hunting preserve marking the inside boundary of the poorer section. Inside that was an area of quasi-rural land where the well-off had built large, relatively isolated houses (most of the remaining room for expansion lay along the highways out of town), and at the center lay the older section of town where the middle class lived--somewhat crowded, but nothing like the outer edge. That arrangement, unlike the outermost ring, was endemic to this area, the result of the sudden influx of money after the TVA started building dams. Suddenly the area had had reliable electricity, and then Land Between the Lakes had started pulling in tourist dollars...
I was still explaining all this to Marisa, who looked horrified, when I turned into the driveway of my house. Halfway down, I realized that no one was home, but I continued anyway to see what things looked like.
Evidently the dogs and cats were drifting away from the house, having to hunt for food, but otherwise the outside looked normal. The inside told another story. The couch cushions in the living room were slashed, with stuffing strewn on the floor. My parents' bedroom was wrecked, and water from the torn mattress had soaked the rug, leaving mildew everywhere.
I stumbled back into the living room and inhaled, hoping to get the mildew smell out of my nose. And only then realized that the dark brown stains on the couches were blood.
After throwing up outside, I forced myself to go back in and check the rest of the house. The kitchen was a mess, dishes scattered everywhere, but the dining room and my brother's and sisters' bedrooms were untouched.
Marisa laid a hand on my shoulder, making me jump. "Are you ok?"
"No," I mumbled. "I'm not. I'd better get to the hospital to find out about my family."
The family car was a bit old, but it was in better shape now than Marisa's, so I drove it instead. The locals had gotten on with their lives, I saw as I crossed town, but many people still looked shell-shocked. Here and there, a person wandered through their lawn in a daze, under the cautious eyes of family or friends. Small buses, which I knew but could no longer see were filled mostly with blacks, maneuvered through the cars, taking the occupants home. "Pollution-restriction" laws limiting the number of cars allowed in the city limits were still on the books from the post-Plague years, when only the locals had had cars to drive. During the worst of the Plague years, things had gotten so desperate that people had burned nearly everything they had, even money, because it was or might be contaminated. For refugees from the cities, it hadn't paid to buy a car; for many of their next generation, it still didn't. For quite a few Marshall Countians, bending the Bill of Rights had become an art form.
I pointed this out to Marisa. It wasn't pleasant ragging on my hometown, but she needed to know what to expect. "What are these people?" she exclaimed, refusing to look at me.
"Afraid," I explained. "Until the dams, everyone here was poor. Change was really slow, and everything stayed small-town or rural. They watched the cities get worse and worse, and for Southerners that was easy to blame on blacks. After the dams flooded Birmingham... here, not in Alabama, of course... which was mostly black, they ran the rest of them out. And no more came in until the Plague. People here think they can exclude crime and unrest by excluding blacks, and they'll cling to that even now, as long as they can manage it."
"I thought the sixties... Woodstock and all that... was about that sort of thing. Not that I usually think of hippies and all that as being a good thing -- my family's pretty solid conservative -- but at least those years made people realize that we all have to work together and get over our prejudices to make the world better."
"Look around you, Marisa. Do you really think any of these people -- the locals, anyway -- went to Woodstock? What rebellion goes on here is redneck style. I don't know many people here who approve of anything at all connected to the sixties. And yes, even after all this time, they're still the locals and the others are still outsiders. That's how it works here."
"What made you different?"
"Don't know. Outside contamination, I guess. Spent too much time in Louisville hospitals, read too much, paid too much attention to the Bible. And even I don't pretend to have escaped it entirely. Though I'm not entirely alone, you understand. There are some people, mostly those with a good education, who realize that kind of attitude is wrong. Just not a majority."
She didn't answer. I had realized by now that was a sign that she was upset. "If you... were black, don't let on. They'll never notice."
"I'm part Hopi. Used to be enough to show."
I smiled grimly. "They won't care about that. You're not black, and to them, here, that's all that counts." This might be the only place in the South where that was true, but it was.
As we pulled into the hospital parking lot, a Camaro shot by playing rap music loud enough to rattle windows. Marisa gave me a peculiar look. "Have you been pulling my leg all this time? If so, it's not a very funny sort of joke."
"Since when, Marisa, have you ever seen prejudice make sense?"
The hospital complex was adequate for a small town, and no more than that. Hopefully, that meant my parents were more or less ok, or they wouldn't have still been here. Unless they don't think there's anything further they can do. I shook my head to clear it -- I didn't want to think about things like that! -- and hurried in through the front door and asked a dog-woman at the desk about Gary and Melinda Evans.
"You're their son?"
"Yeah. His stepson, actually."
"Um... very well." She fumbled with the mouse, apparently searching through hospital files. I couldn't understand why she needed to. My mother had worked here once; we'd lived in the town for years. Besides, the hospital was never full; any serious cases were sent out of town before long. "I'm not sure..."
"I know they're here; you called me last night!"
"Well, sir... I'm not in charge of... I mean, I don't make the phone calls. That's another department entirely."
"Where are they? I want to see my parents!"
"I... well, she's in 243, but..."
"That's enough!!" This bureaucratic imbecile was standing on my last nerve. I had been having too many unpleasant shocks lately. "I'll find out where he is from her." I stomped off through the doors. Marisa didn't follow. At the moment, I didn't care.
Within five steps, a nurse grabbed my arm. "Sir, visiting hours are..."
"I don't care about your visiting hours! I've come all the way from Arkansas to see my family and you are not stopping me!"
To her credit, in my eyes anyway, she allowed me to go on. Well, after notifying the head nurse of the situation. I made myself stop and knock before going in. "Mom?"
A strange-looking bird-morph answered the door. Well, not that strange; the color pattern was fairly normal, brown on the back and wings, white on the front. But the head was disproportionately large, and the beak even more so, not much smaller than the rest of the head. Whoever it was, it had an ungainly look to it.
"Well -- hello there! Come on in!" There was a peculiar note to the voice, but there was no mistaking Grandad. Of course he would be here, or Granny would. I hugged him tight, and he hugged back.
Otherwise, the room was quiet. I stepped forward into the semi-darkness. I could smell disinfectant, a little sweat... and a hint of blood. My mother was wearing a nondescript hospital gown. The sheets had been pulled back, and I could see the curly wool that covered her arms and legs, the cloven hooves of her feet, the white muzzle that was her face. Mom as a sheep. I would never have known her. Her scent was familiar, but not enough to recognize her by. She lay quietly on her back, eyelids twitching. Dreaming. She hated that, didn't feel as if she had slept if she remembered it. A deep cut ran along her cheek, marring her face with stitches.
"How is she?"
A deep voice cut in. "Better than when she arrived. And she'll be better still if she isn't bothered. As will Ms. Harris, on the other bed. If you want to talk, step outside, please."
We followed Doctor Willard into the hall. "Your name, please," he asked. The doctor was only vaguely bearlike, with hairy arms and a slight muzzle. I explained to him who I was and what I was doing there so late.
"I see. Well, I can allow you to stay for a short time, provided you don't disturb her. Your grandfather's cot takes up a good bit of space; there's not enough room for another without infringing on the other patient."
"Doctor, please. What happened?"
"Your stepfather took the Change rather poorly. He is confined to a room alone now. Apparently he attacked your mother without any provocation and with no clear notion of what he was doing."
"What about him? He isn't..?"
"Completely changed? Oh, no. About a middle degree, like your mother. The match is highly ironic, in a way, though not really unusual."
"What?" Why couldn't the man get to the point instead of dancing around things?
"Your stepfather is part wolf. If his mental state fails to improve soon, we will be forced to transfer him to Hopkinsville." The mental hospital, he meant. "We are doing all we can. Tomorrow we're beginning a new therapy, for which you should be present, I think. A sort of special skill, or power, on the part of a local woman." Before I could ask more, he hurried off. What was with him? Well, he was probably just busy. I sighed, and slumped down into a chair.
I was here with a girl who seemed to hate my guts, even the Change couldn't cure my hometown's racism, and my stepfather had tried to kill my mother. What else could possibly go wrong?
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