"You make a good possum," Grandad pointed out.
"Thanks, I guess." He was obviously trying to distract me, make me feel better, but I responded anyway. It just might work. "What are you?"
He frowned, or tried to. I had reached the point that I could tell by smell even if not by facial expression. "You don't know?"
"Grandad, most birds look about alike to me. If you were a mammal, that'd be different. But I just don't know. How's Granny?"
"Well, she's all tore up about this, but I guess she's doin' all right. She's at home takin' care of Uncle Robert and the kids." Uncle Robert, his older brother, had lived with them the last few years since their sister Ivy died; they'd managed to take care of each other until then, but now that she was gone, my great-uncle needed someone else to look after him. Anyway, three of my older relatives were all right, relatively speaking, and that was encouraging.
I stayed there with Mom and Grandad for a while. Mom didn't stir, except to move a little in her sleep. I hoped she was all right mentally. Neither she or Dad were the sort of people who would deal well with this. If he'd reacted violently, how had she reacted?
Finally I left, without asking about what the others had become. I'd find out soon enough without subjecting Grandad to any further hardship; he probably wasn't taking it as well as he seemed either. Marisa was still in the lobby, reading a magazine. "Mom's ok, sort of. Dad reacted badly and slashed her up some."
To my surprise, Marisa put her arm around me, just for a moment. Then she pulled away. "I don't think I can stay with my cousins after all. They're all right, but they're all carnivores and they're having trouble finding enough meat to eat. It's expensive enough where they're still getting all the regular shipments."
That was one problem that had already occurred to me, but I hadn't considered it that much. What were all the carnivores going to eat? I'd seen enough to know that few people were really restricted to the diet of their morph animal, but there were some, and even those who weren't tended to prefer their particular sort of food. A brief image of Dad attacking Mom, not just in confusion but in earnest, flickered through my mind and stuck there, and I shuddered.
Back to the immediate problem, now! My grandparents' house would be full. "I...I'll go back home. My room was all right. You can stay there too, or I'll help you find a motel."
"I would but I don't have the money. I guess I'll have to stay with you." She sighed, looking rather put-upon.
"It's only seven or so. I want to see the rest of my family, at my grandparents'." There wasn't much chance I could get in to see Dad. "You can come if you want to."
Before leaving, I managed to wring the time when Dad's procedure would be taking place out of the canine receptionist. So much for the hospitals public relations commercials. Marisa decided she might as well see my family, so we drove back past my house and out of town. A few miles past the project zone, down some winding roads, my grandparents' farm sat nestled in the rolling hills. There were places in this part of Kentucky still where only the paved roads and electric wires were there to tell a person they were still in modern America, at least so long as you didn't go in the houses, and this was one of them.
Ten-year-old Tamara was playing out in front, completely unchanged. She recognized the car, but not me until I spoke. Immediately she was all over me. I was certain she could have dealt with the Change in isolation, but our parents were another matter. What had happened between them had shaken her more than any bizarre phenomenon could have. She put her head in my arms and cried when I told her where I'd been.
To distract her and settle her down, I introduced her to Marisa. Not surprisingly, she took an immediate interest. "You do have a girlfriend!" I couldn't remember how many times I'd had to deny it after breaking up with Cindy; as if general suspicion weren't enough, apparently I'd forgotten some call from my parents that I'd begged off answering because I was going somewhere with a girl.
"Look, little girl," Marisa informed my sister (strike one: calling her a little girl), "after today I wish I'd never seen your brother, and never would." Strike two. That statement immediately convinced Tamara that Marisa was, in fact, my girlfriend; I'd probably never get her to forget the notion after that.
As it happened, my grandmother made a very handsome groundhog. Of course, she immediately threw her arms around me, embarrassing me to no end although I was glad to see her. Family meetings were like that at the best of times, and these were hardly the best.
Doug and Shauna, as usual, were more restrained. Neither wanted to be seen hugging me. I gave my sister a hug anyway, resulting in complaints that I was hurting her wings. She was a cardinal, and disappointed at being yellow and brown. There was something odd about her voice, and it wasn't beak distortion; unlike most bird-morphs I'd seen, she had a rather humanlike mouth, with the beak, such as it was, under her lips. Instead, it was more as if she were making more than one sound at a time. Maybe (I listened closely) as many as three, sometimes.
Doug gave me a slap on the back. I returned it, perhaps a little harder than really necessary. Doug knew I didn't like being slapped on the back after my surgery, and naturally I hadn't told him yet about my "miraculous recovery." He was back to being shorter than me, it seemed, though not by as much; a raccoon morph, he had Changed as much as I had. "Aw, man," he griped, "I need the extra hands more'n you." He was probably right, but I wouldn't give up my hind hands even if I could. They were a little hard to walk on on flat ground, but they made my forehands look as clumsy as paws. No doubt he was imagining himself working an a car with five limbs at once. He was coordinated enough to manage it, maybe, if the Change hadn't taken that away.
Of course, everyone else also assumed that Marisa was my girlfriend. We exchanged looks and groaned in unison. No matter how we tried to explain, they wouldn't stop teasing until I threatened to strangle all four of them at once. They just smiled. I'd probably just convinced them all.
I wasn't surprised to find Uncle Robert inside. He'd lately reached the point of needing a walker to get around, and didn't come out much even in the summer. I gave him a weak smile as I went in. As usual, he was sitting in the comfortable chair near his room watching television. Becoming a chipmunk morph at this point in his life was hard for him, I was sure, but he smiled back at me and mumbled something I couldn't quite catch. As always. Everyone followed me inside.
All the fans were on. My grandparents had never had central air conditioning installed in the old place, so summers were hot and winters cold. They were mostly used to it anyway. When I went to get a drink, everybody else went back out except Marisa, who filled her water bottles again and took a long breath from the sink on top of that.
Back outside, Shauna was in the big tree outside. She proceeded to launch and fly around the yard. The cats went wild, of course, and when she landed she had to kick them off her. Most of them lived in the barn and had gone partly feral some years ago. Her shouts split my sensitive ears; I rolled them up and flattened them to my head the way I had discovered during the disastrous incident on the highway.
As a result, I didn't realize Granny was talking till I saw her mouth move. I unfolded my ears. "Sorry. What?"
"I asked how you were taking... all this." She waved her good arm around; the other had pained her since she broke it a few years ago while out on a walk. Those extra pounds didn't look bad at all on her now.
"Oh, pretty well. It's got its plusses and its minuses, the way everything else does." I sat down in a lawn chair, sticking my tail through the cloth slats. "What about you?"
"'Bout like you, I guess. I just wish we could all have taken it... calmer, you know." A tear glimmered in her eye. I put an arm around her.
"I went to see Mom. She's going to be all right."
She sniffled a little. "I just hope so."
We tried to chat about the usual things. Weather, and how the family and friends were doing, and about their car not working well. (They drove an old-model electric, and it had taken to shorting out lately.)
"Boo!!!" Tamara had snuck up behind me. When I grabbed her with my tail, she jumped higher than I had when she shouted. "You're supposed to play possum, silly!"
"Oh. Sorry." I belatedly obliged her, slumping in the chair. Real possum-playing had caused me trouble in class once, though it didn't try to happen very often. I struggled to hold still why she tickled me, but when one of the smarter cats bit my ankle I kicked it and sat up.
Marisa was engaged in some convesation with Shauna and Doug, no doubt informing them yet again that we were not going out. She was sitting in the grass because of her tail. Doug and Shauna, with her stub of a feathered tail, were in lawn chairs. Shauna was still having some trouble with the cats; so was Doug, though it seemed more a rival thing than a predator-prey thing for him. The cats had no idea what to make of Marisa and left her alone.
Papaw, my dad's father, Granny informed me, was one of those who had been lost in the Change. He had gotten one lucky break, though; as a hummingbird, he wouldn't be handicapped by his crippled legs. For as long as he lived, anyway. He'd been in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and perhaps the Change was something of a mercy on him. Most of my other older relatives were unharmed, as were most of Granny's friends. Her friend Esther, and Aunt Thelma, both very old, had apparently died of shock. Ninety-seven-year-old Lora Meadows, on the other hand, might well have gotten an extension on her lifespan. She was some sort of a large tortoise morph. I resolved to go see her before I left.
Neither Tamara nor Shauna could see very well in the dimming light by this point, and although the rest of us could see fine we allowed them to persuade us to go inside. Marisa was in luck. Granny had made fish-sticks tonight, and there were leftovers. I warmed mine in the microwave, but she didn't bother.
While I was eating, Shauna asked me to take a look at her wings, which were sore. The feel was peculiar; they seemed to be anchored to a second set of shoulders and a sort of extra collarbone that had developed from her ribs. I had heard that something like that was fairly standard, but I hadn't seen another bird-morph with a face anything like hers. As I had noticed, she had a bare fleshy mouth over an internal beak; she also had a remnant of a chin, a nostril-bearing bump where her nose used to be, and small, circular outer ears under the feathers on her face. The effect of this intermediate head was striking, to say the least, but incredibly peculiar. However, there was nothing wrong with her wings that I could see. "They probably just need more exercise."
"Are you sure? They really hurt." There was that peculiar doubling effect again; it had been popping up all through the conversation outside.
"No, I'm not sure. Go see a doctor sometime... or maybe a vet." She made an annoyed sound in her throat somewhere. "Shauna, put your hand on your throat and say something."
"It vibrates, I know. So what?"
"So put one hand on each side of your chest here."
"Why?" But immediately she shifted her hands. "Weird! It does it here too!"
"A bird has a different kind of voice box, Shauna. It's in two parts, and they can work separately. You've got that and your old voice box too, now."
"What does that mean? You mean I can say more than one thing at a time?"
"Oh, great," Doug grumbled. "Think of her phone bill now."
"I don't know for sure. You'll have to practice. But you might be able to say as many as three things at once." That would be something to hear.
She grinned, causing the tip of her beak to stick out. It was almost as if she were sticking out her tongue at me, though I don't think that's what she meant. I grinned back.
"Anyone up for dominoes?" We always did that when I came over. A game now would serve to make this a more normal visit. Doug wouldn't, as usual, but Shauna and Granny agreed. To my surprise, so did Marisa.
"Keeps your mind running," she shrugged.
I lost all three games to Granny and Marisa. By that time it was getting late. I explained that there really wasn't room for me there (obviously, as Doug was already sleeping on the couch), and I was going to stay at our house. Marisa, I said, was staying with a friend in town. I told everyone good night, passed around hugs, and left.
"Bye!/Bye!" Shauna yelled as I climbed into the car. She had found she could easily say the same thing twice at once, in slightly different tones, and was really loving it. I waved as we drove away.
"A friend?" Marisa put in as we left.
"Granny would freak out if I told her I was the friend. She'd automatically assume the wrong thing, even for me."
"You lied," Marisa stated flatly. "You're just the person who borrowed my car." She wouldn't look at me as she said it. I groaned. She wasn't going to let up, was she?
I changed the subject. "I guess I was wrong about myself earlier this week."
"About what? What are you talking about?"
"About the powers I didn't think I had."
"The Powers. Emphasis on the capital." She tried to smirk, finding it difficult as usual.
I rolled my eyes. "The X-Men only have powers; Superman only has powers. We have Powers. Sort of like Lincoln's joke about the Todds needing two 'd's' in their name when even God makes do with one. But the point is, it looks like I have one after all."
"The rabbit and his megaphone." We shuddered together.
"Uh-huh. Somehow, I wasn't affected even though you were. And now that I know about it, I don't think it was the first time."
"Remember Lisa Graham, the frog girl?"
"The one with the train of admirers a mile long?"
"Yeah, her. I think I know how she got them. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but I think she did something with their minds. It didn't work on me." I was remembering the glazed look in the muskrat fellow's eyes, nearly a week ago now.
"I suppose you still think I'm the one who made the car start?"
"All I know is I didn't do anything to it. I'm certain about that. Unless you think one of those scavengers did it, it must have been you."
She shrugged. I didn't press the matter, and we rode on in silence. I wasn't all that happy about my Power anyway. It had been there when I needed it, and it probably would be again, but it wasn't much less boring than not having one at all.
When I got home, I fed the animals and settled down to have a snack for myself before going to bed. Tamara's room had been mine before I left for college; she had messed it up with all sorts of little girl stuff, but I slept there anyway, because the bed was comfortable. Apparently she had taken her cockatiel Spotty to Granny's even though I hadn't seen him there, since his cage was definitely gone.
Of all the places to sleep, Marisa chose the bathtub. Full of water. Apparently she intended to try out the water heater she had bought. As far as I was concerned, the thing was a piece of junk, but she refused to listen to my worries and promptly went to sleep.
I suppose it worked fine, because in the morning Marisa was neither electrocuted nor dead of hypothermia. In fact, she woke me up at the crack of dawn to find breakfast.
"Oh, come on. I'm nocturnal, Miss Lemmons."
"And I'm sure that's why you slept like a log all night. I got up an hour ago. You were still in the same position you lay down in, and you haven't moved since."
"No, I slept all night because I stayed up all day. Now if you want me to find you breakfast, get out so I can find something to wear."
There was some cereal in the cabinet. Unfortunately, the milk in the fridge had spoiled. I ate the cereal dry and drank orange juice. Marisa poured salt water into hers, which apparently made it palatable to her. I hoped she would keep it down.
It was only seven-thirty, still two and a half hours before I was supposed to be at the hospital. After eating, I drained the tub and showered, which woke me up a little. I decided to clean up the house as best I could. With luck, my family would come home soon. I gathered up the strewn dishes, throwing away the broken ones...ad cutting my tail in the process. Digging through the bathroom cabinets, I eventually found some bandages. There was nothing I could do about the shredded couches, but I sprayed mildew remover all over my parents' bedroom. The stuff stung my nose, and I had to quit without doing any scrubbing.
And all that took only an hour or so. I suggested to Marisa that she take her car to get the glass replaced. "I'll pay for it. I've got some money in my checking account." I looked up a place in the phone book and made them out a blank check. Risky, but I couldn't be there to pay them myself, and I trusted Marisa.
I still had nothing to do. I put some more food out for the animals and sat down to read for a while. Somehow, Star Trek novels didn't seem quite the same anymore, so I dug up all the books I could find about vertebrates and brushed up on my taxonomy.
The hour dragged by, and at nine-thirty I decided to leave, though I would certainly arive early. It turned out not to matter.
A more friendly person was waiting at the front desk this time. She informed me immediately that my mother was awake. So of course I took off down the hall to her room, nearly running over a nurse or two. Mom had raised the bed's head somewhat and was talking rather agitatedly with Grandad.
"I still think this must be a dream," she insisted for what sounded like the thirty-seventh time as I hurried in.
"Mom, you told me you never recognize your dreams till you wake up. So you can't be dreaming, now can you?" I engaged in the usual formality of a big hug -- this time, though, with more enthusiasm. Knowing that she was all right made up for a lot of the social discomfort involved.
"Lance! I'm so glad you're home!" I realized, bemusedly, that she was sniffing me to make sure who I was. "This whole week has been so confusing and miserable, I just don't want to admit it's real."
"I understand, Mom. I've been through a lot too." Perhaps not quite as much as she had; I hadn't actually been injured. "Oh, and Grandad? I think I've got it figured out what kind of bird that is."
"Uh? What's that?"
"A kookaburra." He didn't seem to understand me. "You mentioned seeing 'em before. Or hearing them, at least." Still puzzled. "They're also called laughing jackasses." Now he understood.
"Guess it serves me right for goin' to Aw-stray-lia." He always pronounced it that way. It was his way of adding local color to the trips he'd made with the army during the Plague War. He'd served in the Pacific theater, fortunately. Nearly all the medics in the European theater had died. He might be right. There seemed to be a distinctly local theme to the morphs here, though why it was so when it wasn't elsewhere I had no clue. He laughed, and looked as if he were about to start in on a story about the people he'd seen. Not that I'd heard him say anthing new in a long time.
A nurse rescued me. "They're looking for you, Mister Harmon. Down the hall, room 172." She didn't say why, but the significant glance she gave my mother explained a lot. Mom hadn't been told, at least not about this procedure. As I started out, I heard the nurse complaining about the beeper. "Are you sure you're not pressing that button, Mrs. Evans? It's murder on the ears."
The racket at the nurses' station confirmed her words. Memory nagged at me about how, when my mother had been an administrator here, had been told to stay out of the pamphlet-making room, because her presence drove the machines batty. A Power? Then why'd it work then? More likely, just a fluke. I discarded the thought.
I saw the IV tubes first. They were all over the room. Bag after bag stacked on the tables, some full, some empty. Only one was connected, but the fluid was bright green. Something besides nutrient was concentrated in that bag.
It didn't seem to be enough. The figure on the bed thrashed in his sleep, his arms tied down. Gray hair and slight muzzle notwithstanding, I recognized my stepfather instantly. For the first time, I had known the scent of a person already; the sweat of hard work must have penetrated my ever-stuffy nose. Teeth bared, claw-tipped fingers working, he snarled in his drug-induced slumber. If you could call it that.
"Looks like he stepped out of a werewolf movie, doesn't he?" The words came from a doe-morph whose hooves clicked as she stepped in.
"Don't we all," I returned, annoyed and a bit offended.
She nodded. "That much morphine should knock out a bull. He burns it up faster than dry leaves in a crematorium. You can see how much good it's doing. Nothing else works at all."
"Is he in pain?"
"Not that we can tell. Just violent. Afraid. Or angry. Or hungry. Who knows? Which is where we come in."
"We? I don't get it." I could see doctors gathering in the hall.
"We're about to try a sort of... experimental treatment. The trouble is in his mind, so... that's where we're going."
"One of those Powers." Nod. "Telepathy."
"Not really. I don't read minds. I go into them. It's like being in a different landscape. But I don't know the map to that landscape. You do."
"Shouldn't you try someone... closer? We don't get along too well."
"Your brother doesn't understand what we'd be doing. Your sisters are too scared. If she were healthy, your mother would be best, but the doctors all say this would be much to taxing for her. Everyone says you have an imagination, you can adjust. So you're it. Or should we just get a reinforced straitjacket and send him to the nuthouse?"
"OK. I see your point. Why didn't they tell me yesterday?"
"They weren't ready. They were setting up a speech to explain it, but they didn't think you'd come through Tennessee, so they weren't expecting you yet. Be glad you're alive, going through there."
"I hadn't heard it was that bad at the time."
"Hadn't heard! Where've you been?"
"I didn't pay enough attention to the news. Waiting and worrying about my family, on top of classes. All I knew is that the phones were out and the roads were mostly blocked, and the Net blamed that on the transformations. The complete ones, I mean."
"That was part of it. But you can hear all about that later. We need to get to work."
"So do I get to know your name?" She wasn't wearing a tag. Or medical clothes of any kind. Recruited for her Power?
"Raya. You're Lance. We'll leave the last names for later."
"Uh, should we touch hands or something?"
"Nope. Sorry. Just sit down."
We sat. And were immediately elsewhere. Somewhere familiar.
"I'm... this is home."
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