"That's not surprising. This is the place in your stepfather's mind you're most comfortable with." Her voice sounded different somehow. I turned to my left, realizing as I did that I had to turn to see her.
She was fully human again. Short and very dark, she smiled at the deer standing nearby. "Our human and animal selves are separate here. Does it bother you that I'm black?" I shook my head. "Good. One of the few, I guess. Your two selves are closer than mine." Her left hand pointed to my lap.
The possum there grinned up at me lazily, wrapping its tail around my arm. Its eyes, black as lacquer paint, sparkled with a sort of animal cunning, but at the same time there was no intelligence -- as I understood it, anyway -- in them. A pink nose sniffed at my elbow.
-Place strange. You know food?-
"Raya? It's, um, talking to me."
"So answer yourself."
Heh. I'm talking to myself. So this was what it was like to have instincts separate from your human mind. There was a feeling of blank incomprehension from the opossum-mind.
No food here. We need to find someone.
-Why? Bothering rude. Live self.-
He's... um... he's hurt.
-Live. Die. Big deal. Not us. Take care of self.-
"Great. Lot of help he is, Raya." One of the things I had learned about opossum was that they were solitary. Except when they were mating, or carrying young, they simply ignored each other. They didn't even care enough about others of the species to be territorial. When you could eat almost anything, there was always plenty of food for everyone.
"Think about it, Lance. Who are you talking to? Feel how that part of you thinks, and offer an argument you'd accept if you thought that way. It's what I have to do." She was stroking the deer, a white-tail, and walking it slowly around the room.
He's... Uh... He's rude. He'll hurt us.
-Stay away him, then.-
But he'll follow. He's a hunter, a predator. I didn't really know that was true, especially here, but it certainly could be.
-Not rude, then. Mean.-
Mean, then. There was no point in arguing semantics with a possum. It must be the difference between predators and mere annoyances. But he's mean because he's confused.
-Think wrong, we food? We not food?-
You got it. So we have to help. Then he'll leave us alone.
-Leave alone good. We look, then. We move now. Bored sitting.- The possum jumped down and ran into the kitchen. I felt its surprise. -Food here! Smell food!- But it couldn't open any doors or drawers. -Rrrr. Want food!-
I concentrated on my own full belly. It stopped running around and watched me.
"If you've persuaded him, we should go." Raya was at the front door. Which wasn't the same as the normal door. "Your dad's not here."
"Open the door, then. We'll go."
Instead of the front yard, the door opened directly onto a gravel pit. Backhoes moved at the whims of shadow-figures, scooping rock from the ground and giving it to similarly-manned dump trucks. I watched them closely, looking for a more human-seeming driver.
Raya spoke before I could say it. "There's no one real here. He's thinking of something else." The doe sniffed the air nervously. "Come on. This way." She followed the dirt road out of the pit. I walked after her, the possum pattering beside me.
Why didn't you talk before?
-No need talk then. We be.-
I had to translate that one. In other words, he must mean, we were integrated into a single mind. If not all that smoothly.
Ah. I thought I'd better explain something. Food here isn't real.
-What "real" mean?-
Wonderful. A philosophical debate with an opossum.
We had climbed out of the pit and were now in the cow pasture that surrounded my house. Last time I had called home, Mom and Dad were talking about selling the rest of them. Cattle prices had been falling, with no sign of pulling out. Now that I thought about it, if we all got out of this, I should warn Dad not to sell. There were plenty of carnivores out there now, some of whom wouldn't eat much but meat.
"Ick." Raya must have stepped in a cow pie.
"Watch out for manure, ma'am."
"I was. This isn't manure."
"Huh?" I turned to look. Spread out before her was the carcass of a dead calf. Or part of one, anyway. "He's here."
"One half of him is. I'll bet the other isn't. The best I understand, your pop's trouble is he can't accept what happened." Her shoulders cracked slightly as she shrugged. "I don't blame him, either. But we need to find his human self to talk to. That's the part of him having problems, I'll bet."
-Food taste, not fill belly.- The opossum turned away from the dead calf. Blood covered its chin, but it sounded rather annoyed.
I told you it wasn't real.
-Real mean fill belly? Right. Not real. You tell better next time.-
I sighed, just as I spotted a grey shape loping across the pasture and vanish into the trees. At once, a rifle shot hammered the air into fragments. "He's down there!" But as I ran, the landscape shifted.
I was standing near the old trailer by Papaw's house, where we'd first lived after Mom remarried. It had been removed long ago, but it seemed Dad's memory of it made it real here.
Raya was on the steps. "How come," I asked, "you follow me around? Shouldn't we split up?"
"We can't. You're here with me. When one of us switches scenes, we both do." The door revealed a forest, rather than the trailer's interior. The deer leaped inside, followed by the opossum and Raya. I didn't move. Or thought I didn't, anyway, but when I looked around I was in the forest too. So much for splitting up.
-Good place. Trees for rest. Ground for search food.-
No time. I pointed to the deer stand some yards away. The occupied deer stand.
And we had a deer with us...
I didn't even hear the shot. At least, I didn't really have time to notice. Raya's deer-double went down simultaneously with her scream; she followed it to the ground.
"Oh, great!" Not the most inspired comment, but then what do you say? Raya and the deer were lying in identical puddles of blood. If she died on me... with us in here... what would happen to all three of us?
She grasped my arm weakly. "Won't die... not really shot... Real body's healthy. I'll feel really... down for a few days. Depression... but short of becoming suicidal... I'll be fine after that. Just don't... let him hit either of you." Because, apparently, a wound to one half of us was a wound to the other.
A man in an orange jacket had climbed down from the stand. He seemed scruffy, but healthy. Black hair. Brown eyes.
The man scowled sullenly. "Lance, what are you doing out here in those clothes? Don't you have any common sense? Anyone could've shot you. I didn't just hit someone now, did I?" He knew he had, and I could see it in his face. He just didn't want to believe it of himself.
"Don't worry. You didn't really shoot anyone. Just... just a deer." I sort of hoped he couldn't see Raya, on the other side of some brush from him. He'd react to that, and it'd zap him to the hospital or something. And I'd be left to hunt him down again.
"If you say so." He glanced down at my feet. "That's some possum you've got there. Nice and fat."
And tugging at my pants leg. -Danger! Do something!- It snapped and hissed at Dad as he bent down to look at it. -Danger!Danger! Panicpanicpanic!- Then nothing but a wave of fear. I clamped down on it, only to feel the connection go numb as the possum suddenly rolled over on its back, stiff.
I picked it up. "It's tame, Dad."
He laughed. "Some pet! What's it good for but to eat? Possum are stupid, Lance. This isn't Free Willy."
"You won't want to hear it, Dad, but maybe it is, in a way." I was going to have to show him. "This way, around the brush here."
Raya was sitting up, holding her side. The deer was struggling to stand, more so as it scented him.
"I thought you said I didn't shoot anybody." Crouching beside her, he stared at the wound. "What the? It's gettin' better already. What's going on?"
"Check the deer, Dad. See where you hit it?"
"Lance, the deer doesn't matter. Ain't we got a woman shot here?"
"Dad, the deer does matter. Look at it," I stated flatly.
For a moment I thought he was going to tell me off. That's what he usually did. But then he did glance over, and spotted something about the wound. "It's the same spot, right under that rib. Lance, what's going on?"
Careful. "Have you seen a wolf here?"
"Oh, yeah. Don't know where the critter came from. Didn't use to be any around here any more. Crazy government, fool huntin' laws. What do they think we're supposed to do about problems like this?" His head whipped right at the sound of leaves crackling. "There!" Rifle up. Aimed. I shoved him just as he fired, and the round thudded into the deer stand.
He glared at me, with eyes he didn't realize were as yellow-brown as the wolf's. Growled. Then he heard himself. Jaw dropping, he vanished.
The wolf didn't. Snarling, it loped toward us. Both of Raya were still down. I couldn't leave her, of course. Maybe if I tried, she'd follow whether she moved or not, like I had. Or maybe, since it was her power and not mine, I couldn't move from the spot.
Maybe... "Hey, there! Good boy. You stay right there." No good. It didn't know me, and then wolves didn't react like dogs anyway. It just crept forward, watching us warily, only seeming interested in the deer. It growled, sounding precisely the way Dad had. Exactly like him. Exactly.
Something clicked in my head. Suddenly, we were elsewhere. In the house again. Only this time, it was dark. With the lights out, shadows loomed over us, shifting as though cast by firelight.
-Too bright. Bad noise.- Possum was awake. His response clued me in that the darkness was a matter of discomfort, perhaps anxiety, rather than of simple fact. Something had changed, and speculating on just what it was wasn't really necessary.
Raya touched my shoulder. She was on her feet, with no sign of any wounds, but her face was pale and stretched tight with pain. Or something like it, but purely mental. I had no intention of finding out what it was like. "He came here," she said, "but his other half is also coming, and he knows it. I think."
"I've practiced all I could," she answered, "but how many times do you think I actually did something serious like this before? There are things I just have to make educated guesses about. Probably always will be some."
"Thanks for increasing my confidence. How's... um, Jane Doe?"
Raya smiled. Or grimaced. "As well as me, of course. We're worn out, and we won't get any better than this till we're rested." The deer staggered over to my other side. "Relax, hon." She reached over me and scratched its ear, which flicked around. "It's nearly over."
"How do you know?"
She pointed. The TV was on. Dad was in the recliner. Had he been there all this time, or just appeared there now? "What's he watching? That should tell us something."
It told me something very bad. He denied even remembering the show, but...
Dad was watching V. The old sci-fi miniseries about lizardlike aliens. They wore human costumes to make us trust them, ate mice alive, and plotted to take over the planet. Not encouraging, under the circumstances. Worse, some of the aliens wore different faces -- not scaly, but furry or feathered.
The shadows thickened. He was suddenly holding a rifle.
"Dad? Hey, Dad! It's just a movie!"
"What? Oh, that. Of course it is. This show just reminds me of the dream I was having."
Great. Just great. "Dad, do you remember Star Man? Or Viper? What about Lois and Clark?" They were the handful of "far-out" shows I remembered him really liking. Viper because it was about a car; Star Man because it was more a love story, with some action; Lois and Clark just because it was funny.
"Huh? What about them?"
"Well... I mean, not everything strange is bad. It's not all evil aliens and things like that."
"Lance, what the blazes are you talking about?"
"Dad, I know it sounds crazy, but this is the dream. The other, that's reality." He looked at me, actually seeming for a minute to consider it. Then...
"Ha-ha. I am not a werewolf, and this is not The Outer Limits."
"You watch that?" It was the absolute last show I'd have expected him to like.
"Sometimes. When it's not so strange I can't understand what's going on."
-Bad smell. Mean thing coming.-
What? The possum had been silent for so long I'd nearly forgotten it. I didn't have time to ask anything else.
The front window exploded. A huge grey form slammed into the recliner, knocking it over and sending Dad flying. The rifle landed at my feet. The wolf snarled at me, then suddenly yipped as the movement of its snout disturbed a huge piece of glass embedded in the side of its nose. Then snarled again aand turned away, towards Dad.
Dad's head came up, an identical fragment cutting into his nose. Fingers scrabbled for his gun. I bent down for it.
"Shoot it! Lance, shoot it!"
I didn't move. The wolf stepped closer to him, silently.
"Lance," Raya whispered, "maybe you should..."
"Raya, I know what I'm doing." I hope.
Glasses dangling from one ear, Dad rose to hands and knees, backing away. Very slowly. The wolf followed, sniffing at him, one step at a time.
Dad bumped into the couch. "Lance, c'mon! Shoot him!" Hoping I wasn't making the worst mistake of my life, I just stood there.
The wolf lowered its front half to the floor, its tongue hanging out, panting. It barked once. A second time. And promptly licked Dad in the face.
He spluttered. "Hey! What...? Why...?"
"He likes you, Dad, even if he doesn't like the rest of us. With good reason. He can hardly afford not to."
Dad adjusted his glasses. "What you were saying..."
"It all really happened, Dad. You said you watched The Outer Limits, so you know how a lot of people react when they see something weird. And you also know they're almost always wrong. Sooner or later, either they accept the truth or they go crazy, Dad. I don't want to see you go crazy. It's real, Dad. And Mom needs you."
"Your mother really is a sheep?" He still didn't sound convinced. But he seemed calmer. The wolf whined. He scratched its ears without noticing.
"Yeah. You'll get used to it. I promise." I hope. "Don't refuse to deal with things just because you don't like them, Dad. I know you'd tell me that." I squinted. Everything was getting darker. And blurry. The living room spun around me, toppling me backward...
...Into my chair in the hospital room.
I had sagged to the left, almost sliding out of my chair. I straightened up. Raya slumped in her own chair, but her eyes were open. Just barely.
"Oh, man. I'm gonna sleep for a week. Missed that last bit. You snap your dad out of it?"
"I... I think so." He lay there on the bed, looking... weak. Not moving a muscle. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him. A fresh baggie had been added to the IV stand not long ago. He seemed to be...
...Barely breathing. The morphine. He was doped to the gills, and with his anger and frustration gone, he was no longer burning it away. It was pouring into him and staying there.
The heart monitor's beeps faltered.
"Oh.......!" I didn't know what to say. I had never permitted cursing to enter my vocabulary. (It was impolitic in my situation, even if it had been nothing more to me.) I whipped around and pounded the window. Two of the nurses still watching us scrambled in, demanding with furrowed brows that I tell them why I was making such a racket, as I rushed over to the bed myself. I told them. They had the IV bag down in less than half a minute. One of them injected him with a syringe of something.
"To counteract the morphine," she told me. "He'll sleep a while, but the sedative won't poison him now. He's definitely addicted by this time, so we'll have to wean him off it. I guess you were able to help him?"
"Think so." Most of the energy was gone from me too. "We talked. I think that's why he came down like that."
"So he's accepted the situation?"
"Yeah. Maybe. I hope."
They hustled us away after that, claiming they needed room to work. Raya fell asleep in the next unoccupied room. I couldn't really blame her. My watch said it was one o'clock in the afternoon; despite appearances, we'd been in there three hours. I didn't think it was more than one hour. Talk about lost time!
I listened to my stomach rumbling. I... listened. The voice in my head was gone. I felt sort of lonely. Which I shouldn't have, really; the possum-mind and I were back together again, whereas we'd been separated in Dad's mind. But not being able to talk made the difference. I caught myself watching where I stepped; there was nothing to step on now. Well, other than the tail that now and then still got in the way if I was careless.
I made my way back to Mom's room. She was huddled in the bed. Sobbing. I couldn't remember ever seeing her cry like that. I squeezed her hand, gently. Something I'd never had to do before. After a moment, she gave my hand back to me and looked up. The wool on her face was dripping, her eyes red and puffy.
"Mom? It's all right now. Dad's going to be all right." I didn't add the I hope in my mind.
"He... he never... I..." What? Oh.
"Mom, he didn't know what was happening, or what he was doing. He does now. He didn't mean to hurt you, and I'm sure he'll never do it again. I know it."
She pulled me to her and wrapped her arms around me. Put her head down on my shoulder and cried some more. I hugged her back. There was nothing else I could do, and no words I could say. But I sat there with her, something I hadn't done in years, and for once in my life I really understood how another person felt.
We sat there until she fell asleep.
I had to go back to school, of course. Marisa complained all the way back that the repairs had cost half again what she expected, but I managed to put up with it. Of course, we didn't go back the way we had come, and that meant a much longer trip.
Around Thursday, I got word that both of them had been dismissed, so that weekend I managed to return home yet again. We'd managed to get the car modified somewhere in Missouri on the way back, so of course she insisted on driving. I'd been a lot farther, but that was the longest trip of my life.
Mom eyed Dad warily over her sheep's muzzle, and he stared back at her with his yellow eyes. But they talked just as they always had, about bills, country singers, and finding work for Dad. He'd listened to my suggestion about keeping the cows, and he admitted now that perhaps I had some common sense after all. The conversation skirted around the Change whenever the topic approached, though. Some things would never be the same, and they weren't ready to face that just yet.
Granny and Grandad arrived a bit later, bringing the kids. Shauna and Granny started supper while the others chatted. I went outside and sat down on the porch. Our dog, Brownie, surprised me by nosing up to me. I guessed she did know me, after all. I watched the birds, watched a squirrel, watched the clouds drift by and the sun set. Watched some idiot bird-morph (too high up to identify) crash into a stand of trees on takeoff. Maybe, I figured, life was going to work out after all. Yeah. I was sure it would.
(Until I had to introduce Marisa to Mom and Dad, and everyone started teasing me about my "girlfriend" again. And Tamara ran screaming through the yard when a bee stung her. And the most irascible of our cats tried to use my tail for hunting practice. And....
(Well, suffice it to say that some things never change.)
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