It stood there like a great cinderblock citadel, framed contrastingly by highway and field, set in the middle of a bustling metropolis in the Deep South. I never really had thought of it that way, but graduating from a high school, especially this one, and then visiting it again really puts things in perspective. But, then again, I suppose that's why I was coming back in the first place: to gain some perspective on my life.
I caught a thermal from an old diesel truck passing under me and rose in the air to get a better look. The smoke made me cough even with my terrible avian sense of smell, and for a moment I wondered why a policeman hadn't pulled the truck over and made sure it was licensed to drive such a pollutant. It didn't matter anyway, the acrid scent subsided and I could see the rest of my alma mater: the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
Back in the day of the Science Boom, the Alabama School of Fine Arts was privately founded by a group of people to ensure that humanity's roots in the arts was not lost. Each year, it brought in students from all over the world, free of charge save for dorming fees, to enrich and encourage artistic talent in young people everywhere. Included in the program was Visual Arts, Dance, Music, Theatre, and Creative Writing. Later on in their existence, they added another major: Math and Science.
That was my major.
It wasn't easy by any means. I had just barely scraped past by the hook of my beak, and as much as I had said I wouldn't when I graduated earlier that year, I was back for a visit. Quickly, the white-topped peaks of the school loomed in my sight, and I flared out for a perfect landing on the 19th Street patio, right next to the huge red Picassoesque statue that marked the school. Students eating lunch outside turned their heads or wagged their tails at my entrance. I walked to the door, reflexively shaking that damned anklet on my right foot as it banged annoyingly against my foot, and walked in.
The first thing I noticed about the lobby was that it was so clean. The painting on the floor had a fresh coat on it, and it literally jumped out at my eyes, which are already quite sensitive. It was quite possibly the loudest thing I had ever seen. I walked over to the reception desk and smiled at the female dingo that sat there. She was obviously new, or had just been added since I had left.
"I need to sign in," I said with a winged smile, excited to be back here at ASFA. She didn't say anything, just pointed me to the Visitor Sign-In sheet, where it always is, and I signed it with some difficulty. I had lost a couple of fingers in the Change.
Ah well. C'est la vie. But remembering the Change shook me a bit, and a new purpose filled me other than just a casual visit to my old school to reminisce.
"Is there anyone you're here to see, sir?"
The receptionist's query shook me from my reverie. I wing-smiled and replied, "Everyone."
I turned and walked down the North Hallway, leaving the desk with its confused and bewildered dingo morph occupant behind. It, too, was abnormally clean, something I chalked up to it being the beginning of the school year. The yellow banners that hung from the ceiling clashed brilliantly with the purple tiling on the floor. I took a quick peek into the rehearsal room to see what the Theatre students were working on, and instantly I recognized one of the current students that I spent time here with move to the doors and walk into the hall.
His name was Toby, and when the Change hit, he was a bit too young to be affected, but a year later it looked like he was almost done. His hip and chipper personality matched his new species of border collie exactly, and I couldn't help but give an avian grin.
Of course, he recognized me in a heartbeat. My own species, American Kestrel, is easy to pick out in a crowd.
I nodded and gave him a very careful high-five, "It's me, Toby. How's things around here?"
"Doing good, as always," We parted and walked farther down the hall, each going a separate direction.
"You stay cool, okay?"
"Will do," he said, and disappeared into the Theatre.
I walked the rest of the way down the hall and into the lunchroom, where many a student was having their break. I counted on all my digits who I recognized and waved at them as I made my way to the Purple People Eater.
The Purple People Eater is what Math/Science students call the doorway that connects the main school to the M/S Wing. Take one look at it and you'll see why it's called that: it's big, it's purple just as the tiles on the floor in the hallway, and it eats people.
Well, at least it did before the Change. "Purple Morph Eater" just doesn't have the same ring, so the current name stuck. I noticed that the door was cracked open a bit, so I stood in front of the opening and enjoyed the breeze of the cooler air blowing through the fissure. The M/S Wing is always colder than the rest of the school, and the air conditioning blares through the door. The tiny space for it to fly out only made it blow harder.
I walked in, and noticed that the Math/Science receptionist, Mrs. Walker, wasn't at her desk. It's not that uncommon; she basically runs the department single-pawed.
She's a lynx, by the way.
I turned the corner, walking past the glass of Mr. Easterling's room, giving him a wave and laughing as his tail waved back casually, and then stiffened in surprise as he realized just who was waving back. He stood from his desk and walked to the door, his lupine ears perking as he stuck his head out.
"Trey! What are you doing here?"
"Just visiting," I said, looking at the partially Changed freshmen that occupied his room. They seemed to be having a party.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"My class is throwing me a party," he replied, offering me to come in, "It's my last day here."
The news took me by complete surprise, "What?"
Mr. Easterling nodded, "I'm taking a job at the power company."
He nodded, "Yep. Come on in."
"I will, later," I said, "I want to check around a little more." He understood and went back into his classroom.
"I picked a heck of a day to visit," I said to myself, walking into the computer lab that was next door. The Lab was my old stomping grounds. As Lab Assistant there, my word was law. I knew every nook and cranny of the Mac network that I had helped set up since we had moved into the new wing. I set up all the software, all the computers, everything.
I took one step in and froze. All the Macs were gone, replaced by NT Workstations with 17-inch monitors. I looked around, the smile in my wings growing wider and wider as I looked about at the brand spanking new systems the school had purchased to compliment the fiber-optic network it had installed last year to replace the old one. Students of all shapes and sizes were sitting at everyone of them, one or two I recognized. I had to control my wingspan after accidentally knocking a kid in the head with a wing.
"Wow," I breathed.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Came the reply. I turned about and saw a rather amazed-looking cheetah morph, her arms folded across her chest, giving me a bemused but astonished expression.
"Reclaiming what is rightfully mine, Holly," I said back, seeping with the false bravado I used around her often. We started a conversation that lasted I don't know how long, but my attention kept fading back to the awesome computing power that had replaced my magical myriad of Macintoshes and optical cable. She did say one thing that managed to snap me back into focus.
"Jonathan was in a car wreck last night."
I blinked, "Sewell?"
She nodded, "Yep. He's upstairs now, probably asleep."
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah. Jenessa's in frizz mode over it, though." Holly added a flick of her tail for emphisis.
To make a long story short, Janessa was the former girlfriend of Joe Headrick, my former roommate. Last December, he shot himself dead while his parents were Christmas shopping. Janessa has never been the same.
Jonathan, either. He was Joe's roommate.
I opened the door to leave, "I'm going upstairs to talk to him, if I can."
"He's probably asleep. Don't be mean."
"Thanks for your assurance," I said back acidly. Holly smirked and returned to whatever she was doing for a moment, and then stopped me before I could leave.
She pointed at the metal ring on my ankle, "What's that?"
"Court order," I said back. She didn't say anything more, only nodded and let me on my way.
I walked down the hall, back to the Purple door, but turned right this time and went into Mrs. Westbrook's room, my old Calculus teacher. We talked a little, and after a moment, Dr. Froning came in and joined the conversation.
Dr. Froning is the head of the Math/Science Department, and one hell of a impala. I lost count of the times he went out of his way to help me and others in times of need. He even used to take students jogging after school due to the lack of intramural sports at ASFA.
Apparently, his candor hadn't dispersed, either. We began joking together about nothing at all, when I felt a fist tap me in between my wings.
I turned to see who it was, and wing-smiled hugely as I saw it was Jonathan. I gave him a hug, wings and arms, and he returned it.
"You okay? I heard about what happened."
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, his hug tightening. We parted, and I noticed his Change had finished totally. Otter fitted him, really. Very perky and expressive, but serious when needed. I wouldn't say he went through mood swings, but he really used the entire spectrum of emotions quite often.
After some quick chit-chat, we walked out of the M/S Department and headed through the lunchroom.
"So, what are you doing out here?" he asked cordially.
"I'm taking a small vacation before I move out to St. James. I just got back from California."
"California?" Jonathan said, incredulous, "What were you doing out there?"
"Visiting some friends."
He pointed at my anklet. "What's that, then?"
"Court order. They just put it on." I answered. That's usually all I said about it.
"The whole Disintergration thing, eh?"
"That sucks. Can't Teleport?"
"Not without taking it with me, and if I do, they'll know. It's loosely grafted into my skin, so it'll hurt like hell if I leave it behind."
We turned a quick corner and started walking back down the North Hallway.
"Didn't they know that it wasn't your fault?"
"Yeah, but they couldn't just let me off with a warning. I did erase 100 people that day."
"That day" was hell on Earth.
It was never a well-known fact about drug usage in the sleepy hollow of Wetumpka, Alabama, and as far as I know it still isn't. But like any small town, it has its secrets, and like most secrets they often should remain so.
It really wasn't any of my business to begin with, but they brought me into it. I was approached by a group of four kids one day during recess in the eighth grade, one year before I left for ASFA. Usually, this group only came this near to me to beat the holy shit out of me, but this time they refrained, and offered me some drugs. Cocaine and marijuana, specifically.
Of course, I denied, and they beat the holy shit out of me. This was to be expected.
The next day, I told the principal of the school what had happened, and within days, policemen were carting the kids out of their classes in handcuffs. I heard through the grapevine that one of them threatened my life as they were being carried away. I never thought they'd try it, but I really got worried after hearing they were released on a technicality.
Something about lack of evidence.
I was accepted to ASFA later that year, and the only time I ever came home was on the weekends, and none of the bullies knew where I lived. After a while I had forgotten about the whole thing.
School at ASFA runs a little longer than most schools. Often times, it can go well into June before dismissal. It was in my dorm room that I Changed, although not completely. My face and most of my upper body was still the same. It took me some time to finish my Change. After that, school was cancelled for the rest of the year, and I moved out and went back to live with my parents for the summer, or until reality straightened itself out enough for some semblance of normality to form.
A couple of days after school closed and I had moved out of my room, though, I wanted to check out how my hometown was coping with the change. Before my move to ASFA, one of my great loves was baseball. I loved to play baseball, and I did so every time I got the chance. The town had their own league, the Dixie Youth Baseball League, and I signed up for it every year. Behind the elementary school was the baseball/softball complex, and I took a day to check out if any of my old friends were still playing.
After checking out Fields 4 and 5, the two used by the younger players, I headed towards the softball field, nearer to the school and parking lot. I was crossing the street and cutting across the front of the recreation building when I heard some screaming behind me. I turned, and saw three boys gathering up into a truck, screaming my name, cursing, and shooting birds at me.
Two of them I couldn't recognize for their faces had already Changed, but one was practically unChanged. They were the same guys that had approached me last year about the drugs, and the same ones I ratted on.
The truck's engine hummed to life, and started towards me slowly. I turned and ran, wondering where the last kid was, and was met with a hard right hook to the jaw. I stumbled back and fell to the ground, my head swimming with pain.
"Fucking rat," I heard through the roar of blood and ringing in my ears, "See if you fucking talk after we run your ass down, shithead." He stomped forward and kicked me hard in the gut, but what made me scream was the sensation of his claws sinking into my skin and ripping deep troughs, the blood leaking out through the thin t-shirt and onto my hands.
My mind swirled, images and sounds mixing as one. By now, I had learned to control my Teleportation Power, and I could pretty much appear and disappear at will. That was how I had come to the ball fields, after all. But I couldn't affix one place in my mind and imagine myself being there to save my life.
And right then, my life depended on it.
The hum of the truck's motor got louder, and I heard people yelling for them to stop as the tires jumped the curb and dug at the grass where I lay at. The kid above me gave one last swift kick to the head, which jumbled the one place I had in my mind into thousands of dreamy shards.
I laid there on the ground in a fetal position, my feathered legs clutched to my chest, trying to hold in the blood seeping relentlessly through my shirt. I convulsed, the monotonous hum of the truck getting closer and closer, people screaming, the attacker quickly pawing his way out of the oncoming truck.
These kids were insane. They didn't care if there were witnesses, and that it was in broad daylight, or even that five and six year olds were stopping their T-ball games to watch. They just wanted me dead.
I clenched my teeth as I felt the forward swell of air from the rapidly approaching truck push upon me, and just wished they'd all go away.
My ears suddenly popped, and I swore I could feel blood spraying from them, too. The air pressure around me ceased, and then just as suddenly rushed back in. I heard the truck slam to a stop, great clods of dirt kicking up all around me, and abruptly the sound of wrenching, twisting metal filled the air. I heard the things in the truck's cab scream, and opened my tear-stained eyes to see what was going on. The whole front of the truck was dissolving into thin air, the vision of the ball fields around them rippling as if they were behind a curtain of heat.
The shockwave moved forward, and I watched in horror as one of the kid's muzzles erupted in a spray of blood in front of his face, then disappeared. His screams continued even after his neck opened up, exposing his windpipe. The others in the truck followed suit along with him, the wave cutting their bodies into cross-sections as it moved, ripping them open. Their screams mutilated into gurgled moans, blood curdling up in their throats and exploding in a mist as it went through the wave.
I heard whoever had attacked me scream from behind at what we both were seeing, but suddenly his voice choked into a sputtered gasp, and then nothing.
Their skin seemed to peel off their skulls, wrenching back from their bones, exposing their ribcages which dissolved into a fine white powder as the wave pursued relentlessly onward. Their torsos fizzled in a hot whisp of red mist, their stomachs cross sectioning and disappearing in a blur.
I remember one of them had pizza for lunch.
It was more than I could stand. I shrieked and closed my eyes, their screams stopping not long after that, only the twisting of metal and yelling from around the ballpark I heard. Soon, more dismembered screams filled my ears, shouting and running, vehicles motors turning over with a hum and sputtering out in a searing howl of diffusing steel. That sound was often accompanied by the gagging howls of tortured animals that continued on for what seemed like an eternity.
And then, everything was still. The wind was finally the only thing that I heard, along with the occasional desperate howl of pain from a wounded morph. Slowly I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was that half of the recreational building was gone. Utterly and completely gone, as if it had never existed. The grass was gone. The concrete was gone. All that remained was the red clay earth. I hobbled to my feet, already morphed avian versions of my species. Talons dug into the dirt, fighting for stability.
Devastation surrounded me. Ballfields that were there seconds ago were gone. Field 4 was gone. Field 5 was gone. The softball field was all but gone. Only first base remained.
Half of the parking lot was gone, and by looking at the cars, I could see a clear line of demarcation where the shockwave traveled. It had cut one car in half, a cat morph was huddled in the passenger seat. Undoubtedly, another was sitting next to her not more than two seconds ago.
In the car across the lane from her, a morph I couldn't distinguish was eviscerated longitudinally, their innards sprawled out on the ground, the car tilting crazily on two wheels.
I doubled over and vomited blood onto the clay, then teleported myself to the hospital.
"I hear a lot of people with dangerous Powers are getting tagged like that." Jonathan said with a sigh. We never talked about what happened that day, out of respect for me.
"Some are. The punishments are rather harsh, too. Some I don't want to get into."
Jonathan nodded sagely.
"Listen," I said, "You wanna show me your room?"
He smiled wide, "Sure. But first I need to run some errands."
Turns out those errands took the better part of five hours, but I didn't mind a bit. We went back to Mr. Easterling's room and hung out, enjoying the carnivorous snacks that were laid out. I even had some ice cream, something I hadn't eaten since my Change, and I quickly found out why. My digestive system is almost completely that of a carnivore's, so dairy products don't sit well with me.
Still, it was a small price to pay for such a guilty pleasure.
After I got back from the bathroom, I saw that Jonathan was gone, but Mr. Easterling was there. I didn't think twice of it, after all, Jon can take care of himself, so I sat down with my old teacher and started talking with him.
"So, what are you going to be doing over at Alabama Power?"
"Well," he said, "my title will be marketing specialist, but I'll pretty much get to do whatever they need. Data analysis, accounting, you name it."
"Sounds like fun," I said, munching noisily on a fish-chip.
"You heading to college, soon?"
I nodded, "I'm moving to St. James next week."
"Sounds like fun," he said, echoing my answer exactly. We both laughed.
But, after a moment, my content waned. I sighed deeply, my wings sinking in a frown, "I'm really going to miss your classes. Shape of Space was awesome, not to mention Power Theory."
"Thanks, Trey. I had a lot of fun teaching them."
"Someone really ought to pick them up. They were the best electives offered. M/S is all about experimental thinking and such."
"I'm sure Ms. Harper could do the job. She's really strong when it comes to math."
I grinned, "Yeah, but will she throw a piece of chalk at you to wake you up?" Mr. Easterling had done that to me on a number of occasions, actually hitting me in the head once.
"I don't know," he answered with a smile, "She just might."
We spent a few more minutes talking about what had happened over the summer. Seems that school had lost a few teachers, good ones at that. Mrs. Ivey had left to teach elsewhere, and Mrs. Allen had left to raise her new family, although everyone knew it was because the students didn't respect her at all. It was a shame, really. She was a great teacher.
I got lost in my thoughts, and our conversation waned. Like I always do when I'm thinking, my leg started hopping like a rabbit on speed. I've always been the hyper sort, and some part of my body always has to be in motion. So, when I sit down, I usually bounce my leg a bit, but the anklet on my foot started clanking against the metal legs of the chair.
Mr. Easterling's ears turned instinctively to the noise, and I stopped when he turned to look at me. I didn't say anything and tried to avoid his gaze more than I should, and he looked under the table to see what was causing the clatter. He didn't say a word. Instead, he brought his head back up and sighed.
"I'm really sorry, Trey."
"It's nothing, really."
He nodded, taking my hint and turned back to the festivities. I stood up and said goodbye, to which he returned the gesture, and went to find Jonathan.
Jonathan, of course, was in the computer lab, listening to some Internet news and surfing the web. It was always a disputable topic, but I considered Jonathan my equal when it came to running the computer lab. Of course, now that I'm gone for ASFA, he rules it. I suppose it couldn't be in better paws.
I tapped him on the shoulder gently, and he turned to face me.
"I haven't forgotten," he said. He logged off the computer in a quick flourish that even impressed myself and stood from his chair. "You'll never believe what room I got!"
"My old one?" I said, hoping.
"Okay," Jon grinned, "Maybe you would."
It was a short walk back down the North Hallway to the Boys' side of the school. The school is set up thusly: first floor contains the offices, the Theatre department and Visual Arts are on the North Hall, Dance is on the South Hall, the lunchroom, and one entrance into the M/S department. Second floor holds Creative Writing, Music, and all the core curriculum like English and Math for non-M/S students.
The third floor is the most hallowed. It is where the dorm students live.
Technically, ASFA is a public school, free of charge to all those that apply. However, many students come from out of the commuting area of Birmingham, and some even come from out-of-state. For these students, limited dormitory space is offered for a small fee. Since my parents lived in Montgomery, I had to dorm there. It wasn't cost-effective to commute eighty miles every day, not to mention tiring.
So, there I stayed for four years, even after I could teleport to and from my house. I just loved "living" on my own, although my parents still supported me financially. After the accident at the ballpark, I didn't feel safe in my hometown, something that still haunts me today, so I chose to live in Birmingham at the school.
The room I lived in my last year there I resided the year before: one door down from the Lounge, across the hall and to the left of the bathroom, right next to the stairwell, and across the hall and to the right of the elevator.
The elevator door opened, and Jonathan and I stepped out. Instantly, the strong scent of menthol filled my nares, and I staggered back from the intensity. I could only imagine what my otter friend smelled.
"Yeah," he said, "Big shaving cream fight last night. That's about all that stuff's good for now. They still sell a ton, though."
I smiled, "With all I smell, most of it must come here."
Jon laughed, and we walked the five paces to the door. From the ceiling two small yellow and blue banners hung, one with the name "Jonathan" written in black marker, the other with "Ben".
"Starks is your roommate?" I said.
"Yep. We get along really well." He opened the door and stepped in.
I followed, and stopped dead. An eerie feeling crept over me and under my skin, prickling every nerve in my body as I looked around, seeing Jonathan's computer sitting where mine had, the dressers in the near corner of the room, the low shelves filled with boxes (on Jon's side of course. Ben Starks is a minimalist.).
The beds were not moved. One still laid against the wall in the back, foot end under the square triple-paned window with the crappy venetian blinds. The only thing that had changed was the bedspread and sheets. Another bed was on the near side of the room, headboard turned away from the door. It hadn't moved either.
I walked over to the one against the wall and spoke in almost a whisper, "Is this your bed?"
"Excuse me?" he said in reply. Apparently he had been telling me how much he liked the low shelves in the closet area.
"Is this your bed?"
"Yeah. Sure is."
Cold pinpricks skewered all over my body, and I trembled as I carefully sat down on it.
"This was where I Changed."
Waking up that day was not unlike any other: my eyes were ripped open by my roommate turning on the light, the halogen illumination shattering any and all hope of returning to sleep. I sat up blearily, my back facing the square window through which the morning sun beamed through. I yawned wide, stretching out and turning off my alarm clock, a good hour and a half before it was set to buzz. My early bird roommate Matt was my alarm clock. Five thirty, and it never failed; he was up and at 'em.
I sat on the bed, feeling nauseated, my stomach doing double gainers. I rubbed it, cursing myself for eating that pizza at 3:30 AM.
"Never do that again," I lied. I knew I'd do it again that night.
The queer feeling in my stomach subsided, and began to slink down my waist and into my legs, finally coursing in my feet. My eyes opened, finally adjusted to the unnecessarily bright light. Matt Polak, my roommate, gave me a cheery morning nod, smiling as he flopped his towel over his shoulder and headed for the bathroom.
I didn't return it. My hands were reaching down to massage my feet, who were strangely doing the same double gainers that my stomach had been moments ago. This time, it felt like they had hit some sort of water. No, not exactly water, something much warmer than water, more like blood. But thicker, like oil, and they were soaking in it.
I looked down, checking to make sure my feet weren't really soaking in warm vegetable oil. Stranger pranks had happened in dormitories, especially this one. To my pleasure, they weren't.
But something was happening to my feet, something that made that small pleasure dissipate rather rapidly into stark terror.
My foot was changing color from the fleshy pink that normally covered it into an orange-yellow hue. The texture began to change as I rubbed my hands over my foot frantically. My soft skin hardened under my fingers, pebbly scales blossoming all over it. I rubbed at the growth as it accelerated up my leg, praying that it would go away.
It didn't. Instead, it spread right up my ankle, and seemed to stop. But whatever was happening wasn't finished yet. I literally felt the bones in my fool collapse, shifting shape as my ankle rode up, the hard pebbled skin flowing grotesquely as muscle and sinew reshaped. My foot stood on the balls of the soles, and I could not for the life of me get it to press back down.
My eyes went wide as a semi-large black talon skewered itself through the orange sole of my foot, a long slender bulge following it down. The skin split open, something that didn't disturb me as much as the complete lack of pain, and what I could only describe as a perfectly formed rear-facing bird-toe lowered itself onto the floor, the shiny black talon digging into the carpeting. The cut sealed itself with no loss of blood, not even so much as a drop, the hard skin swallowing it and making as if had never happened.
The flat thickness of my foot suddenly receded into itself, collapsing into the newly formed bone that rode up to the "reverse" knee that was my ankle. My toes separated into a set of three, the big toe and the one to the right as one group, the middle alone, and the last two as another. The pairs merged together seamlessly, the hard pocked skin covering them as they slendered, a matching reflective black talon sliding out of the tips of the new toes. My middle toe lengthened, another talon jutting proudly from the end.
My hands had never left my foot. For a moment, the feeling subsided, and silence reigned in the room. I felt over the tiny bird feet, my mouth hanging open as I tried in vein to make my fingers smooth down the bumps in the appendage. I turned my head slightly to look at my other foot, and was just in time to see my middle toe complete its change into a duplicate of it's right-sided brother, talon growing majestically, sinking into the carpet.
"...The fuck...?" I breathed, shattering the silence for a brief moment before it came rushing back on me. In the back of my mind, I heard an unusual cacophony of horns from the window outside, people screaming outside my door, accompanied with the occasional feral howl of terror.
The door swung open and slammed shut with a clatter. My head jerked up, and I saw Matt standing there, back pressed against the wall, completely nude and wet.
What really caught my attention was the perfectly formed pair of brown-feathered wings which spread themselves across the door.
He stood there for an eternity, his chest heaving, and I could see from across the room the skin of his upper torso bubbling beneath itself, new muscles forming and straining as his breathing neared hyperventilation.
His eyes were the size of dinner plates, more white showing that iris and pupil, and he breathed,
"For the love of God, tell me I don't have wings."
I didn't say anything for the longest time, I just stared at him as the expression on his face turned from fear into despair. His eyes wandered downward and that expression of fear reasserted itself.
"Not you too!" he gasped.
"You've got wings," I finally managed to say.
He rolled his eyes in a mixture of pain and fear, and then swiftly locked the door.
"It's fuckin' mayhem out there, Trey! Rodney's grown a tail!"
"What?!" I exclaimed, coming to my senses at last.
"Just what I said!" Matt answered.
I followed him as he went to his bed and sat down on the edge, noticing as his wings folded up crisply against his back, as if they had always been there.
"What kind of tail?" I asked, bemused. I was about to run out of there screaming myself and needed some levity.
"Some cat, I think," he answered, then cast me a sharp look of disgust, "Would you be serious, for once? We're turning into animals!" He picked up his phone extension on his bedside stand and dialed frantically, then frowned as he was met with a busy signal. He scuffed his way to the window and looked out. I had to brush his left wing out of my face before standing up.
It was strange first settling my weight on those new feet. They spread out evenly, my pencil-thin legs supported me just fine, despite looking like they'd snap like twigs at a moment's notice. I took a couple of practice steps about the room, feeling quite awkward as my entire "foreleg" as I still considered it lifted up and then set the avian foot back on the ground softly and evenly. I walked in a small circle, quickly getting the hang of stepping around with my new feet.
And as I did so, I smiled. They felt... nice, almost.
"Look at this!" Matt said, still staring out the window, "It's happening out there, too!"
I shoved him aside somewhat, the window not being large enough to accommodate much more than one inquisitive head looking out it, and saw just what he had described earlier: fuckin' mayhem. Down 19th Avenue there was a continuous string of fender-benders and car wrecks, stemming from someone not paying attention as they exited the neighboring parking deck. Apparently, they were more interested in the fact that their face had sprouted a distinctly equine muzzle, their ears shifting oddly to the top of their head, triangulating and swiveling on their own accord. Grey and brown fur coated the new growth, their eyes bulged in astonishment within their newly formed sockets as whoever it was clambered out of their car in a misinformed hunch that their vehicle might be causing the transformation.
Other drivers, too, started an exodus from their totaled automobiles, and hybrids of all shapes and sizes scrambled into the streets. Those that stayed in their cars started honking their horns incessantly, adding to a cacophony of screaming and shouting from disturbed citizens. Some scrambled their way into the front lawn of ASFA, a indentation of greened grass and student-made physics projects left over from the previous month.
From my vantage point I noticed a couple of more equines in various states of Change from tails to hooves, including one man that seemed to shift straight into a pony, half his body in the car and half standing awkwardly on the street. Adding to the menagerie were countless feline, canines, avians, and other species that I couldn't recognize at present. They all however ran about in disarray, accosting one another for an answer for what was happening to them, but getting nothing but the same question in return. Some more civilized people managed to keep themselves under control and find their way to the ASFA lawn. There, they sat in the grass and waited, reasoning that most jobs would understand why their employees skipped work on this day.
The one person that caught my eye the most was a tall black man in a business suit, completely covered in silvery fur with splotched black rosettes. Under his right arm was a young lady, obviously pregnant, whom he helped onto the ASFA lawn and laid her down in the grass, tending to her as green and grey scales crept up her stomach.
"Aaagh!" Matt said to no one in particular as he clutched at his face, silling away from the window.
"My... My face!"
I had almost forgotten he was there. I was so engrossed with the scene outside, I failed to remember that the same thing was happening to us as well. I jumped off the bed expertly, landing on my new feet with unbecoming quickness and grace.
"Matt? Matt, what's wrong?"
"My... my teeth! They're pushing on my mouth... aah!" That was all he could say before his hands, firmly clamped to his face started pressing out, moving them away. I watched in startled awe as the upper tip of his teeth curved downward in a wicked spike, the mass fusing together as one in a fluid motion. Slowly, the skin of his nose and lips thinned out and attached themselves flatly to the new appendage, turning a bright yellow color as feathers grew out of the skin around his eyes and cheeks, contrasting the nares of his new beak with their dark brown color. The tip of the beak also turned color in a vivid display, darkening themselves gradually from the white to the same darkened brown his new feathers displayed. His head shrank noticeably, becoming more streamlined, the ears disappearing into the sides as the eyes became larger, the pupils dilating. He blinked them shut as an onrush of light flooded into them, overloading his optical nerves with information.
Slowly, the Change in him dissipated, and he tentatively reached up to touch it. He ran his fingers over the length, jerking away suddenly when they came in contact with the impressive spike at the end.
I simply stared in disbelief, "Jesus Christ."
Matt nodded assent, not speaking but returning to his bed and sitting upon it, completely dumbfounded. He continued to fondle the beak jutting from his face.
I was about to walk over and see if he needed any help when my entire center of balance was thrown a good few inches forward. I felt my pelvis sever itself from the hip joints and rearrange itself within my body, tossing my torso and head out. My legs separated from one another, the light brown and black splotched feathers spreading up my thighs and to my waist. My legs now were even with the edges of my waist, melting seamlessly into them, making my waistline non-existant.
Next, there was a sucking sensation from my groin, and then the rather unpleasant feeling of my male genitals reverting to an internal function. Before I could counter the unappetizing event with rationality, I looked down there and found nothing but feathers that had grown to cover up the area, light brown downy growths that felt like soft warm snow under my fingers.
This, of course, was the absolute worst thing that could happen to a teenage male. But, before I could scream, shout, curse, or otherwise voice my utter displeasure, the change added one more feature to my Changing body. Even as I felt my balance start to pitch forward, long tail feathers started to sprout out just below my spine. They were colored differently, from the outside feathers being black-and-white striped to the inner feathers being a solid brown. They continued outward, increasing in number and length as they slowly started to counter my stance. I began to steady myself on my feet, sitting into a perpetual crouching position.
I then started yelling.
"I know, Trey. I was there," said Jonathan from the foyer/closet space.
I smirked with my wings and blushed a bit under my cheekfeathers, "Sorry. I was just getting a little nostalgic." I kneaded the bedspread with my talons lightly and sighed, "Being here brings back a hell of a lot of memories."
"I can imagine." Jonathan walked out from the cul-de-sac and sat on his roommate's bed. He rocked back against his thick muscular tail and smiled, his musteline grin making my own candor rise, "Things have changed quite a bit around here."
"I saw. New network, new teachers, new paint job in the dorm rooms, even."
Jon nodded, "Yep. Finally got that petition to the ASFA Board passed. I just kept the old color."
I snuffed through my nares in a subtle laugh, "Didn't go with the green after all, eh?"
He shook his head, "Nope. Thought about it, but then decided not to. It would've been too dark in here anyway."
I nodded, "You have a point." I was just about to comment on how beige would look in the room, when a knock on the door broke our rapport. It opened, and around poked another otter's head. Jon leaned forward, craning his neck to try to look around the corner, and into the foyer. I had a clear view however, and smiled to the new arrival.
The otter waved a partially Changed paw back, "Hey. Is Jonathan here?"
"Right here," Jon said from the bed, leaning over so far that I thought he was going to fall.
"Oh!" The younger otter said surprisedly and pawed around the concrete divider.
"I thought I heard you come back up here."
"Skipping school?" I said to the other otter, haughty smirk in my wings.
The young mustelid gave me a chastened look, "No!" He quickly turned to Jon and asked, "Who's that, anyway?"
"A friend of mine," he replied, "What are you doing up here, anyway?"
"Nothing. Listen, can I borrow your copy of WinNT? I need to reinstall on my system, it's buggering up again."
"No problem," Jon said, and the other otter smiled and churred, then swept himself from the room.
"Who was that?" I asked, no later than the door had closed.
"His name's Oren, he's a freshman this year, just moved up. Really nice guy."
"And he's that Changed already?"
Jon nodded, "Caught me off guard, too." He chuckled and leaned back on the bed, and I did the same, and a long silence passed between us as we reminisced about the last few years to ourselves.
I broke the reprieve with a comment, "Never saw the Change coming, did ya?"
"Nope." Jon replied.
Jon sighed, "Being out of school is pretty boring around here. They still lock up the Lounge, so the game consoles are out of reach, as are the coke machines."
"They put coke machines in the Lounge now?"
"Damn. I left a year too early." We both laughed a little at that and sighed again, together.
"I'm bored," Jon finally said.
"Me too." I paused, "Say, wanna go to lunch? We could walk downtown or something."
"Sounds good to me. Let's hit the Subway down near Five Points."
I chuckled, "I said downtown, not across town."
Jon grinned back, "We've got all day, Trey, and I'm healthy enough to walk that far."
I shrugged; this was one argument I wasn't going to win, so we walked out of the room and headed down the elevator, out the lobby, and onto 18th Street outside.
It wasn't a very busy day, being about three or so in the afternoon. The streets were fairly clear of traffic, seeing as how the lunch rush was over, and the real rush hour was still two hours away. We headed down 9th Street, which led directly to Five Points, the major meeting place of late night Birmingham. Along the way, we chatted a bit, talking about the wreck last night and what exactly had happened.
Seems a drunk driver had run a red light on University Blvd. and 8th Avenue, striking Jon's car in the driver's side. The spun around while the drunk's car jumped the curb and hit two elderly ladies walking on the sidewalk. Jon and the other passengers in their car were okay, but the two women were killed instantly.
I couldn't help but feel sad for Jonathan. Things just hadn't been going his way this past year: first his roommate kills himself, then his friends at school get into a car accident, and then he himself is in a wreck. I felt like I owed him something, having been through thick and thin with him, and he being there for me when I needed someone. But I was gone now, and it was just him. I felt as though I had left him behind.
We turned the corner and waited at a crosswalk for a moment, and then I spoke, "That's University up ahead, isn't it?"
"Show me the crash site, and what happened."
Jonathan nodded, and we turned again and walked the three blocks south in relative silence. We turned the corner and went over one street to 8th Avenue, and he pointed to a brick enclave across the intersection. The small wall structure was in disarray, the leftmost corner completely demolished, its bricks in a dismantled heap at the foot of the wall. Police and construction tape surrounded the area right up to where two sets of tire tracks skidded their way up the sidewalk. As testament to how recent the wreck really was, the blood stains of the two women still marred the path. A couple of morphs walking the sidewalk took a moment to look at the site, not really comprehending what happened before shuffling off to continue their daily routine.
Jon pointed up University and followed an imaginary car, and his other paw traced a path down 8th, "The other guy was coming this way, and we were coming down here. We had the green light and went through and he just plowed into us. We ended up right about where we're standing now, and he just kept on until he ran those ladies down and hit the wall."
I nodded with a sigh, wings folded to my back, not knowing what to say, really. Luckily, Jon said it for me.
"Subway's one street over. I'm hungry."
We crossed the street, jaywalked actually, and turned another corner having overshot the Subway by half a block. We walked in, a little winded from our journey, and the canine behind the counter smiled.
"Afternoon, you two! What'cha gonna have?"
I got the same thing at Subway every time, "I want the Seafood and Crab footlong, on white, with lettuce and tomato only."
Jon smiled to himself, "Again?"
"Stick with what you know, I always say."
He didn't say anything else on the subject, but instead ordered himself a warmed over BLT with the works. A few moments later, and after some comedic exchanges with the vulpine server, we took our seats, sandwiches and drinks in hand and started eating. This was no easy task for me, however. I don't have teeth, so instead I had to pick and bite off small clumps and practically swallow them whole, letting my innards do the work. Jon, on the other claw, was quite adept at munching his sub, and was happily chewing away as I ate more slowly.
I was caught with a mouthful of food when Jonathan smiled at me and said, "I'm going to have you autograph a book someday."
I swallowed and thought about this for a moment, "Okay. Can I ask why you want me to write in your book?"
He grinned, "It'll be your book. I'll mail it off to you, and you'll sign it and mail it back to me!"
"Oh!" I said with a laugh, finally understanding what he meant, "Heh, maybe. My writing's nothing more than a hobby."
"Nonsense, Trey! You've done some really quality stuff!"
"A lot of people say that."
"Then it must be true."
I grimaced playfully, "I hate it when you're right."
"I know. And when you send it back, you'll probably put some crazy quote in it like 'Life, The Universe, and Subway' in it!"
Somehow, this struck me as terribly funny, and I began laughing very hard. "Life, The Universe, and Subway! That's hilarious!" I managed this between guffaws, setting my sandwich down and clenching my stomach as I laughed. Jonathan apparently liked his joke too, and he began laughing in earnest as well. This sight naturally drew the attention of the attendant at the counter, who cast us a confused look.
The laughter subsided, and I panted, "You know... I just might do that. But what about you and your optic computers. I'll probably write the Great American Novel on one of them, anyway!"
Jon grinned from ear-to-ear, "I've been making improvements on my theories. Someday, when I buy Microsoft and Intel, and make my first trillion, I'll send you a top-of-the-line model as thanks."
"I look forward to it," I said with a sarcastic tone. We sat and ate a little more, my leg starting its jumping thing making the metal anklet clatter nosily against my talons. When it makes that sound, I always remember that day at the ballfields, and my appetite quickly sank.
I set my sandwich down, only the bread heel and some of the meat left, and sighed, "Jon, I'm really sorry."
The otter across the table looked puzzled, "What for?"
"I don't know, I'm just sorry."
Jon now set his sandwich down, not much more than mine left, and looked at me worriedly, "What's the matter?"
I folded my arms on the table and sighed, leaning on them, "I just feel bad about leaving you behind. It's not been a good time for you."
Jon sighed and leaned back into the bench, "Trey, it's okay. I'm making it just fine." He drummed his tail on the floor, "I sometimes feel bad about not being there for you, too. You haven't had a walk in the park either."
I nodded, "You got that right." I lowered my head against my arms, and sighed deeply.
Jon moved forward and looked me in the face, "There's something else, isn't there?"
I hesitated, "Sorta."
"Well... Yeah." Jon waited as I gathered up the gumption to let it all out.
"I didn't go to California to visit friends."
Jon blinked in surprise, "Well, why did you go there?"
"You know Jeff Williams, right? My friend that works down at Baptist Medical Center in Montgomery?"
"I've heard of him, yes."
"Well, he got into trouble and I went out to visit him in California. God knows how he got there. But, to make a long story short, I got tangled up in some secret government operation and ended up in India as a secret agent to stop this mad doctor from releasing another Plague on the world." I stopped there, and gave Jon my most honest and sincere look.
Jonathan sputtered at first, then snickered, and then tilted back in such roaring laughter that I thought he was going to spill out of the booth and onto the floor. He looked at me, still with my head on my arms, and laughed out, "That's the most outrageous story I've ever heard! You've got to be kidding me!"
"No, I'm not." I said in my most serious tone.
Jon kept laughing until he finally calmed a short time later, wiping the tears from his eyes and letting loose a long sigh of pleasure.
"That was a good one, Trey."
"It wasn't a joke, Jon."
He blinked at me and chuckled again, "C'mon, cut it out, Trey."
"I'm not kidding you, Jon!" I lifted my head from my shoulders, "You cut it out!"
Jon became much more serious, and tilted his head inquisitively, "Cut what out? You're the one making the outlandish stories!"
"Dammit, Jon, I'm not making this up! Why do you think I'm going to St. James college on a full scholarship? You know my family can't afford the books or the tuition, and you know that I didn't make the grades to get that scholarship! The fuckin' government's paying for it, that's why!"
Jon's head reared back in astonishment, "You're shitting me."
"I'd never shit you, especially like this. These damn Powers of mine are my ticket to wherever I wanna go, and Uncle Sam is making sure I don't go where he doesn't want me to." I kicked at the anklet bonded to my leg, "And this damn thing brands me in my hometown. I've nowhere to go, Jon. My family's moved out of state due to people egging and rolling their houses, and for fear of their lives. People just don't look the other way when you kill their relatives and get away with it!"
"But you didn't mean it..." Jon started.
"I know I didn't mean to, and they know I didn't mean to as well! It doesn't matter to them." I banged my fists on the table, noticing the canine at the counter leaning over and listening to both of us.
Jon sighed and sat back, "So. What are you going to do?"
"What can I do?" I said, "Take the money and run. I can't go back home; some sicko burned it down."
Jon did nothing but nod.
"I suppose I'll go to college and take the job with the government. It's one of those super secret branches, too. I don't know if I'll have much of a social life."
Jon looked worried at this, "Think you be able to visit me sometime?"
"I don't know. I just don't know anymore."
Jon nodded, and began to wrap up his sandwich. "Don't worry, Trey. You're gonna be famous someday. You've got the brains to be tops in the world."
I stood, crumpling my sandwich and wrapping up and disposing of them in a nearby receptacle, "No way, man. I don't have the motivation. You, you're going to be famous someday. You've got all the ideas and work ethic that I ain't got."
For the first time since we ordered, the fox behind the counter said, "You're pretty famous here, Trey. I saw you on the news when your trial was on. They railroaded you if you ask me. It's not your fault."
I brightened quite a bit, and smiled to him, "Thanks. Thanks a lot."
"See?" Jonathan said, "It's not so hopeless after all." He gave me a pat on the back and churred playfully, "I'm expecting that book anytime now."
I nodded as we headed out the door, "It's in the mail, Jon."
We stepped outside and onto the pathway, and I hugged the otter morph closely. The acrid scent of the air in the downtown area smelled a lot more refreshing now.
"You've always been a good, good friend to me, Jon. Don't ever change."
He hugged me back, "You too, Trey. Remember me when you're rich and famous."
"Will do, man."
We parted and he smiled, "Anything left for you up here?"
I thought, then shook my head no, "Not that I can remember."
The otter poked me in the chest playfully, "Then get on back home, Trey. I can make it from here."
I spread my wings and took his hand, squeezing it, "Life, the Universe, and Subway, Jon." And with a push from my wings and my slight levitation, I lifted off, looking back on my friend as he waved goodbye to me from the side of the street. He turned and walked north, and I saw him cross the street before a building hid him from me for good.
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