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A Change for the Better
|Paradise story universe|
The clock-radio gave its usual cheery morning 'beep!' and the sound came on. The voices of the NPR anchors giving the days litany of disasters and scandals with their usual clarity echoed in my head, and I woke to a new day. I groaned and sat up, my hips greeting me with their usual flare of pain. Rolling over, I dropped my legs over the edge, allowing my knees to add their wails of anguish to the anvil chorus. Grumbling, I reached for the Tylenol and bottle of water I keep on my bed stand and took a couple of painkillers. Arthritis sucks, but it's a fact of life anymore, and at least it lets me know I made it through another night.
I wrinkled my nose at the stench coming from the trash can beside the bed. I'd used it as a catch basin - being sick is a lot harder when the walk to the bathroom hurts as much as it does these days. I'd have to dump the damn thing, rinse it in the tub, then bleach it to kill the smell before I could use it for trash again. Odd - it really did stink, even worse than I remembered. Being sick is no fun any time, but a summer flu is just worse somehow. I grumbled, then pulled over my walker, levered myself upright, and tottered off to the morning routine, towing the foul smelling wastebasket behind me.
An hour or so later, dressed in robe and sandals, I slowly tottered my way out to the living room and collapsed on the couch. Once I caught my breath, I picked up the remote, flicked on the TV, then lay back to watch the morning shows on cable. There wasn't anything of real interest on, so after a bit I killed the set and lay back, wondering what to do with the day. I had a new book, but... Maybe I could see if any of my friends were around in the lobby? See about getting in a few hands of cards? Then an anomaly caught my eye. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing, then I got up and limped over to inspect one of the pictures on my wall.
It was a picture of a young friend of mine, taken at the Renaissance Festival a few years ago. Gary was in a set of German Landsnecht garb he'd had made, all fancy 'slash and puff' sleeves, colorful tights, and fancy hat with a nice feather plume. I'd had him pose rapier out thrust - he certainly had the figure for it. But, he hadn't had the head, paws, and tail of a wolf - and in this picture he did. I scratched my head.
I know there are fancy ways to play with pictures on computers - I'd had a geek friend do that for me with a couple just for the fun of it - but nobody had touched this one. Despite the new electronic cameras, I still prefer film and doing my own darkroom work, and I remembered doing this print. I turned it over and checked - I sign my prints and date them, and both were still there.
"What the hell?" I mumbled.
I noticed something else too, in the background. I set the picture on the seat of my walker and plodded over to my desk. Pulling out the chair I sat down, then rooted around in the top drawer for a magnifying loupe. Turning on the desk light, I set the picture down and carefully went over it with the magnifier - I was right, there was another animal headed person in the background! A cat woman this time, in modern clothes, watching us as I set up the shot. This was getting weird - then I noticed a group of three more in the far background! A stag, doe, and something with a large set of antlers I didn't recognize right off, in costume and obviously part of a trio, not looking anywhere near us. No, not just 'weird' - this was getting very weird...
I'd run across a group of kids wearing animal costumes at the last Sci Fi Con I'd attended - they looked so cute! I'd chatted with them for a bit and found they called themselves 'Furries'. I laughed and twirled the propeller on my ancient beany - we all have what fun we can, and if you want to dress up as an animal, why not? But the creatures in the picture were obviously not Furries - they seemed rather to be real animals on two...paws? Hoofs? So, what were they? I looked up at the clock - Gary should be on Two Meters by now, with the 'going to work' parade. I powered up the Ham set and waited a moment to see who was on.
The speaker crackled as the set came to life, and I adjusted the squelch. The channel was silent. Odd, for a busy time of - wait a minute. I looked at the calendar and realized I'd lost track of the days again. It's easy to do, living alone in a retirement home and not working. It was Sunday, August Seventeenth, meaning no bunch of people and, probably, no Gary. Nuts. I dropped my call sign on the repeater, just to see what would happen, and an old friend came back.
"Hey Fred!" he said. 'Where you been, I haven't heard you in ages! Retired like you planned?"
"Sure did, Chris! The Boss got tired of seeing me gimping around on that walker and signed off to get me a pension!" I replied. "Got a nice little apartment in a retirement place and spend most of my time on cards and the TV these days."
"You lucky so-and-so!" Chris laughed - we'd been friends for a very long time.
"Maybe," I sighed. "I miss the old gang, and having work to do... Oh well. Hey, have you heard Gary around?"
"Not today," he replied. "Probably at home taking it easy, sweeping six meters for DX or playing on his computer."
"Ah - I had a question for him," I replied. "I'll try the twisted pair later then. So, how's the wife and kids?"
We chatted until he reached his destination, then we agreed to meet on here more often. I sighed as I hung up the mike - I'd gotten away from Hamming too. I really needed to get back into the world again - if only it didn't hurt so much.
I picked up the receiver of the desk phone and sorted through the memory for Gary's number. I dialed, then, as the phone rang, I started feeling - strange.
Gary picked up with a cheery "Hey Fred! Haven't heard from you in ages! What's up?"
"Hi, Gary," I replied. "I was looking at one of the photos I took of you at Renfest, and there's something - odd - about it. I know when and where I took the picture and when I printed it, and I know you didn't have a wolf's head then. But, in the picture, you sure do now..."
"Oh oh," he muttered, then asked "Fred, have you been sick recently?"
"Why, yes - a nasty summer flu," I replied. "Had me in bed, sick as a dog the last two days, but seems to have cleared up now. Why?"
"Um, would you mind if I dropped by?" he asked.
Now that was odd - he'd helped me move in so he knew the place, and he'd visited in the past, but he'd started keeping his distance over the last few years for some reason. The strange feeling was getting worse....
"Come ahead, you know you're always welcome!" I replied. "Damn. I - I - feel weird..."
"I'm on my way," Garry said quickly. "If anything strange happens just - take it easy, okay? Make sure the door's unlocked and that Security know I'm coming, please?" "Sure," I mumbled. He hung up and I put down the receiver.
My stomach felt sick, and I was holding my head to keep it from falling on the desk. More Flu? I called the Security Officer and asked him to admit Gary, then grabbed the walker, staggered over to the door and undid the lock and deadbolt. I was dizzy and ached all over - I managed to get back to the couch and fell into it.
Gary cradled the handset with a worried look on his furry face. Fred was almost seventy - this wasn't going to be easy on the old geezer. The big timber wolf hunted in his desk for the files he'd downloaded when he'd Changed several years ago, pulled them out and set them on the desk. He also found one of his spare 'Sleeping Sickness, Ivory Coast Variant' bracelets and dropped it in his pocket, then grabbed the files and got up.
"That's the picture Fred was talking about," he thought, looking up and smiling happily. He took a moment to look at the portrait yet again. It had been one of the last times he and Fred had gone out together, a year after he'd Changed - He'd been surprised and delighted that Fred had given him a big print of it, and he'd hung it proudly over his desk. The cat-woman who'd stopped to watch and laugh as he flourished the sword was named Katy, he remembered. It was really somewhat against the rules to draw the blade, but under the circumstances... He hadn't realized how much he'd missed Fred.
Trotting up the stairs, he called, "Honey, going to see Fred, be back in a bit!"
Darla looked up from her magazine, laughed, and said, "Okay! Have fun, be careful and tell Fred I miss him too!" and he smiled at her.
He slid out the front door then paused a moment to get used to the heat. Mid morning and already this hot? The day was going to be a scorcher! He unreeled his tongue and panted as he walked over to his big sedan and climbed in. He really didn't want the big blue car, but the space it offered was nice, as did the home made tail hole, and his wife hated driving the big brute. Riding in the her little Kia was a tail cramping pain now and he tried to avoid it, even if it did save on gas. Besides, he was in management these days, and management didn't drive little Kia's.
The trip to Fred's place only took a half hour on the freeway - Gary turned into the parking lot and found a space near the edge under a shady tree. All the spaces close to the building were Handicap slots, what you'd expect around a retirement building, but he enjoyed the walk to the door.
He was a bit startled by the Security Person who met him - a bear morph, wearing a uniform with the name tag of Schilling. They grinned at each other and shook, then Gary explained why he was there. Schilling remarked, "Yeah, Fred said to let you in. I haven't seen him today - hope he's all right," then passed him through.
Gary headed for the elevator and punched for Fred's floor. Walking up the hallway to the door, he had a moments worry - what was Fred like these days? It had been years since they'd worked together - they'd been close back then despite the age difference. He used the fancy knocker and rapped several times - paws just don't knock well - and heard a faint groan through the door. Alarmed, he opened it and stepped in...
As I lay back on the couch, I felt something tickling my leg. I pulled the robe open and looked at - fur? A tan patch of coarse hair was growing up my leg! What the HELL??
About then the leg itself began to change form - my foot extended and became thin, and the shin changed as well. The hair raced up and down my altered leg, then the other side began to grow hair and change too. The toes began to grow together and darken, starting to look like hooves, and the big and little toes drew up into the new lower leg and disappeared.
I was terrified - my heart was hammering to the point I was worried about another attack. What - what was happening to me!?! The fur grew quickly up my legs, then appeared on my arms! I closed my eyes and lay back, letting whatever this was happen as I fought to ease my racing heart with a breathing meditation. I felt the fur growing up my arms and on my chest, and something was happening around my penis...
"This is WEIRD," I thought and fought for calm. I seemed to be becoming some strange kind of animal - almost like... Gary?
Things had slowed while my chest was being rearranged. I heard a rapping at the door, then a creak as it opened. Gary called 'Hello?' I opened my eyes and froze in horror. A wolf - at my door! A WOLF! IT'S GOING TO EAT US! Run RUNNN! Something inside me screamed! I bleated loudly in terror, then jumped up and tried to run over the couch to get away! My legs tangled with the back, my head slammed into the floor, and I flopped over limp, out cold...
Gary froze and looked at Fred - the Change was well under way, the legs and arms finished and the chest growing fur and expanding as he watched. Fred opened his eyes at his call, looked at him, then with panicked terror in his eyes leaped up with a shrill bleat and tried to run away. He crashed into the seat back and fell over it, slamming into the floor head first, then lying unmoving.
Running over, Gary checked Fred quickly - breathing, but not moving. He found a bleeding cut on the still changing head but, knowing a bit of emergency medicine, he didn't move him. He slipped his phone out and called Security. When Schilling answered, Gary said "Fred's having problems, he's Changing - he just tried to jump over the couch to get away from me, cracked his head and now he's out cold on the floor. Can you get someone to help?" Schilling replied 'On my way."
It took a few minutes for the elevator to deliver Schilling to the right floor. He ran into the apartment, closed the door, then looked Fred over carefully. "Mmm, that looks like a bad cut, but head wounds always bleed bad. He's not really hurt, although he'll have a headache when he wakes. Looks like he's becoming a Pronghorn, I think. Here, help me get him up on the couch." The two of them lifted Fred and laid him on his back, then stepped back.
Schilling said, "Damn, if you scared the hell out of him, I'd better find someone who won't - he'll panic again if he sees the two of us hanging over him. Let him be for now and wait outside. I'll be right back." He darted out the door and ran down the hall.
Gary got to his feet and slowly walked out, looking back at his old friend - it didn't feel right leaving Fred lying there, but Schilling was right - for some reason he'd scared him badly, and didn't want to do it again.
The Security man was back a few minutes later, with an elderly horse lady in tow. She looked sharply at Gary, then put out a hand and they shook. She said, "So, you're Fred's friend? I'm Margy Hathaway, Changed a few years ago. There are several of us Changed here, probably more today especially if Fred's done so. I'll go take care of him - why don't you two wait in the lobby and I'll call Schilling when he's ready to see you."
She turned and walked into Fred's room, closing the door behind her. Gary looked at Schilling, who said, "She was a nurse for over forty years, she knows what she's doing. Come on, I'll get you some coffee down in my office."
As they waited for the elevator, Schilling mused, "Wonder how many others will turn up Changed now? I'm going to have to go through the building and check on everyone."
Gary chuckled and said, "Might take Margy with you!"
Schilling nodded and said, 'Good idea! Having a herbivore on hand for those types is smart - I don't need any more panic cases."
Slowly, I drifted back to consciousness, feeling a sharp pain and pressure on my head. My sense of smell had changed greatly - I could smell the hot stink of wolf and another carnivore, but the overwhelming odor was a comforting one, another herbivore. I relaxed slightly - my new instincts were comfortable with this.
Opening my eyes, I looked up at the horse sitting on the couch, holding my head in its lap. A horse? I blinked several times, and the horse said, "Easy, Fred, easy does it. You're all right, aside from a cut on the noggin. I'm Margy Hathaway, we've played cards together, you remember me. Welcome to the fuzzy side! Looks like you've become an anthro pronghorn antelope."
I blinked again, then noticed a protrusion blocking part of my sight. I reached up with a hand to feel it, then froze when I saw two large fingers and a thumb that looked like parts of a hoof where my hand should be?
The mare stroked my head and said, "I know it isn't easy, but your body has Changed. It happened to me several years ago, so I know how you feel. Take your time - here, I'll lift you up and set you upright, so you can look over your new self."
She lifted me off her lap then turned my body so I was seated on the couch. Something pinched above my bottom - I reached back and found I now had a tail! I moved it so it stopped hurting then settled back and began to examine myself. Tan fur, with white on the stomach - my legs were now quite thin and ended in two lobed hooves, like a goat or sheep. I reached up and checked both hands, then felt my muzzle and head. Horns? This felt very strange...
"You scared the whee out of your friend Gary," she continued. "You probably reacted to a new instinct and bashed your head trying to get away. When you feel you're in control, I'll call him - he's waiting down in the lobby."
I tried to say something, but all that came out was a bleat. Margy worked with me, teaching and helping until I could speak again. Then she helped me up and we practiced walking, which almost like dancing on tiptoes. My new hooves felt odd, but they gave a better grip than I thought they would, and were enough bigger than the real animals that I balanced easily once I got the trick of it. When I had some confidence I wouldn't fall over, she led me into the bedroom and I saw myself in the full length mirror for the first time.
Staring at my new face, I lifted a hand and stroked it. The most prominent feature was a pair of black horns that looked more like knife blades than the rounded tines of a deer or goat. I felt them - they were quite solidly mounted, with only a small amount of 'give'. I felt my ears - big and flickery, hard to catch, but soft and furry feeling. My eyes were now big and black, as was a large streak down the top of my face. The lower part of the muzzle was white, and there were two patches of black just below my ears behind the turn of my new jaw. I blinked several times, then checked my mouth - the dentation was very different. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them.
"So this is the new me? Not bad, overall," I said.
Margy chuckled, then said, "I did the same thing when I Changed. You ready to talk to Gary now?"
I nodded and continued to stare at my reflection in the mirror. Margy walked into the living room and called Security, then said, "Tell Gary Fred's ready for him, please. Thanks Schilling, Fred's going to be fine. No problem. Oh? Yes, be a good idea and I can delay my knitting to do it with no trouble. Yes, I'll wait here for you. Okay!" She hung up then called, "Gary's on his way up!" I took one last look at the new me, then turned, walked out to the couch and sat down to wait.
A rap on the door knocker - I wrapped myself in as much calm as I could muster, then said "Come in!" Gary stood in the door for a moment - I felt a touch of panic, fought it down, then got up and said, "Gary! Long time, my friend!" He walked in and I went to meet him, new hoof/hand extended. A bear in a security uniform looked in and I froze for a moment. "Officer Schilling?" I said. "A day for surprises, isn't it!" Now I recognized the other carnivore smell.
Schilling grinned at me, stepped in and closed the door, then said "Welcome to the Furry Side, Fred! Margy and I are going to do a room by room check to see if we have any more Changelings today. Don't worry about it, Gary will explain everything. Ready Margy?"
She patted my arm and said, "Everything will be all right now. You'll need a new diet, come talk to me about it when you're ready, okay?"
I smiled and thanked her profusely for her help. Schilling and Margy disappeared in the direction of the elevator, and I turned to Gary. "Have a seat," I said, pointing to the chair at the desk. Gary sat down and I said, "Now, witness a miracle - I can walk again, without pain! The damned arthritis is GONE!!!"
Gary looked startled, then his face lit up with pleasure. "Fred, that's the best news I've heard in ages! I'm so glad for you! I remember how you used to limp into the break room, and all the pills you took for the pain." He stood up and we hugged.
We sat down and Gary began to tell me about the Change. He handed me some folders with information about it, then gave me an emergency bracelet that said 'Sleeping Sickness, Ivory Coast Variant'. He explained about it, then helped me get on the register. Then he took another deep breath and said, "Fred, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you're still going to need that walker."
"What do you mean?" I said. "I feel great! I could run a marathon now with a good chance of winning! My heart feels good, my lungs are clear, and I don't hurt anymore! Why do I need this damned walker?" I picked it up and shook it at Gary. "I feel like it should be in the trash and good riddance to it!"
Gary sighed and said, "I know how you feel, I felt something of the same when I Changed. But. You can't see it, but there's a 'ghost' image around you, of you as you used to look when you were human. We call it the "Reality Distortion Field". You'll find that, if you put on shoes, they fit - and disappear. You need to dress to go outside this room, or your "Ghost" will appear naked. And since you were an old man plagued with arthritis, you have to act like it, or the others here will get suspicious that something's happened."
I fell back on the couch, stunned. "A, a 'ghost'? Surrounding me? The only folks I've seen so far have been you, Margy and Schilling, and they're all like us and I saw no sign of such around them..." I sputtered.
Gary sighed again, then said, "They're part of us, Changed. Here, take some time and read the packets, they'll explain better than I can. I'll wait and answer any questions you have. Hey, you remember Tommy, W3---? He's a skunk! And Bob, W7-- is an Elk! You'll love coming to Radio Club meetings these days!" I laughed at the images my mind drew of my old friends as the animals Gary described, then picked up the folder and started reading.
I made my slow shuffling way out to Gary's car, clattering along with the walker, grumbling and panting all the way. "Did you HAVE to park clear out at the edge? These clothes are tugging on my fur. Good God, that thing's a land yacht! What did you get that for? You had a nice Toyota pickup last time we went out together..."
Gary grinned, tongue out and panting, then opened the door and helped me in. He took the walker, folded it up and placed it in the back seat, then trotted around and slid into the drivers seat. "Fasten your belt, old man," he laughed, and I reached up, pulled it down and locked it on. "Got enough room for those horns?" he asked, and started the engine. Cautiously, I raised my head and tapped them on the ceiling, then settled back. "Yep!" I smiled. "Cool in here, isn't it?" he continued. "Why I park under a tree when I can." He reached down and started the AC. "And on a hot day, with all this fur, I need as much cool as I can get!" He smiled and reeled in his tongue, and I laughed with him.
We pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the freeway. The better part of an hour later, Gary pulled off on a ramp, then turned down a road leading into the countryside. After twenty minutes, he pulled over under a large tree and parked. We got out and took off our shirts and shoes. "Ready?" Gary asked, and I nodded. "One - two - THREE!" he shouted and we both took off running! I sprinted ahead, flying over the ground, breathing easily and feeling great! Gary loped along behind, at a steady pace - I easily outdistanced him!
We ran back and forth on that dirt road for hours, playing Roadrunner and Coyote or Wolf and Antelope - it seemed like forever. It had been well over a decade since I could even walk without pain, let alone run, and I was in Heaven! We ran and played through that afternoon, all alone out there, and when we got too hot we went back to the car, dug out the cooler and sat together swilling down cold water in the shade. I had my young buddy back, and was so happy....
I was dreading this. I had an appointment at the VA, and no way to skip it. The bus showed up at the door, and I shuffled my painful way on board then found an isolated seat. "That's a nice cologne," the lady in the next row said, and I smiled at her. I was getting used to having scent glands on my neck - at least they didn't stink.
Clattering my walker, I made my way inside when we arrived, then checked in at the main desk and took a seat. A nurse called me to run vitals. Nervously, I stood on the scale - "Mmm, gained a little weight? Good, you've been too skinny!" she smiled, then checked my temperature and blood pressure. I blinked when she said, "All good! Please wait in the lobby and the Doctor will call you when he's ready." The ghost really worked?
Shuffling down the hall behind him, I made my way into the office of Doctor Fazzoula, then slowly settled into a chair with a groan. "So, Fred, how's an old Vet doing these days?" he asked.
"Same as ever Doc, hurtin' and puny," I replied.
"Hmm, what's the bracelet, Fred?" he asked. "I don't think I've seen it on you before." I tensed. Then, reluctantly, I unlatched it and handed it over.
"Well, well. 'Sleeping Sickness, Ivory Coast Variant' eh? When did you catch it?" Doc asked. "August seventeenth, perhaps?"
I looked up abruptly - what was I hearing?
He grinned and said, "I'm one of the 'Known' - we know about the Change, although we can't see it and haven't had the luck to Change ourselves yet. So, what did you end up as?"
Sitting back, I took a deep breath and relaxed, then said, "Pronghorn Antelope."
Doctor Fazzouli nodded, then said, "So, the arthritis and heart problems are gone? I need to know for my private log, nothing official gets recorded until the Veil comes down."
"Yep, all gone as near as I can tell. I have to pretend to hurt though, so the other folks at the Center don't notice, and that hurts in its own way. Brings back bad memories..." I sighed.
"Well, you know what? I think I have a pill for that," Doc laughed. "It's highly experimental, expensive as hell, and you had to sign reams of paper just to get into the experimental group, right?" he said, and winked. He scribbled up a prescription on his pad, than handed it to me. "Over a period of several months, it should ease off the pain, and let you begin to walk normally." He leaned over and whispered, "Sugar pills - take them and act it out."
I grinned in delight, winked back, and shook his hand!