|Paradise story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
|This story is a work in progress.|
"Mommy! I don't feel well!" the anguished cry came from the bedroom down the hall.
Susan dropped the cookie sheet back into the box she was unpacking and hurried to her daughter's bedroom. She found Sarah laying in her bed, sweating and looking pale. She felt the girl's forehead and frowned, surprised at how quickly the girl had come down with the bug.
"It's okay; it's just a bad little bug. Just lay down and I'll take care of you." She squeezed Sarah's hand and ducked into the washroom to dampen a couple of face cloths. She brought wiped her daughter's face with one and rested the second one on her forehead.
Long into the night, she stood watch over the girl, not relaxing until well after the girl drifted off to sleep. Certain the girl was sleeping deeply, she tiptoed out of the bedroom and back to the kitchen. In the light coming from a bulb over the sink, she made herself a cup of tea, hoping that she wouldn't have to take Sarah to the doctor.
Susan fretted nervously, keeping an eye on Sarah through the next day. The only time she left her little girl's side was to duck out and pick up some needed groceries and other things to help with the girl's fever. She left Sarah in the care of her neighbour for that trip. Sarah never realized it. The little girl tossed and turned in a feverish sleep, barely waking the entire day. Late that evening, the girl's fever finally broke and she seemed to fall into a more restful sleep, almost purring to Susan's ears.
"Mommy!" Susan's eyes popped open and she forgot where she was for a moment. "I feel funny!" The girl's cry brought the mother back to full wakefulness.
The woman ran to the girl's room to find Susan sitting up. Colour had returned to her face and she was no longer sweating, but she was looking at her hands, holding them up above the covers. The tips of her fingers had puffed up, her nails engulfed by flesh, but growing longer. Sarah sat down on the bed next to her and hugged the girl. "It's okay, I'm here, I'm here," she said, rocking the girl, not sure what was going on herself. She stroked Susan's hair even as the girl's ears reshaped, perking up and beginning to twitch at her touch. She knew she should call an ambulance or something, but she couldn't bring herself to leave her girl; not yet.
"What's happening to me?" the girl asked, her nails thickening and swelling at their bases, hooking over into claws. Long thin hairs grew from her cheeks, her nose swelling out and pulling her lip upwards.
"I don't know dear, but I'm here. I'm here. Just relax." Susan had no idea what was going on with her daughter but she tried to keep her calm. The girl's chin swelled out with her nose into a muzzle, canine teeth growing larger. The hair over her body thickened into fur, tawny yellow on her back and arms, white on her neck and belly, with random black spots.
The girl wiggled a bit and a tail snaked out from behind her, brushing her shocked mother. "Sarah?" she asked, looking at the feline face that had replaced her daughter. She tried not to sound nervous.
"Mommy? What happened? What am I?" she wiggled her feet out from under the covers, the foot stretched out, pads thickening on her foot and claws growing out.
Susan hugged her again and rocked her gently, tensing at the weird sensation of fur on her daughter. The changes seemed to have stopped, leaving the humanoid feline where her daughter had been. "I... I don't know dear. But things will be okay... it's going to be all right. Somehow it'll be all right."
As far as she could tell, Sarah was still Sarah, just in a jaguar-like body. For the first few days she had tried to hide the girl in the house, fearing what others might do if they saw her. Being new to the city, she didn't even have a family doctor yet she could turn to ask questions about. It had quickly become apparent that Sarah's case seemed unique, but that left her with no explanations and no one else to turn to.
The girl herself seemed to be handling it well all things considered. She played with her dolls and adjusted to her claws and tail with surprising ease. Cabin fever became more and more a problem as the days wore on. Sarah wanted to go outside and play with her toys outside in the sun, but Susan refused to let her out, fearing what others would think when they saw the cat-girl. But it was just the two of them in their little house; there was no way she could keep an eye on her girl all the time. So on the third day, while Susan was taking a shower, Sarah snuck outside to play on the swing set.
"Feeling better, Sarah ?" Cindy, their neighbour asked, noticing the girl from her own yard.
"Yup! All good now!" Sarah called back.
Cindy nodded and looked over the fence, looking Sarah over. "That's good. You had us worried there for a bit."
"SARAH!" Susan's voice interrupted them, the mother rushing out of the house to pick up her daughter. "You know you aren't supposed to go outside!"
"Is everything okay, Susan? We haven't seen either of you in days," Cindy asked, drawing the mothers attention to the fence.
Susan hugged her daughter and turned a little, trying to hide her feline daughter as much as possible. "Everything's fine. Sarah's all better now. The Doc just advised us to keep her inside for a bit to make sure she doesn't have a relapse."
Cindy looked confused but decided not to press the point too much. "If you say so. She said she was fine though. If you are busy inside, I can keep an eye on her for you again. I know you're still unpacking, and your job starts soon right?"
Susan tensed and took a few steps towards the house. "No, no, we're fine. Thank you for the offer." She paused as she realized who she was talking to. "Did... Did you notice anything off about Sarah?.... It's just the two of us here; I'm worried I'm being too protective of her now," Susan asked, making up an explanation on the fly.
"She seems fine," Cindy smiled and laughed, trying to calm her neighbour, "I should know after all, I've raised two kids myself. Why don't I come over and give you a hand, or a break at least."
The mother looked down at her daughter who looked back up at her. The cat face, the fur, the claws, the tails, they were all so obvious to her. Yet Cindy didn't even bat an eye. Susan couldn't figure out how this could be possible. How could she and Sarah see one thing, yet her neighbour see something else, something that didn't freak her out? Susan searched her mind, trying to come up with a plausible reason to turn down Cindy's offer, but she came up dry. "Sure, come on over. And I'm sorry for the mess."
Cindy stayed for a few hours, helping the young family unpack more of their boxes and organize the mess. Susan was a bundle of nerves through the entire process, keeping an eye on Sarah for any strange behavior, and trying to figure out why Cindy couldn't see the real Sarah.
Cindy helped them prepare dinner, but declined to stay and eat with them. When the woman left, Susan served the meal to her daughter and sat down herself. Nothing made sense; something had made her girl into this cat creature, and she was sure it was real. Yet her neighbour, and presumably everyone else saw Sarah as a normal young girl. It was impossible, yet it had happened somehow. As she poked at her own meal, she realized that if her presumption was correct, it would mean that they might be able to live somewhat normally.
The next morning, she built up her nerve and decided to test it for certain. She would take Sarah with her to the grocery store. She got them both ready to go and hesitated, looking from Sarah's shoes, to her paw-feet. There didn't seem to be any way to make the shoes fit on the changed feet, but there was no way she could take the girl barefoot. She sighed and looked at the girl who was already impatient to be leaving.
"We need to make this work somehow. Try not to wiggle your toes too much and I think we can get your foot into these," She said, loosening up one of the sneakers as far as she dared. Sarah lifted her paw, claws twitching a bit and Susan was certain it wasn't going to work. She pushed the shoe on until Sarah yelped, then tied it up. To both of their surprises, the shoe disappeared from view.
"Cool!" Sarah called out, wiggling her once again bare foot.
Susan dismayed. 'What are we going to do now?' she thought to herself. 'How is that even POSSIBLE?'. She held the remaining shoe, then reached to the apparently bare foot that she had put the first one on. To her surprise, she could faintly feel the shoe in place even though her eyes told her there was nothing there. When her hand touched the laces it suddenly snapped back into view. Lifting her hand away, it once again disappeared. Sarah giggled and began to play with it, reaching down and touching the laces to make it appear, and lifting her claw away to make it disappear again.
Susan watched and shook her head. "Okay, maybe it's like whatever it is that affects Cindy. We can't see the shoes, but everyone else can. That must be it. That has to be it. Give me your other foot please, dear. We have to get going. You can play outside when we get back." She slipped the other shoe on over the foot and tied it off, watching it disappear as well. There was no way that should be possible, but it was happening.
She pushed the thought to the side, and reached a hand out to the girl. "Time to go. Lets go get some food for dinner."
Susan collapsed an empty box and tossed it in the pile to take to put out with the recycling. Tomorrow was going to be the big test. The school year was only a few weeks away from starting, and her new job as a secretary at the school was starting up. Before Sarah's change, she had picked a daycare for the girl, but now she was having second thoughts. She wasn't sure if Sarah could keep her strange nature quiet from the other kids. Taking her out shopping, and visiting with Cindy had reassured her a little that no one else could see her as anything but a girl. But she had been with the girl almost all the time then. The day care would mean leaving her alone all day with strangers. She hated that particular thought, but there was no way she could get around it.
"Sarah, it's time to get ready for bed," she called out after glancing at the clock. The girl looked up, brushing her doll's hair with her claws out. She'd used a crayon to draw whiskers and spots on the doll's cheeks.
"Look mom! Annie's a kitty like me."
"I see that. But it's time to go to bed. I have work tomorrow, and you have your first day at the day care. Remember what we talked about? Be careful of your nails, and your t-... your tail. Don't let anyone near them."
Sarah nodded and yawned hugely. Susan shivered at the sight of the fangs in her daughter's mouth and tried to ignore them. She took the rough palm in hand and helped her get ready for bed.
"Night Kitty," She said, tucking her into the bed, setting Annie next to her. "Sleep tight."
The feline yawned again and smiled sleepily. "ni-ni mommy."
The mother clicked off the light and watched her daughter in the darkened room. Before the Change, Sarah had always needed a night light on in her room to sleep easily. But now, she preferred the darkness. In fact she claimed it wasn't really all that dark even with the lights off. One more detail on top of all the rest in the mystery that her daughter had become.
Susan plowed through the backlog of student transfers on her desk, trying to catch up, and to not worry about Sarah at the daycare. Her phone rang, jolting her attention back into the office. "Lakeside Middle School, Susan Daye speaking. How may I help you?" she answered automatically.
"Mrs Daye? This is Joyce Winters, at Little Tykes Day Care. I realize you are at work, but could you come down here as soon as possible? There has been an... an incident with Sarah." She recognized the voice at once, and felt a chill run down her spine.
"An incident? Is Sarah okay? What happened?"
"Sarah is fine. No one was injured or anything like that. But please, come down here as soon as possible."
Susan looked sadly at the pile of transfers and sighed. "I'll be right there."
She hung up the phone and picked up her jacket and purse. "Beth, I have to go get Sarah. There's been another incident."
The other secretary looked up from her own work. "Two in one week? Is everything all right?"
Her thoughts went to her feline daughter and she winced. "Yes, everything's fine. Sarah's just having a hard time adjusting to the day cares," she lied. She tapped the pile of transfers. "I hate to impose, especially since I'm the new one here, but could you...?"
"It's your daughter. Go. I'll take care of the transfers."
She left the school and drove to the day care, going the speed limit the entire way. At least Joyce had said no one was hurt, but the owner's voice had hinted at what was coming. 'Something is wrong with your daughter and we can't handle it. Please pick her up and don't bring her back'. She pulled into the driveway and parked, rushing to the entrance.
"Mommy!" Sarah called out, rushing to her mother as soon as she walked into the day care. The girl clung to her mother's legs while Susan gave the place a quick look-over. Nothing seemed amiss, but none of the other children had been near Sarah when she came in.
"Mrs Daye? Thank you for coming so quickly," the daycare owner greeted Sarah, approaching from further in the room.
"I'm not sure exactly. I was taking care of a couple of the other children, my back briefly turned away from where Sarah was playing with some of the dolls. The next thing I heard was a screech, a thump and a crack. When I turned to the noise, one of the boys had fallen back, and Sarah was... I can't really explain it. It looked like she had bitten the plastic ladder of the fire truck in half somehow."
"He stepped on my tail," Sarah piped up helpfully. Her mother quickly shushed her, looking down at her daughter to hide her own increasing nervousness. Sarah's newfound jaw strength had been yet another surprise they had discovered recently, after Sarah refused to brush her teeth and snapped the brush in her mouth.
Joyce seemed confused but continued. "The boy was fine, just startled. And as far as I could tell, the plastic didn't cut Sarah's mouth when she bit the ladder...."
Susan looked up, already anticipating what was coming. "But?"
"But... I'm afraid we'll have to ask you to take Sarah out of this daycare. We will refund your first week's payment, less the cost for yesterday and today. But frankly, I'm not sure we can provide the care she needs."
Susan sighed and nodded, accepting the inevitable. They quickly got the paperwork cleared up while Sarah brushed her doll's hair with her claws. Once it was done, she rushed her daughter out to the car.
"Did I do something wrong, mommy?"
Sarah made sure she was belted into her seat and squeezed her girl's paw-like hands, trying to act normally. "No dear, you didn't do anything wrong. You're just going to spend the rest of today and tomorrow with me at the school, and we'll find another daycare for you on Monday."
"The school? Can I play on the swings!"
"As long as you stay in sight of my office window." Susan smiled and closed the door, wondering how she would find another daycare that could take Sarah now. Little Tykes had been the second daycare in four days for the girl, and the only one she had been able to find on short notice after a claw incident at Wee Tots. They too had politely but firmly asked her to withdraw Sarah. The challenge remained prominent in her mind through the rest of the day and evening.
Friday dawned rainy and gloomy, perfectly matching Susan's mood. She packed up some colouring books and other toys for Sarah and brought her into the office for the day. The girl set herself up near Susan's desk and played quietly while her mom worked.
"Sarah! Please don't touch that!" Beth called out, drawing Susan's attention sharply. She saw Sarah looking closely at the copier, her claw reaching up towards the buttons. They had just gotten back from lunch and she was getting bored of staying in the office.
"Come back here, Sarah," she called out. "Come finish colouring your picture here," she added, pointing to the book on the corner of her desk.
Sarah pouted. "I am done!" she called back across the office, her tail twitching against the copier.
"Sounds like someone needs a change of scenery. I just got some new modeling clay in for the new year. Would you like to try it out for me, and make sure it can be shaped?" Monica, the arts teacher came out of the back room and crouched next to the girl. "That's if your mommy says it is okay to do that."
Sarah's eyes widened and she looked back at her mom. "Can I mom?"
"May I. It is 'May I'," Susan corrected her, smiling thankfully to the arts teacher.
"May I go play with the clay?"
"Yes you may. But don't cause Mrs Daigle any trouble."
Monica took Sarah's hand and smiled. "I'm sure she won't. If you're really good, I've got some paint that needs checked too."
"Thanks Monica," Susan called out to the departing pair. They waved back and left the office.
With Sarah temporarily out of the way, Susan managed to refocus on her work and get most of it done. In spare moments, she called various other daycares in the city from a list she had made up. To her dismay, word about Sarah had spread. While they were pleasant enough when they answered the phone, when they discovered who she was, any space suddenly disappeared.
Towards the end of the afternoon, her list was rapidly disappearing, along with her hopes. The last ones left were across the river or otherwise out of the way for her, but she was out of options. The next one to call had a puzzling name; it sounded more like a kennel than a day care, but it was in the phone book, complete with an ad saying they looked after children. She picked up the phone and dialed.
"Tiny Paws Daycare. Carol speaking," the woman answered. In the background she could hear children playing.
"My name is Susan Daye. I am a secretary at Lakeview Middle School and I'm looking for a daycare for my daughter, Sarah," Susan said, trying to sound upbeat.
"Lakeview Middle? A bit out of the way to be coming to us.... Excuse me, what did you say your name was?"
Susan's heart fell, and she scratched the name off the list. "Susan Daye. My daughter is Sarah."
"Ah yes, I thought the name was familiar. Sarah's been building a bit of a reputation, hasn't she? Something about some curtains at Wee Tots?" the voice chuckled at the other end of the phone.
Susan winced and sighed. "I'm sorry for wasting your time. I'll keep looking."
"Why would you do that? I haven't said no yet. Why don't you come over when you can, and we'll see how well Sarah may fit in with my little menagerie."
"Mena-... Never mind. Thank you, Carol. I... we'll be out shortly. Thank you." She hung up the phone, a little stunned. This daycare had heard of Sarah's actions, but wasn't holding it against her. She wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Still, it was the only possibility they had at the moment.
"Go on Susan, it's Friday afternoon and we're mostly done. Just make sure this is the right place. School starts on Monday and we're going to need you here." Beth called from the other desk before Sarah could ask.
"Thanks Beth. Hopefully this will be the last time," Susan replied, grabbing her stuff. She fast walked through the halls to the art room and peeked in. The girl was crouched on the floor on a big sheet of paper. She had some cups of paint and a couple of thick brushes and was carefully painting something. Monica was at a cupboard, sorting and inventorying the supplies, but keeping an eye on the girl.
"How are you two doing?" she called out, stepping into the room.
"Almost done," Sarah called back, not breaking her concentration on the paint.
Monica waved her over. "She's been good as gold. But I'm a little puzzled by something," Monica explained, pointing to a flattened lump of clay on her desk. Two small hand prints had been pressed into it. Monica pointed to the clay and lowered her voice. "The hand prints. Something is different about them, the holes at the finger tips for example. I can't figure out how she did them."
Susan shrugged, thinking quickly to make an excuse and get off the subject. "Maybe there were air pockets in the clay or something? Thanks for looking after her. She really wasn't a problem?"
"Not at all. I wish my students were as neat and clean as she was."
"Good good, that's something at least." Susan ignored Monica's inquisitive look. "Are you done yet Sarah? We have to go check out another daycare."
Sarah added another brush stroke to the picture and dropped her brush into a cup of water. "Done!" she exclaimed. The adults moved over to look at it.
"What a cute kitty. What's its name?" Monica asked.
Sarah giggled. "It's me, silly. It's name is Sarah."
"It's you? But you aren't a kitty," Monica corrected her.
Sarah stuck her tongue out and wiggled her fingers. "Yes I am! See?!"
"Let's get this stuff cleaned up, so we can get going," Susan interrupted quickly. "We'll leave your painting and your hand prints here to dry and I'll bring them home with me on Monday."
"Go on, Susan. I'll clean this up for you. You look anxious to get going."
"Thanks Monica. Come along Sarah."
Tiny Paws Daycare proved to be a house on the outskirts of the city, right on the border where a new subdivision met old farmland. The house predated the subdivision, not having the cookie cutter look that many of the other buildings had. Susan drove past it once, looking over the nicely kept home with a wet fenced-in play area to the side. She pulled into a driveway a few houses down and twisted to look at Sarah in the back.
"Do you remember what I told you? To not say you are a kitty? And to be careful of your tail and claws?"
"Good good." She put the car back in gear and backtracked to the house, pulling into the driveway. A latched gate would let kids out from the outside playground were the weather better. The main entrance proved to be a door into the finished basement. She mumbled a quick prayer that this would work out and rang the bell. Inside, she could hear the muffled sounds of kids playing deeper in the house. After a few minutes a woman opened the door, brown haired with a pointed nose and dark eyes. Susan heard Sarah gasp in surprise.
The woman looked at both of them and smiled. "You must be Susan. And you're little Sarah. Come in, come in. Don't mind your shoes." She stepped to the side to let them step into the small mudroom.
Susan caught a variety of puzzling scents in the house, mostly of the various scents day cares inevitably pick up, and other smells she couldn't place. There were muddy tracks in the mudroom, including the prints from what looked like a large dog and a small hoofed creature. She began to have second thoughts about this daycare.
"I'm a kitty!" Sarah called out abruptly. Susan turned to shush her, but the shush died in her throat.
Carol laughed and ruffled Sarah's head. "I can see that. A very pretty spotted kitty."
"You're a doggy!" Sarah said back, looking up proudly.
"You got it. I'm a big doggy."
Susan gasped in surprise and suddenly felt dizzy. She slumped down onto a bench against the wall even as Carol twisted somehow, an after image of a bipedal 'Lassie' appearing around the woman.
"Susan?... Oh my god... you didn't know, did you? I assumed when you called... Oh my...." Susan heard Carol's voice coming from the creature, still able to see the woman she had met, but seeing the collie as well. The collie-woman reached out a hand and touched her own; she had the faint feeling of claws and rough paw pads.
"When did Sarah change? When did she become the jaguar?" Carol asked.
"A week or so ago," Susan mumbled, her mind still numb. She heard clicking on tile, and noticed two young boys peeking around the door frame; but both of them also had the ghost image around them, one with a muzzle of a bull and the barest start of horns, the older one with a thinner muzzle, but larger horns that were already turning, like a ram.
"I'm sorry. I assumed you knew; that you found me on the networks. I never considered you were a complete newbie. I should have realized it, with the other daycares. Oh my, there's so much you need to be told. This must be such a shock for you.... Bobby! Michael! Please take Sarah into the playroom. Mrs Daye and I will be in their shortly."
"It's Miss Daye," Susan mumbled again, picking up on the only detail that made sense.
The two young boys stepped into full view, standing on hooves and furry, with thick fingered hands. They looked shyly towards Sarah who hesitated, taking her mom's other hand. Susan gulped uncertainly, not sure what she was seeing or if she could trust it. She decided she had to trust them, she had to trust them. "It's okay Sarah, go ahead. I'll be right behind you." The girl smiled and ran to the boys. All three disappeared around the corner, the sound of clicking on the tiles the only remnant of their movements.
"Who... What... What's going on around here?" Susan asked. "What happened to Sarah? What did you do to her?"
"It's something we call the Change. We don't know what causes it or triggers it, but it happens every year in August. It's completely random who it picks though. Your Sarah just happened to be picked this year. Come with me, you look like you could use some tea or something."
Carol helped Susan stand up, and escorted her deeper into the house, passing through the play areas. There were two other girls in there, but she didn't feel the mind-wrenching dizziness that she had felt with Carol or the other boys.
"What are you?" the first girl was asking Sarah.
"She's a cat, can't you see that?" the ram shot back, his voice with a bit of gruffness to it. He was the biggest of the group, though the girl looked to be almost his age.
"You know I can't see you yet, Bobby!" the girl shouted back, glaring at the ram. She looked back at Sarah. "A cat? That's pretty. I hope I'll be a cat too. But my dad's a raccoon."
"How many of you are there?" Susan whispered, not wanting to interrupt the children who paid no heed to the adults.
Carol lead her to a small kitchenette that overlooked the play area and sat her down on a stool. She offered a glass of water. "Worldwide? A couple million now. But in here it's just the four of us. Me, Michael, Bobby and now Sarah. Rachel and Lily have a Changed parent each. And once school starts again, I'll have two more Changed children and a couple more with Changed parents who come in on the bus after school."
"Changed?... You mean people who are like you?"
"Exactly. It's been going on for years now, more and more of us every August. But there's a protective field around us that makes look normal to the unchanged. It looks like you figured that much out at least."
"But I'm unchanged and I can see you!"
The collie nodded. "But your daughter is changed. It's a variant that developed recently that lets parents see their Changed children, especially Changed young children. There's no exact date but it seems to stop happening by the time they reach their teens. It's a protective adaptation really, since child-Fields tend to be weaker and they're less able to hide naturally like adults can. The exemption doesn't work as well with older Changed, but if you suspect we're Changed you can usually see through it."
Sarah rubbed her forehead and looked at the kids who were playing together normally enough, even though three of them were morphic animals. She sipped the water. "So all of your kids here are Changed?"
"Or have a Changed parent. Most of my advertising is on our networks, giving parents around here a place they can leave Changed kids, or Knowing kids and not need to worry as much about what the kids are saying while they're away."
She smiled and pointed to the bull. "Michael is mine. I changed a few years ago while I was pregnant, and he changed at the same time. We were quite surprised when we realized he had hooves instead of claws though." She chuckled, wagging her tail. "My husband accepts it, he has no choice really, but he isn't all that happy about it. You see, Children usually follow one of their parent's forms. And since I'm a collie, it means Richard will probably be chewing cud and buffing horns by the time he Changes."
Susan smiled to herself at the thought of herself as a jaguar like Sarah and hunting down her no-good-ex.
"Is there a Mr Daye who should be hearing this too?" Carol asked, almost like she was reading her thoughts.
"No, that no good bas-... no good person ran out on us when Sarah was six months old, and we haven't seen him since. Not that he was there much to begin with. I think he was chasing some blond haired floozy or something."
"I see. I'm sorry for reopening old wounds."
Sarah looked up and had to laugh, seeing the ghost-collie's ears bent down, the dog morph looking truly sorry. "That's fine. It's an old wound, but I'm over him. It's just been a stressful summer, between moving, a new job, Sarah's Change, and everything else."
"Well your welcome to stay for a bit, meet some of the other parents and ask any questions you may have about anything. To be honest, I wouldn't mind a little adult company too."
They talked through the rest of the afternoon, setting Susan more at ease about what had happened and with Carol as well. The daycare worker loved children, no matter what they looked like, and it showed. Sarah took a shine to the other children as well. For the first time since that stressful weekend, things seemed to be falling into place.
First Day of School
Sarah worked away at her computer, half listening as the principal finished greeting the students over the PA system from his office. She heard tapping at the counter, but she didn't look up; Beth was closer and she tended to handle the visitors, at least until Susan got used to the school more.
"Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. First period hasn't even technically started. What are you doing down here so early?" Beth called out, greeting the student at the window.
"Miss MacLean sent me down, And I wanted to say hi to you, Mrs Minglewood," a voice growled out.
"And hi to you too. Why did Miss MacLean send you down here?" Beth asked, playing along with the student in a game the two seemed familiar with.
"Da usual. Cuz I won't take off my hat and coat."
"I can see that. Why won't you do that?"
"Cuz I don't wanna."
Beth sighed and sat back in her chair. "It's 90 degrees out, Jimmy. Aren't you hot? I can hear you panting from here."
"Don't care. Don't wanna take dem off."
Susan finished the report and saved it. She looked up and saw a student from one of the upper grades, wearing a wide brimmed hat, a long, ill-fitting coat and gloves. She winced and felt a somewhat familiar world twist, and noticed the ghost of a whiskered muzzle barely extending past the brim. She began to suspect what was wrong.
"Let me handle this, Beth," Susan said, standing up and heading to the office door.
"You sure?" Beth put out a hand to stop Susan and lowered her voice. "This is Jimmy McElroy. He does this at the start of every term."
"He does? Well, I'd like to talk to him anyway."
"Fair enough. He's a nice enough kid, decent grades, rarely gets in trouble. So don't put too much pressure on him. He usually gives up on the hat and coat after a few weeks."
She nodded and stepped into the hall, grabbing the key to the health room, and thinking about what Beth had told her. The behavior seemed to indicate Jimmy had changed years ago, but surely he should know about the field?. She nodded to the boy and unlocked the health room. "Hello Jimmy, I'm Miss Daye. Why don't we step into here and we can talk." She looked around and leaned closer to whisper. "I think I know why you won't take your hat off."
The boy looked at her warily while she unlocked the door. He followed her into the room and she nudged the door mostly shut, leaving it cracked open.
"So why do you think I won't take dem off?" he asked, sitting on the cot and crossing his arms. She noticed the back of his coat seemed to twitch a little, something unseen moving underneath it.
She gulped and sat down across from him. "It's because of what happened to you. I can see what you are, what you really are; what you're trying to hide it from everyone else. Don't worry though, I'm the only one who can see you like that, unless there are other Changed here," she said, tilting her head and seeing a rat-like face under the brim.
Jimmy looked back at her for a long moment, and then he did something she didn't expect. He started laughing.
"What is it? Am I wrong?" Susan asked, confused.
He laughed harder and took his hat off, revealing his big ears pressed back, whiskers twitching. He fanned himself with it a bit and managed to get his laughter down to a snicker. "You mean you think I'm hiding cuz I'm a rat? Dat's not it. I've been like this fer a couple years now."
Susan sat there, stunned for a moment. "Oh," she finally said, trying to recover. "Uhm... then why are you still wearing the coat and hat?"
The rat boy shrugged, sniffing the air and wiggling his whiskers. "I told yah, I just wanted to. How come youse can see me?"
She briefly pondered what to say, then decided to try to build a bit of trust. "It was my daughter, she changed this year. She's still very young."
"Oh the PU Exception. Gotcha. You didn't seem to be da fuzzy type."
"Fuzzy?... Nevermind. Well..., would you please remove your hat while you are in classes? It's just a matter of politeness."
He looked her over and sniffed again. "Your daughter, she's a cat isn't she?"
"Yes she is. A jaguar."
"Well, since you asked so politely, Ah guess I can keep my hat off in classes. In da halls though, I'm wearing it. And I'm not taking the coat off. And don't think it's cuz you have a cat fer a daughter. I ain't scared of no cats."
Susan sighed, and decided that was enough. "Fair enough. Head back to class, but remember your hat."
He stood up and tilted the hat to her before putting it on, squishing it over his ears.
"Jimmy, hold on a sec. Are there any more Changed in the school I should know about?"
"More fuzzys? Well let's see. I don't know if we got any in with the new Grade 6ers, but there's me and there's Marilyn McKay. She's a squirrel, nice tail but she won't talk to me. My friend, Roger is furry but not fuzzy yet. He knows about the Change and can almost see me. And I heard Ryan Knight changed to a horse last month. He was on the basketball team star, don't know if he'll still be on it now."
The rat boy opened the door more and stopped. "Oh yeah, and there's Stinky Hayward. He's the shop teacher and a skunk. Keeps his scent down mostly but he's gotten that rep through the years. He's the longest Changed I know about."
"A furry?... No never mind, I'll find out later. Thanks Jimmy. Get back to your classes. And remember your hat."
"Aye aye, ma'am." The rat waved and disappeared down the hall.
Susan sat there a moment and jotted down the names he had mentioned. She made a mental promise to track down all of the Changed as soon as she could come up with a reason to. That one of the teachers was Changed was a surprise, but not a big one. It was a large school, and the shop classes were at the far end of the building, away from the front offices. Technically she should have met all of the teachers before the start of classes, but with the emergencies from Sarah's change, she had missed a lot of them, including the one who could probably have solved a lot of problems ahead of time.
She relocked the health room and walked back into the office.
"You get him all settled?" Beth asked, glancing up.
"More or less. Hat's off for classes, jacket stays on. I'm afraid I wasn't as good help as I expected to be."
Beth chuckled and got up as a printer whirred into life. "You got the hat off? I'm impressed. We usually don't convince him to take the hat off till the second week. Strange kid, but he's harmless."
"Thanks... I think." Susan sat back down at her desk and looked at the list of names she had brought back. New school or not, this was going to be an interesting school year for her.