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|Paradise story universe|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
An October evening settled over Blacksburg, bringing with it crisp orange and yellow leaves, and a cool breeze over Brush Mountain and through the New River Valley. Tree branches rattled like chopsticks and shook curdled leaves free. Jack-o-lanterns grinned their fiery light from porch-tops while tombstones, ghosts, and ghouls stalked leaf-strewn lawns. The streets were quiet as most of the residents stayed inside to watch Tech football.
But not everyone.
"I hate Vector Geometry!" Kyle snapped as he slammed his textbook shut. "This doesn't make any sense at all!"
"You'll never survive in Engineering if you don't figure it out," Rob pointed out. The skunk sat on his couch with one arm draped over Audrey's shoulder and his long tail curled around behind her like a blanket. Her head laid against Rob's chest, eyes closed in peaceful repose, her sketchbook forgotten in her lap.
"Chris, can you help him?" Barb asked. The panther sat on the other side of the couch with her open backpack between her legs. Various projects stuck out of the top; collages, a few drawings, and some raw materials.
Relaxing in the corner chair, Chris the rat lifted open his eyes and his whiskers trembled in a smile. "Whadya need help with?"
Kyle, who sat in the middle couch with his math homework strewn on the coffee table, pulled at the ever expandable fur on his cheeks in exasperation. "Complex numbers. I understand i being the square root of negative one, although that doesn't make much sense either. But what's with Complex numbers?"
Chris's ears lifted as he stood up, tail dragging off the cushions. "I'm pretty good with this stuff. Let me see if I can explain it." The chipmunk slid down the couch to give Chris some room to sit. With one paw, the rat pulled his thick tail to the side as he sat. He picked up one of Kyle's pencils and beat the end against his incisors. "Okay, show me what you have so far."
While Kyle and Chris looked over the math, Rob and Barb resumed their conversation. It was the first time all four Blacksburg Changed had been able to get together by themselves since the beginning of the semester. They always met with SOAP on Friday nights, but they couldn't admit what they were. With only Audrey and Patrick in the know, they each had to keep a careful watch on how they spoke to each other.
But with Chris having a Jan-free weekend, and Rob for once caught up on his school work, it was easy to set aside a few hours to gather and just enjoy being Changed. But they'd quickly discovered that after a long week, none of them wanted to really do much. Audrey and Chris were both exhausted after a long day at work, Rob wasn't much better himself, Barb was always a goner once evening set in, and Kyle was preoccupied with catching up on his Vector Geometry homework.
Still, they all enjoyed gathering for a few hours in the evening.
"So, does that make more sense?" Chris asked after scribbling charts and equations all over a blank sheet of paper.
Kyle nodded, short tail flicking energetically back and forth. "Yeah, I think so."
"Complex numbers are really neat," Chris added with a chitter. "Once you get the feel for them, it's amazing how much they can actually do for you."
"I hope so! I'm going to see a lot more of these according to my professor."
"Who do you have?"
"Some grad student. I don't think he even knows the material!"
"It might be his first time teaching the class," Chris pointed out. "I did the same thing a couple years ago before I went on research."
"How's that coming?"
"Good. I've got a long way to go, but my advisor isn't giving me dirty looks anymore."
Barb nodded her head with a feline smile. "That's very important! When do you think you'll graduate?"
"Maybe next Spring if I work my tail off."
Rob smirked. "And if you can keep Jan from dragging you on a bike trip every other weekend."
Chris rolled his eyes. "That would help!"
"Isn't Leslie a little suspicious about all your trips?" Barb asked.
The rat grunted and sat back while Kyle resumed his homework unaided. "If she is, she's not telling me about it. She tends to keep these things to herself."
"Pot. Kettle. Black," Audrey murmured without even opening her eyes.
"I was planning on telling her last week!" Chris protested in a squeaky voice. "We had a day off together for once and we took a nice long drive and hiked up Dragon Tooth Pass. I had it all planned out. I was going to take off my shoes and leave paw prints in the ground and I was going to chew some wood into dust to prove it to her."
"So what happened?" the panther asked.
Chris sighed, lowering his whiskers and snout. "It just never seemed the right time."
"There is no right time," Rob declared. "That's why you just need to tell her and get it over with. You said you'd tell her once you were male again. Well you've been male for two months now, Chris, and you're no closer to admitting it!"
"I know, I know. I'll... I'll tell her on Halloween. It's a special day for us. Our first date was on Halloween of all things."
"I thought you said Leslie was working on Halloween," Rob pointed out.
The rat sighed again, his ears and whiskers drooping. "Oh, right. Gah. I'll... I'll figure it out. It's just, how do I tell her that I've been female for most of our marriage? It'll hurt her."
"The longer you wait," Barb added compassionately, "the worse it will be."
"I know." Chris dug his claws into the carpet. "I just need the courage to tell her."
"You'll find it," Audrey assured him.
"Argh!" Kyle squealed. "I hate Vector Geometry!"
The sudden interjection was enough to lighten the rat's heart. With a laugh, he sat up and asked the chipmunk what was wrong this time.
Chris pondered his friends' advice as he wound his way through the maze of roads that is the Foxridge apartments complex. Leslie deserved to know what had happened to him. But how would she react? How could she handle knowing her husband had been female for most of their marriage? He'd lied to her. Simple as that. And he had been lying to her for a very long time. How could she accept that?
The rat's whiskers drooped. The longer he waited the harder it would be. That truth was unavoidable. Another was like it; there was no such thing as the perfect time. Whatever time he told her would be the right one, and he'd never be able to know different.
Running low on fuel, Chris pulled into a small gas station, tossing these ideas back and forth in his mind. The sharp bite of gasoline hit his nose, and a few shouted curses struck his ears. He reached for his wallet and glanced at the convenience store curious to see where the swearing came from.
His paw froze, wallet half drawn from his pocket. Out the door burst three armed men in masks. They were laughing and had the stink of booze about them. Their eyes, glaring white, fell upon the rat and the largest of the three pointed his gun. "Get in the car, kid. We're going for a ride."
Chris stammered, his heart stuttering with each syllable, "Wha.. wha... what?"
One of the other two, both a little shorter of stature, but equally menacing in form, waved his gun. "Shut the fuck up and get in the car!"
"Do it now, kid," the first said, blowing stale booze breath in his snout.
"Uh.." Chris said, letting his wallet slide back into his jeans. His paws shaking, tail drawing tight against himself, the rat slid back inside. The leader took shotgun, and kept his pistol levelled at Chris's mid-section. The other two slid in the back.
With his free hand the leader buckled his seat belt, white eyes glaring meaningfully at the rat. "Now we're all going to go for a little drive in the country."
"Please," Chris managed in a high-pitched squeak. "Take my car. Just let me go."
"Just shut up and drive!" the second snapped in tones so sharp they cut ice.
Chris squeezed his eyes shut, fighting back a sob, and turned the ignition. The engine rolled over with a gasp and he eased the Saturn onto the road. "Good," the leader said, his mask splitting into a satisfied grin. His breath stank of booze, his flesh reeked with sweat and industrial chemicals, and his gun sizzled the air. "Not too fast now, we wouldn't want to get a speeding ticket."
The other two laughed as if that were the funniest joke they'd ever heard. Chris cringed and gripped the steering wheel with both paws. He tried to angle them into the right lane. A right turn onto Prices Fork would take them back into Blacksburg. With all the street lights, surely somebody would see.
"Left lane, kid," the leader suggested, poking the gun barrel into his arm. "I said country drive."
Chris swallowed as a tear rolled through his cheek ruff. His whiskers were held so tight against his snout they felt that stinging burn of salt. As they made the left turn away from town, his eyes glanced at the Rosary beads hanging from his rearview mirror. His tongue, pressed against the back of his incisors, began to whisper, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
The third robber laughed like a donkey and beat his hand against the back of Chris's seat. "Heeheehee! Hey choir boy, miss your little priesty friend? Wish you were fucking in his bed now? Hawhawhaw!"
The sharp-voiced one laughed and slapped a satchel he had in his lap. He burped, and the two of them laughed again. The leader chuckled under his breath, but kept his eyes on the rat and the road.
"Hey," the third shouted as they drove past the Elementary School whose windows were dark like the eyes of skulls, "I got a joke for ya choir boy! How many Catholics does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Chris shuddered and quickly brushed a tear off his cheek. He muttered his prayers under his breath, glancing between the road and the night-dark sky.
"Come on, guess!" The third guy punched the back of the seat. "I said guess you little shit!"
Chris winced, his heart leaping into his throat. "Uh... one?"
"Fuck no!" he brayed. "Three! A priest and a little choir boy to fuck, and a nun to tell them how to do it! Heehee! Wasn't that funny?"
The rat sniffled but gave no reply. "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want..."
"Laugh you little shit!" He shouted, banging the headrest.
The leader waved his gun in a circle. "Laugh."
Chris eyes the gun, dark and promising, gasped for air, and said, "Ha ha ha ha."
"That wasn't a laugh. I could've farted that! Laugh!"
Chris shut his eyes and sent more tears down his cheeks. In a louder voice he said, "Ha ha ha ha! Ho ho ho ho! He he he he..."
Both robbers in the back laughed along with him, mimicking his sobbing attempt and mocking it with drunken glee. Chris ground his teeth together, holding back the anguish. The road began to descend. The water treatment plant was at the bottom of a very large hill. He could drive right off the road and crash them. His was the only air bag. Chris lowered his eyes and gently pressed down on the accelerator.
"Don't fuck with me kid," the leader said in a soft voice. "Try to crash us and I shoot you."
"Bubububut then I wiwi... will crash."
"And you'll die. Do as I say, and maybe you won't. But don't fucking test me." There was a coldness in his voice that frightened the rat more than the gun. His eyes glowered through the mask intense as a hawk. And he was literally the rat.
His friends were all back at Rob's place. The police were busy with Tech football and would take too long to respond to the robbery. And with Leslie working the evening shift, there'd be nobody to miss him for over six hours. Chris wailed inside as he realized there was nobody to help him. Warmth filled his trousers.
"Hey, I think the little shit peed himself!" the second robber said with another laugh.
The third cooed, "Oh, did the little choir boy wet himself with his little weewee? Does he need his diapers? Hawhaw!"
Chris cried as all three of the robbers laughed. His eyes stole to the crucifix illuminated only by the dashboard lights. The shadow of the cross stretched weirdly on the windshield. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
But he did fear.
The drunks made him drive up and down country roads taking him from the pleasant familiarity of Blacksburg, well past Radford and into Bland county. At some point they found their way to route 42 heading west between Walker Mountain and Brushy Mountain. The mountains were more long ridges that extended for dozens and dozens of miles, and the valley between them was interspersed with farms and the occasional small town. Chris only ever saw one cop car the entire time, but it had been going the wrong way. What other traffic there was seemingly thought nothing of them.
Weary but still tense, Chris kept his mind on two things, the road ahead and his prayers. The jeers and taunts of the drunks constantly barraged his ears, but the words were all mush now, so much invective and so little imagination behind it, it nevertheless terrified him with its sheer brutality. Behind each joke there was a gun. He laughed when they told him too, a sound hollow and lifeless. Something a part of him assured him he would soon be too.
Despite knowing the road, Chris had no idea what was around. He'd never driven this way before, and all his attention was on the weaving course, and the gun pointed at his side. His sensitive nose recoiled at the beer breath of the thugs, and his own urine-stained pants. He yearned to gnaw his steering wheel to plastic shavings.
As the minutes dragged interminably past, each a seeming infinity of minute terrors and noxious affronts, the taunts passed into vulgar heckling and finally into bored jibes. The robber sitting behind him continued to blabber on aimlessly, laughing at his own frivolity. Not even the others were laughing at him anymore. The other man in the backseat, the one who snapped at every thing he did and who stank of two pack of cigarettes a day, and who'd already burned the end of one in the upholstery, now grumbled beneath his breath about Jews, Christians, Gays, and anyone else who'd earned his ire. Their leader sat calmly with the gun pointed at Chris so casually it could have been a cup of coffee. And the fuel gage continued its long slide toward empty.
Chris's soul searing panic had settled into a mind numbing terror when the second robber snapped like a log bearing too much weight. "Fuck this shit! I want to count this stuff. Let's find someplace man."
The joker snorted. "Yeah! Let's count this shit and see what we got."
"And let's get rid of this kid," the nasty one added. "He's pissing me off."
"He's driving," the leader said, dark eyes never leaving Chris. "He's almost an accomplice. We'll be there soon enough. You can count then."
Chris tensed, tail tucking tightly against his backside. He felt the nasty one's eyes like a drill on the back of his neck. "Well I hate this little fuck. Let's get rid of him now." Chris lowered his head, ears wilting beneath the words. He held the steering wheel so tight his claws pricked his palms.
The joker laughed and hit the back of the seat. "Heh, yeah! Let's dump him in the woods! I'll drive this piece of shit!"
"I'll do the driving," the leader said in a cold voice. Chris felt tears starting to pool in his eyes again.
"I ain't going back to fucking prison again," the nasty one sneered. "I ain't going back to fucking prison. He's seen our faces, and I ain't going back to fucking prison."
Chris moaned under his breath, staring into the headlights as the high beams streamed down the empty road surrounded by nothing but fields and old forests. Oh God, please save me.
The leader grunted and then nodded. "Okay kid. Time's up. Pull over."
"Oh fuck yeah," the joker laughed and hit the seat several times. "Pull over kid! Yeah!"
Chris's voice squeaked out, weak and miserable, "Please, no... I won't tell anyone..."
The nasty out yanked a gun from his jacket and shoved the muzzle into the rat's shoulder. "Shut the fuck up you little runt! Now pull the fucking car over!"
"Pull over, kid," the leader repeated, without any trace of hostility or compassion. "Now."
The tears flowed freely, and Chris, not seeing what else he could do, slowed down and eased the car to a stop. The headlights shown a small grassy field at the side of the road shouldered by dark trees that hunched toward the road as if stooped with age. Chris yanked the parking break, every breath a desperate prayer, and then reached for his keys.
"Leave the keys where they are," the leader waved the gun, leaning closer and putting his free hand over top of them. "Now get out. Doug, make sure he doesn't run."
The joker climbed out behind the rat and stood at his door, grinning sadistically. His long face limned by the red taillights was gaunt like a mummer's mask made by Mephistopheles. Chris couldn't hold back his tears, and his paws shook in anguish. He fumbled at his seat belt for several seconds before he could still himself enough to undo the latch. He opened the door, and the joker grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him to his feet. The cool air thrust into his lungs. His tail nearly got stuck in the door when Doug slammed it behind him.
With a shove, Chris fell to the asphalt. He heard the other two climb out of the car. Doug kicked him in the side and laughed. "Crawl you little shit! Time to crawl home to Mommy! Haw!"
Chris crouched against the wheel, sobbing, and curling as tight as he could against the kicks. He was going to die tonight. He had only minutes left, if not seconds. Wasn't his life supposed to flash before his eyes? He could barely think of anything though, even the words of his prayers provided scant comfort. Oh Jesus, please save me! Forgive me my sins!
"Fucking retard!" the nasty one said, and gave Doug a shove that sent the drunk sprawling in the street. He then grabbed Chris by the collar and hauled him to his feet. He punched him in the side and pushed the gasping rat around the front of the car. "Get the fuck out there!"
"I'll take care of it from here," the leader said in his cold way. "Just get that idiot out of the road. I'll need you to toss his body in the woods when I'm done."
Chris felt the leader's gun at his back. "Walk into the grass. Get moving." Chris's legs were leaden, but they moved anyway. He could taste the salt from his tears seeping through his jowls. He could smell half-decaying roadkill somewhere ahead. The only light came from the headlights, and he stumbled along between their rays, the grass tickling his paws. After he managed a good fifteen paces, the man behind him said, "Okay kid, that's far enough." The gun cocked. "Get on your knees."
Chris hesitated, gasping for breath. He wailed with a last breath of hope, "Please. I don't want to die."
"Who gives a fuck what you want?" The leader sneered, almost laughing at him. "Now on your knees."
He felt a hand shove him from behind on his shoulder, and he fell. He caught himself on the ground, and then leaned back, tail curling around before him. He grabbed its smooth surface and squeezed. Two shadows stretched before him in the light, reaching toward the obsidian sepulchre in the woods. His tomb. His shadow crouched low with scalloped ears held so low his silhouette almost appeared human, while the man's towered above, menacing even in distorted outline. Pater noster, qui es in caelis...
"Goodbye kid." That was it. He heard the trigger squeeze and the report of charge thrusting the bullet from the chamber, through the barrel, and toward his head. He knew that there probably wouldn't be any pain, and there wasn't. A small section of grass in front of him detonated in a small whump. A second shot followed the first immediately, and the bullet joined its companion in the ground. Chris blinked, confused.
"What the fuck?" the leader said, clearly surprised.
With the force of a hammer, Chris understood, and in understanding, knew he had only seconds to act before the leader tried to shoot him again. He put one long rodent foot into the ground and leapt forward, all his energy bent on diving into the darkness of the wood. Another shot sundered the night, but the bullet went wide.
Chris felt the darkness of the trees envelop him, and soon he had almost no light to see by at all. He flung his arms wide and blundered through the brush. But his eyes were the eyes of a rat. What was impenetrable blackness to a man was revealed to him. He couldn't see very far, but enough not to smack directly into any trees. Thank you, Jesus! Oh thank you! Great is your name!
"Come on, get him!" the leader shouted behind him. Twigs snapped, bramble rustled, feet stomped impetuously, and leaves complained as they were crushed in their rampage. Chris tried to run away from the headlights, moving deeper and deeper into the wood. The ground quickly began to slope up. He'd never be able to climb over the mountain, but he didn't have to. He just had to escape these men.
The cold October air pressed in on his flesh and especially his damp trousers. The fur there was slick and stank, and the denim of his jeans chafed at his thighs as he ran. The brambles, branches, twigs, and roots blocking his path grasped at his paws, tail, shirt, and arms. One of them viciously nicked his left ear, and it was all he could do to keep from crying out in sudden pain.
"That way!" the leader shouted from behind. Chris hunched lower and scrambled around a tree, pausing behind the bulk and grabbing his tail in both paws. He breathed in and out through his nose, listening to the three men stumble and swear in the darkness. They were already past the radiance of the headlights. They couldn't see him, but they could certainly hear him.
Still, it took all his self-composure to keep from bolting. He didn't have a gun pointed at his head anymore. Thank you for that, Jesus! He would keep quiet until they gave up. Please don't let them find me.
The search continued for an uncountable number of minutes. Chris crouched low against the tree, cringing at every scrape of bark and every exhalation of breath. Blood trickled from the gash in his ear and mingled with the stain of salty tears on his left cheek. Behind him he heard the crash of brush and the swearing of the robbers. They'd begun spreading out but had to feel their way along. The rat was still struck with terror, but that terror was held back by the single strand of hope he'd received.
He took deep breaths, exhaling as softly as he possibly could. With one paw he rubbed the cut in his sensitive ear, a jagged cleave that would best be served by stitches if there were any doctors who could see it. He winced, and licked the blood from his fingers and claws. Bitter and far too much of it. Chris grabbed the bleeding saucer and squeezed, clamping his mouth shut lest his agony betray him to his would-be murderers.
And then one of them found him anyway.
The clouds parted, allowing a rising half moon to illumine the woods. The light was faint, casting a pearlescent outline along the tops of the trees. Chris's rodent eyes were already accustomed to the dark, but now he could see the rocks jutting up from the ground, the gnarl of roots that had been tripping him, and the low hanging branches that had pierced him. He debated about running further into the woods; even with the moon out the robbers wouldn't be able to follow him for long, but he couldn't make his legs move. They rooted to the ground more firmly than if buried in cement.
And then he heard one of them stumbling toward his tree. It was the nasty one. Every word he spat beneath his breath was a cut with a nailfile. Chris winced and pressed further back into the tree, one paw still clutching tight his bleeding ear. Yet no matter how tight he held, the pain was never worse than the fear.
"Fucking little shit, where did he go?" the nasty one said as he kicked aside leaves behind Chris's tree. "I'm gonna find him and shoot him up the ass." The voice moved to Chris's right, and the sound of boots stomping brought him closer. A hand brushed along the trunk, feeling his way around the tree. Chris stared with his right eye, he couldn't move any other part of his body, and watched as the barrel of a gun, silver in a slice of moon, advanced past the bark horizon. A bare arm began to follow it.
And then something changed in Chris. The human part of him, locked in a terror beyond which he could no longer escape, gave way to a cornered beast. The rat leapt forward, grabbed the nasty one's arm in both pas, and bit firmly into the soft flesh with his incisors. Blood, warm iron and bitter tang, sprayed into his face and down his throat. A scream pierced the air, his hackles raised and tail lashing. The gun dropped to the forest floor unspent.
The moment was brief and the key to Chris's prison. He blinked and spat the arm and blood from his tongue. The robber, wild eyed and clutching his wound, stumbled back and fell into the roots, blabbering of demons. The other two came running and cursing.
Chris paused only a moment before running down the moon-begotten path deep into the forest. He leapt over tangles of roots, ducked beneath low hanging branches, wove around bush and bramble, suffering scratches and bruises heedlessly in his desperate flight. Pursuit dogged him, and he heard the sharp crack of gunfire a couple of times, but they couldn't see as well as the rat.
He ran for several minutes, never slacking in pace or energy. His flesh, burning with fear and simple animal need, kept him moving. The clouds continued to disperse, providing a clearer path for the moon to shine, but offering no more illumination. The forest stretched outward in every direction, deeper and tighter and subtly darker.
Gasping, tongue still drenched in blood, Chris came to a stop to catch his breath. He turned his ears to listen, but could no longer hear the sounds of pursuit. His body ached and stung, and the air leeched what warmth he had right through his sodden clothes. He shuddered, tears standing in his eyes. He let the sob escape his throat for a moment, but choked it back down before he lost control. He'd survived. By the grace of God, he'd survived. Now he needed to find help.
But where was he? Chris glanced around and saw nothing but the forests. The moon was still rising, passing in and out of the clouds, but providing only enough light for him to make his way. He tried to remember what this area of Virginia was like. Route 42 passed between two mountain ridges as it wended southwest. It was the only road through this pass, so he had to find it again.
Chris wrapped his arms about his middle and started hiking downhill. His ears stayed alert for any sounds of pursuit, and the gash in this left throbbed painfully. His teeth yearned to gnaw on something, and his tongue wanted water to wash away the foul taste of blood. He broke off a small branch that had already lost its leaves from one of the shorter trees and sated his teeth. He could do nothing about his tongue. The blood had smeared down the front of his shirt which was now so torn by bramble and bark that it was worthless even as a rag. His pants still carried the pungent scent of urine.
It took several minutes to find the road again, and when he did he kept it at the edge of his vision. The robbers still had his car. Just thinking about them made him tremble and cry. Oh Jesus, please protect me from them. He walked on through the brush, letting that refrain repeat in his mind.
He saw no sign of habitation for a very long time. The night grew colder as the moon lifted from the horizon to occupy a place high in the sky. Weird shadows stretched before him, ethereal in the silvery light. The tips of his toes and tail all felt numb. He chewed the branch down to nothing, leaving a trail of splinters in the undergrowth. A few cars flew past on the road. He shivered as he walked, wishing that he could still be as furry as he'd bene while a bear.
A sullen despair began to fill his heart. He wanted nothing more than to climb into bed next to Leslie, wrap his arms about her and snuggle in close. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her and needed. Her face, so simple but earnest, would assure him that she loved him too with the merest twitch of her lips.
Yet he was lost in the woods, scratched all over ? and even though the bleeding had stopped he'd bear scars for as long as he was a rat ? and his car stolen by three men who'd tried to kill him. They'd tried to kill him. He'd heard about things like this happening to others. But he'd never thought he'd ever see the like himself. If not for the Change, he'd be dead right now.
He lifted one paw to his shorn ear and felt along the tear. It was wider than his fingers, but he couldn't tell by how much. But as long as he had that gash, he had a visible reminder of the mysterious grace of God. Glory be to God the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
As he continued to hike through the woods, Chris vacillated between panic and joy with a rapidity that kept him trembling from either and both more than the cold. His toes stubbed roots hidden beneath dead leaves, bushes pricked his tail, and he swatted his way through several old cobwebs on his path. Ever the road was at his right, but it felt an age before he finally saw the house.
The forest ended abruptly into a field of scrub grass misty with a growing fog. A short distance beyond he saw a fenced-in pasture. He could smell cows but none of them were out. A line of trees framed a driveway on the other side of the pasture leading to a stout two-story building. A canopied wrap-around porch hunched over the front door. There were no lights on inside, but there were a pair of vehicles parked in the driveway.
Chris gasped in relief, and ran alongside the pasture, one paw patting the fence to keep himself upright. He felt the sting of a splinter in one finger, but the rat kept running, every muscle in his body groaning in pain. He jumped the five steps and banged his knees on the porch floor. Struggling back to his large feet, he pressed the doorbell once, twice, and then a third time before a light flicked on upstairs. His good ear turned to listen to the sounds of somebody coming to the front door and swearing to himself.
The porchlight flared, blinding him. Chris lifted one arm over his face as the door swung open. "Do you know what time... What the hell? What happened to you?"
Chris lifted his arm and stared into the face of a slack-jawed man in a robe. "Please help me!" The rat said before collapsing to the ground and bursting into tears.
The Stewarts, a couple whose youngest child had just gone off to Iraq and whose uniformed picture was plastered all over their walls, brought Chris inside and draped him in blankets to warm him while calling 911. Lizzie Stewart checked Chris over for serious injuries, and she did not appear relieved when told that the blood covering his snout and shirt wasn't his. They watched him with wary but polite eye until the police arrived.
The cop, a Sgt. Reynolds, drove him to the station in Mechanicsburg which was even further from home, and made him sit behind a desk and repeat his story twice while he filled out forms. The station was empty but for a handful of personnel. It looked similar to what Chris had seen in small town movies, with a door leading back to a handful of cells, a couple offices for superiors which were presently dark, and a small smattering of desks for cops to fill out reports like Sgt. Reynolds. The reception area at the front had been protected by glass that might have been bullet proof. One table had an interrupted game of cards. An odd beastly musk lingered in the air, but Chris was too distraught to pay it any mind.
Sgt. Reynolds jotted down a few more notes and then nodded his head. "That should do it. The others are out responding to a call we got earlier about some gunshots in the woods. They're bringing them in now and should be here shortly. Are you up to making an ID on them?"
"I..." Chris swallowed heavily, and then finally nodded.
Reynolds stood and stuffed the clipboard under his arm. "Good. Hold on." He lifted his radio and called. "Hey Paul, how goes the pickup? I've got somebody who can ID them."
"ID's gonna have to wait," came the rather guttural voice over the radio. "One of them's bleeding pretty bad so we dropped him off at the hospital. The other two got banged up running through the woods. Brett and Dave are keeping an eye on them until we can book ?em."
"So where are you?"
"I'm a few minutes from the station. Coming back to drop off the paperwork." Paul chuckled to himself, a deep sound distorted oddly by the radio. "Do you have the werewolf there?"
Chris snapped his head up at that. "Werewolf?" Reynolds asked, bewildered.
"Yeah, the one guy says he was bit by a werewolf or something. Kept raving about it."
Reynolds looked at him, a smirk on one cheek. "Are you a werewolf, Chris?"
"Uh... no?" Chris replied, still feeling very confused. Had the nasty one glimpsed his real form there in the woods?
"Nope, no werewolves here. See you in a few." Reynolds put the radio down, and then his smile faded. "It looks like we won't need you tonight. I'm going to go call your wife and then we can take you home."
Chris took a deep breath and nodded. "Use the work number. Leslie doesn't get off until 3."
"Right. Just wait here." Reynolds carried the clipboard in one hand and walked back to the entrance. Chris sat with paws in lap, sore all over, still cold, and very tired. He slumped in the uncomfortable seat, shifting every few seconds to keep his tail from getting pinched. He rested his head in his paws and closed his eyes, and minutes disappeared.
He snapped them open when he heard the door outside again and the same voice from over the radio call out in a booming baritone, "Hey Jeff. Do you have the kid in here?"
Reynolds sounded as if he were chewing on a pencil. "Just go on in and talk to him. I'm trying to reach his wife."
Chris stared at the doorway and watched as a stout figure stepped through. The rat blinked and gawked. He looked like Congressman Sandrick. The badger dressed in the beige uniform of a patrolman stared slack-jawed back at him. For several seconds they stared unable to speak, but the cop seemed to digest things faster than Chris could. He turned back to the door and said, "Jeff, I'm going to talk with our friend here for a bit. I want to compare his story to those perps I collared." He turned back to the rat and gestured to one of the offices. "Let's go inside. A little more private." Numbly, Chris nodded and followed the badger into the darkened office.
The only chairs were metal folding chairs around the papered desk. Chris took one, turned it backwards, and slumped forward against the back, tail trailing across the floor behind him. The badger, Paul, sat next to him, half leaning against the desk. "You don't seem that surprised to see me," Paul noted after a moment's inspection. His dark eyes stayed wide enough to show the whites. "I've never seen another animal man. But you've seen others like us before, haven't you?"
Chris lifted his head a bit. "Yes. There's a few of us up in Blacksburg. Lots more around the country. I can get you the web address and password for the forum."
Paul waved one paw, each fingered tipped with a long digging claw. "Worry about that another time. I'm content knowing that I'm not the only one. At least for now. But you, what happened to you tonight?"
Chris had already told the story to Reynolds twice, but the earnestness in Paul's musteline face brought it out one last time. And this time, he filled in the little details that being Changed had given him. Paul asked him what the three men smelled like, and nodded when Chris told him. "That's what I thought too," he added, giving his black nose a tap with the tip of a claw.
After Chris described running into the woods to escape from the field in which he almost died, Paul waved him to a stop. "Wait. How could he miss at that range?"
"I was five and a half feet tall as a human," Chris explained. "I'm only four and a half feet tall now. He aimed where my human head was, and so aimed too high."
Paul nodded and took a deep breath. "You are very, very lucky, Christopher."
"I just want to go home, curl up next to my wife, and cry."
"It will pass," Paul assured him. "It won't be easy, but the fear will pass." Paul's snout lowered for a moment and then he added, "I've been there myself. I'll help you get through this. And through the trial. We'll need you to testify of course, but you don't have to worry about that now. Those perps aren't going anywhere and they aren't going to get off. It'll probably be a little while before you get your car back though. They messed it up pretty bad."
Chris hunkered lower, his paws curled up before him on the desk. "I don't want to drive right now."
"I don't blame you. I'll drive you home tonight. We can talk more on the way if you're comfortable. I've been a cop for ten years and was in the Army for six before that, so there's nothing you can tell me that I haven't seen. And," his voice took on a surprising note of empathy for a badger and a cop, "there's a priest I know who you might want to talk to."
The rat lifted his eyes, whiskers standing on end. "I never said I was Catholic."
"You've been counting beads since you sat down." Paul pointed with a claw at the rat's paws. Chris looked down, and realized that he was moving his fingers as if he were praying his Rosary. "We don't have to, just thought you might have things you'd be more comfortable saying to a priest than to me. I can't keep things confidential. Well, except for this." He tugged at the fur on the back of one paw and then waited for the rat to ponder his suggestion.
Chris lifted his paws and tried to dry his face. He hadn't shed any tears for some time, but the fur was still damp. Tentatively, he began to nod, the motion mechanical like a bobbing bird. "Yes, please, I'd like to see a priest."
Paul grinned, revealing a wide array of teeth. "Then let's go wake him."
The rectory adjoined a modest church with a bright marble statue of Mary standing above the entrance. Stained glass flanked her immaculate carving, though in the night Chris could making nothing out.
He walked along side Paul, feeling dwarfed by the badger, but the presence was comforting. They'd spoken only a little, and that mostly about the Changed. Paul Howard had changed only this year and had yet to meet anyone else. He was curious about the Changed community and focussing on so mundane a topic eased some of the strain from the rat's mind. But in each silence that fell between them the nightmares returned. How could he do anything when all he heard in his mind was the laughter and taunts of those three men, or all he saw was the shadow of the leader stretching over the grass as he pulled the trigger?
The rectory door stood amidst a well-tended garden prepared for winter. He pressed the door bell with his thumb, the claw nicking the wood above it. He pressed the doorbell two more times before their ears caught the sound of somebody moving within. The porch light flared, blinding both of them.
An older man in his fifties came to the door dressed in a trenchcoat over pajamas. His face, lined with sleep, brightened as he recognized the badger. "Paul! What brings you here at this hour?"
"Got a favor to ask of you, Father." Paul put a hearty paw on Chris's shoulder and gently squeezed. "Chris here was nearly killed by some perps tonight, and he needs to talk to somebody."
"Oh my, come in, come in!" The priest held the door open and both of them stepped into the warm room. It was a greeting room with a circle of chairs and couches framed about a private altar set against the wall. The altar was adorned with a crucifix, two thick half-burnt candles, and a green table runner marked with crosses. He gestured to the seats closest to the altar. "Please sit. Let me get some clothes on and I'll be right with you."
A holy water fount was attached to the inside of the door jamb. Chris and Paul blessed themselves while the priest went to adorn himself more presentably. The rat genuflected toward the altar before sitting in one of the chairs which gave him enough room to let his tail uncoil comfortably behind him. Paul didn't sit down, but hunched over a taller chair and waited.
Apart from the altar, the room was only decorated with a trio of paintings of various religious scenes. Chris recognized the Last Supper and the Resurrection, but the third was some scene of Jesus preaching or healing and he couldn't tell which. On a coffee table was a large leather bound Bible with gold edges that he was tempted to open, but the priest returned before he could.
He'd donned a priestly black cassock with collar, and his pepper-grey hair had been quickly combed. His face was tall with slim cheeks, narrow ears, and broad chin. His smile was slight but warm and it creased his entire face with laugh lines. "Well, Chris. I'm Father Todd. What would you like to talk about?"
Chris swallowed and then lowered his eyes. "I think I'd like to make a Confession, Father."
Todd looked at Paul. The badger nodded and turned to the door. "I'll be outside when you need me. I'm taking Chris home tonight. And Father, no matter what he tells you, believe him. It'll knock you on your... your... you know."
Father Todd's smile faded a bit, but he did grab a purple stole and drape it over his neck and shoulders. He sat down opposite Chris and once Paul stepped out and shut the door behind him, he made the sign of the Cross and said, "Let us begin as we live, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
Chris signed himself and uttered the words under his breath. He then lowered his paw into his lap and sighed heavily. "I'm scared Father. I almost died tonight. And I've been living a lie for so long. I've been to Confession many times in the last few years, but I've never been able to Confess the one sin I've committed the most. And if I'd been killed tonight, I would have still had that sin on me. It's been eating me up for so long, and I thought I could keep it a secret, but I'm just lying to her over and over again." He shook and choked back a sob.
Father Todd crossed his legs and folded his hands over the top knee. "But you weren't killed, Chris. God brought you here so you could be freed from sin."
Chris felt the tears coming again. How could he still have more to shed? "I know... I know." He sucked in his breath, claws digging into his knees until the flesh whitened through the fur. "Father, I just, I've been lying about this for over seven years now. And that to my wife, my family, my friends, everyone. I never told anyone until last year and then only those who, well, saw or figured it out." He paused and drew in another breath, expanding his chest, hoping that might calm him or still the sobbing, but it only delayed the next bought.
Father Todd leaned forward, setting both his feet on the carpet. "If you're afraid of telling me, don't be, Chris. I hear Confessions all the time. I've heard it all before."
The rat laughed at that, unable to hold it back. "If you've heard this, wow, Father, that would be just... wow. Oh you have not heard it all. No not at all. Oh Lord, help me. Why can't I say this even to your priest!"
"Take your time. Could I get you something to drink?"
Chris shook his head. "No! No... thank you, Father, but no." He ground his incisors together, balling his paws into fists and striking his knees. "Oh my... oh! This is... ah jeez! Father I'm... I'm.... I... I... I... argh why am I... it saved my life but... oh Lord forgive me." He exhaled once and then snapped, "I'm not even human, Father! I haven't been human for seven years!"
The priest blinked and moved his lips as if he were trying to find words. Instead he gestured for the rat to continue with one hand.
"It happens on August 17th. I don't understand it, but every August 17th I change, Father. I... I have changed into creatures half human and half animal. At first I was a dog. Then I became a donkey, a bear, and then a rat. And then it started over again! I'm back to being a rat, Father. I know you can't see it. Nobody who hasn't Changed can see it. And that's... that's... oh Lord... that's why I'm alive."
Father Todd took a deep breath and leaned forward. "What do you mean that you're a rat?"
"I'm human shaped, walk on two legs, but I've got fur, a long hairless tail, a head shaped like a rat's with big ears and teeth." He grabbed his tail in one paw and lifted it. "If you want, you can touch my tail."
He half expected the priest to object, but Father Todd reached his hand out curiously and spread his palm wide. Chris lifted the end of his tail so that the soft flesh met the priest's hand. "I... I do feel something!" He exclaimed. And then he smiled ever so faintly. "And Paul knows about this?"
"Paul's a badger."
Now that Chris had said it all, he found the next revelation even easier to make. The words gushed from, unstoppable, but true. "And that's not all I've been lying about, Father. Five times I've also become female. Yes, yes, yes, I've changed from a man to a woman, but I still looked like a man to everyone else. Only days after I married my wife, I turned into a woman too. I'd hoped the Sacrament of Marriage would protect me, but... but it didn't! It didn't, Father! I just kept on lying and lying and I slowly pushed my wife away from me because we couldn't be intimate anymore! And that's not even the worst of it.
"Last year I was a female bear, and I started meeting other Changed who could see what I really looked like. One of them, a boar, flirted with me several times. And I.. I liked it! I started to have feelings for him and I've seen him frequently since we met. We never dated or did anything, but there was a part of me that wanted to very badly. I committed adultery in my heart, and with another man, Father! I'm so ashamed of myself, I've just been hiding and hiding and hiding and lying about everything for so long I didn't know what to do except keep doing it more!
"And now I almost died!" His words broke into sobs and he put his face into his paws, unable to look at the priest anymore who did his best to keep a kindly face.
A hand rested on his shoulder, but did nothing more than rest there. Chris finally lowered his hands and cradled his tail instead. His feet rubbed against each other as he tried to curl into himself.
"Chris," the priest finally said. "You were right. I'd never heard the like before. But it is still nothing I haven't heard. Many people spend their lives in a lie. The only escape, the only freedom, is the truth. Whyever you are changing it is the work of God. We don't know why or how, but it is still His, as are you. And He is quick to mercy, and He always forgives a repentant sinner. Like you."
The rat lifted his snout and gazed at the priest. Father Todd's face was conflicted but kind. His cheeks twisted as the gears of his mind dragged at them from beneath, churning through all that the rat had said. That he believed Chris could not be questioned. That he found it almost impossible to believe was also apparent.
A long sigh escaped Chris's muzzle, gushing across his tongue like oil from a derelict. "I know, Father. And I need it. I've been gone so long. I've been here, but it's all been a lie."
Todd nodded, eyes softening with a comforting assurance. "You've confessed much already. Lay your sins bare to God, and all will be forgiven you."
Chris the rat did exactly that.
A lifetime of events poured from him and left him empty but for the truths of the faith. Father Todd, on seeing that nothing more was forthcoming, lifted high one hand and said, "Let us thank God for the grace of this sacrament. The truth has set you free, Chris, and mercy is now yours. For penance, I ask you only to say three Our Fathers and to do that which you know now you must." He didn't need to say it. Chris knew. "Now make your act of contrition."
Chris, head bowed low, and paws pressed palms together before his snout, intoned those beautiful words. "Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for offending Thee. And I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin."
"In the name of the Church, I grant you pardon and absolve you form all your sins. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." So saying, he made the sign of the cross over Chris, who mirrored the gesture across his chest with a trio of claws.
Together, both men looked up and met each other's eyes. "Go in peace, Chris. It is not your responsibility to tell others who and what you are. But you should always be honest about it, for it is something given to you by our Lord."
"Thank you, Father. I will."
Father Todd extended his hand, and the rat gingerly took it and shook it. His body shook with relief as if casting off ragged garments. He rose to his feet, heart beating through his chest, and though he felt the scars of his run and smelt the stain of his shame, he knew something greater ? he'd been forgiven by God.
Together, the two of them went to the door. Paul leaned against the hood of his car with arms crossed. He glanced at his watch as they came out. "Only a half hour? You're a lightweight, Chris."
For some reason, that made the rat laugh. An uncertain and faltering laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
The priest gave Paul a firm look. "A badger, eh, Paul?"
"Yes, Father," Paul replied. "I'm a badger now."
"I expect to see you on Saturday for Confession then," Father Todd grinned mischievously.
Paul grunted but then laughed. "Yeah, I guess I better. Good Night, Father. I've got to get Chris home now."
Chris thanked the priest one last time, which Father Todd patiently accepted before reminding him that he had to get home to a wife who was doubtlessly worried. He needed no further convincing. As Paul started them on the road back to Blacksburg, Chris said his three Our Fathers, meditating always on the blessings that forgiveness brings.
After, he spoke a little more with Paul, but now that their errand was done, neither found much they could say. Paul idly described his family and how he might go about telling his wife, and when they should reveal it to their children. Chris listened and watched the dark streets, festooned with trees and rocky fields on either sides, with looming hills blocking sight of the horizon stars. From the porches of the few homes they passed leered now shadowed jack-o-lantern grins. All was still and quiet.
Until they reached Blacksburg. The hour was late, nearly four in the morning, but there was always somebody up and about in that college town. But what traffic they saw was light and gratefully sober. Chris felt his heart tighten in anxiety as they rounded University City Blvd, took the right up Falcun, and then pulled into the Chasewood Downs parking lot. The lights were on inside his apartment.
Paul stopped the car and looked to him. "Do you want me to come in with you and help explain things to your wife?"
"No. But could you come back tomorrow to help with that?"
"Sure." Paul gripped him on the shoulder and grinned toothily. "Good luck, kid. You'll be okay. And do something about that ear. At least put some antiseptic on it."
"I will." Chris held out his paw and the two shook. "Thank you for the ride, and for taking me to Father Todd. I needed that."
Paul's eyes narrowed. "Honestly, Chris, I'm just doing my job. But I'm glad I could help. Now go to your wife. I'll see you tomorrow."
Chris climbed out of the cop car. The air was cool and the sky black. The bright lights outside the complex made him wince. Through the window he could see Leslie sitting with her hands folded in prayer.
The entire drive back he thought he'd hesitate when he got home. He tried working out how he would face her again, what he would say, what he would do, but all of that fled from him like leaves blown by mountain winds. He rushed to the door and fumbled in his pocket until he realized he'd left his keys in the car. He beat on it once, and the door sprang inward. He fell into Leslie's waiting arms.
He couldn't see her face with his own pressed against her chest. Her arms held him tight as her quavering voice sobbed in relief. He wrapped his arms about her back and hugged tight, tears of misery mixed with joy. "Oh Chris! I was so worried about you!"
"Oh, Leslie," he said, voice catching his throat with a sob. "Oh Leslie! There's so much... so much I need to tell you." Together the two of them, tears in their eyes, settled down on the couch, hand in paw, heads pressed close together. "Just so much I need to tell you, my love."
And he did. And she listened. And believed. And still loved him.