New Account Registration re-enabled - apparently the extension we use for ReCaptcha service had a configuration change and to utilize the more secure form it needed different parameters. We did not notice this when it occurred. Sorry folks!
As soon as Terry pulled into the drive, he saw Ben perk up his ears and charge across the pasture to greet him. The huge black and white horse whinnied and pawed at the ground by the fence. It would have been more gratifying to receive such attention if it didn’t stem from the fact that Ben was terribly lonely. For Bubba.
Terry had imported the matched pair of Gypsy Drum geldings from England almost four years ago, riding high on a stock portfolio that seemed invincible. It had been an expensive whim, but one fueled by a lifelong love of draft horses. And the geldings delivered big. Herd mates from birth, they formed a natural team that proved easy for even a novice handler like Terry.
Ben and Bubba were the darlings of the local horse show circuit, popular with spectators and other horse owners for their gentle, friendly personalities and their handsome appearance. Gypsy Drums were still fairly rare, at least in this part of the country, and there had plenty of lucrative offers to buy the team.
He sighed and walked over to the fence. Velvet nostrils brushed his face and the heavy, bristled chin rubbed across his shoulder. “Hello, good boy.” Terry leaned into the animal’s cheek, rubbing his head against the massive jawbone. “Sorry I’m late.”
Ben whuffled deep in his throat and lipped at Terry’s shoulder. The evening greeting had been a ritual as long as he’d owned the horses, though the enthusiasm for his company had increased dramatically in the past month. Terry pulled an expected peppermint from his pocket. His offering was lipped up and crunched, but even the treat was received with an apathy that had lingered since Bubba was taken away.
The first week had been bad – Ben had run frantically from one end of the pasture to the other, whinnying for his herd mate of nearly seven years. However, the second week turned out to be worse. Terry would come home at night to find the big drafter standing listlessly in the middle of the pasture, head drooping nearly to the ground. It had taken a whole weekend to bring Ben around, petting, brushing and just leaning against the horse until he finally accepted his owner as a substitute herd mate.
There was a touch of irony in the bonding – Terry’s girlfriend had broken off their relationship when his finances took a nosedive, and most of the so-called friends he had gathered on the top of the ladder erased his name from their cell phones after he dropped a few rungs. Outside of a few casual acquaintances at the office where he now worked, Ben was the only real company he had left these days. In truth, he looked forward to these nightly ‘mutual grooming’ sessions as much as the horse.
Ben dropped his head to snuffle and pull at Terry’s shirt, getting spit and grass stains on the cloth. It was a bad habit that should be discouraged, the same as lipping at his face and chewing on his shoulder and neck. Other horse owners had warned Terry about the dangers of allowing the horse to assume equal herd status, citing all sorts of possible serious injuries and behavior issues. Even though he knew they were right, he couldn’t make himself pull back to being the Master right now. Maybe later, if and when he could afford to find a real herd mate for Ben. Besides, the big drafter treated him with extreme gentleness and care.
“Come on, fellah.” He climbed over the fence and looped an arm under the Gypsy’s thick neck. “Let’s get you fed and blanketed. It’s gonna get cool tonight.” Ben whickered, ears perking up, but shuffled carefully beside him as they walked to the barn. He was surprised to find the animal’s stall already mucked out, with fresh water in the bucket. Margaret must have come by for inspection.
The woman had shown up the day Ben and Bubba arrived, having seen them being unloaded while out for a ride on her own thoroughbred mare. Although in her seventies, Margaret Elizabeth Langstrom-Thomas was a tall, handsome woman with a commanding presence who brooked no argument. Besides being his closest neighbor, she was an accomplished horsewoman whose childhood in England had provided plenty of contact with Gypsy drafts.
Margaret was also one of the few folks who still treated him the same as before – in general, like an errant child who couldn’t be trusted to look after his pets. Her brusque nature and presumptive attitude had irked him at first. He’d received more than a few lectures on proper horse care and handling, and even been scolded over dirty tack that she’d pulled out and inspected on one of her surprise visits. No doubt he would get an earful over leaving Ben’s stall dirty, even though he’d planned to muck it out as soon as he got home.
Yet she had sat up with him the night that Bubba had coliced, telling stories of her youth in Great Britain. And in the weeks after his life fell apart, it didn’t occur to him that expensive supplies and even feed were lasting an unusually long time until he discovered an unfamiliar brand of fly spray in the tack room. Margaret had dismissed his gratitude with a wave of her hand, claiming that she’d been cleaning out her barn. And then chastised him on the water drainage of the paddock.
He chuckled at the memory as he broke out a couple of flakes of hay and scooped a measure of grain for Ben’s bucket. The horse moved in eagerly as soon as he stepped aside, and he went out and closed the gate. At least her charity wasn’t required now, though keeping even one draft horse well fed took a surprisingly large chunk of his paycheck – supporting two had been more than his reduced income could handle.
Oh, he’d ended up better off than a lot of fellow investors who had spent money on fast cars and mansions. Horses required land, and after the stock collapsed, the farm turned out to be the only real asset he had left. Well, almost the only asset. Terry sighed and looked at the empty stall next to Ben’s. Selling Bubba had been a difficult decision. However, it had become a choice between giving up one voluntarily, or eventually losing both horses and everything else.
He’d have been smarter to sell them as a team, and had come close on a couple of occasions. But after finally achieving the lifelong goal of owning drafts, he couldn’t stand the thought of an empty barn. Keeping Ben was purely selfish on his part, and that only increased his guilt over the animal’s loneliness. At least Bubba had gone to a large stable with plenty of other equines to keep him company. Surprisingly, Margaret had been supportive of his decision, and despite her criticism of almost every other aspect of his horsemanship, had shown only understanding of his herd mate relationship with Ben.
Was that fresh bedding? Terry blinked, then went into the unoccupied stall. It looked like Margaret had gone a bit too far today, even cleaning and filling the water bucket. There was something else wrong. It took a couple of minutes before he realized that Bubba’s blanket was missing. The specially embroidered cover had been a silly vanity he’d succumbed to early on, one of a matched set he’d ordered when he was showing the team. Why would Margaret take it? Not that he had any use for it now, except as a spare for Ben.
Of course. The old woman sometimes took care of friend’s horses as a favor, and Terry had offered use of the empty stall to her as temporary quarters if she every needed them. That would explain the fresh bedding and water. She was probably going to wash the blanket before putting it on the visiting animal. And as for checking with him first, well, Margaret pretty much acted as if she owned the place anyway. It was often like having a part-time domineering mother – occasionally annoying, but all done with his best interests at heart.
In any case, Terry trusted her not to put Ben in any danger. The drafter would probably be happy to share his pasture with a four-legged friend. He was being left alone all day, and the late hours Terry had been forced to put in at the office this week had cut into their already limited socializing time. At least tomorrow was Friday. Better yet, the company was actually giving him Monday off as comp time, so he’d have three full days at home.
There was a surprise waiting for him the next morning, but it wasn’t a horse. The missing blanket had been returned – in the form of a man’s vest hanging on the empty stall’s gate. At first glance, Terry thought it was just a matching plaid material, but there was no mistaking the elaborate embroidery neatly centered on the back. He stared at the garment a moment, not believing what he was seeing. That had been a $350 blanket! What the Hell had Margaret been thinking?
His initial flush of anger cooled as he led Ben out to the pasture. In fairness, the blankets were getting a bit worn, perhaps even shabby by Margaret’s standards. When he went back in to muck out, he gave the garment a closer look.
It was well made, at least. Except for the slightly faded cloth and the telltale embroidery, the vest might have come from any nice men’s shop. Was she a seamstress as well? Curiosity finally won out, and he slipped it on. The woman must have a good eye, for it fit perfectly. She’d even kept the original straps and buckles, cleverly rearranging them to work as fasteners and decorative trim.
Terry was touched by the amount of care and thought that must have gone into the garment. And it was certainly unique. He couldn’t recall ever seeing horse and owner with the same outfits before. Could be fun if he ever went back to the show circuit. Finishing up with Ben’s stall, he started to pull off the vest. What the Hell. Fridays were dress-down days anyway. Besides, he sorta liked having the connection to Ben, no matter how tenuous.
The work day started out well enough – he even got a few compliments on the vest. However, a rash of last-minute problems had everyone scrambling to make the final delivery on time. Moods darkened and tempers flared – compliments changed to half-joking remarks about his weight, and devolved to more pointed comments about how he might want to shave and shower after he mucked out stalls.
It didn’t help to realize that there might be some truth to their observations. A late-morning visit to the men’s room revealed that his belt was working hard to contain a moderate spare tire. And after finally getting his jeans to close up again, he caught his shaggy, bristly reflection in the mirror as he washed up. Damn! He really had forgotten to shave! And his hair looked dirty and longer than usual. Worse, a faint stable smell got stronger as the day progressed. Apparently, Margaret hadn’t washed the blanket after all. However, he was feeling annoyed enough to leave it on – maybe if he stank, people would leave him the Hell alone. Besides, he rather liked the horsy odor.
His own attitude didn’t improve any over the afternoon. Trying to type in data for the delivery report turned into a frustrating ordeal. His keyboard was screwed up somehow, a problem that became a moot point when he actually shattered it with his fist after the fifteenth attempt to complete a simple routing code got bollixed up. If he hadn’t put in a good 70 hour week, that might have gotten him fired. As it was, Terry ended the day in the manager’s office getting some ‘friendly advice’ on professional dress and grooming, and stress management.
Any doubts about the wisdom of keeping Ben were swept away when he got home. The big Gypsy went beyond even his normal enthusiastic greeting, snuffling and nosing him excitedly. Part of the attraction was likely to be Bubba’s lingering scent in the vest material, but Terry’s face and hair got equal investigation. And for the first time he could remember, the drafter wanted to stay with him instead of going into the stall for dinner. They compromised by having Terry stand next to the horse and stroking him while he ate.
The day’s tensions were all but forgotten when Terry finally headed into the house. An hour with Ben had made the whole world seem right again. Better than right – he was relaxed and content as if he’d just come back from two weeks vacation. Well, except for the tight clothing. He kicked off his shoes and yanked the belt open as soon as he got inside, pushing jeans off onto the living room floor. One good thing about being a bachelor was nobody would complain about the mess. The vest came off next, but he held onto it so he could hang it up to air out..
There was a message on the answering machine, and he hit play before starting on straining shirt buttons. “I’m calling for Mr. Terrence Burke?” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice, and the use of his full name marked it as another telemarketer. He headed for the bedroom, pulling his shirt off without really listening until the woman said something about Margaret.
The message ended before he got back to the machine. Could be whoever owned the horse Margaret had cleaned up for. Slipping the vest back on, he hit replay.
“I’m calling for Mr. Terrence Burke? My name is Janet Miller. You don’t know me. I found your name and phone number in Mother’s address book, and I understand that the two of you were friends. Oh, I hate to have to do this on the phone. Mother – Margaret Langstrom-Thomas- passed today. We are planning a memorial service sometime early next week. I’ll be back in touch when we have more details. I am so sorry to have to tell you like this. Goodbye.”
“Terrence! Are you going to lay about all morning? Or do you still have some shred of responsibility left concerning poor Ben?”
Terry jerked awake with Margaret’s voice still echoing in his head, which was also echoing with a first-class hangover. Sitting up, he looked around blearily. It took a few moments to figure out why his bedroom suddenly had unpainted wood walls and a straw floor. This was Bubba’s stall. What was he doing in the barn? Something in a phone call.. Something about Margaret.
He sagged as memory returned. For all the grousing and annoyance, she had been his only non-work human contact for months. Between dealing with the financial upheaval, and then the frantic scramble to find and adjust to his cubicle-farm job, there was barely enough time to keep Ben take care of.
Which reminded him – even the dream Margaret had been admonishing him about responsibility. Pushing up stiffly, Terry struggled to clear his head. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels lay in the straw. She wouldn’t approve of his drinking either, but at least he’d mourned her loss with the good stuff.
Ben snorted and whinnied impatiently in the next stall, banging at the door with a forehoof. The gelding must have heard him moving around, or smelled him close by. Looking out the stall window, Terry figured it was probably mid-morning. No wonder the horse was anxious – it was well past turnout time. He shuffled out and fumbled with the latch. Damn. He needed a cup of coffee. The simple mechanism was almost more than he could manage, though it didn’t help to have Ben lipping and nosing him the whole time.
“Whoa!” The horse pushed out as soon as the latch opened, forcing Terry backwards. He grabbed for Ben’s halter and missed, only to have the animal come around the gate and give him a face full of quivering nostrils. Terry supposed that he was a real feast for equine senses – though not too many humans would appreciate the odors of sweat and booze combined with Bubba’s old blanket and residue from the stall’s bedding. He stood there for a few minutes until the horse seemed to be satisfied, and then led him out to the paddock.
Ben trotted a short distance, only to turn and amble back to the gate. It seemed like he was going to snuffle some more. Then Terry jerked back as teeth suddenly snapped close to his shoulder, and the horse spun to gallop off across the grass. What the Hell? It took a moment to remember that he’d seen such behavior before – when Ben and Bubba were playing together. Remembering the size of the drafter’s teeth, Terry realized that this herd mate relationship might not be such a good idea after all. It was one thing to get a friendly nuzzle, quite another for Ben to think he could use teeth or hooves.
The moment was past, so he couldn’t do anything about it now. But the next time the horse assumed equal status, Terry would have to reestablish dominance. Though he knew it was necessary, the prospect only deepened his sense of loss. It seemed that all of the relationships in his life were either ending or changing in a way he didn’t like. Sighing bitterly, he trudged back to the barn to muck out Ben’s stall.
Had he already done it? Terry stared at the unsoiled bedding and full water bucket. Granted, he was still muddled, but he sure didn’t remember doing anything before leading the animal outside. It was also possible, if highly unlikely, that the drafter hadn’t done anything all night. Bemused, he shook his head. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t going to complain about not having to shovel horse manure. Putting the fork back against the wall, he started for the house, then remembered the empty whisky bottle.
Jack Daniels had taken a walk. Terry searched his impromptu bedroom thoroughly, even kicking the bedding around to make sure it wasn’t just covered up. The glass container wasn’t in the trash barrel outside, either. Where had he left it? A careful search of Ben’s stall turned up nothing, and he retraced his steps at with no success. The bottle would be a real danger to Ben if the horse stepped on it, or worse, thought it was something to chew.
He was searching the ground between the barn and the paddock for the third time when Ben gave a shrill whinny from the paddock. The horse was watching him with ears perked up. “What is it, fella?” Terry went over and patted the animal’s neck, wary for potentially dangerous displays of playfulness. However, Ben was a lot calmer, and other than a couple of head-butts to prompt more finger grooming, seemed content to stand there and enjoy his owner’s company.
Terry had seen Bubba and Ben stand out here for hours like this, and often wondered why they didn’t make more use of the open paddock that they were always anxious to get to. Now he was beginning to understand. It was peaceful here. No phones, computers, or traffic. The warm smell of horse filled his nostrils, and after a while, the worries of his world dulled to a point that he really wasn’t thinking of anything at all.
“You were always a good boy.” Margaret was next to him, brushing out Ben’s mane. “I saw that in you right away. Too bad you have no business sense. I mean, look at you! Scrambling to earn a basic living, with no thoughts for the future. I had hoped I could guide you to being more responsible, but my time came too soon for that.” She shifted position to run the bristles through his hair, the pulling and pressure very pleasant. “Still, I could hardly abandon you to your fate. I had to make sure you would be taken care of, that you would be happy.”
It was a curious dream. The old woman had on her normal black jodhpurs and a crisp white blouse, hair neatly worked into a bun under her riding helmet. It was as if nothing had happened at all, and she was back in his life. He tried to say something when she stopped to pull loose hairs from the brush, but found that he was too choked up to speak.
Margaret smiled and reached up to rub under his chin. “Ah, my dear Terrence. Don’t worry about anything. Bills, that terrible job you hate, the pressures of responsibility – all part of a life that you can forget. It won’t be long now.” She gave his neck a firm squeeze.
“Oww!” Terry was startled awake by the hard pressure of equine teeth on his shoulder. Ben was getting a little carried away with the mutual grooming. “Not so rough, boy!” Actually, there hadn’t been any real pain, which was surprising considering the strength of the drafter’s jaws. Terry rotated the shoulder a little, but couldn’t work out a slight stiffness. He couldn’t blame Ben for that – his whole body felt awkward and bloated. Well, a good hot shower would help. And some breakfast. He was suddenly very hungry.
Turning from Ben, he took a few steps then stopped and blinked in confusion. What was he doing inside the paddock? Hadn’t he been on the other side of the fence? And how long had he been in here? Long enough to fall asleep, it seemed. And dream of Margaret. He sighed at the clear memory that came to mind, then puzzled over the imagined conversation. Dreams were supposed to have hidden meanings. This one was simple enough to figure out – his subconscious was hoping for a big inheritance.
Terry felt a flush of shame at the thought. He had never wanted more from her than the friendship and care she had given so freely. Anyway, the prospect was so unlikely as to be ridiculous. Even in his dream, Margaret had a low opinion of his financial capabilities – an evaluation that was more correct than he liked to admit.
A rumble from his stomach reminded him of a now long-overdue breakfast. And the shower. And some aspirin. Could you have a hangover through your whole body? Everything was throbbing, though not exactly hurting, and thoughts remained muddled and foggy. On the plus side, he didn’t have his normal headache.
He sighed and shuffled back to the gate to let himself out. A familiar beep drew his attention to the driveway. It was the mailman – or mailperson, in this case. He didn’t know the woman’s name, but had said hello once or twice on rare occasions.
He gave her a tired wave as she climbed out of the postal truck. She started to respond in kind, then dropped her arm and stared in obvious shock as if he’d shot her the finger. Turning away abruptly, she stuffed his mail in the box, got back in the wagon, and took off with a spray of gravel.
What was up with her? OK, he was probably a little dirty, but… Terry frowned and looked down at himself. Make that more than a little dirty. There dark stains on his skin and overstretched briefs that might be horse manure, with loose straw hanging from the vest. And his whole body looked a swollen – apparently the bedding in Bubba’s stall wasn’t as clean as he thought it was. That might explain some of the odd sensations he was dealing with. Soiled straw over dirt didn’t make the best…
Wait a minute. He backed up to the inventory of clothing. A second check confirmed that he was wearing only Bubba’s former blanket and a pretty nasty-looking pair of briefs that looked several sizes too small. He had dim memory of being dressed like this when he got the message about Margaret. Apparently he had gone straight to the liquor cabinet afterwards. What little embarrassment he felt gave way to mild puzzlement. The vest hung loosely around his chest, while his underpants were pulled tight over a rather prominent bulge. He started to investigate that, then remembered where he was. It was definitely time to go inside.
Assuming he could get out of the paddock. Terry stared at the gate for a full minute before he could dredge up the way to open it, and another very frustrating couple of minutes fumbling with the mechanism. Lift and pull. About as simple as you could get, but it seemed like every time he managed to get the catch up, he’d forget and push against the gate. The damned hangover was short-circuiting his brain. However, he finally got the combination right and stumbled out towards the house.
He was lucky the main door was open, for opening the screen took almost as much concentration as the gate. Concern finally started working its way through the fog in his head. This wasn’t like any hangover he’d ever had. Dammit! The new job’s medical insurance didn’t kick in for another week! He couldn’t afford to get sick now. Anyway, there was no reason to overreact. Nothing actually hurt - until he cracked his head on something going in.
Shit! Terry had to bend nearly double to feel the impact spot, his arms refusing to bend up high enough. There was no dampness of blood, but the skin on his forehead felt really odd. Twisting around, he stared at the opening. What the Hell had he hit? There was nothing there. Shuffling closer, he realized that the top of the doorframe looked a lot lower than he remembered it. And there were a couple of long, black strands hanging from a spot near the center. Black? He frowned. His hair was sandy brown, and had never been even half that long. Then he recognized the coarse texture – they were from Ben’s mane. Or maybe even Bubba’s, given his choice of bedroom last night. With the mystery solved, he started for the bathroom again, only to stop and look back uncertainly. Was there something else? A question danced maddeningly in the back of his thoughts, something about hitting his head. Snorting, he let it go, but remembered to stoop when he reached the bathroom.
For just a moment, he thought he had walked into the hall closet by mistake. The walls were impossibly close, even the fixtures seemingly replaced by child-sized replicas. He stared down at the miniature toilet, then at the shrunken shower stall. Then the missing question popped back into his mind. How could he have hit his head?
A cold shock of fear finally broke through the thickness in his brain, allowing him to finally connect all the oddities of the morning. The resulting answer was insane, impossible – and proven when he squatted enough to look in the mirror.
Terry recoiled from his reflection, slamming into the wall with enough force to crack the plaster. White hair covered his whole face except for a dark patch that encompassed his left eye and temple and nearly black nostrils and lips that had doubled in size. It was more than just his head – the mirror showed a barreled-out body also covered with white fur where it showed under the plaid fabric of his vest.
He looked down at himself. The dark splotches weren’t dirt – his legs and arms had patches of black hair, with thick fingers and toes turning a deep brown. What was going on with his legs? Thighs were swollen only to the front and back, giving them a deeper, flatter appearance. His briefs had stretched so thin that it looked like he was wearing a thong – one that did little to conceal genitals that were as altered as the rest of his body.
Even though he was terrified to look, he dug his fingers under the taut waistband of his briefs. Already at its limit, the fabric tore apart, releasing a dark and distorted manhood. Easily doubled in size, his penis displayed prominent veins and an almost blunt end. If the heavy bulge at its base was any indication, his testicles were also affected, though not as badly.
Muscles twitched at the base of his spine, and he felt the brush of heavy fabric against - something. Twisting around didn’t help. The vest extended past his buttocks, and he couldn’t bend his arms enough to pull it up. Still, he could see movement under the plaid cloth that corresponded to the odd sensations.
Clenching his eyes shut, Terry leaned back against the wall, fighting panic. What kind of horrible disease or allergic reaction could do something like this? Sure, he’d heard of skin swelling, even rashes and discoloration from working with animals. But never hair growth, or what seemed to be changes to his bones. He shivered, stomach twisting in knots. God, was he dying? Whatever it was had already deformed his body, perhaps disfiguring him for life. He had to call 911, get an ambulance here, get someone to…
“You are not dying, Terrence.”
“Margaret!” He was so relieved to hear her voice that he forgot for just a moment that she couldn’t possibly be here. In the midst of looking around for the source, he stiffened. Shit! Now he was hearing things. Was this all some sort of bizarre hallucination? The prospect of losing his mind was not much of an improvement.
“There is no reason to be afraid, my dear boy.” The dead woman’s voice continued with the same curious mix of affection and condescension that had always made her a bit frustrating to deal with. “This is simply a transition – it will be over soon.”
“Transition? What are you talking about? Look at me!” Terry closed his eyes again. What was worse? Hearing voices, or arguing with them?
“There is nothing to argue about, Terrence. And I am not a figment of your imagination. Look in the mirror.”
Damn, she was domineering even as a hallucination. Sighing, he did as instructed – then gasped and spun around when the reflection showed her standing in the doorway. There was nothing there. Looking back, he confirmed that the old woman was watching him patiently from the glass. She looked as she had in the dream, minus the helmet.
Margaret raised an eyebrow. “Domineering? That is an unkind word to use for someone who has worked so hard to help you, Terrence. Still, I do not suppose it is fair to expect you to understand what is going on.’
She was reading his mind! Terrence flushed, then shook his head abruptly. Big surprise. This had to all be in his head anyway. The one consolation was that he might just need therapy instead of a hospital. Lots of therapy. News of her death had hit him hard – maybe he needed...
Startled, he jerked his head back up to the mirror, having to shift a bit lower to see her properly. “What?”
“We do not have a lot of time. You will have to leave the house very soon, or become trapped in here.”
“I don’t understand.” As Terry struggled to make sense of things, the tattered remains of his undershorts dropped to the floor. He stared at the ruined briefs, then realized the vest was hanging even lower on his thighs than before. “What is happening to me?”
Margaret gave him a sad smile. “I couldn’t leave you here alone, Terrence. This was really the only choice for you.” Her image in the mirror faded into little more than a shadow, revealing his reflection clearly.
The distortions and colors suddenly combined into an impression of something familiar. Squinting slightly, Terry took a step closer, tilting his head slightly to get a better look at the left side. Although the underlying skull was still the wrong shape, he suddenly recognized the black patch that covered his cheek and eye.
“Bubba?” He half-whispered the question, knowing the answer as he took in the rest of the markings on his body. “Oh, God. I’m turning into Bubba? Why?”
Margaret appeared behind him in the mirror, so tiny and frail looking compared to his massive, furred frame. “Because you were only truly happy with the horses, Terrence. And you would have lost this farm in a few months, maybe a year. I couldn’t let you suffer like that. So I decided to give you a life you could enjoy, a life where you would always be content and cared for.”
Terry shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Maybe I’m losing my mind, but I can’t be turning into an animal! Nobody can do that! And Margaret was my friend! She wouldn’t take away my life!” There was a long silence. Was the hallucination over? He opened his eyes and felt his gut clench again. If anything, he looked more bestial than ever. And Margaret was still behind him, though she looked very tired and sad now.
The old woman reached up and stroked his shoulder – and he felt it! Not quite the touch of flesh, but slight warmth, a sense of contact. “I am your friend, dear boy. More than you will ever know. It took all of my willpower, all of my energy to bring this about.”
There was sincerity in her voice that touched Terry’s heart – and also fueled the possibility that this was really happening. He stared into the mirror as Margaret reached up and rubbed his chin the way she did with the horses. Vision blurred slightly, and he blinked trying to clear it. Then he realized his pale blue eyes were filling with shadow. It was terrifying, yet he could not move, could not pull away as they swelled and darkened to a deep liquid brown. Bubba’s eyes.
“No!” Terry twisted suddenly and launched himself out of the bathroom, desperate to escape the impossible reflection. Slamming into the wall, he staggered for the phone. He had to call for help, tell somebody what was happening. Balance was off, and he had to grab at furniture to make his way across the living room. The back of the sofa cracked ominously when he leaned on it, and he sent a lamp crashing to the floor when he grabbed for cordless handset. His fingers were stiff and thick, unable to grip the smooth plastic. It slipped out of his hand and broke apart when it hit the floor. “Shit!”
“This cannot be stopped, Terrence.” He looked back and screamed. Margaret was in the hallway, little more than a shimmer in the air. “There is no reason to fight the change. I have made all of the arrangements. They will find a Bill of Sale for you and Ben in my papers. And instructions for the care and disposition of all my horses.”
“Get away from me!” Terry lurched for the front door. He had to get outside, find someone to talk… His head slammed into the top of the door again, this time hard enough to send him toppling backwards onto the floor. The impact almost knocked him out, and left him fighting nausea and dizziness. Forcing himself up to hands and knees, he crawled to the opening and literally broke through the screen door to get outside.
Everything looked distorted and blurred, like he had on someone else’s glasses. Squinting to focus, he also realized that colors were faded. Terry panted in fear, afraid to move, and afraid to stay where he was. It was hard to gather his thoughts - his forehead throbbed painfully, and the mental haze had gotten worse. He needed to find someone. Who?
Movement in corner of one eye got his heart pounding even faster – then a familiar black and white shape ambled around the side of the house. Ben. The big drafter was wandering loose. Terry had a flicker of guilt – he must have left the paddock gate hanging open. At least the animal hadn’t wandered off the property.
Ben whickered and came over to lip at his hair. The contact was soothing, and provided a welcome diversion from pain and panic. Terry closed his eyes, breathing deeply. A sweat-salt smell of horse filled his nostrils, stronger than usual, and oddly divided. One came from Ben – the Gypsy’s scent was clear in his mind from this morning. Although the second odor was similar, it had slight variations overlaid with an acrid tinge.
The gelding snorted and pawed the ground for attention, but he was looking past Terry. There was no need to turn around. Margaret had followed him out.
“We should get Ben back in his stall. If something scared him, he might run across the road.”
The abrupt change of subject threw Terry off, especially since it echoed his own concerns of just a moment before. The routine task was a life preserver of normality that he grabbed at, desperate for anything that might distract him from the horrors that were twisting his mind, or body, or both.
Getting off the porch was difficult. He found that he couldn’t stand up, and finally crawled down. A bigger problem of not being able to grab the horse’s halter turned out to be no problem at all. Ben stayed next to him, snuffling and lipping his back and head like a big dog all the way across the yard. Terry looked back a couple of times, but didn’t see Margaret anywhere. Maybe it was all in his head after all. He deliberately ignored the nagging sense that moving on all fours was a lot easier than it should be.
By the time they reached the barn, Terry had almost convinced himself that he was still drunk. The specter of his old neighbor remained conspicuously absent, and it was a lot easier to believe that too much alcohol had him crawling around naked, thinking he was turning into an animal. Could be his time sense was as screwed up as everything else.
Ben brushed past him and trotted into his stall to look for food, allowing Terry to nudge the gate shut with his shoulder. Closing the latch was another issue. He stared at the mechanism, trying to remember how to operate it. Damn, it was hard to concentrate! The bar slid to the side. But you had to do something else first. Push… no, lift up. That was it. But when he tried, he found the muscles in his arms had stiffened to the point that he couldn’t reach high enough. He looked around for something to stand on. There didn’t seem to be anything around that would work, or at least that he could move in his current state. He needed something small and light.
A bucket. The image popped into his head so clearly that he was momentarily startled, but then nodded to himself. Yeah, a bucket. That would work. There were none in the main barn, but he could use Bubba’s empty feed bucket. Shuffling into the stall, he stared up at the container.
The bright green plastic looked dull and dark, almost gray. That bothered him, but after a moment he butted the bottom of it to knock it down. It flopped loosely above him, but did not fall. Repeating the action didn’t help. Frustration and annoyance helped cut through the mental fog, and he suddenly realized that he was wasting his time. The handle was secured with a spring-loaded catch to keep horses from doing exactly what he was attempting. What the Hell was wrong with him? Terry shook his head – while the world was still fuzzy, he was thinking much clearer.
There was a click behind him. Twisting around, he saw that the stall door had swung shut. That shouldn’t click, though. Frowning, he turned and pushed against the barrier. It was locked.
“Hey!” Terry banged against the gate with his head. These latches couldn’t close by themselves. Someone had to be out there! “I’m thtuck in here! Open the gate!” Then he gasped and jerked away as warmth and faint prickling ran up his spine.
“I closed the latch, Terrence.” Margaret was standing beside him again. “You need to be safe, just like Ben.”
“I’m not your pet!” He clenched his eyes shut, trying to block out the apparition. “This is my life, not yours! Leave me alone!”
She shook her head, the movement oddly clear even though she was standing by his shoulder. “Never my pet, Terrence. If you were my born son, I would do the same thing for you. Can’t you see this is for your own good?”
“For my own good? Shit! If I’m not just having a total mental breakdown, then you’re taking away my hands, my voice. I won’t even be a person any more, just somebody’s property!” His voice cracked, higher and somewhat ragged as phantom fingers slid over a lengthening neck. Fear and frustration returned, and his eyes burned with tears. “Dammit, Margaret! How could you do this to me?”
“Because I knew it was the right thing to do.” She sighed, and he felt the curiously pleasant sensation of transformation slide along his jaw, thickening muscle and bone.. “I am sorry that you cannot appreciate the gift I have given you.”
“A gifff?” The changes were affecting his mouth now, making words hard to form. “Whah giff? Life ath a mindleth animal?”
“You know better than that.” Her tone was reproachful. “Ben is a gentle, friendly soul, who cares for you just as you care for him. Yes, he is property, just as you will be. But how is that different from your life now?”
Terry was flabbergasted. “Are you inthane?” The question could just as well be directed at himself, considering he was arguing with a dead woman – and apparently turning into a horse. Still, he couldn’t believe the old woman’s attitude. “I’m a human being! I have a houth, a job, I choothe what I want to do.“
“You get up at 6, climb into a car for an hour drive to work, spend 8 or 9 hours in a box much smaller than this stall doing work you hate, drive another hour home, and spend a couple of hours working around the stable before you go to bed.”
“But…” He shivered as fingers slid down his scalp, pulling through hair that felt far too long and thick. The fog was rolling back in over his thoughts, and he couldn’t work out a rebuttal. Instead, he switched attacks.
“I’m only forty-thix. Bubba ith theven. Tho I die ath a horthe in fifteen yearth, maybe leth. How ith that a gifff?”
“How old was your father when he died, Terrence?” Margaret moved beside his shoulder, her hand pulling his lower face into a recognizable muzzle.
“Fif’y-thwee. That doethn’t mehhahhhn…” He concentrated and tried again. “Tha’ doethn’t meahn I wou’.”
The old woman’s spirit continued as if nothing was happening. “Your mother died of cancer at fifty-one. Not very good odds, Terrence. And even if you beat those odds, look at what you were facing.”
She moved directly in front of him, looking up into his eyes. Her hands felt real now, rubbing the sides of his head with a pleasant circular motion. “The farm is more than you can manage. We both know you are heading for bankruptcy. And after that? Some squalid apartment in the city, working until you drop dead or are forced into an unhappy retirement.”
Terry’s protest emerged as a guttural sound like a horse’s whinny. Another attempt only came out more animal than the first. He seethed, unable to answer. His life wasn’t that bad! Sure, things were tough right now, but in a few years…
“In a few years? What then, Terrence?” It seemed that a voice wasn’t needed after all.
He could save money, invest in the market, hit it big again! All it took was some cash, some good information, and a little luck.
Margaret smiled and shook her head, rubbing under his chin. “Look around, you silly boy. This is what you spent all of your money on. Don’t you see? Instead of working all your life to get back to where you were, I have arranged things so you will never have to leave what you truly enjoy.”
There had to be some flaw in her argument. He shifted nervously, the fabric of the vest pulling at his back and sides, and oddly, the base of his throat. Twisting his head slightly brought far too much of his body into view. He wasn’t wearing a vest any more – Bubba’s blanket hung over his back, completely restored. And the body under that blanket belonged to the absent animal as well.
Terry snuffled at the woman’s face, confused. He could feel her hands, hear her voice, but she had no scent. And her already blurred shape seemed fainter. He could see the wooden boards of the stall through her. Dimly, he realized he was teetering on the edge of losing himself to the equine mind. Yet the sensation of transformation had stopped just short of completion.
He jumped slightly as the blanket slid off his back, straps dangling in midair. Margaret was nearly transparent, little more than smoke that somehow folded the bulky plaid fabric and draped it over the side of the stall. Why had she removed the blanket? It had obviously been her tool to change him. A token gesture, perhaps. The choice to take the final step himself.
In truth, he wasn’t even sure what he was fighting any more. For all his protests, the prospect of life as Bubba was not an unpleasant one. It wasn’t as if his contributions to the world as a human would be missed. One less cog in a corporate wheel, one more pretty animal for people to admire. That last thought probably came from Margaret, but he couldn’t deny the truth of it.
What then? Fear of losing himself. Of not being… Terrance Burke? The words seemed empty now, almost without any meaning at all. On the other hand, his nostrils were filled with a warm, rich odor that provided more complete identity then mere sounds could possibly convey.
“My sweet boy.” He felt the palm of her hand rub the base of his throat and upper chest. There was no mistaking the love in her voice, but there was also something else. “I’ll be always be here with you. You won’t ever have to be alone. Neither of us will be alone.”
And then he understood. Margaret was just as scared as he was. Afraid of losing herself to whatever lay beyond. Had he become an animal just to provide her with some sort of anchor to this world? No, at least not completely. The truth of her arguments remained, regardless of her motives. Even more importantly, he realized that he did have a purpose, a contribution that would make a difference.
Margaret had been his anchor for years, getting little in return. Now he could return the favor, not only serving as a companion for her, but also for Ben, the other important soul in his life. Should that be a sad epithet of his human life? He did not dwell on the thought – good or bad, that life was over. And as simple as that, the decision was made. Bubba snorted and dropped his head to snuffle contentedly at the bedding. He was home.