His feet dragged along the ground, barely lifting off at all. It would probably wear out his new sneakers, he knew, but somehow he didn't really care. With a hand occasionally brushing sweat from his forehead, he trudged down the sidewalk, making his slow way home from school. The afternoon sun was blazing overhead, but trees lining the path provided shelter from the heat. He knew the route home by heart. Left turn here, straight until the crossing, then right turn again. So on and so forth. The same route he took home every single day.
He hated that route. Or, more precisely, what it represented to him.
Because he held, deep within his heart, a simmering resentment for the life he led. He resented it, hated it so much, that never-changing, mindless banality of the world. That was what the route home represented-a mind-blowing sameness, the unalterable mundanity of a world that pressured people from their earliest memories to do more, to work harder. Slowly but surely, all fun had been stripped from the world, brushed away by the stress of having to excel.
Oh, sure, he'd once had dreams. But those were just part of the memories of his long-gone childhood. He vaguely remembered dreams of being a game developer: escaping overseas to a good university where he would major in computer sciences, then finding a job in the best game company he had ever known. He imagined the life he would have, creating games for the people who would appreciate them. To help, in some small way, those people escape their problems by providing them a simulated reality to hide from the one that was so painful.
But as he grew older, these dreams were ruthlessly eroded by the knowledge of the world. His parents weren't rich enough to get him to an overseas university. A scholarship? He snorted bitterly. A woman on the street glanced at him, but he didn't care. Why the hell would he of all the people in his school ever get chosen for a scholarship? There were so many others, so many better. And even if he did manage to get a degree, what were the odds that he would get a job in Bungie? Unlike in school, there would be hundreds of other people vying for the same position. It was a slim, if impossible, hope that he would ever have the life he'd dreamed for. The dream he had held so dear had suddenly been torn from him, suddenly seemed so childish, so naïve.
And if he'd never achieve his dream, what, then, was the purpose of living? All the studying, all the projects, all the tests, all the exams-all for nothing. No matter how much he studied, how much work he completed, how many A's he got, there would always be another project, another test, that everyone expected him to ace again. They expected so much of him! If ever he got a B, he would be expected to get an A. And if he got that A in the next test, he would be expected to get an A+. The constantly rising expectations of his parents and teachers would never be satisfied, no matter how much he ever tried. And he'd tried. He'd tried so hard. So hard to be the person that the people around him expected him to be. But where was the motivation? The satisfaction? The prize at the end of the road? There was nothing. In the end, it wouldn't even matter.
He was suddenly aware that his eyes were damp with tears. Keeping his head down and his eyes averted, he prayed that nobody noticed. The last thing he ever wanted was for somebody to see him crying. A fourteen-year-old in tears: imagine that! Everyone would know that he was weak. He couldn't, wouldn't let anyone know what he felt inside. To the world, he was just another cheerful, carefree kid in school. He glanced up for a moment and saw an old man, sitting on a bench with a newspaper. The man looked at him with evident concern: his eyes must have been redder than he'd thought. Averting his eyes, he ducked his head, walking quickly past the man.
When he finally looked up again, he realized that he was already near his house. Funny, he hadn't remembered walking so far yet. Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, then reached into his pocket and fumbled for the keys. His heart heavy, he took one slow step at a time towards the door. He accidentally stepped on something: looking down, he saw a small bunch of flowers his mother had planted by the side of the path. The small flowers tickled his ankles, the brightly colored petals seemingly smiling up at him... mocking him. A desire to stamp on the flowers suddenly surged through him, and he raised his foot
then lowered it. No. He inhaled deeply, held the breath in his chest for a moment, then exhaled. Stamping on Mom's flowers would only earn him another scolding later.
As he neared the door, he remembered his daily responsibility to check the mail: yet another part of the meaningless cycle of his life. Backtracking reluctantly, he opened the mailbox and checked. His mood brightened, simmering resentment washing away as he saw a small package, wrapped neatly in brown paper. A quick check told him that it was addressed to him. Holding the package reverently in his hands, he stumbled for the door, fumbling with the keys.
The moment he managed to get the door open, he slipped into the house and shut the door behind him, plunging the room into darkness. The curtains had been drawn earlier that day, and now the house was bathed in shadows. Placing the package gingerly in his room, he moved through the silent house with slow, deliberate steps, checking if any of his family members had decided to come home early.
No one. The house was empty.
Which was good, he guessed. The solitude of an empty house was like a small piece of heaven: the one oasis of peace and silence amidst the desert of modern fast-paced life. Shrugging off his bag, he slumped onto his bed for a moment, closing his eyes and savoring the peace that pervaded the house. Despite the allure of the bed's comfort, sleep was the last thing on his mind. He climbed to his feet, switched on the lights in his room, and moved over to the desk to retrieve his package. Returning to his bed, he sat down and placed it ever so gingerly upon his lap.
All his life, he'd been locked in a cage whose bars were the one thing nobody had ever escaped from: humanity. The stifling constraints of civilization, with no room for error, no room to relax. And like any animal caged in a space far too small, his dreams and thoughts were slowly erased, leaving only one thought in his mind: escape. Maybe it was escapism, but he'd always longed to be something other than human.
It was a dream that had boiled over from his childhood, a dream that, unlike the others, had not been destroyed as he grew older, but had been strengthened. At first, he'd been worried that his interest in transformations was unnatural. Like being gay. But then he'd discovered the wonders of the Internet, and with it, a whole community of people dedicated to the same interest that he'd kept secret. And finally, he'd felt that there was somewhere that he belonged to, someone out there whom he could relate to. He finally embraced the side of him he'd feared: plunged head-first into the community and never looked back.
After all, he had reasoned, a human would face pressure and stress from a million different things. On the other hand, or paw, as he like to think, an animal would be free to lead any kind of life, a life undictated and uncontrolled by the constraints of civilization. There would be no need to worry about a test that was unprepared for, a friend who would stab you in the back. There would be no more anger, no more sadness, no more envy.
Everything he learnt about people just made animals seem all the better.
With trembling hands he tore off the wrapping to reveal a small pile of little Ziploc bags, each with something sealed inside: a little bunch of red fur, some strange salts. A spell. It was something that he'd ordered online, waited anxiously for weeks to come. Finally, a chance that his hope would be realized. Maybe, just maybe, after today he'd be free!
He knew that the odds were that it wouldn't work: after all, the Internet was a hub for scams and lies, targeting pathetic suckers like him who were so desperate for something that they let themselves be blinded. And he had allowed himself to be blinded; ignored the fact that the "spell" was probably just another hoax. Instead he'd chosen to believe that it would provide the escape that he longed for every single day.
As he shifted the contents, a small slip of paper fell from the pile and drifted to the floor. Pushing the pile of Ziploc bags onto his bed, he bent down sharply and snatched it up. His eyes flicked over the paper. Instructions. Excitement began building up in him, and he stood quickly before running to the kitchen to grab a glass of water.
A small, logical part of his mind whispered that the "magic" wouldn't work, that it was a hoax, that he was being a fool. But he pushed the voice out of his mind, and, one by one, emptied the bags of ingredients into the glass of water.
Lifting the glass to eye level, he inspected it. The liquid was perfectly clear, and didn't look very magical at all. Doubt wormed its way into his heart.
See? I told you this wouldn't work. It's a scam. You just wasted 50 bucks, smartass.
Carefully ignoring his voice of logic, he reached over and dropped in the packet of rust-red fur. He read the last line on the bit of paper: momentarily confused, he reread it, eyes lingering on the last line. Pausing for a moment, Dan considered the logic of doing that. Then he reached for his desk with an iron determination and drew out the small Swiss Army knife he'd received from his father as a birthday gift. Slowly, deliberately, he moved his thumb over the glass and drew the small blade across his flesh. The blade was rarely used, and it slid through skin and flesh without much resistance. It hurt like hell, but he pushed it out of his mind and watched his blood drip into the glass, leaving crimson swirls in the clear liquid.
the final moment. The moment of truth. Dare he do it? Sacrifice his humanity? Before he could continue questioning himself he made his decision
and downed the entire glass. It tasted bad, but he didn't care.
And then he waited
He sat on the edge of the bed, hand still gripping the empty glass. He could feel the nervous excitement slowly leech away
then as a final, last hope, he glanced at his hand, hoping, praying that he would see a hint of red-
There was nothing. No slow spread of red fur, no stab of agony at the end of his spine, no sign of any changes at all.
Tears dripped down his fourteen-year-old face, rolled between the pimples and fell onto his shirt. The room now seemed a little smaller, the glaring light from the window a little harsher. The glass sat innocently in his clenched fist, occasionally peeking. With an incoherent yell he threw it, but miraculously it didn't shatter, landing on the hardwood floor and clinking into the wall. With a backhand swipe he flung all the empty packets onto the floor. He slammed his clenched fist down: it impacted the side of the bed with a dull thud, and almost immediately a blinding pain emanated from the blow. But it wasn't the pain of the bruised hand that hurt him.
It was the agony of crushing disappointment.
He tilted his bed back, hands clenched and jaw locked as tears flooded down his cheeks, trying to articulate the pain that surged through him. Gasping, ragged breaths escaped him. All his hopes had been pinned on this one spell, and it'd failed him. He knew that it wouldn't work. Why had he let himself hope? Every time he had a hope, a dream, he knew that it would always fail in the end. It would be torn away, snuffed out like a candle before a gust of wind.
And it had. All those stories on the Net, all the stories other people had written, all the stories that he had written, they were nothing but fantasies. Lies for the weak, beacons for the deluded. He had tried, tried to believe that there was hope for the dream he'd held so dear after the first one had been so brutally torn from him. But now he knew. There was no magic in this world, no miracles, no way to run, only to live on a meaningless existence in a world that would never understand.
With hands that were now shaking with sobs, he raised the small Swiss knife and pressed the flat of the blade against his wrist. The metal was cool, encouraging. One sharp slice, one quick slash, and he'd be free. No more pain, no more suffering. Just an escape from a life he resented. He pressed the blade harder against the vein, feeling the pulse of blood.
He let his eyes close as more and more tears flowed, dripped down his chin and onto his shirt. For one last time, he tried to imagine what it would be like to be a fox. To be free. But he couldn't. He could no longer imagine the red fur, the sharp muzzle, the long tail. All he could feel was the agony of loss. Life had chipped away at his dreams, torn his imagination from him, whittling at him until he was nothing more than an empty, hollow husk, a shattered remnant of dreams forgotten. He tightened his grip on the small knife in his hands and prepared to slash...
Outside, he heard a click of a lock, then the creak of a door opening.
"Daniel, I'm home!" came a shout.
No, he couldn't let Mom see him like this. It would hurt her to see her son in such a state. Wiping the tears from his face, he hastily swept the empty packets under his bed, placed the cup on the table, and then he forced a smile onto his face, affecting a sleepy look. Climbing into bed just in time, Mom came in to check on him. But all she saw was her son, getting up from an afternoon nap.
"Morning, mom," Dan said, feigning a yawn and pushing himself upright.
Mom smiled at him. "Sleeping again?"
"Yes mom," Dan lied. After so many months of hiding secrets, lying had become a second nature. It wasn't something he was proud of, but it had its uses.
"Well, you'd better get up and do your work, Daniel." Mom clucked her tongue and left. Wincing, he mentally forced the pain of loss into a small holding area inside his mind. He'd deal with it later.
And so as the rest of the afternoon, and then the evening, passed, he wore the façade of smiles that he was so used to. A smile, a joke, a little laughter. Letting people see what they wanted to see. Making himself appear cheerful, as if nothing had happened. Every day was another act, every day another a mask of cheerfulness, and as usual nobody noticed anything amiss. Not Mom, not Dad. Nobody realized that deep down, he was crying. After all, Dan had spent years keeping his feelings wrapped up and hidden. What was another day? As darkness fell, he poked at his dinner without much enthusiasm, then made his excuses and went to bed early.
His room was dark when he collapsed onto his bed, mentally tearing off the façade. He inhaled sharply as the memories of pain and loss returned, as sharp and cutting as they had been all those hours ago. His eyes were stinging, tears welling up as the agony of disappointment and utter failure returned. Why the hell had he let himself consider that? He should have known that it was a hoax. He should have known that it was impossible.
He hadn't told anyone about the spell. Come to think about it, he hadn't even told anyone about his interests. People would think he was crazy. In this time of need, who could he confide his pain in? His friends? He released a humorless laugh. His "friends" were the very ones who'd convinced him that it was a cruel world out there.
Benjamin had once been his best friend. Their friendship was only a year long, but they'd been so close! Almost like brothers, Dan reflected. They hung out at each other's house every other day, chatted about homework, Halo, and life in general. A true friend, that's what Dan thought of Benjamin. He had trusted Benjamin.
He only knew how wrong he was when some of the other classmates began to pick on him. His "friend" had not only refused to stand up for him, but actually joined the other classmates in mocking him. Of course they didn't mean it too hard. He could tell, from their eyes, that it was just for amusement, just a joke, nothing more.
And he had tried his best to brush it off, hadn't he? All those times, all he did was try his best to laugh along and act like it was nothing. But did they know? Did they know, how hard the words struck, how deep the wounds cut? Did Ben know? Did he know what it felt like to be betrayed by someone that he trusted so much?
They didn't. Nobody knew about his pain. Not then, and not now. Ever since then, his conviction that people could not be trusted was only strengthened.
His parents? No, they wouldn't understand. They loved him, he knew that, but understanding was a wholly different subject.
Who would understand a desire to become animal? To the rest of the world, animals were lesser beings, inferior, below humanity. Why would anyone want to be one of them? Only the wierdos and psychos, they would say. His parents might scream in horror, and send him for psychological treatment.
His parents never even realized why he was so "addicted" to computer games. Why was he? He had only found the answer a few weeks ago.
Because in games, he could immerse himself in a world of fantasy. Hiding from the real world in one that was simulated. Because games gave him hope, hope that magic was still out there, hope that a miracle could happen and that he could, some day, lead a life of adventure, a life that he'd dreamed of and craved so desperately.
But now, looking back, he suddenly found that this was suddenly so childish, so naïve. It would never happen. There was no magic, no miracles, no hope. Just the mindless banality of life. He'd grow up to be just another member of the workforce, in a dead-end job in some dead-end company, never realizing his dreams even til his dying day.
"Oh God, help me, please," he whispered, burying his face in the pillow. He felt warm tears form and soak into the soft material, but he didn't care. "Help me in this moment of weakness."
He had whispered those words so many times on so many dark nights, but once again there was no response. No comforting touch on his shoulder, no soft reassurances. So many questions and pleas that he'd asked God, but never once a reply. And for the first time in his fourteen-year-old life, doubt eroded his faith: doubt that God was listening, doubt that God would ever help. Where was God, when Dan needed Him so much? Had he been abandoned by God, just like he'd been abandoned by so many others?
Maybe it was because he'd never been to church, never talked to a pastor, never sang hymns of praise. Or maybe he'd just sinned too much.
Maybe his entire passion was a sin.
He had heard somewhere that people were supposed to treasure the bodies the Lord had given them, yet he hadn't. He'd wished to be something different. Perhaps that was his crime. And now he was damned, damned to be all alone in a world of darkness. Damned to be trapped in a world he would never be part of.
And then he whispered to God a plea for help and cried himself to sleep, like he had so many times in the past.
Sunlight was pouring into his room when he woke up. Sitting up in his bed, he spent a moment rubbing the sleep from his eyes. On his cheeks he felt the dried remains of a night of tears. It took him a moment to remember why he felt so miserable, but like he'd hoped, sleep and time had dulled the pain, and now it was no more that a dull throb in his heart. It hurt, but not as much as before. For now, the pain was dull enough to ignore.
Leaning to the side, he checked his face in the mirror next to his bed. His eyes, while not puffy, were still red from tears, and it took a moment for him to compose himself and force a small smile onto his face. He practiced the smile for a moment before he felt that it was convincing enough to make his parents think that nothing had happened.
Climbing from the bed, he glimpsed a flash of light. He looked around for the source, then saw that the yesterday's glass, glinting in the morning light. It was still sitting innocently on the table where he had placed it after the...events of yesterday afternoon. Reaching over to the table, he picked it up and examined it.
Stuck to the bottom of the glass was a single strand of red fur. He would never wash it away. He would leave the unwashed glass and the strand of vulpine fur on his table as a reminder of broken dreams. A monument for lost magic. And then he stumbled to the washroom to prepare for yet another day of his life.
As usual, he could have predicted the entire day. He washed up, had cornflakes for breakfast. Mom dropped him off at school before heading to work. At school, he had flag-raising, then lessons, then recess. A couple of classmates, including his friend, laughed at him and made pimple jokes. He laughed along, pretended nothing had happened. Then more lessons, more homework. Another painfully predictable day in his repetitive life. Really, if his life got anymore repetitive he'd be getting deja vu every five seconds.
The school bell rang as kids flooded out of the classroom. With slow, deliberate motions he packed everything into his bag, then with a long, drawn-out sigh he got to his feet, lifted his bag and slung it over his shoulder. Step after slow step he made his way towards the classroom door, feeling no need to hurry, for what was there to hurry to? Just a place where he'd do homework, watch TV, play computer games. Meaningless bits of trivia. He would never ever find a way to escape the mundane life he led. No way to run: not today, not tomorrow, not-
Dan caught a glimpse of something arcing towards him; instinct took over and he ducked, even as that something hit the table next to him, bounced off the side, and landed at his feet.
Dan looked at it. Pimple cream. He rolled his eyes.
Laughter echoed from across the class, and Dan rose to his feet and looked around. Not surprisingly, Benjamin and a couple of his creep friends were roaring with laughter, no doubt at the sheer genius of their plan.
"Maybe you should keep it!" One of Benjamin's friends called. "You sure need it!"
The three of them burst into a fresh wave of laughter. Benjamin high-fived the friend.
"I appreciate the concern," Dan replied coolly. "I'll remember to pick up some IQ supplements for you. You sure need those."
In the few seconds it took for that to sink in, Dan was already out of the class. But he only took a few steps down the empty hallway before somebody shoved him from behind-hard. He stumbled forwards, but caught himself quickly.
"What's that supposed to mean, huh?" demanded Benjamin. Behind him, his two friends glared at Dan with disdain.
Ignoring the question, Dan drew out his handphone.
"What're you doing now? Maybe you're-"
But Dan cut his former friend off sharply: "Oh, just calling up the American Society of Huge Dumbasses. I hear their president's gone missing."
It was a lame insult, thought up at the last moment and badly worded, but it worked-and all too well. Before Dan could react, Benjamin reached out and snatched the phone from his hand. Recognising the call to action, his friends stepped between the two of them.
Benjamin moved backwards a couple of steps, then said triumphantly, "Let's see what's inside Dan's little phone, shall we?"
As Dan tried unsuccessfully to shove past the two boys, he heard his former friend say, "What's all this shit?"
Dan froze, unsure of what to do.
Immediately the two boys blocking him scrambled to Benjamin's side eagerly, peering over his shoulder at Dan's phone. Within seconds they were all grinning; Dan knew exactly what they were going to do.
As a series of fresh taunting began, Dan tried to think of a good comeback. But this time the words struck so deep that he couldn't say anything. So he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed himself to be strong.
Bear with it... Just bear with it... they'll stop soon enough... bear with it...
But suddenly that pent-up anger from yesterday's failure, the way his nerves wore thin after months of taunting, it all snapped. The next thing he knew, Dan yelled, "What the fuck is your problem? For the whole fucking term you've been fucking mocking me! Tell me!"
As the three boys stood, smiles slipping off their faces, Dan leapt forwards like a wolf upon its prey. With an energy he hadn't ever known burning inside him, he elbowed in the stomach the one boy who tried to stop him, shoved the other aside and tackled Benjamin.
The two of them fell to the floor in a heap. The phone clattered as it hit the ground; Dan couldn't care less.
"Can't you ever give me some fucking respect?" he snarled. "I like anthros. So what? Is that your problem? Can't you at least respect what I like? Don't you think I have the right to like what I like, to hate what I hate? Have you ever shown me any understanding, any sensitivity, any maturity?"
Without waiting for a reply, Dan threw a punch; Benjamin, either dazed from the fall or stunned by Dan's ferocity, didn't attempt to dodge. The blow connected with his left cheekbone and snapped his head back.
Dan continued, "No! No you haven't! You've just acted like a fucking five-year-old and bitched about anything you could think of. So much for friendship, huh? So much for mutual respect and all that shit."
Climbing to his feet, he said, "You know what? I'm done with you. I've tried to save our friendship, but it looks like it's all screwed. No more smiling and nodding when you make your stupid insults!" Pointing down the hallway, Dan spat, "Go on, then! Run after your little friends! Run back to them and you can make your fucking jokes until hell freezes over!"
Benjamin got shakily to his feet, one hand feeling the edge of his new bruise. Then he turned tail, and with one final, fearful backward glance, ran.
Watching as his former friend disappeared down the hallway, Dan leaned heavily on the wall, panting. He felt the sudden burst of anger slowly fade away, and logic slowly seep back into his head. With a grunt he bent down and retreived his phone from where Benjamin had dropped it thinking all the while. How had that happened? And since when had he learned so many insults?
"Daniel Lancaster?" A hand gripped Dan by the shoulder. He jumped, then turned around. A youngish-looking woman stood behind him, bright eyes, brown hair. Probably a relief teacher or something. Strange, but when Dan had exited class the hallway was empty, and he was certain he would have noticed a teacher
Maybe she'd come out to see the commotion.
Quickly adjusting his smile, Dan brushed a litte sweat off his forehead and nodded. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Can I speak to you in my office?" the lady said. Her voice was soft, reassuring. Every instinct told Dan that she could be trusted.
"May I ask why?" She'd probably seen the commotion, but it was best to play it safe and act dumb. Dan considered a moment, then added, "Ma'am?" Some teachers took great offence if they weren't called "sir" or "ma'am", and Dan didn't need another detention.
"I'll tell you later, in private. Oh, and you can call me Ms. Anderson." The relief teacher, or so Dan assumed, moved a couple of steps in the opposite direction. Staring at her, Dan didn't move. "Are you coming?" she asked, without turning to look. Dan hurried after her.
Ms. Anderson led him into a room. With a gesture at the table she said, "Take a seat."
Sitting down warily, Dan assessed the room. It looked like a standard office in his school. Desk, shelves, small flowerpots, fluorescent lights. The soft aroma of tea leaves filled the room. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Ms Anderson took a seat opposite him. Reaching for a small pot of tea, she poured out a little into a cup, then raised the teapot at him.
"Would you like some?"
Dan shook his head.
"No? Suit yourself," she said in a pleasant tone. She took a sip from the cup, then set it down. Interlacing her fingers, she looked him over. Almost assessing him, Dan realized. Then he noticed a small sign on the desk reading "Counselor".
"You're a counselor?" Dan asked, disbelief tingeing his voice. "Did my parents ask you to talk to me? I don't need counselling!"
If Ms Anderson was offended by what Dan said, she didn't show it. Instead she shook her head, and said in a low voice, "No, your parents did not ask of my services. I came to talk to you." With a small wave she said, "Maybe you should tell your parents that you're here? I don't want them worried about how you weren't home on time."
Her soft smile suggested that she was a kind person, and that alone kept Dan in his seat. Withdrawing his handphone, he texted Mom, telling her that a counselor was talking to him, and that he would be late. Sliding it back into his pocket, he looked up to see that Ms Anderson was looking at him expectantly, as though searching for something in his eyes.
"You've sent the message? Good. Let us talk now, you and I." She paused. "Daniel. Can I call you Daniel?"
Dan nodded mutely.
"All right, Daniel." Ms Anderson unlaced her fingers and laid her hands flat on the table. "May I ask why you were ranting at your friend in the hallway?"
Damn, she had heard. "He...It's hard to explain."
"He was...okay, I'm sure you noticed the condition of my acne. Well, the people in my class all seem to think that it's one hell of a joke, and every day I'm the butt of a thousand punchlines." Dan shrugged self-consciously, then sighed. "I guess I kinda lost it just now."
He waited for a scolding, perhaps a punishment...but it never came.
"I've noticed. That seems to justify all that commotion." She folded her arms and contemplated the boy sitting opposite. "But that is not the reason I asked you here. How are you? Are you happy with your life?"
For a moment, Dan was stunned by the abrupt change in subject. "All right, I guess," lied Dan. "What's not to like about my? I've got an Xbox, Halo, a computer"
"My question was not about what you had in life, but whether or not you enjoyed your life. And judging by what I see here, I don't think you're happy." Dan was about to interrupt, but the young counselor opposite waved a hand.
"Don't ask me how I know. There is a look, in your eyes, that there's something that darkens your heart. What's troubling you? It's not just your friends, right?"
The question was ignored as Dan rose to his feet and paced to the window. Placing one hand on the glass, he watched as outside, kids streamed out the school gates, laughing, talking, joking. A reminder of the innocence he'd lost so long ago.
He continued looking, until the counselor broke the silence: "Avoiding the question won't help at all, Daniel. Neither will keeping everything inside you."
"How do you know that?" Dan asked quietly, his back still facing the counselor. "How do you know that talking will help?" A wave of emotion previously unknown overcame Dan, and his voice grew louder, a rising crescendo climbing in pace with the surge of his emotions. Whirling around on his heel, he yelled, "What the hell do you want to know?" Throwing his hands up in the air, he continued, "Why would you, of all people, understand? You don't fucking know a shit about me! Why do you care?!"
But Ms Anderson didn't seem perturbed by his outburst. Instead, she said, "I care because I am here to help."
He gripped the wall for support and paused, gasping for breath and struggling to restrain the outburst of emotion. And then he added in a low voice, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Take a seat." Ms Anderson lifted a hand in a gracious gesture, inviting him to sit. Striding over to the chair, Dan sat down.
"Daniel. Where should I start? I suppose with the last couple of weeks. I've been watching you, Daniel-" a word flashed in Dan's mind: stalker! "-and I've noticed that you always seem very troubled. I've noticed that during recess, you don't mix around very much. Maybe that's because of your unpleasant experience with your friend. But that doesn't seem like everything. There's still something more that you're hiding. Deep down, that you don't want people to know. And it's hurting you. I can see that."
She seemed genuinely concerned, but the depth of her perception troubled Dan. How had she learnt so much about him? Dan had been careful not to let anything slip, not to even leave a hint about his true feelings.
"No," he said, his voice suddenly quiet. "You won't understand. Nobody will."
Then the counselor gripped Dan's forearm and whispered, "If you don't tell anyone, how will anyone understand? I can't help if you won't let me. Just trust me, Daniel."
Dan squirmed in her grip for a moment, trying to shake it off. But the hand that held his forearm was firm. "Sometimes," he whispered, "one keeps a secret so long one forgets how to tell anyone
But the look in her eyes and the smile that she wore prompted Dan to pour everything out. Maybe it was because he had kept all his emotions so tightly packed for so long, that deep down he never realized how much he needed to tell somebody. He wasn't sure.
At first, the words that came out were halting, embarrassed. But as he continued on, the words came pouring out, faster and faster. He told her of the stress of the rising expectations. He told her of how he resented the way his former friend had betrayed him and teased him. He told her of how his hopes and dreams were crushed so ruthlessly, and how he knew he would never achieve what he'd dreamed of.
Dan wasn't even sure why he trusted this "Ms Anderson" so much. He'd only known her for what? An hour, tops? But he still did, and Ms Anderson was an excellent listener. She listened carefully, asked a couple of questions here and there, but for most part she remained silent. But then Dan suddenly stopped. No, he wouldn't talk about his secret. He wouldn't tell anyone, not even her.
Dan took a gasping halting breath, wiped the tears from his eyes and said, "Thank you, Ms Anderson. Talking to you helped a lot. I'll be seeing you-"
Dan froze, halfway out of his chair. Ms Anderson hadn't even lifted her hand, but once again that force of gaze managed to stop him.
"Daniel. You haven't told me everything." It was a simple statement, but it stunned him. Ms Anderson continued, "You're still hiding something, aren't you?"
" came the lame reply. Dan knew that it wouldn't convince anyone. But still he had to try.
"Of course you are. I know a lot more about you than you might imagine." The counselor's voice held no trace of malice, yet Dan suddenly felt a pang of fear. Uncomfortable, he began to back away ever so slightly.
"I've seen the stories you always write on the Internet. It's not too hard, considering that you always leave your full name under 'author'." She rotated the laptop on the desk, revealing a web page from an online story archive. There, right down the screen, was a piece of transformation fiction Dan had written, a long time ago. And then another window opened, revealing his blog, also filled with similarly incriminating evidence. And in that moment, he knew that this person, this Ms Anderson, had been watching him for a long time. Crap.
Then: "You do seem to like foxes a lot, don't you?" The way she said it made Dan think of a person commenting on the weather.
Dan struggled for words, eyes averted and voice choked with the embarrassment of finally being exposed.
Ms Anderson waited, looking at him expectantly.
Then finally: "Just so you know, I'm not some psycho-ass weirdo. Neither am I some sick bastard who needs to be locked up or some shit. It's just something I like a lot, okay?"
Ms Anderson placed a comforting hand on Dan's forearm again. "It's not something to be ashamed of, Daniel."
Dan looked up at Ms Anderson, tears blurring his vision. And he stared. Because as Dan watched, her eyes slowly turned green and feline, orange-black fur streaked down her arms, and he could feel as the hand gripping his forearm grew pads and claws. He watched, caught somewhere between horror and amazement, as a muzzle pushed out of her face, ears moved up the side of her head. He couldn't see what had happened to her legs as the desk blocked them, but Dan glimpsed a tail flicking behind the tiger-morph.
Shaking free of the tiger-morph's grip, he bolted for the door. Oh god, he'd finally snapped and gone psycho. Hallucinations, obviously. Shit, shit, shit! He fumbled for the doorknob and turned it-locked. Oh, crap. Turning around, Dan watched the thing that had once been Ms Anderson stand up, straighten her blouse and look right at him. He froze.
"Well, at least you didn't start screaming. Though locking the door was a good idea," the tiger said calmly, dusting off her blouse and stretching. Now that the thing was standing up, it no longer seemed like a hallucination.
Struggling to control the pumping adrenaline and the urge to run, Dan said, "Who are you and what the hell do you want?" Surprising. He'd expected his voice to be high-pitched with fear, but it came out relatively calmly. Glancing around, he tried to look for anything he could use to defend himself. Nothing was within reach.
"I? I am one who would help." The tiger stepped slowly and deliberately around the desk and strode right up to Dan. He could see the whiskers twitching, the flash of white fangs as it...she spoke. The eyes were still the same: as soft and reassuring as they had been moments ago.
"And it isn't about what I want, but more about what you want. Your soul called us to you, and so we have found you."
"You found me
" Dan whispered. "The whole session just now?"
"A test. To make sure you were the right person."
"What do you want with me?"
The tiger spoke gently, "If you want, you can become one of us. Hold your questions for now. We have ways of doing that. But consider carefully. By accepting, it is a responsibility you will carry for life. And it will take months, if not years, just to learn how to shift from feral to morphic. It could be a long time before you can return to your family."
Dan looked down, thinking, considering. His life, or his dream? It didn't take long to decide.
And for the first time in months a real smile tugged at the edge of his lips.
Fourteen-year-old Daniel Lancaster never returned home that day. The police was called in, but the teenager was never found. None of his friends or teachers had seen him after dismissal. A former friend, Benjamin Jenkins, was apparently the last person to see the teenager before his disappearance, and was assisting the police in investigations. But no clues pertaining to the mysterious disappearance of the fourteen-year-old: the only thing he'd left behind was his rucksack, found abandoned in a janitor's clost.
At home, his desktop provided no leads: contents of his web history and the My Pictures folder suggested that he was a member of the furry fandom, but no concrete conclusions relating to his disappearance could be drawn from that.
His final text message provided no leads, either-all it said was "Meeting Ms Anderson, school counselor. Will be home late." But after investigation, the police found that there was no such counselor in the school. No "Ms Anderson". The only school counselor was the crotchety old Mr Bookley, and he'd been sick on that day. The search was terminated at 0900 hours the next week, with Daniel Lancaster classified as a runaway adolescent.
Of course, nobody bothered to look around the Lancasters' house that same day. If they had, they might have noticed something out of the ordinary: a small red fox, lingering at the edge of the woods. Then, a little deeper in the woods, an observer would have noticed something stranger: a tiger, sorely out of place in this climate. The observer would have seen as the fox stared at the house one last time, as if reminiscing, then turned and scurried off into the woods after the tiger.
Because even though nobody ever found Daniel Lancaster, he had already found himself.