Saturday, May 30, 2009

Monkey in the Middle

Grizzled Bear and the Old Wolf sit on the porch, drinking in companionable silence. Neither of them are close to being old men, but they wear the titles well. Very few pack leaders make it to old, though the current Old Wolf has held the position for at least twenty years. Grizzled Bear has it easier. There are fewer bears to challenge him, and most of those that come around aren’t looking to run things.

Old Wolf wears his hair long, grey streaks stark against the dark brown. His clothing is loose, as if he could mask how muscular he is. Or maybe it’s to make the changing easier, in case he has to do it in a hurry. I’ve never seen anyone who could rush the Wolf, and I’ve no mind to. Thing like that should send a person running before it was too late. Once he’d changed, you’d be forced to stand still and pray you didn’t get noticed.

That tactic never did work on the bears. They aren’t inclined to chase you, but if you stay where you are, they’ll come right up to check you out. They try to get you to do something interesting, like a little kid at the zoo egging on the monkeys. If you move, the bear will either take offense and swat you, or decide you want to play – and swat you. If you stay still, they get bored and still swat you. There’s no winning with bears. Unless they’re in a good mood. Then they just ignore you and go about their bear business.

At least most of them do. Grizzled Bear is a different story. He likes to stir things up a bit from time to time, just to see what happens. You wouldn’t think it to look at him. He presents as almost normal, with short cropped hair barely touched with grey, always dressed like a cross between a hippie and your favorite uncle – just a little disheveled. His clothes don’t hide what he is, either. Shoulders and chest like that, strong legs and more fur than most men allow practically advertise what he is. I still don’t know how he goes from tall, lean guy to six hundred pound bear, but maybe that’s because I never had the guts to ask him.

According to all the old stories, Bear and Wolf shouldn’t be friends. The wolves like to run off any other were-folk in the area, or at least keep them confined to territory the wolves don’t want. If they’d had their way, the humans would have been run off all together. They don’t like the way we smell, the things we do to the land, the way we treat women and children. There’s not much we do right in their eyes, and I can’t say I blame them for thinking that way. Personally, I think they keep us around because they like our liquor stores and the supermarket.

The bears don’t care about us one way or the other. They don’t much care about the wolves' territorial boundaries either. They expect everyone to get out of their way whenever they come around. It’s always the men as come to town. After you’ve been here a while, you start to recognize them. Not that they look alike. They just have a way of moving, deliberate, relaxed, and quietly dangerous.

Nothing quiet about the wolves, at least not when they’re in a group. The young men are rambunctious – before Old Wolf beats them into shape or kicks them out. The girls are a lot more laid back. Plus, they’ll talk to you without acting like you’re garbage. Or food. I never did like the way the boys looked at me. Still don’t. Well, except for Old Wolf. He’s not what you’d call friendly, but he’s generally polite. Maybe that’s why he and the Bear get along. They both know enough to pick their battles.

I’m not that smart. Standing in the street, looking up at them, I’d like nothing more than to shake the two large men and toss them out on their ears. But I can’t. For one thing, they weigh too much. For another, it’s their house as much as mine, on account of my letting them sleep there whenever they’re in town made it their de facto den. At least that’s what they say. I think they’re messing with me and just want me to think I have to let them hang out, because their other option is to go back and deal with their respective political situations, and they’d rather crank up my air conditioners and drink all my beer.

Come to think of it, I can’t say as I blame them for that, either. I do, however, want them to work for it. Last time I brought that up, they both told me how much they’d like to take care of me properly. By which they meant permanently. By which they meant they’d like to mate with me. At which point, I’d walked out and kept walking. I didn’t need the house. I’d lived without for most of my life.

Now I was back, and they were looking at me with twin amused expressions, waiting for me to pick which version of hell I’d like to spend eternity buying curtains for. I’ve always been able to find new and unusual ways to get into trouble. This tops them all.

A Liberated Woman of a Certain Age

Reginald Brash did not look up as the door opened and closed. “What is it, Arthur?”

The young researcher fidgeted, as he always did before delivering news he felt important. He was rarely right. “I was looking through the observation window.”

“That’s what you’re paid to do.” Reginald slid the file to one side of the mahogany desk.

Arthur twisted his bony hands. “She’s pacing a lot.”

“If you were put under observation by your spouse, you’d be agitated, too.” Reginald folded his hands across his belly. He ought to get to the gym more often. “What is concerning you?”

“It’s her movement. It seems… wrong. Animal.”

“As are we all.”

Arthur drew himself up. “Her movement mimics that of a predator. She doesn’t cover the same ground repeatedly, as most people do when pacing. I think you ought to take a look at her.”

Reginald decided to ease up on the boy. He’d only been there for three months, had not yet been allowed into the secure areas. Reginald had found it prudent to give the new scientists time to adjust before exposing them to the more unusual cases. It cut down on turnover.

“I trust you. Continue to monitor her actions. She hasn’t shown any signs of the violent outbursts that brought her to us. If there’s no change in her personality within the next few days, we’ll release her to her family and tell them to seek less extreme treatment.”

“So far, all we’ve done is change her diet,” Arthur grumbled. “I see no reason to keep her locked up. There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with her that cannot be explained away by boredom.”

“Yet you came to me with concerns,” Reginald pointed out.

Arthur looked down. “Perhaps I overreacted. She’s spent so much time moping I thought her behavior was worth review.”

“Write down your observations, and we will discuss them tomorrow.”

Arthur withdrew, looking a bit like a kicked puppy.

Reginald sighed. He agreed with Arthur’s assessment of the woman. She was forty, bored, and likely contemplating divorce. She’d shown no signs of aberrant behavior. Her husband was probably distressed because his still vibrant trophy wife no longer doted on him. She had almost certainly agreed to check into the facility so they could confirm her sanity. Neither of them realized the researchers cared not a whit about her emotional stability, though they’d happily attest to it in court as part of the package.

Reginald picked up the phone and punched speed dial. “Send me the blood work on the Ridgeway woman. Tomorrow morning is fine.” He’d rather have had it that night, so they could free her in the morning, but the lab was always backed up.

He dropped the stack of files in his drawer. They could wait until morning, too.

Nigela continued her circuit of the room, changing direction as she encountered the spare furniture. It never occurred to her to turn on the TV. The images hurt her head, and she couldn’t bear the noise. She vaguely remembered liking it, once. If nothing else, her time in this cage had granted her some measure of peace. The only real drawback was the sterile smell of the place. Requests for flowers had been ignored. The scent of barbeque on the last orderly to visit had damned near driven her as mad as Cory believed her to be.

She was ravenous. That was part of what had landed her here. Cory had noticed her increase in appetite. Knowing she was not pregnant – could not be – he had worried when she’d put on weight. It mattered little that it took the form of muscle. Their home gym had been used more in the two weeks before his tantrum than it had in years. Nine days without access to any real exercise had increased her irritation with him. This was a ploy to get rid of her so he could carry on with his tramp in a more public way. She’d be damned if he railroaded her into breaking the terms of their prenuptial agreement. He’d never been a proper mate, but he’d been tolerable. No longer. Better to be a lab rat and skewer the rat where he lived than walk away from their farce of a marriage with nothing. She licked her lips. They could serve her a rat right now and she’d ask only for a decent sauce. The hunger ate at her.

As if hearing her desire, a scrawny man wearing a lab coat entered holding a covered dish. She managed not to lunge for it. He asked her inane questions while her brain spun with a mad desire to eat. She growled at him. Fear tickled her nostrils. She didn’t question how she knew the scent. His eyes grew wide as he backed toward the door.

In a second, she was on him. The lock engaged as she pushed his back against the door, every possible inch of her pressed against him. He smelled divine. Fresh. She nuzzled his neck, her heart racing as his vein pulsed under her probing tongue. She purred and rubbed against him. He reacted as a man should. But he was not her mate, either. He was something much more important. She barely heard his scream as she began changing.

She left her clothes in the shredded mess by the door. She donned the nightdress they’d allowed her to keep and gathered up her small make up bag, another concession from her captors. She searched the pockets of the relatively whole lab coat, until she found the key card. Closing the door behind her, she made her way to the observation room. While the record of her stay was erased, she calmly applied fresh lipstick. The young man had thoughtfully left her a raincoat. She turned off the lights and stalked out of the building unhindered. After a quick stop at home, she could fully explore her new life as a cougar.