Authors: Daniel Potter
Tags: #Modern Fantasy
Book One of the Freelance Familiars Series
Table of Contents
The first dreamer I knew.
had started as a good day. Objectively that was a lie, but after six months of unemployment self-delusion becomes a survival trait. I was two days from getting booted off unemployment, with my girlfriend AWOL for the last week. By “good day” I mean I had wrestled a small drop of hope out of my heart that one of the half dozen jobs I had applied to while guzzling down iced coffees might result in an interview.
The old man, my next-door neighbor, had watched me throughout the entire process as I cut and pasted my meager work experience into the applicable boxes. This wasn't exactly new for either of us. He practically lived in that cafe, ordering iced teas and crunching on the ice for about an hour after the tea had been consumed. He'd sit in the sole comfy recliner in the cafe with a book in his lap and that tiny cat of his sprawled over the top of the chair. The cat, who looked like the sort of thing a Chihuahua could beat up for lunch money, often seemed more interested in the book than the old man was. The bigger the book, the less his wrinkled nose would be in it, but if he had a paperback, he never looked up. Often on the days he hauled in a huge leather tome, he'd look right at me. He didn't try to hide it if I caught him. Just gave me a little smile and a nod.
I didn't think much of it. I used to live in San Francisco, where you let folks be happy with their own weirdness. Grantsville, Pennsylvania, seemed to have the same creed. Between Amish farms and the folks who lived in the national forest a few miles north, it was a very different weird from Cali but still respected. So I gave the guy a polite “hello” sometimes and he'd say “hi” back. The man and his wrinkles seemed lost in their own little world. Or so I thought.
This day had been a paperback day. He had his nose in a wrinkled copy of
The Green Mile
, and I barely noticed him. I had been busy thinking at a little portrait of Angelica I kept in the corner of my desktop, her brown eyes twinkling with mischief and a grin that came off as a tad aggressive but that fit her, hinting at barbed wit. When we met we had clicked together, a logon and password combo. Too bad every two weeks she unplugged herself and disappeared for the same length of time—I didn’t have the access rights to know why. Whenever I asked, she just shook her black locks and said, "Top-secret. Stop asking." If I pried further I'd get a curt, "Do you want me
to come back? Cuz that’s alternative." I'd always decided I preferred her more in limited doses than none at all. Now a certain reality called rent might make her next appearance our last visit. As far as I could tell, she didn't come back pockets stuffed with cash; she earned what little she did freelancing from the couch. Unpaid top-secret internships sounded unlikely.
My straw stopped making slurping sounds. A sure sign that I had outlasted even the ice in my cup. Guiltily, I got up. I had the best medicine for my quandary back home. The sweet sound of exploding Newbs never failed to push back the feeling of doom crawling up my neck. Doom in this case asking my father for money and the strings that would come with it.
Turning towards the door, I found the old man in my way, shuffling out towards it with an unsteady gait. I held the door for him once I squelched a flash of annoyance. After all, you can't blame somebody for getting old. Usually it means they did at least something right with their lives. So I waited for him to shuffle past while I paused to glance at the bulletin board by the door, vainly hoping to see a job posting before I followed him out of the coffee shop, my gaze solidly on my feet.
I heard an engine roar just as my own foot touched the pavement of the road. I glanced up just in time to see what I still see in the dark of my eyelids. A car ripping across my field of vision. The heavy crunch of breaking bone. The impact of the old man’s body slamming into my chest.
Tires screeched as the blue sky filled my vision. Dazed, I lifted my head and looked at the car jetting off down the street. Black sedan, tarnished silver letters on the trunk spelled out “Sable.” Common sense finally lit up my brain, and I sought out the license plate number. I stared at those white numbers as the car raced away, not a single number registering in memory.
The old man’s chuckle, a dry and reedy sound, drew my attention. Numbly I looked down at him sprawled across my legs, his limbs bent at odd angles. A rivulet of bright red blood flowed from his left nostril as he coughed out another laugh. "Didn't see that one coming."
"Hey, s-stay with me." The words slipped from my mouth as I looked around for somebody, trying to ignore the creeping sense of panic. A woman stared wide-eyed from the door of the coffee shop. "
" I screamed at her, and she ducked back inside like a frightened rabbit.
The old man laughed again, his yellow teeth mottled with red. "Too late for that, Kitty."
And here comes the delirium,
I remember thinking as his grin widened. "Oh, yeah?"
Keep them talking, right?
My mind clawed for some first aid knowledge that might be useful for somebody who was probably bleeding internally. I came up with nothing other than it probably wasn't a good idea to move him.
"I got something for ya. It's in the cupboard," he mumbled, his eyes starting to drift from my face.
Desperate and not having a better idea, I waved my hand in front of his eyes. "Sure. Right after the ambulance comes we'll go check that out."
"Heh." He breathed out and died. I heard something that might have been a snap, and the world went all funny. I'm still unclear on the how or why. But that is the moment that my life jumped down a green pipe into crazy land.
next clear memory is getting blasted in the ears by the razor-sharp beeps of my alarm clock. It took me three tries to successfully smack the clock hard enough to stop its awful screeching. When I did finally hit the damn thing, the force of the slam set my entire hand tingling. It took me two additional sleep-wake-flail-smack cycles to become curious as to cause of my sudden loss of button-pressing aptitude. Normally I could hit that big bar with the accuracy of a laser-guided missile.
Cracking my eyes open illuminated the problem. On the top of the clock, where I expected to see my hand, was not a hand at all. It was something else. The bottom of my stomach fell out as I stared at the thing on my alarm clock. My thinking bits had never been fast wakers, so I squeezed my eyes shut. Only to get another bolt of unfamiliarity as something slid up underneath my eyelids and over my eyes. This sent a shiver racing down my spine, a sensation that flowed well past my hips. Flutters of panic shot through my brain and snapped my eyes open again. The world was still blurred for a split second before the membranes across my eyes retracted back from whence they came. My "hand" sprang into focus, covering the entirety of my alarm clock. Slowly I lifted it and turned the palm towards me. My heart scrabbled into my ears as my brain reluctantly put the individual components together. The brown fur, the short digits with round leathery-looking pads. The claws that just poked out of the tip of each digit. I tried to close my fist and each one slid out, hooked and wicked. This was no hand, my brain declared. This was a paw, a very large cat's paw. What was it doing on my wrist?
It turned out my wrist was covered in the same brown fur and merged into an arm that looked more like a leg before diving into the rest of me, the shoulder concealed in the same thick pelt. My thoughts thrashed in panic, undulating between incredulous and straight out denial. I went through all the standard scapegoats for an altered reality. Who slipped me LSD? Could I be dreaming? Had I gone mad?
Yet the simple act of pulling my limb back to myself stomped on those panicked thoughts with a pair of army boots. The way the muscles in the arm-leg moved against each other, the sensation of each individual hair shifting in response to the movement spidered a sense of vertigo over the limb. You know that feeling when you miss a step? That wrenching moment when you discover that reality does not match your internal predictions? Expand that single moment into a creeping awareness, and you might have an inkling of the alien sensations that were flowing into my brain at that moment.
I screamed and lashed out at my bed sheets. It only made the sensation worse. My spine moved like it had been replaced with a serpent, extending farther than it ever had before and thrashing with a life of its own. I discovered my sharp teeth by nearly piercing my tongue. Every movement of unfamiliar muscles poured pure wrongness on my brain. Everything in me told me to run away, to hide, but all I managed was clawing and kicking at the air, futilely, blindly. Screaming for help only produced a raw and ragged sound that burst through my skull. It made me try harder. Yet there is no escape from your own body. Minutes, perhaps hours later I slumped back into a tangle of shredded sheets, utterly exhausted. All I could do was feel the air sweeping over the hotness of my too-long tongue. The clock went off again. I listened to its needy beeping for a long time, head empty. I focused on those needle-like notes. If I stayed perfectly still, then I could pretend my body was still human.
The beeping stopped and sleep claimed me. I woke later in a still room. The only sound was the faint buzz of electronics. My ears panned on their own to focus on the buzz. I felt broken and uprooted, knowing that every movement would bring more horrible unfamiliarity.
Instead I focused on the familiar—the distinct feeling of a swollen bladder was about as normal as it got.
Seeing no choice in the matter, I put all my legs under myself and stood up on my mattress. It was . . . easy. The sense of unease blossomed, but instead of exploding into panic, it faded as I stood there. The weight of what had to be a very long tail lashed slowly behind me. I did not turn and look at it. Not yet. I wasn't ready for that just yet. Looking down, I studied my front paws. I had seen those already and carefully repositioned them on the edge of the bed while fighting to keep the claws from slicing open my mattress. I was struck by how large they were, far wider than my hands had been.
The hop down and short trot to the bathroom were also easy. Too smooth. If I had stumbled or felt a bit off balance I'd have been more assured. This body seemed to know how to handle itself even if I did not.
Before tackling the logistics of the porcelain throne I popped my paws up onto the bathroom counter and stole a look in the mirror. A feline face stared back at me. I had already guessed that, but it was still jarring to see a face that wasn't mine staring back at me from the mirror. It had light brown fur, except for a whitish muzzle, and blackish markings where long whiskers sprouted. The half-folded ears communicated my unhappiness at the sight well enough. At least I knew what I was. The cat with a thousand names: mountain lion, puma, and cougar, to name a few.