|A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.|
Horse and Rider
|Xanadu story universe|
"Excuse me, Tom? How tall are you?"
I looked up from the computer. It was Linda, an accountant from the other side of the office floor. She was smiling hopefully. "Six foot three, Uh, why do you ask?"
Linda's smile widened. "Oh, good. You're almost exactly right. I've got a big favour to ask, or maybe an offer. Are you free this weekend?"
I grinned slightly, though uncertainly. I didn't really know Linda as more than an acquaintance. Even as co-workers we rarely bumped into her, since I worked in a completely unrelated section of the company. So even though I was free this weekend, I needed to know more about what was going on. "Maybe. What's up?"
"Well, I don't know if you knew, but my hobby is costume-making. I'm actually quite good at it, if I do say so myself. So, I've got this great costume, it's a masterpiece, and I was going to go down to Orlando with a friend of mine to enter a contest with it. But he got sick and can't make it, so I was wondering if you'd like to be my model? You're almost exactly the right size, the costume should fit great."
I shook my head. Orlando was several hours' drive, and I didn't want to go that far out of my way as a favour for someone I hardly even knew. "Sorry, that's a bit more time than I can spare this weekend."
Linda looked disappointed, but determined. "The grand prize is five thousand dollars," she added. "I'll split it fifty-fifty if we win."
I raised my eyebrow.
"It's a really great costume," she repeated with another smile.
Of course, it took a bit more convincing to finally win me over, but in the end curiosity was the deciding factor as much as anything. The costume contest was being run at a convention called Kubla Con, which I'd never heard of before but which apparently was quite big. As Linda described it, it was like some kind of big carnival, a miniature marti gras inside a fully air-conditioned convention center with all manner of obscure entertainment available. I'd never been to anything like that.
I was also curious to see this costume that Linda had made. It piqued my interest to discover that someone who I had never really paid attention to or bothered to learn anything about before had an unusual and artistic hobby. I accepted.
She asked that I stop by her place for a couple of hours before we left on Sunday so that she could make adjustments to the costume's fit if necessary. She lived way out on the edge of the suburbs, another minor surprise; I had expected her to live in an apartment for some reason. Perhaps she just struck me as the bookish sort, the type of person who lived a quiet and unobtrusive life in a little nook somewhere. But her house was nice and spacious inside, which was a good thing considering the amazing decor. This was a woman who was obviously infatuated with horses; there was horse art everywhere, with antique tack hanging decoratively on some of the walls.
Not surprisingly, the costume was a horse costume. And it was indeed a masterpiece, as she'd said it was. It was humanoid, with short chestnut brown plush fur covering the entire body, a black tail, and white socks on the wrists and ankles. There was a padded undersuit that helped give it shape and extra bulk, with a big barreled chest and muscular limbs; I was a big person to begin with, and the padding enhanced it even more. It was no wonder she couldn't simply wear the thing herself. The headpiece was extremely lifelike, looking almost exactly like a real horse's head; since my own head would actually be inside the costume's neck it was essentially a sculpture rather than a mask. The costume's only "clothing" was a simple leather jock strap that bulged just short of pornographically. I considered objecting for a moment, but then decided it was fine by me. I wouldn't be wearing the thing to work, after all.
The only awkward parts were the hooves. The suit aimed for realism and achieved it perhaps a bit too well for the wearer's convenience; the feet were like a pair of high-heel shoes without the heels, and the gloves were like solid clunky mittens. There was a separate thumb, but any sort of fine manipulation would be impossible while wearing those things. When I commented on that Linda explained the "furless lackey" system, in which costumed people would often have uncostumed people accompanying them to help them keep out of trouble, and I could easily see how such a thing had evolved. I had to practice walking a bit just to get to the point where I wasn't constantly tripping on the carpet.
The suit didn't need much adjustment, just a slight lengthening of the arms and shortening of the legs, and then I stripped it all off again to pack into duffel bags in the trunk of her car. I drove separately in my own car, following hers down the highway to the outskirts of Orlando. I was interested in seeing Kubla Con, and I'd promised to wear the costume for judging, but just in case it wasn't to my liking I wanted to be able to come home early without inconveniencing Linda as well.
We met up again in the parking lot, got out her bags, and headed for the convention hall's entrance. Even before we got inside I was treated to quite a menagerie of costumes to admire. Linda's horse outfit was still amazing, of course, but so was some of the competition; I hoped that some of them would be in separate categories. I had had no idea that a simple costume contest could be so big! Of course, the convention was supposedly about far more than just the costume contest; Kubla Con had started out as an ordinary science fiction and fantasy convention. But Linda had mentioned that this year a wealthy benefactor had sweetened the pot with a hundred thousand dollars' donation to the prize fund, and now people had come out of the woodwork from all over to attend. The fact that the convention was being held a week after Halloween probably helped, too.
Linda registered us at the front desk as Linda and "Charger." We had about two hours before the first of the categories that Linda had entered was up for judging, but she insisted that I get suited up as soon as possible. I agreed, grumbling reluctantly but seeing the need for more practice in those awkward hoof-shoes, and we headed to the dressing rooms. Linda helped me into the suit for a second time.
"Perfect," she nodded as she finished smoothing the costume's plush fur over my thickly-padded chest. "Now for the accessories."
"Accessories?" My voice was muffled inside the costume's neck.
Linda chuckled, slightly nervous. "Presentation is half the show. My original model and I had a whole routine worked out, but we'll have to wing it. It's okay, I'll do all the work, you just have to follow my lead."
Linda stepped into the changing room herself for a minute, and when she came out she was dressed in full riding garb complete with puffy pants, shiny boots, red vest and black hat. She was carrying a riding crop and a halter with reins attached. "Um," I took a wary step back, wobbling unsteadily on the high-heeled hooves.
Linda chuckled again. "It's okay, you don't have to carry me. I'll just lead you around this way, part of the play-acting."
"Oh. Okay." I was relieved; Linda was a small woman and I was strong, but I would have fallen over for sure if I'd tried to hoist her on my back while wearing these awkward shoes. I bent down to give her access to the horse head perched on top of mine.
"Also, remember that you're not supposed to talk," Linda reminded me as she fastened the halter's buckles. "You know what sounds horses make, right? Try whickering."
"Er-hr-hum," I responded, as if clearing my throat.
Linda nodded approvingly. "Good, good! Ready, Charger?"
I nodded, the headpiece making the motion ponderous, and whickered again. This was kind of fun, actually, though I suspected that after two hours of this I'd be more than happy to get this heavy outfit off again. Maybe I'd stick around the convention for a while afterward, though...
"Good. Come along, then, let's head over to the hall and show off a bit before judging time." She took the reins hanging from the headpiece and slowly led the way, giving me plenty of time and room to stumble along. It was hard to see through the near-invisible slits in the horse's neck, and those hoof-shoes were a royal pain, but having her walking ahead of me made things much easier. As we waded through the growing crowd of conventiongoers I started getting a little more confident in my stride.
Linda's costume drew quite a lot of attention, and Linda began fielding questions about it soon afterward. As if through some sort of unspoken etiquette, though, nobody tried talking to me directly; it must have been obvious that I was only the "hired help" in this costuming endeavor. I didn't mind, having nothing much to say. I just gave an occasional whicker and followed Linda's lead, peering around at the other costumes appreciatively myself. I wished I had better eyeholes, it was hard to get a good look at anything with such a restricted field of view.
Suddenly my vision cut off entirely and I stumbled unsteadily to a halt. Grumbling unhappily, I gave my head a little shake trying to realign the slits with my eyes. Vision returned... and I blinked in astonishment, overcome with vertigo.
I could see perfectly, more than perfectly, a nearly full panorama of peripheral vision stretching around my head. And my perspective had suddenly jumped up several feet, towering over the people around me, and a huge fuzzy brown mass projected out between my eyes dividing my field of view. I froze, wobbling unsteadily, trying to figure out what had happened to my headpiece and indeed to my head. It felt heavy, oddly balanced.
Someone screamed and my ears flicked back at the sound. I gasped at the sensation and tried to grab one of them in my hand, but my arm was unexpectedly stiff and I hit myself in the chin with the hoof-glove. It sent me staggering back, my hoof-shod feet clomping heavily on the floor, and I let lose a surprised whinny as I nearly toppled over backward.
I was saved by a strong pull on my face, just enough to help me right myself, and I looked down in astonishment. Linda still had a firm grip on the reins attached to the halter, which was now apparently fastened directly around my own face. Linda's expression was frightened and concerned. "Charger?" She asked, "What's wrong?"
Before I could think of a response to that, though, all hell began breaking loose around me. People began running around and screaming, and more than that, suddenly there seemed to be an entire zoo of bizarre beasts running around with them. I looked around me frantically, ears flat and eyes wide, on the verge of panic; what was going on here?
Another tug on the halter focused my attention back on Linda, overriding the confusion. She was pulling me along back toward the nearest door out of the room, and I stumbled along behind her trying to keep from falling flat on my face. My body felt oddly sluggish and stiff, compounding my disorientation, and I couldn't think straight with everything else going on; I only had enough presence of mind to be grateful that Linda seemed to have some idea of what to do. I was out of my league.
We headed straight down a short hallway, towards a small side-room that had already cleared of people. The top of the doorway was unusually low, forcing me to duck under it, and the ceiling inside was not quite high enough for me to stand without crouching. It was all the excuse I needed; as Linda slammed the door shut behind us I sat down on the floor to get off of my unsteady feet.
I let out another surprised whinny, jumping slightly at the sharp discomfort in my posterior, and I groped behind me with one hand to see what I'd sat on. "Charger!" Linda exclaimed, rushing over to my side. "Are you hurt?"
I ignored her, mentally cursing the clumsy hoof-glove that was blunting the sensation in my fingers. The costume's tail seemed to have been caught under me when I sat, causing the pain somehow... I grunted in frustration at the stiffness of my wrists and hands and tried pulling my gloves off to get a better feel for what was going on. The hooves clacked together as I scrabbled at my wrists clumsily with my thumbs, and I couldn't seem to get purchase on the seams. Something was very wrong here!
"Charger!" Linda's sharp call finally caught my attention and I stopped to stare at her in confusion. My vision was still weirdly distorted but she looked subtly different even taking that into account, as if she was a different person. Without thinking, I leaned forward slightly and snuffled her riding jacket. The scent reassured me, somehow; this was indeed Linda. She smiled with relief and reached over to stroke the side of my cheek and neck.
It felt good and made me feel even more reassured... but at the same time it started to dawn on me just how weird the sensation was. All of the sensations. Shifting my posterior slightly to ease the discomfort of sitting on that tail, I carefully stretched my neck and looked down at myself.
My eyes were in my costume head, not in its neck. It was impossible, but it was the only thing that explained my current vantage point. Also, my nose was at the end of its muzzle, and my ears were perched high on top. I had a horse's head, with a long horse's neck, and it was not a costume any more. None of it was a costume. I examined one of my hands, and found it to be an almost completely normal hoof; all of my fingers were fused together into a single horny arc, with only a stubby thumb tucked away behind it still free. "Oh my god," I tried to exclaim, "Linda, help me get out of this thing!"
It came out as nothing but inarticulate whinnying. Linda flinched and grabbed my massively overmuscled arm, squeezing it reassuringly. "It's alright, Charger, I'll fix it, whatever it is that hurts." I stared at her in shock, trying to figure out what she thought was going on, but her scent was filled with concern. It was reassuring even though I didn't understand it; Linda meant well.
I tried several more times to speak, but there was something wrong with my mouth and throat that completely thwarted me. It only seemed to be making Linda more and more agitated, so finally I quit trying; I was on the verge of panic and I didn't want to drag her down with me. Instead I focused my attention back on myself, trying to take stock of the changes. I looked a lot like I had when I was wearing the costume, but it clearly wasn't a costume any more; it had all become real. With a few extra features... being very careful with the clumsy hoof that enclosed my hand, I reached down and felt my crotch inside the leather jock. Where there had originally been blank brown fur was now a full set of male equipment, quite impressive really. But it was a horse's male equipment, enclosed in a sheath of skin and oddly shaped. I shuddered, pulling my hand away.
Linda had been watching all of this with confusion and concern. "Checking to see what hurts?" She asked at last.
That seemed to be a reasonable description, I decided, and so nodded slowly.
"Is there anything that does?"
I shook my head. I was feeling a lot of weird and scary things, but pain wasn't really one of them; even my tail had simply been pinched uncomfortably, and was fine now.
Linda let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, good. I guess that just leaves us with the problem of getting out of this madhouse then, eh?" She chuckled weakly. "God, what a mess out there. I wonder what everyone was screaming about?"
The question was rhetorical, but even if it hadn't been and I'd been able to speak I would have been at a loss for words; what wasn't everyone screaming about? Something big had happened, more than just what had happened to me... I shook my head. Maybe everyone in costume had been affected like I was.
God, like I was. I flexed my crippled hands and gingerly ran them down my short-furred flanks again; despite the indisputable evidence it was impossible to accept that this was really me on the outside. Linda left me to my explorations for a moment, heading back to the door and opening it a crack to peer out. My long, mobile ears twitched at the sound of the commotion filtering in from outside, but I couldn't be bothered thinking about that any more right now. Let Linda worry about external matters. I was a fucking horse.
Well, not really fully a horse, I tried to reassure myself. I was humanoid, I had thumbs... those were the only two non-equine features I could think of offhand, but at least that was something. And Linda wasn't panicking, which also helped to reassure me. I tried to keep that foremost in mind to keep myself calm.
Linda closed the door again after about a minute and turned back to me. "Well. What a mess. It seems to be clearing out real quick, though; since neither of us is hurt perhaps we'd better make our way outside as well." It wasn't a question, she'd clearly made up her mind, but I wasn't so sure; I didn't feel much like moving around just yet. I shook my head and whickered nervously, then flicked my ears back in surprise at the sound I'd just made without thinking.
But Linda seemed to ignore my head-shake completely. She reached over and took hold of the reins still hanging from the halter buckled around my head, giving me a tug towards the door. I blinked, surprised by her action, and then tugged back with a more expansive head-shake.
This time Linda didn't ignore it; she looked astonished, and then a little angry. "This is no time for you to get uppity, Charger!" She snapped. "Now come along like a good horse and let's get out of here." She gave the reins a firmer pull.
I was too stunned by her reaction to resist, and nearly fell flat on my elongated face before I managed to get my hoof-hands up to support me. They clopped heavily to the floor and all of a sudden I found myself standing normally on all four hooves. My legs - my hind legs currently - had been proportionately shortened when I had changed, and combined with my elongated neck and stiffened arms I was now quite comfortable as a quadruped.
"Now what? Come on already." Linda tugged on the reins again in annoyance at my hesitation, and I stumbled forward on all fours. My hand-hooves supported my increased bulk without feeling any excessive pressure, despite all the weight being put on the tips of my fingers. My wrists, elbows, and shoulders all felt quite strong for the task, and I held my head upright without the slightest crick in my neck. It was bizarrely and disconcertingly comfortable walking like that.
But I wasn't going to stay down like that if I could help it, and as soon as Linda slowed down enough to give me the opportunity I pushed myself back up onto my hind hooves. I nearly went back down again immediately, banging my head against the top of a door frame, but I managed to stay upright. I whickered, completely unsettled by how this situation was developing. Linda just chuckled wryly and shook her head at my clumsiness.
The muted background commotion and the scent of smoke in the air didn't help my composure any. I continued following along behind Linda as she led the way, still keeping firm hold of the reins, my eyes wide and my ears flat against my equine skull. I had no idea what's going on or what I should do, and Linda seemed quite confident, so following Linda seemed like the right thing and I allowed myself to be led along. The alternative was to break away from her and run, which was also quite tempting, but only in a much more visceral sense; I knew it wasn't likely to help much. I had to trust Linda to get me out of here.
Even though she seemed to have gone stark raving mad. She was still calling me Charger, and she didn't seem to notice anything odd about me at all. It was quite confusing, and so I tried to refocus my attention on my surroundings to figure things out for myself.
Linda led me past the entrance to the convention rooms, into the hallways adjoining them. I was becoming steadier on my hind hooves now with a little more practice, but the carpet was littered with stuff people had dropped in the course of fleeing; we apparently missed the big rush of people exiting. I was quite pleased with that, I didn't think I could handle a crowd pressing in around me right now. Psychologically, that is; physically I was probably quite capable. I was huge.
I kept getting moments of vertigo over that. I was so tall now; maybe a full ten feet or so, it was hard to tell exactly. Fortunately the convention center hallways had high ceilings for the most part. Even so, it looked like some of the things that had blundered through here ahead of me hadn't quite fit; light fixtures were down and the walls gouged with damage from other large things brushing clumsily by. My hooves clopped loudly on the floor as I kept pace slightly behind Linda, trying not to add to the damage by blundering into anything myself. I still felt a little off-balance, the top half of my body much heavier than it should have been and my legs proportionately shorter, but at least I seemed to have got the hang of it pretty quickly; I was still reasonably well built for walking on two legs as well.
Then the fire alarm went off and I startled, whinnying out loud and wheeling to find the source of the shrill clanging noise. Linda yanked hard on the reins to keep me in check, causing me to stumble once again to all fours, and I tossed my head to pull away from her; I was suddenly on the verge of hysteria, all of the weirdness and disorientation finally piling up and pushed past the breaking point by that sharp ringing in my ears.
"Hey, hey, whoa!" Linda held on to the reins, almost losing her footing for a moment before digging her heels in. "Calm down! Damned alarm. It's nothing, just relax. Please. Don't run off, I'll take care of this."
Linda may have been crazy but even so she managed to sound quite soothing and confident. I got a grip again quickly, suppressing my twitchiness and trying to force my ears back upright despite the noise. Once my breathing had slowed back to normal, Linda smiled with relief and gently stroked the side of my neck with her hand.
I tried pulling away again, but Linda had taken a firm hold of the halter in her other hand and my heart just wasn't in it this time. After a moment it began to feel quite soothing, actually. I heaved a sigh and then nodded; lead on, then. Let's get out of here. Linda patted my flank reassuringly and then resumed walking.
It was such a relief when we reached the nearest exit a minute later and Linda let go of the halter, retaining a hold only on the reins. I blinked in the bright sunlight, momentarily blinded, and breathed deeply through my flaring nostrils to clear the smoke and scents from my head. Other scents assailed me; fresh grass and gasoline. I whuffled and rubbed the bridge of my nose with one hand, finding it difficult to raise my arm that high. We were out; now what? I was still a horse-creature.
Linda patted me on the small of my back, giving my equine haunch a quick rub that caused me to flick my tail at her in surprise. "Well, I guess the show's a wash," she sighed. "What a mess. I wonder if there was a bomb scare or something." I looked at the people and creatures milling around the convention center grounds and snorted; it was obvious what had happened. Why wasn't Linda seeing this as unusual? I shook my head; perhaps she was simply so far into shock that it wasn't registering. I could certainly understand the feeling, I myself was still suppressing the reaction that had almost overwhelmed me when the fire alarm had startled me enough to let my guard down.
Why had this happened? That question was even farther beyond the realm of what I could deal with right now, so I tried to put it out of my mind; right now I had to figure out what to do next. But Linda had evidently thought of it already and started heading down the sidewalk towards the parking lot. She clicked her tongue and gave a little tug on the reins, so lacking any better ideas I followed along with mild resentment. At least she's sticking by me in this, I thought, but I do wish she'd let go of that lead at some point. It's embarrassing.
Not only that, but as we passed a couple of groups and individuals from the convention who stopped to stare at us it began to dawn on me that I was now essentially naked except for that little leather jock strap. I grimaced slightly; it hadn't mattered when this had been just a costume, but it was me now. My size drew a lot of attention and I kept up a quick pace behind Linda. We soon reached the parking lot where we'd parked our cars, and I whickered in relief; so that's what Linda's goal was. Reasonable. But as soon as we got within sight of her car, I sensed an abrupt change in her demeanor. "The trailer!" she exclaimed, sounding surprised and angry. "Just great. Where'd it go?"
I was confused by her outburst. What trailer? The familiar sight of my own car parked next to hers grabbed my attention instead, though; I couldn't think of where I should be going after something like this, or even if I could drive it, but that didn't matter right now. It was a refuge, like a life raft in the north Atlantic.
Linda finally released her hold on the reins when she reached her car, and I went around to the other side while she busied herself opening her trunk. It was very difficult getting a grip on my car's door handle, my wrists didn't want to bend right and the hooves enclosing my fingers were too large... keys, I realized with a snort. I need keys. They're in my pocket. I glanced down at my thigh; nothing but bare chestnut-furred skin over bulging muscle. Where had the things underneath the costume gone, anyway? I whinnied and pawed at the door handle in frustration.
"Charger! Quit it!" Linda hurried over and grabbed the reins again, turning me away from my car with a firm yank. "You'll scratch the paint, and that's not mine. Come here." I blinked in confusion; just what was Linda talking about? My inability to speak was starting to get very frustrating.
"Come on," Linda repeated. "The trailer's bound to turn up. Let's get you dressed."
Now you're talking, I thought, following her pull around to the back of her car and wondering what she had that I could possibly wear. She had unpacked what looked like a coarse grey blanket and a couple of large leather belts from the trunk. "Right, now get down so I can put it on." I hesitated and she sighed. "Come on, Charger. I know you're spooked, but you'll feel better I'm sure."
Reluctantly, I dropped down to all fours again for her so that she could reach more easily. The pavement felt no worse on my hoof-hands than the carpeted floor inside the convention center had, and it was much easier to keep my balance this way, so I tried to relax while Linda unfolded the blanket and draped it over my back. I arched my back to give her more room when she reached under my chest and belly to buckle it securely, but I was big enough that it wasn't really necessary; even down on all fours my eye level was even with Linda's. The blanket was just the right size, wrapping around my torso. Not really much like clothing, and I would have preferred to wear it around my waist instead, but it would do. I started climbing back to my feet.
"Ah-ah, wait a minute," Linda chided, pushing me back down. I made an inquisitive noise but she didn't explain, instead picking up a red cloth strip and going around behind me. I looked back over my shoulder nervously, wondering what she had in mind. She gently took hold of my tail and folded the long black hair into the red cloth, wrapping it up securely. I whinnied and flinched away when she got to the base of my tail, caught by surprise by her touch there, but she quickly tied it off and then just as quickly undid the strap of the leather jock-strap thing I was wearing. She slipped it off and stepped away before I could react to stop her. I stood back up, giving Linda a hurt look and looking down at my tail with embarrassment. Geeze, you could have warned me before you did that! What are you trying to do? I tried to cover myself modestly with my hands, the blanket giving no help strapped around my torso the way it was.
"My you're skittish, I would have thought you'd be glad to get that silly thing off. Dumb show rules... You sure you're feeling okay?" Linda sounded amused but somewhat concerned as well. I whicker-grumbled; no I'm damn well not, I've been turned into a freak! But Linda reached back into the trunk again, pulling a carrot from a plastic bag inside, and I suddenly lost that particular train of thought.
Chewing was a strange process with that long muzzle and the odd new teeth inside, but it tasted great. Linda gently scratched the side of my neck. "Peace?" I whickered again, a little more contritely this time; she seemed to know what she was doing, after all, even if I had no idea myself.
I was still feeling rather unsettled, though. Partly it was the distant but steadily increasing wail of sirens approaching, but the main thing worrying me aside from my own condition was Linda's odd lack of reaction to the weirdness of all of this. And without able to speak there was no way I could think of to find out why, either. Fortunately she remained talkative on her own, and I settled for listening to her musings.
"Alright, so the trailer's lost," she began. "Stolen or something else, I don't know. I'm sure it couldn't have been taken far, though. Who would steal something like that? No, I'm sure it's around here somewhere. Maybe I wasn't supposed to park it here and it was towed to a different lot." I cocked my head inquisitively, hoping she'd mention what this supposed trailer was, but she seemed to be talking more to herself than to me even though she was faced my direction and was still idly stroking my neck. "Well, you're not going to fit inside my car even if you behave yourself, that's for sure," she mused. "I'm just going to have to find it, or failing that find some other ride for you."
I glanced at the two cars and whickered sadly in agreement; we'd have to rip the seats out to cram me in there with my current bulk. But Linda didn't seem pay attention to my contribution, thinking quietly for a moment. "Alright," she decided, "I'm going to take a quick look around. I hate leaving you alone right now, but I think it's more of a risk bringing you along under the circumstances. Are you feeling secure enough for me to leave you here for a few minutes?" She gave the mane on the back of my neck a reassuring scratch, to which I could only whicker in response. "Good, good," she murmured absently as she reached over to unclasp one end of the reins from my halter. Finally! I thought to myself.
But instead of unfastening the other end of the reins, she bent down and looped the end she'd taken off of the halter around the hitch of her car. I blinked in surprise, once again caught off-guard by her attitude towards me. She gave me a quick pat on the whithers, said "behave yourself, now. I'll be back in just a minute after I check the south lot for stray trailers." And with that she turned and walked away, leaving me tied to her car.
I shook my head in astonished indignation, staring down at the leather strap holding me in place. Okay... so Linda thinks I'm really a horse, I admitted. I had been reluctant to think of her as being that crazy until now, but that was before she left me roped to her bumper on all fours with a blanket strapped around my torso and my tail wrapped neatly in a bundle. I tried standing back up on my hind legs again, but the reins weren't quite long enough to let me fully upright. I squatted on my haunches next to the car and examined the knot.
The knot wasn't particularly tricky-looking, but the state of my hands made it a very significant challenge to work on. Even so, it was easier than it would have been to try defeating the buckles of my halter itself; I couldn't see them and I could barely raise my hands up there in the first place thanks to the stiffness in my shoulders. So I focused my attention on the knot, poking and prodding at the leather strap with the blunt tips of my finger-hooves for a long and frustrating time before I finally managed to tease out a loop long enough for me to hook my stubby thumb through. Finally! I whickered with satisfaction as the strap came undone from the hitch and then stood fully upright to stretch the kinks out of my hind legs from squatting for so long.
I looked around. The parking lot was a bit of a mess; it looked like right after the commotion had started there had been a number of automobile accidents as people tried to flee, and there were still some trying to weave or force their cars through the jammed traffic. I didn't like it here. The convention center's expansive lawn looked a lot more comfortable, even with the thousands of shell-shocked freaks and monsters milling around on it. I snorted. In my current state I'd blend right in. Tossing the unattached end of the rein over my shoulder to get it out of the way, I clopped a short distance over onto the grass.
Whew, much better. I knelt down on the lawn with a sigh and closed my eyes for a moment, trying to think. What was I going to do? Linda was my one lifeline out of here, and she had flipped out. I hoped she was safe, wherever she was, but at the moment I didn't much want her help. So, find someone else to seek some kind of help from? I opened my eyes again and nodded. I'd find someone to communicate with, someone who could give me a hand with Linda and this whole situation. Maybe even someone who could provide me with a pair of shorts.
Walking carefully through the thronging masses of weirdos scattered in small clumps across the lawn, I searched the nearby groups for anyone who looked like they had a handle on things. Most looked anything but, but there were a few people who might qualify. I stopped near a man dressed in an odd blue jumpsuit who appeared to be giving first aid to a couple of injured people and waited for him to react to my presence.
He finished bandaging a cut and then glanced up at me. "Um," he started hesitantly, "are you hurt?" I whickered and shook my head, trying to think of some way to convey more complex concepts than that. But the man in blue waved me off before I could come up with one. "Look, we've got a medical emergency here of an unknown nature and I can't contact Enterprise. If you're not hurt, could you perhaps help out instead? I saw another Equoid over by the edge of the trees, maybe you could see about contacting your own peoples' ship." And with that he moved on to the next injury, waving a small gadget of some kind and muttering about his universal translator being on the fritz.
Okay... obviously Linda wasn't the only one to flip out, here. I moved on in the direction he had indicated, avoiding a small horde of goblin-like creatures who were rushing past in the opposite direction. Fortunately I seemed to be just as unsettling to them as they were to me; most people were giving me wide berth. But one didn't. A big doglike creature that had been crouched over by a clump of bushes saw me approaching and evidently didn't like what he saw, bounding out and barking vigorously at me.
I took a startled step backward, pawing at the air in front of me with my hands to keep my balance and emitting a vigorous whinny of my own; for a moment I felt the same overpowering urge to run that I had when the fire alarms had gone off in the building and any other thoughts were temporarily blanked out. But the dog-thing cringed back a few steps at my reaction, evidently somewhat intimidated by my size, and so the urge eased off just enough for me to keep a grip on myself. My heart was still pounding with fear as I stared down at the creature, though. He looked somewhat like a German shepherd, but perhaps two hundred pounds and with thick arms and legs that vaguely resembled a man's. His head was broader and rounder than a dog's, too, and for a moment I thought I could see an all-too-human expression of confusion and fear on his own face.
But then the expression was gone again and the dog started growling fiercely, fur raised and impressive canine teeth bared. He was obviously not in control of his own actions, assuming he had ever really been human at all; I shakily backed away a few more steps and then began circling around him. Just as I got to the other side he lunged and snapped at my heels, barking ferociously, and I reflexively kicked back with one hoof and then bolted. I only clipped the dog's side, but it was enough to send him off yelping away from me; I staggered to a stop again after only a few meters and stood there panting in relief.
A quick glance around showed that although rather a lot of people were standing and staring at me, nobody had seemed particularly eager to help. I snorted and tossed my head, trying to cover my remaining fear with a show of disdain, but as I continued walking onward I felt even shakier on my hind hooves than I had been previously. There were dangerous lunatics out here even more badly off than I was, it seemed.
Then I spotted the "Equoid" that the man in blue had mentioned, and my ears perked with hopeful interest. She was sitting under a tree, wearing skimpy chainmail armor and a cloak, her head resting in her hands. Her head was indeed equine in shape, and her body was covered in reddish-brown horsehair, but she looked far more human than I did; she had fingers and everything! I whickered hopefully and broke briefly into a bipedal trot to reach her, the brief dog encounter forgotten for the moment.
She heard me coming and looked up with a startled flinch. I came to a stop a short distance away, not wanting to frighten her, and then squatted down on my haunches so I wouldn't tower over her so much. "Cripes. So what do we have here?" She muttered, her voice deep but perfectly clear. I whinnied, pointing at my long neck with an embarrassed shake of my head. "Oh. You can't speak." She stared at me for a moment, obviously trying to figure out a response. I waited patiently, not having any good ideas myself either. I was disappointed that she didn't seem to be able to understand my horse speech, but not really surprised.
The horse-woman climbed to her feet, her chainmail clinking softly under the cloak, and regarded me uncertainly. She really was much more human than I'd wound up; the hooves tipping her feet looked more like ordinary polished shoe toes than anything else, and aside from her head and a brief glimpse of a horse's tail she had the form of an ordinary human woman. Quite an attractive and athletic-looking one too, I might add. I grimaced enviously; why had she got off so lucky?
She grimaced back at me, quickly wiping one eye with the back of her hand. "So what do you want? I can't do anything about this."
My ears drooped in disappointment, though once again without any particular surprise; I guess I'd hoped she'd have some kind of idea what was going on, at least. I sighed and shrugged stiffly, sitting down on my haunches to bring my eyelevel to hers and hopefully maintain my modesty a little better.
The horse-woman sighed too, and then chuckled under her breath. "Geeze, just look at me here. Some brave warrior I am. My name is Red, er, Rob Shet... Sheckley. Rob Sheckley. Gah." She shook her head vigorously, tossing her mane back and forth. "Keep it straight. I'm Rob Sheckley. Pleased to meet you, whoever you are." I cocked my head and blinked at her, ears perking curiously, and she glanced down at herself with an embarrassed grimace of her own. "Yeah, yeah. I know, that's not a girl's name. Look, I'm only a passing fan, I'm not really into this, this is all some kind of big misunderstanding..."
I whickered sympathetically; I could certainly understand that feeling. But although knowing we were in the same boat did ease my mind a bit, it didn't exactly give me any more options or information. Rob leaned against the tree and crossed her arms, cloak pulled securely around her shoulders, apparently still trying to work through her own thoughts too. Trying to think of some other approach as the silence began to stretch out longer, I pawed at the lawn with one forehoof-hand. Maybe I could scratch out words in the dirt? The sod was pretty dense and well-manicured, though, not an ideal canvas. Putting my hands on the ground to support me, I stretched my long neck and muzzle down to examine the ground more closely. I snuffled at the fresh green grass for a moment and then gingerly tore off a mouthful with my teeth before I could reconsider the sudden urge to do so that seized me.
I spat it back out almost immediately with a startled snort. Bleah! Why did I do that? Because I was feeling kind of hungry, I realized. And it didn't taste nearly as "bleah" as I would have expected, either. I glanced up at Rob, who was watching me curiously, and flicked my cloth-wrapped tail unhappily; this wasn't helping. I should at least try to introduce myself, it seemed only polite, and so I touched the ground with a hooftip poised to trace out my name with imaginary lines.
I hesitated, puzzled. My name... it was right on the tip of my tongue, but it just didn't seem to want to come out! I clenched my jaw and stared down at my motionless hand as I thought intently, trying to remember and also trying to keep control of my emotions; this was the most frightening thing that had happened to me yet. Okay, stay calm, I'm not losing my mind. I remember being me, I lived in an apartment and I had a job and I was human... but what was my name? I may not have been losing my mind but there was an impenetrable blank spot in it.
"Are you okay?" Rob asked with concern, picking up on my distress quite easily. Shaking my head and trying to keep calm, I traced out the letters "Can't remember name" on the grass with a hooftip. My hand shook a bit but at least the words came out clearly.
Rob grimaced. "Oh, man. Do you remember anything at all? You look like you're pretty far gone, physically..." That was not reassuring, and I whickered plaintively. "Sorry, Like I should talk." Rob hugged herself again in embarrassment, arms covering her ample chest. "I'm sort of half-gone myself, my mind keeps slipping and I think the name 'Red Shetland' instead of R... Rob." She grimaced again at her own hesitation, ears flattened against her skull. "I'm still me, though," she insisted, spoken out loud but probably addressed more to herself than to myself.
I whickered again, sympathetically, and tried to figure out how to handle this situation. As I thought back I couldn't remember thinking about my name since I'd been changed, but now that I had become aware of the lack I could do little else. Why couldn't I remember that one simple label, when I could remember everything else about my life? Who was I?
"Hey! Charger!" My ears and head shot up at the sound of Linda's voice in the distance, and I glanced back over my shoulder to see her hurrying across the lawn toward me. I groaned and shook my head; anything but that. I rose back up on my hind legs, trying to be mindful of my modesty, and gave Rob a pleading look. Please try to talk some sense into her, I hoped silently.
"His name is Charger?" Rob asked as Linda reached us. I whinnied and shook my head emphatically, but Linda nodded just as emphatically.
"Yeah." She paused to catch her breath for a moment, then started again. "Yeah, that's him. Sorry if he's been annoying you, he slipped his lead while I was away." She reached over and grabbed the rein still hanging from one side of my halter. I whuffled indignantly and tried to pull away, but she gave a very firm pull of her own and glared up at me sternly. "Stop misbehaving, Charger! I let you out of my sight for just a few minutes and you're off hassling the fillies. This isn't the time!"
I looked back to Rob again, burning with embarrassment and trying to ask for a little help with my expression. She seemed almost as overwhelmed by Linda as I was, but she managed to respond with a somewhat indignant "he wasn't any trouble."
Linda gave Rob a quick smile. "At least he's got a good eye, you look like a fine specimen. What's your name, and who's your breeder? I don't recall seeing you at the show."
Rob was speechless for a moment, astonished by Linda's question. "Red Shetland!" She managed at last. "Breeder?"
"Oh, never mind, I'll look you up," Linda said dismissively. "Down, Charger." She reached up with the loose end of the reins and I leaned down without thinking to let her clip it back onto my halter. I would have resisted, but despite my previous knowledge of Linda's derangement I was still almost as astonished by her lack of tact as Rob was. Then, with a confident and seemingly well-practiced motion, Linda climbed onto my back and I automatically dropped onto all fours to support her.
I was only willing to humor Linda's delusion so far under the circumstances, and this indignity was too much! I tossed my head and whinnied, intending to rear back up to my hind legs and dump Linda off, but her weight had apparently pushed my top-heaviness past the point where I could easily right myself; I ended up simply staggering back a couple of steps, still down on all four hooves.
Linda pulled on my reins and tightened her legs around my sides. "Woah, there! Hey!" I cantered to a stop, breathing heavily and heart pounding. I whinnied again, but this time more quietly and with a more plaintive tone; I was suffering from an emotional overload, the indignity and embarrassment crashing together with even weirder feelings and leaving me hopelessly confused.
"Okay. That's better." Linda's tone was mildly reproachful, but she relaxed her tight grip on my reins and rubbed the back of my neck lightly which somehow managed to relax me a little bit too despite the circumstances. "There you go. I've been running around enough already trying to find you again, don't you go and make it hard work riding you too."
I looked over to Rob, but she just shook her head in confusion. "You two have fun together," she muttered. "Geeze."
Linda chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll let your owner know where you are too if I find him. Just don't wander off too far." Then she nudged my sides with her legs and clicked her tongue, and with a startled reflex I started walking forward. I didn't get to see Rob's reaction to Linda's last statement.
Just like our trip out of the building right after I'd first changed, I was feeling terribly confused and unsteady and it left me quite receptive to Linda's confident guidance. But even so, I continued struggling with myself to figure out some way to get back in control of the situation. I'm not a horse, goddamn it! I've got to dump her off and make her realize that... but I couldn't bring myself to do that, and after a moment I let out a sigh. What's the use? She means well but she's beyond rationality, even if I could get her to listen. She even thought Rob was a horse, for crying out loud, and I look way more like one than she does.
I was even beginning to really feel like one. The hooves on my fingers bore our weight quite comfortably, as did my shoulders and elbows, and my thumbs tucked away securely in my palms; it finally dawned on me that I really was better designed as a quadruped now. And I was certainly large enough to bear Linda's weight, in fact it felt quite comfortable too.
"Well, I didn't find the trailer," Linda interrupted my thoughts. "And the police weren't very helpful, I didn't understand a thing they were babbling about. But good news; I managed to phone Edward. He said he'd come down with the truck."
I flicked my ears, and then a moment later I placed the name; Edward was Linda's friend who had been too ill to come to the convention in the first place, she'd mentioned his name once while I was over at her house. Why can I remember names like that but I can't even remember my own? I sighed, shaking my head.
"Oh come on, the truck's not all that bad," Linda responded good-naturedly, misinterpreting my sigh. "But he won't make it here for hours, so I figured we'd better find a good place to relax while we wait. The building's still being evacuated."
I snorted and looked around nervously. The big dog-creature was nowhere to be seen, but there were plenty of other things to be worried about out here; there was a big ogre-like monster only a hundred yards off who was systematically stripping the branches off of a tree trunk to make a club, a humanoid lizard was crouched a little ways of in the opposite direction clutching its head and making odd sobbing noises in the midst of a wide gap in the crowd around it, and a giant eagle was perched on the edge of the roof nearby watching us all with a fierce, alert gaze. There certainly didn't seem to be anyplace relaxing around here. But Linda had been wandering around while I'd been with Rob, so hopefully she knew where she was taking me. I let her continue doing the driving despite the lingering resentment.
Linda continued her idle one-sided conversation with me as we went, describing with apparent amusement how disorganized everything was. Apparently the police had arrived, but were simply setting up shop around the perimeter for now; nobody seemed to have any idea what was happening. And as she went on to describe their confused reaction when she'd tried to get information from them about the state of the "horse show," I couldn't help but whicker in wry amusement. The police would have a heck of a time trying to piece things together.
"Oh hell, them again. Woah there." Linda interrupted herself, giving a light tug on the reins to pull me to a stop. I blinked, taking a moment to figure out that she was referring to the boxy white truck that was driving slowly over the lawn in their direction. "Florida Dept. Animal Control" was printed across the hood, and I shifted nervously on my four hooves, wondering if I should get back up on hind legs again. But Linda stayed calm and firm on my back, so I remained where I was.
The driver stopped the truck a short distance away and leaned out the window to look at us for a moment. "Hey there," he called to Linda, "Is that a horse or what?"
"Why, thank you!" Linda responded proudly. "Name's Charger. Bred him up myself."
The driver hesitated for a moment, confused by Linda's response. "Okay... I mean, is that animal yours? He's tame?"
"Of course. He's perfectly well trained." This time it was Linda's turn to be puzzled by the man's response. "I guess you're looking for strays that got loose, right? Well, there's a mare back thataway that's unsupervised, why don't you go round her up? Reddish coat, good form, but seemed sort of surly."
The man regarded Linda skeptically for a moment, then pulled his head back in and resumed driving past them in the direction from which they'd come without further comment. I let out a silent breath and relaxed slightly, glad they had passed me by; there would have been little I could have done by myself to convince them I wasn't an animal. "Well, at least they're thinking of the animals," Linda muttered. "Idiots don't seem to have any idea what's going on though." With a click of her tongue and a nudge of her heels, I was once again spurred into motion under Linda's guidance.
She may be crazy, but she's all I've got right now, I reflected as I carried her across the lawn. I'll just have to put up with this, I guess; there's no telling how she'll react if I get too upset at her. It's not like this is her fault this happened anyway. I flicked my ears and shook my head; I still didn't even fully grasp what had happened to me let alone get to the point of trying to place blame.
Linda rode me for quite a distance through the convention center's grounds. I kept expecting my wrists or back to start aching from the stress my posture must be placing on them, but I still felt fine; in fact my only real discomfort came from the fact that I was still rather hungry. The rest of the discomfort I felt was purely psychological, continuing awkward awareness of my odd shape and my embarrassing state of nudity. The blanket strapped around my torso didn't cover any of the important areas, and I found myself actually grateful for my tail and the vestiges of modesty it provided. But as the trip wore on I got a little more used to it, and by the end I wasn't blushing nearly as much under my pelt from the stares people continued to direct at me.
We reached a woodchip-carpeted path through a long stand of trees, and then after a short passage through we came to a small grassy soccer field that was surprisingly devoid of other people and creatures. It was bordered on several sides by brush, and there was a narrow paved road beyond a section of chain-link fence at the far end. "Ah, here we are; I'm glad I remembered this part of the grounds." Linda slid down off of my back and walked along beside me for a short distance, reins held in one hand and the other resting on my neck; I figured she wasn't done guiding and so continued following her lead.
She took me over to a low set of wooden bleachers near the far end of the field and finally came to a stop. "There," she said with a satisfied tone of voice. "Edward should be able to find us here easy, and I can put my feet up. Charger, will you promise not to go running off again like last time?" I whickered and nodded my head reluctantly; considering my previous encounters I was probably safest staying within Linda's sight for now. "Good boy," she praised, rubbing my cheek and then unclipping both ends of the reins from my halter. She rolled the leather strap up and put it in her pocket, then sat down in the bleachers and leaned back with a sigh. "What a day."
I whickered in total agreement with that sentiment. I was just about to get back up on my hind legs again at last, but before I did another thought occurred to me and I nudged Linda with my nose. Hey, now that we're just sitting here, how about listening to me? I pawed at the grass with my right forehoof, trying to get her attention so that I could trace out words on the ground.
But Linda just chuckled and shoved my muzzle away gently. "Sorry, no more carrots. Left them back in the car."
I whuffed in annoyed resignation; she apparently knew I was still intelligent, but perhaps she wasn't quite able to grasp the idea that I could communicate. I pawed at the grass again anyway, tracing out "Listen Linda" on the off chance that she was paying attention, but when I looked back up she was stretched out the wooden seat looking idly up at the clouds. I sighed and examined the ground, wondering if there was anyplace I could trace out more obvious and long-term lettering. But the lawn was just as thick here as it had been over by Rob's tree, there were no places with exposed dirt.
Thick and surprisingly tasty lawn, in fact. I absently nipped up a sample of the grass and chewed it experimentally. After due consideration I finally swallowed. I must really be hungry, I thought ruefully to myself as I ripped up a heartier bite. It occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn't be doing this... but that thought wandered off in fairly short order as I began to graze. Down on all fours, with my long neck and muzzle, it felt like a totally natural thing to do. Quite relaxing indeed.
Linda napped as I ate, and all the confusion in the background stayed reassuringly distant in the background. Even the question of my real name stopped nagging me for a while.
A couple of hours later, I wasn't sure exactly how many, a large red pickup truck pulled up along the narrow road and stopped near the bleachers. Linda stood up and waved from where she'd been relaxing, catching my attention, and I pulled my head up from the grass with a startled snort. I'd been grazing the entire time, wandering randomly around the bleachers on all fours, and I was surprised to realize now just how little I had thought about it. It was as if grazing had sent me meditating and the time had simply flown by.
I rose back up to my hind legs, groaning slightly as I stretched muscles that had been in quadruped mode for hours and which now had to deal with my full belly as well; I had eaten a lot and I felt quite heavy. God, I hope my stomach can actually handle that... Linda whistled and beckoned, so I shook my head to clear it and trotted over to her. She got up and headed for the truck, so I followed along towards it to meet with her there.
The man behind the wheel appeared perfectly ordinary; he was perhaps in his mid thirties, with a plain T-shirt and a pair of glasses, and a hint of male pattern baldness. He was staring at me with an astonished expression, so I came to a cautious stop a few paces away from Linda and the truck to be on the safe side; I didn't want to loom over them and frighten him off. So this is Edward, I mused. He looked small... but then, almost everyone looked small to me from my current height.
"Thanks for coming," Linda greeted him, tapping on the side window and motioning for him to roll it down. He did so, and Linda repeated her thanks. "Sorry about making you come out like this with your cold and everything, but the trailer's missing and everything's a mess."
Edward just sat there staring at me, and I gave an embarrassed whicker while trying once again to adjust the blanket strapped around my torso to cover my waist without any success. After a moment of uncomfortable silence Linda laughed nervously and waved her hand in front of his face. "Hello, Edward? Are you awake?"
Edward blinked and shook his head. "Uh... Sorry, Linda, I just don't have any idea what's going on here." His voice was scratchy and nasal, presumably thanks to whatever illness had laid him low. "Is that... Charger?" He gestured at me.
I shook my head in emphatic denial, but Linda simultaneously answered with a firm "of course." She gave Edward a concerned smile. "You're really out of it. I'm so sorry I made you drive in this condition."
"No, no, it's alright. But Charger... it's a costume. What's going on here, where did this come from?" He trailed off again, still staring at me. I snorted, shaking my head again; perhaps he hadn't heard about what had happened here yet. I tried pantomiming opening the zipper of the original costume, but my arms wouldn't bend right to convey the motion well.
Linda glanced back at me. "Stop fidgeting, we'll be out of here in just a little bit now." I sighed but let my arms drop; I needed a better method of communicating than that anyway. She turned back to Edward to respond to his question. "I'm not really sure what's going on. I think there may have been a fire drill or bomb scare, but nobody seems to have any idea; I'm quite annoyed I must say. I was sure Charger was going to place highly in the show. But it's obvious that they're never going to get things sorted out in time for the rest of it now, so I figured we'd better get Charger back to the stables for today. And the trailer's missing, on top of everything else." Linda sighed. "You've really saved my butt here, Edward."
"What about your car?" Edward still looked completely mystified and was perhaps hoping that trying a different line of questioning would help.
"Left it back in the parking lot," Linda gestured back across the field. "I was thinking I'd leave Charger here with you and then go bring it around to meet you here. It should take about fifteen minutes, I think, assuming the right roads are still clear." Reaching into her pocket, she pulled the rolled-up reins out and gestured for me to lean down. I hesitated for a moment, but then with a heavy sigh I complied; Linda clipped one end of the reins to my halter again and then offered the other end to Edward. "Here, hang onto him. He's been a bit skittish since the show fell apart."
Edward took the end of the lead like he was being handed a live grenade and opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to come up with some sort of objection, but mainly just stared up at me some more. I found my voice more easily, such as it was, and whickered a complaint at Linda; crazy though she may be, I didn't want to get left behind again like I had in the parking lot. But she just patted me reassuringly on my flank and told me "Be good, okay? I'll be back in a jiffy with the car." At that she turned and headed off back the way we'd come from, walking quickly through the field.
I took a step to follow her but came up short against the reins; Edward reflexively clenched it in his hand when it threatened to pull out of it and I didn't want to fight his hold. Instead I turned back to him and gave a hopeful and submissive shrug, trying to win a little trust. "What are you?" He muttered under his breath, eyes fixed firmly on me.
I wasn't really sure whether he was asking me directly, or if his question was directed at the universe as a whole. For a moment I didn't think there was much practical difference and I was about to resign myself to his one-sided scrutiny until Linda's return, but then I remembered my too-brief conversation with Rob and whickered in relief. I crouched down on my haunches, supporting myself with one hand and tracing out words on the grass with the other.
"I am a man," I wrote first, trying to make the letters absolutely clear. Edward just stared uncomprehendingly at first, though, so I repeated; "I was a man." I folded my ears back bitterly at the amendment, but this time Edward seemed to recognize what I was trying to tell him.
"Oh!" He responded. "You... Wait, who were you?"
I shook my head with a sigh. "Don't know," I wrote, "can't remember name."
"Charger?" Edward supplied, half puzzled question and half helpful suggestion.
"No, before Charger," I responded, scribbling as fast as I could with my clunky hooftip. "Linda brought me. I wore the costume for her. I'm not Charger, this isn't the real me."
"Oh my god." Edward paled even more, and for a moment I wondered if he was about to faint; I raised my arm to reach out and steady him if needed. He recoiled a half-step, propping himself against the truck instead, and then tentatively reached out to touch my hand. "You were wearing Charger to the Con instead of me, and you became him?" Allowing him to run his fingers over the hoof I'd been writing with, I could only nod my massive head in confirmation. Edward gripped my hand lightly around the base of my single "finger", and I gripped lightly back with my stubby thumb. He pulled away quickly, but didn't seem frightened. Shellshocked, maybe.
"But Linda thinks I'm really Charger," I resumed writing at a slower pace.
"Well, you are Charger now," Edward muttered, "whoever you were before, I mean..."
I shook my head, tossing my mane in annoyance. "She doesn't remember before," I clarified. Edward didn't seem to be paying as much attention to the writing any more, however, and I paused impatiently while he spent a few minutes examining me again. I grumbled under my breath; I almost preferred Linda's blase acceptance to this intense scrutiny. At the very least, I wished I had proper clothing instead of just this blanket belted around my torso.
"You're almost exactly like I imagined Charger would be," Edward said at last. "Linda and I worked on that costume for months... damn this stupid cold!" He coughed and wiped his nose with a handkerchief, as if by way of illustration. "Still, I don't know. I guess I can't blame Linda... How did this happen?"
I sighed again. "Don't know," I wrote. "Was in the con, then all changed."
"Okay, and you were someone else before... uh, will you change back?"
Ears flattened and lips pulled tight, I traced out "Don't know" in the grass. I dearly wished that I could still clench my fists.
"Wow." Edward fell silent for a while, still looking quite unsteady, and I remained seated on my equine hindquarters waiting for him to respond. "So what are we going to do with you?" He asked at last.
I snorted. "How would I know?" I wrote, clopping my hooftip down hard on the question mark's dot with frustration. "Ask Linda."
"Yeah, she seems to be pretty confident she knows what she's doing," Edward mused with a nervous laugh. "I'm going to have plenty of questions when she gets back."
I grumbled under my breath. Linda was confident, but it was confidence born of delusion; I hoped Edward would be able to get her straightened out. "Just want to be..." My writing trailed off as my name continued to escape me. "...who I was," I finally finished.
"Whoever you were," Edward agreed absently. I lapsed into "silence" again for a while, somewhat depressed; now that there was someone listening I found I didn't really have much of substance to tell him. Hopefully Linda's return would help; even delusional confidence was somewhat welcome.
Fortunately it wasn't much longer before she made it back, and I only had to put up with a few more minutes of intense scrutiny from Edward. She drove her car down the road and pulled up to park right in front of Edward's truck, jumping out of the car as soon as it came to a stop. "Made it!" She announced, shaking her head in exasperation. "I still don't know what's up with the show, but boy are the cops in a tizzy!"
"Linda, I was just talking with Charger here..." Edward began.
"No time for that now," Linda interrupted. "I think we'd better save the chat for my place. Give me your keys and help me get Charger into the truck, you take my car."
What about my car? I thought indignantly. Then I blinked with a sudden thought; although my driver's license had vanished along with the other identification in my wallet, my car's registration papers still must have my real name on it! I jumped up to all fours and turned back in the direction of the parking lot with an excited whinny.
My whinny was cut off with a jerk on my halter. "Hey, woah!" Edward yelped, still hanging onto the reins. "Where're you going?"
I gave him a sour look and then urgently traced "my car" on the ground with a forehoof. Edward read it out loud as I wrote, in a puzzled tone of voice.
Linda laughed. "No, silly, you can't fit in a car." She took the reins from Edward and pulled, turning me back around again. "Since the trailer's gone, you have to ride in the back of the truck. Sorry."
I whickered and tossed my head, my tail swishing angrily; finally I had a good idea for recovering part of my old identity and Linda was completely oblivious. But before I could try writing further elaboration, Linda tugged again on the reins and I stumbled forward into four-footed motion toward the truck. After a few steps, though, I managed to dig my hooves in and resist Linda's pull. Damnit, listen to me! I thought furiously.
Linda sighed. "Here, Ed, could you hold him for a moment?" She handed my reins off to Edward again and hurried back to her car. I stamped a forehoof and Edward turned his attention back to me.
"What car?" He asked, almost furtively.
"My car," I hurriedly scratched again on the ground. "Parked in lot-"
"There!" Linda slammed the trunk of her car shut, snapping both our attentions away from the ground where I was scratching out letters. "Now, let's get him settled in back. Once we get to my place, then we can discuss what's going on." She walked over to the back of the truck, opened the bed's hatch, and then brandished a carrot at me. "Over here, Charger, now be good."
I snorted... then snuffled, mouth watering. Carrots were great. I stretched my neck out to take it from her with my teeth, but she pulled it away as I got near and tossed it into the bed of the pickup truck. I blinked, my mind momentarily snapping back into focus, and glared at Linda; she was treating me like a simple animal again, trying to trick me into behaving with tasty treats! Enough of this; I rose to my hind legs, tugging the reins out of Edward's hands in the process.
My focus slipped. Hey, I can reach it easy now. I leaned over onto the truck bed, hooves clunking on the metal as I climbed up onto it far enough to reach the carrot. I picked it up in my lips and munched while Linda grabbed my dangling reins and tied them down to a metal loop inside the back of the truck.
The back of the truck slammed shut and I blinked again as the astonished realization dawned on me; she'd done it again. I reached down and tried to pick at the knot with one hand. Linda gave it a light smack and I pulled it away with an indignant whinny.
"Just settle down now, okay?" She said firmly. "Sit down, or lie down. We've got a drive ahead of us." I glared at Linda for a moment longer, and then reluctantly sat down and tried to get comfortable on the coarse tarp covering the bed of the truck.
God, I was big. I barely fit, even with my legs pulled up under me. But at least the snugness made the back of the truck feel relatively secure. Linda got into the driver's seat and started the engine, and then as soon as Edward had got the engine of her own car started she pulled back out onto the narrow road.
It was a long, strange ride. I had ridden in the back of a pickup truck at least once before, I could clearly remember, but that was a long time ago and I'd been human at the time; this time, I was essentially cargo. I kept my head up for a while, keeping as much of an eye as I could on the traffic, but once we got out onto the highway I pulled it back down out of the wind and closed my eyes. I couldn't really relax under the circumstances, but it was still the closest I'd come yet to taking a rest since this whole bizarre experience had begun.
I tried not to think about the registration papers back in my own car, being left farther and farther behind me. I also tried not to think about Linda's treatment of me; that only got me frustrated for no good purpose right now. And finally, as the trip wore on, I tried not to think about needing to go to the bathroom. We'll be at Linda's house soon, I reassured myself. Maybe I can get everything sorted out there. Not much of a hope, but I'd take what I could get right now.
Finally Linda pulled off of the highway again, heading back into suburban city streets, and I lifted my massive head once more to look around. Edward was still right behind us in Linda's car, which was vaguely reassuring. Also, sniffing the air blowing past with my huge equine nostrils, I could make out reassuring scents; I wasn't sure what they were, exactly, but they felt familiar. Linda's home is just a few blocks away now, I realized at last, and heaved an enormous relieved sigh.
She pulled into the driveway, and Edward parked on the street. Linda hopped out of the truck with an enormous happy sigh. "Thank god we're out of there," she announced with obvious relief.
I whickered and shifted in the back of the truck, pawing suggestively at the metal loop my reins were still tied to. Linda leaned over and undid the knot while Edward walked up from the street to join us.
"Alright, Linda, we're here," Edward began. He broke off for a moment to watch me as I carefully climbed out of the truck over the side, standing upright and stretching my limbs with relief, then resumed; "Now, we've got to talk about exactly what's going on here with this Charger."
Linda nodded. "Sure. Let's talk while I get him 'round back." She took my reins again and started leading me down the sidewalk to the back yard, and both Edward and I followed along grumbling under our breath. Linda was completely oblivious to any interruption of her goals.
As soon as we were through the back gate, however, Linda came to an abrupt stop an stared at the yard in obvious confusion. I halted immediately beside her, glancing apprehensively at her expression; what was going through her head this time?
She turned to Edward and pointed at an open area of grass between two willow trees. "Am I going crazy," she demanded, "or has someone stolen my stable now?"
Edward hesitated, trying to figure out the appropriate reply. "What stable?" He asked cautiously.
Linda set her jaw and walked resolutely out to the area she'd pointed to. "Here," she said firmly, "Charger's stable was here, this is where I kept him. Now it's gone, just like the trailer I brought him to the show in. What's going on?" She seemed angry, but I detected a hint of fear underneath and whickered edgily.
Edward stared down at the grass for a moment, and then met Linda's gaze. "Linda, there's never been a stable here," he answered slowly. "You've never had a horse trailer, either. And until today, Charger was just a horse costume."
"That's ridiculous..." Linda trailed off, digging at the lawn with the toe of her boot. The turf was quite clearly unbroken, with no sign of a structure having been here before. "Something very strange is going on here."
At last! I whinnied and nodded my head emphatically, and then to emphasize my point I traced out a big "YES" on the grass with my hoof. Linda reached out and rubbed the side of my neck, but frustratingly seemed to ignore the rest of my effort to communicate. I snorted in irritation.
"Yes, very much so," Edward agreed. "Linda, think about it. This thing doesn't look like any sort of horse I've ever seen, and we're in the middle of the suburbs, not out on some acreage. Where did you think he came from?"
"I bred him up myself..." Linda trailed off again, thinking hard. "Maybe I am going crazy? Or maybe it's you. Do you have any evidence?"
Edward sighed. "Look, let's go into the house. Maybe I can show you."
Linda opened her mouth to say something, paused for an instant, then close it again with a sharp nod. "Alright. I trust you, Edward; show me what's going on here." She unhooked my reins and gave me a pat on the shoulder. "You be good, okay? I'll get to you again in just a minute."
I nodded again, then followed along behind her as she and Edward headed over to the back door of the house. Linda hesitated before opening the back door, giving me a disapproving look; she obviously didn't want me coming into the house. My ears drooped slightly but I stood my ground, and for the first time Linda decided not to make an issue of my unhorselike behavior. I breathed a sigh of relief; I really wanted to get away from the potential sight of the neighbors, not to mention the fact that I was going to need to use the bathroom soon after the long ride here.
I was also looking forward to a little solid proof that it wasn't me who was crazy, and that I really wasn't Charger after all. My inability to remember key facts about my former life was still extremely unnerving.
It was the first time I'd been inside a building with normal height ceilings, however, quite impossible to stand upright in; even on all fours it was tight inside the back foyer and I had to move carefully to avoid damaging anything. I wiped my hooves on the mat carefully as I entered, giving Linda an attempt at a reassuring grin. She sighed and shook her head, then followed Edward through the kitchen into the living room.
Clomping as lightly as I could on the linoleum, I followed and peered into the room. To my relief, it was exactly as I had remembered from when we'd left to go to the convention; in amongst all the genuine tack and horse memorabilia were photos of the Charger costume, a couple of pieces of older horse costumes, and the big box Charger itself had been stored in among other things.
"There," Edward pointed at some of the stuff. "See? Charger was a costume you made. I was going to wear it to the convention, but I got sick and couldn't make it. Do you remember?"
Linda shook her head, but I could tell that she was far from certain. She kept glancing back at me, as if trying to reconcile me with my surroundings. "I'm not sure," she answered at last. "This doesn't make any sense."
Edward kept at it, though, launching into a long and detailed description of their relationship and Linda's obsession with horses and costuming. Every once in a while he faltered in the story, glancing at me with an odd mixture of embarrassment and other harder-to-identify emotions.
They're fetishists, I finally realized with an uncomfortable whuffle. I had sort of suspected, I guess, but the pattern of Edward's hesitations made it clear; he and Linda had been quite intimate, and horseplay was definitely involved. Charger had been involved. Oh, God, this is creepy-weird. No wonder Linda's so obsessed, and the costume was so...
I shuddered, trying to focus my mind on something else. It was impossible, of course; my body had felt weird enough before it had dawned on me that it was some woman's sexual fetish. And on top of that, I really needed to go to the bathroom, too. I grunted in discomfort and shifted my weight from hoof to hoof, glancing around for the bathroom door. Yes, I need to get in there, I thought. For so many reasons. I just hope I'll fit.
"Charger!" Linda's exclamation grabbed my attention again before I'd even taken a step, and I looked back at her with a startled, questioning whicker. Edward, too, was cut off in mid thought. "Outside, now, before you make a mess!" She hurried over and grabbed hold of my halter, guiding me as I backed clumsily into the kitchen and then tried to turn around without knocking the table over. It was at that same moment that I realized what had triggered her reaction; my penis had begun sliding out of the sheath of skin that had until then held it securely out of sight.
I was mortified, stumbling along under Linda's pull to the back door and then out into the yard again where I promptly turned to conceal myself as much as I could from her while I got myself back under control again. Fortunately, however, Linda seemed completely oblivious to my reaction; she headed back into the house as soon as I was outside, muttering something about Edward that I didn't overhear. The back door slammed shut.
I spent a minute or so just standing there, struggling with the odd sensations surging in my guts until I felt reasonably calm and stable. Fortunately, another look around still showed no curious neighbors peering over the fence; only Edward and Linda had witnessed my little display. I sighed with relief and then slunk over to the most concealed place I could see in the yard, a shaded patch under one of the willows.
I still needed to go to the bathroom, more pressing than ever now that I'd aborted the urge once already. I considered heading back into the house again, I really did... but the last thing I wanted to do right now was to set Linda off, and I reluctantly conceded that it would probably be much more difficult and messy for me to use the toilet than would be worthwhile. I was just too big and awkward to maneuver inside the human-sized home. And so, when I couldn't hang on to the pressure any longer, I reluctantly let myself drop down out of my sheath again to urinate on the lawn. Then, lifting my tail reflexively, I voided my bowels too.
Okay, this has got to be the nadir, I reflected bitterly to myself. Still, I did feel much better physically, and that helped offset some of the psychological unease. I trotted over to the other side of the yard, sat down on my haunches, and leaned back against the trunk of the poplar growing there. I sighed, idly picking at the buckle holding the blanket strapped around my torso with my stubby thumbs. A few minutes later, having made little progress with the buckle, I sighed again and gave up for the time being.
My attention snapped back into focus when the back door opened again and Linda came out, followed closely by Edward. She looked badly shaken, and Edward relieved; my ears perked up and I waited hopefully as they walked over to where I sat, wondering whether Edward had finally talked some sense into Linda.
"Charger, are you really a man in a costume?" Linda asked uncertainly.
Looking her as squarely in the eye as my equine face would allow, I nodded my head.
"I mean, not right now of course, you're real," Linda amended hastily, "but I mean... this morning?"
I nodded again.
Linda sighed. "Well, isn't this a weird situation."
I snorted, suppressing a whinny of strained laughter. "You telling me," I scratched crudely on the grass. Linda didn't seem to notice, so I stamped my hand on the ground to get her attention. She flinched, startled, but finally seemed to be looking at what I was doing. I carefully traced out in block capitals with the tip of my right hoof; "LISTEN."
"Uh, okay... what is it, Charger?" Linda didn't seem taken aback at the fact that I could write, apparently just at the fact that I had something to say.
I thought for a moment to choose my words carefully. "Don't remember real name" I wrote at last, going slowly and letting Linda repeat the words out loud to make sure they were clear. "It's in my car. Want it back."
Linda frowned, puzzled. "Edward?" She asked.
Edward coughed. "I think he left his car at the convention center. He tried to tell me something about it back just before we left. Maybe he left his driver's license in there?" Then he flinched as I whinnied loudly and nodded.
"I think that's a yes," Linda observed wryly. Then she ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. "Let's see... Oh, is that why you were messing around with that car parked next to mine?" I nodded again, so eager now that it was all I could do to suppress the urge to get back up to my feet and start pacing.
"Ah, I see..." Linda chewed her lip for a moment while she thought hard. "Look, I'm still not entirely convinced here; you guys are trying to tell me I've gone crazy and can't trust my own memories. But that makes about as much sense as a whole entire stable disappearing without a trace, so how about I go back and see if I can find this car of yours?"
I nodded, then hesitated for a moment to consider the logistics. "No truck ride," I wrote, ears flattened in displeasure at my memory of the uncomfortable ride.
Linda laughed. "No, no truck. You stay here, Charger." She glanced over at Edward. "You should stay here too, to keep an eye on him. I don't know how long this will take but I should probably go right away before someone tows that car, assuming it's still there. The police seemed intent on impounding everything in sight when I got my own car out."
"By all means," Edward said with obvious relief. "I've done just about all the running around I can do for now." He coughed again and cleared his throat.
Linda grinned. "Great. Charger needs to be dressed down, by the way, but fortunately that doesn't require running."
Edward groaned, but nodded anyway. "I guess so."
I whickered uncertainly as Linda turned and walked off through the gate towards her car 'round front. Edward grumbled sympathetically. "It's all I can do to keep up with her sometimes when I'm not sick," he muttered. Then, with a deep breath and sigh, he squared his shoulders. "Alright, I guess you're mine for the next little while. Let me help you get settled."
I remained seated where I was as Edward unbuckled the blanket wrapped around my torso and then undid the cloth wrapped around my tail, freeing me from the slightly itchy fabric. He continued talking while he did so, a quiet monologue about Linda and life in general; I decided not to interrupt and let him go about his business despite lingering embarrassment; I was hoping he'd take off the halter that was even now still strapped firmly around my head. He removed the reins but to my disappointment he didn't touch the halter itself, leaving it as the only article of "clothing" still on me. I grumbled and reached up to paw at it suggestively.
Edward hesitated, arms filled with the bundle of horse accessories he'd already taken off of me, and shook his head. "Hang on a minute, okay? I'll be right back." I sighed, but there wasn't much else to do; Edward vanished inside the house again. I idly rubbed my back against the tree a bit while I waited for him to return, trying to relieve a minor itch that the blanket straps had left behind.
He came back out a few minutes later carrying a wooden box, and I perked my ears with cautious curiousity. "There we are," Edward said, "had to dig around a bit to find this in the closet." He paused, examining me again for a moment with an expression of conflicted thought. "Could you, uh, stand up... on all fours, please?"
I whickered uncertainly, but decided to comply; Edward had asked nicely, after all. "What's that?" I traced with one hoof, but Edward was already opening the box. He removed one of the brushes stored inside and moved toward me.
I held up one hand in a "stop" gesture, and Edward halted. "What are you doing?" I wrote carefully, pretty sure I knew but wanting to be clear.
"Uh..." It was Edward's turn to look embarrassed; he flushed redly and fiddled with the brush nervously. "I was going to groom you. It's the usual procedure, and Linda said..."
"No kinky stuff," I wrote emphatically, and Edward's blush deepened.
"It's not like that!" He said defensively. "Well... look, I guess you know kinda how it was with me and Linda and... Charger, right? We... liked horseplay. But it was just fantasy. I didn't wish this on anyone, certainly not myself. I mean you! Not on you!" Edward hastily corrected himself, and then sighed. "Can I be entirely candid with you... Charger?"
I nodded wordlessly. I couldn't exactly refuse under the circumstances.
"Alright, then. I'll admit... I don't know what to feel. In one way I'm incredibly envious; this is like some sort of deep dark fantasy come true for me, and I missed it. But at the same time, I'm feeling like I just missed being hit by a falling boulder out of nowhere, and thank God I didn't go to that convention." Edward winced. "I'm sorry, I don't mean it like that. But what am I supposed to do? You're what would have happened to me if things had been just slightly different. What am I supposed to say?"
I whickered, uncomfortable both with Edward's soul-baring and the implications for my own situation. "Don't know," I scratched at last. "But please help."
"Of course, of course. If I can make you comfortable -" Edward gestured with the brush - "then by all means I want to help. Do you trust me?"
I nodded reluctantly. What other choice did I have? Holding still on all fours, I allowed Edward to begin brushing the short fur on my back.
At first I was extremely tense, of course. Talk about socially awkward; I was being groomed like a horse by an admitted horse fetishist. But Edward seemed to be taking a great deal of care to accommodate my nervousness. He started up at my shoulders, like a masseuse gently rubbing knots out of out sore muscles, and very soon I found myself beginning to relax; my head slowly drooped downward of its own accord until my nose was near the ground and my eyelids were half-shut.
Edward worked his way gradually down my back, and by the time he got to my hindquarters I was hardly thinking about the ignominy of it at all any more. The brushing really did feel good, one of the first things I'd really deeply enjoyed today, and by the time Edward got out a comb and started working on my mane I was totally into it. I let him brush out my tail too, fussing and murmuring reassuringly to me the entire time.
When he finally finished, he gave me a light pat on the hindquarters and packed the brushes back into their box again. I was feeling so mellow and relaxed by then that I didn't even feel disappointed the grooming was over. I remained there drowsily on all fours while he went back inside the house, idly nibbling on the grass and flicking my tail back and forth.
The relaxed mood couldn't last forever, but I think I still managed at least a good hour or two of it before I found myself once again beginning to ponder the larger implications of my predicament. On the one hand, Edward's statements and the stuff I'd seen inside Linda's house had put to rest my concerns that it was I who was delusional about having been human just this morning; even though I still didn't have a name to put to him, I was quite sure I knew who I had been.
But what was I now? Not a horse, not really... not totally, at least. Neither physically nor mentally. But I sure didn't feel completely human, and damned if I knew how close I was at this point. Was I more human, or more horse?
I hoped Linda would get back soon. Perhaps she would find some sort of answer for me.
In the meantime, I ambled over to the back door of the house and clumsily managed to turn the doorknob; my hands were almost useless, but at least they could still grip reasonably well. Edward didn't come running to chase me back out again, so I assumed he either didn't have a problem with me coming inside or was too tired to make an issue of it. So, moving my bulk as carefully as I could through the house, I went back into the living room to look around for myself while I waited.
The coffee table was covered with photo albums, of Linda, Edward, the Charger costume, and other equine paraphernalia. It was hard to focus my eyes on things that small and close, but not impossible; I spent a while seated on the carpet pawing through the albums with my clumsy forehooves. It felt a little like I had an entire second life history that I didn't remember, through that costume.
I shook my head with a quiet whuffle. It was Edward's costume, this was supposed to have been Edward's other life. But I was stuck with it now, and I had no idea what to do with it.
I set aside the albums, tired of manipulating the slippery plastic pages with those clumsy hoof-hands. There was a ton of other stuff in the room that I remembered seeing when I'd stopped by that morning, when I'd still been just human. The various pieces of tack and harness hanging from the walls took on an entirely new meaning to me now, however. I found myself imagining what it would be like to wear some of that stuff myself.
It was bondage gear, essentially. But it all seemed perfectly right for me.
My ears flicked to catch the sound of a car pulling up into the driveway, and I whickered gustily in relief; Linda was finally back. I got back up on all fours, wondering if perhaps I should get back outside again before she saw me in here, but then I shook my head and resolved to stay put.
Edward came downstairs just as Linda was unlocking the front door, yawning blearily; he must have dozed off somehow. He wakes up for Linda coming home but not for a horse stomping around in the living room, I thought, and chuckled under by breath with an amused swish of my tail.
Linda came in, hesitated with a surprised expression when she saw me standing in the foyer with Edward, then shook her head with a sigh. "You're not supposed to be inside," she reminded me, but refrained from telling me to leave. I was relieved, but I also whickered impatiently as I waited to find out what she'd discovered.
"Welcome back," Edward greeted, giving her a quick hug as he finished waking back up. "How are things down there?"
Linda tossed her hands in the air. "It's a madhouse. I'm really beginning to think there wasn't a horse show there after all, just some sort of weird freak show that went insane."
I snorted, caught halfway between a laugh and an impatient whinny.
"What about this other guy's car?" Edward prompted.
"I had a heck of a time getting back into the parking lot," Linda complained. "They weren't letting any cars in any more, I had to go in on foot. And there was this big rabbit... well, never mind, that's not really important. I think I found the car Charger was trying to get into, the one that was parked next to mine." She smiled at me with amusement. "It was easy to get into, someone smashed all the windows." I snorted again, this time torn between impatience and anger at the damage to my car. But Linda seemed to realize she was pushing her play too far, and pulled a crumpled sheet of paper out of her pocket. "Your car registration, I believe... Tom."
Tom? I sat down and took the paper in my hand, struggling to unfold it and peer at the tiny writing on it. I spotted the name, date of birth, home address. Mine, apparently. I flattened my ears against my skull and tried to frown, rolling the name around inside my head and trying make it stick to my human memories.
It could be me. There was no reason why it couldn't. But there was no "click" of sudden recollection, nothing falling into place.
Linda and Edward watched me silently as I cocked my head back and forth, examining the paper for any other details that could possibly help cement my identity in my head. Finally, I put my hoof back down on the floor with a frustrated grunt. I should have known it wouldn't be this easy, I berated myself. Damnit.
"Not Tom?" Edward asked.
"Don't know," I traced lightly on the carpet. "Doesn't feel..." I trailed off, unable to think of the right words to describe the hole in my mind that refused to accept my real name. Edward looked disappointed, and patted my shoulder sympathetically.
Linda suddenly looked hopeful. "Then maybe... Charger, after all?"
I whinnied angrily, causing both Linda and Edward to recoil in surprise, and almost stood right up to storm away; I only got the urge under control again at the last second before my head slammed into the ceiling, and I forced myself back down onto all fours. I wanted to pace, I wanted to run, but the house was far too small for me.
"Woah, there! Please, calm down!" Linda moved in close beside me, placing her hand firmly on my shoulder and trying to stroke me reassuringly. I nearly hit her... but just as suddenly as I'd got angry, I allowed myself to deflate again with a rueful sigh. She was only trying to make sense of where I fit into her world, after all; I knew she didn't mean to rub my nose in what I was going through. The human, Tom, or the horse, Charger? I knew who I had been, I didn't doubt that. But who was I now?
Linda continued rubbing my neck for a couple of minutes, letting me calm down and think for a while. Then, finally, she gave my neck an quick hug and stepped away again. "Oh, Edward, what are we going to do with him?" She sighed.
Edward shrugged. "I think we should ask him that himself."
Well, that certainly didn't help take any pressure off of my current state of mind! I shook my head, pawing wordlessly at the carpet with one hand while I tried to come up with something to say.
"How about we take you to the address on this form?" Edward suggested after a moment. "See if you can at least recognize the place."
Yes, that was a good idea. I nodded with a small relieved whinny.
"Well, alright," Linda agreed dubiously. "If you think that will help."
"I'll go and get a map."
Edward picked up the automobile registration sheet from where I'd dropped it and headed back upstairs again. Linda patted me on the shoulder again, giving me a reassuring rub. "So, you really think you're not Charger, then?" She asked gently. "Well, that's alright. I'll love you either way." I cocked my head at her and whickered uncertainly. She chuckled. "So, I guess Edward stripped you down and gave you a grooming while I was away, eh? He's very good, you know, I hope you liked it."
I drooped my head and gave an embarrassed little horsey grin. It had indeed been quite good, but I preferred not to think about that at the moment.
"So, I guess we're going to be taking another truck ride after all," Linda continued chattily. "I should probably get you dressed back up again, shouldn't I?" I nodded; the blanket hadn't been particularly concealing, but at least it was something. I would appreciate even symbolic clothing at this point.
Giving me a nudge to direct me into the living room along with her, Linda glanced around the room to take inventory of the gear hanging on the walls. I watched as she started taking down various pieces of tack, idly wondering where Edward took the things I had been wearing before. Linda finished piling various items on the couch, then picked up a long, broad leather strap. "Let's start with a girth," she mused out loud. "That'll look nice."
I arched my back slightly but otherwise held my four-footed stance while Linda looped the strap around my chest and buckled it tight. Then she took something that looked like a huge padded horseshoe and hung it over my neck, pulling it back to seat firmly against my shoulders and connecting it to the girth with short straps over my chest and down my spine. I was somewhat puzzled by the gear she was putting on me; this was very different from the blanket I'd had on earlier. But it was comfortable, so I decided not to object.
Then she picked up a bridle, much more substantial than the simple halter I'd worn earlier, complete with an actual metal bit. I whickered in displeasure and turned my head when she approached with it. "Aww, don't want?" She asked. I shook my head. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then sighed exaggeratedly and lowered the bridle. "Well, alright then." I nodded in satisfaction.
But then she reached into the pocket of her riding jacket and pulled out a small white cube. My mouth immediately began salivating, and I reached out my head to try snatching it with my lips. Linda grinned, pulling her hand away slightly to make me stretch a little further... and then, while I was distracted and vulnerable, she dropped the bridle down over my head.
I was too busy crunching the delicious sugar cube to react at first, and when it finally dawned on me how she'd tricked me again she had already pulled most of the buckles tight. I whuffled and stamped a forehoof in annoyance, giving my head another shake. But Linda ignored my objection with nothing more than a grin, pushing the bit into my mouth where it slipped securely into the gap between my front teeth and molars. My ears flicked back and I worked my lips frantically for a moment, trying to spit the metal bar out while reaching up to paw at the bridle with one hand.
Linda pushed my hoof away. "Sorry about that, Charger, but it goes with the ensemble," she murmured quietly while she worked. Once again, she seemed to be talking more to herself than to me.
It was probably a very good thing that Edward came back into the room at that point; he distracted me just on the edge of shoving Linda away and trying to paw the bridle off of my head. I turned to him and whinnied plaintively.
"Linda! What're you doing?"
"Just getting him kitted out for a public appearance," Linda shrugged. "He's being his usual obstreperous self, but I think I've got him in hand." She took firm hold of the bridle, giving it a little tug to test its secureness, and clipped a set of reins onto the ends of the bit. I harrumphed unhappily, but attempting to pull away was uncomfortable with her hold on that bit in my mouth and I yielded to her for the time being.
"Oh." Edward was momentarily nonplussed, but then seemed to shake off the thought and held up the map. "Found the address. We should probably go."
Linda nodded reluctantly. "Alright, I guess."
I nodded, much more eagerly. I hoped seeing my apartment would help set my mind at rest, at least a little bit. Taking me once more by the reins, Linda led me out the front door and to Edward's truck.
The journey was relatively uneventful, if that description could be considered appropriate. I lay quietly in the back of the pickup truck again, with nothing much to do or think about along the way; I didn't exactly dose off, but I might as well have.
And then we arrived, and made our way upstairs to the apartment whose address had been on the car registration. The carpeted stairs were a little awkward for me, even taking them on all fours, but nobody else was around so I felt comfortable taking my time climbing them.
Tom's apartment was indeed my apartment... or, at least, the apartment that I remembered living in. As I moved carefully on all fours through the rooms I felt an odd disjointed feeling. It was all familiar, but at the same time it didn't feel like I belonged there. This wasn't right either, it didn't feel like home.
"So... what do you think? Is this where you live?"
I glanced back at Edward as he waited by the hall door with Linda, trying to sort out my feelings. I nodded slowly. "I was Tom," I traced lightly on the carpet. Pause. "But..." I shook my head with a sigh, my bridle's fastenings jingling quietly. "What now?" I finished. "Can't stay here."
I grimaced inwardly at Linda's happy expression as she read that. But Edward put a hand on her arm, distracting her for a moment. "I, uh, know some horse people," Edward said. "I think I can arrange a place to stay, temporarily. If you want, that is, until you can find something more permanent..."
Linda started to object, but Edward gave her arm a warning squeeze and she decided to remain silent.
I idly worked the bit around a little with my tongue, thinking. I'd found my little black book of addresses next to the phone, and I was sure some of the people in it were the friends and family that I remembered from my life as a human. But I tried picturing myself going to them in my current state, trying to explain who I was and what I was feeling... it just didn't fit. Besides, what could they do for a horse?
I gave Edward a reluctant nod. I had no idea what a permanent solution to my problems may be; for all I knew I'd be back to normal tomorrow morning, all of this just a bad dream. But until then it was pretty clear that I didn't belong here in Tom's apartment, or in Tom's life. I had to accept these people's hospitality instead.
Edward coughed and then headed back out into the hallway. I followed along behind, letting him lead the way.