By the Horns
A "Winds of Change" Story
Breathe. Just breathe. I repeated the words silently to myself as I sat on the bench, doubled over and holding my ankles. I had to keep calm, but it was hard to put one's head between one's knees when one's thighs were so much shorter than a normal human's...
I felt Brian's taloned hand on my shoulder, and looked up. He, Maxine and Kim were all watching me carefully, as if I was about to lose it or something. "Are you all right?" Brian asked softly. "Do you want to get outside?"
I shook my head. "No. I'm all right. Just give me a moment," I gasped raggedly.
"What's wrong?" Maxine asked, concerned. I didn't reply immediately, so Brian took her aside to quietly explain my problem as delicately as he could. I didn't pay attention, returning to my breathing exercises. It was getting easier to think as I calmed myself down.
I chuckled bitterly under my breath. Last night, after talking with Dad, I thought I had worked everything out. I had resolved to try to find this bull by myself after we had finished with Maxine. I would confront it, confront my fear, and in that dramatic final confrontation I would finally get over it. Perhaps I could even cure the bull while I was at it, too.
But all that had been abruptly short-circuited, my plan ruined, my resolve in tatters. I clenched my fists, surprised that I was actually angry at Maxine and Brian for doing this. I knew it was irrational, they couldn't have possibly known, but how the hell was I supposed to defeat my fear with them being so supportive? I was supposed to be doing this myself!
Drawing a shuddering breath, I stood up and walked slowly back to the Barn's entrance. Brian and Maxine fell silent as they watched me go, and I silently tried to ignore their gaze. Instead I focused on Maxine's brother, standing quietly in his stall, chewing his cud with a blank expression on his face. My heart pounded and I felt the desperate need to hide, to push that face back out of my head, but I held my ground. Though the moment of the Change kept replaying in my mind over and over again, the moment when I had failed Brian and run away when he needed me was also equally prominent. I didn't want to do that again.
"Tim," I said quietly. The bull paid absolutely no attention. I cleared my throat and tried calling his name more forcefully. Still not a flicker of recognition.
"He doesn't hear you," Maxine told me gently, though I could hear an edge of anguish in her voice. "I've tried so hard to get through..."
Brian cut her off with a supportive shoulder-squeeze. "Don't worry. Bryan has... special talents," he told her. "He just might be able to do it." Then he nodded at me supportively, too. "No pressure. There's no hurry."
This time, I added silently, looking away from him in shame. I walked closer to the bull, twitching slightly but otherwise keeping a firm grip on myself. I would do this. I would prove, once and for all, that I could. I gripped the bars of Tim's stall to keep my hands from shaking, squatting down to his level, and looked straight into his terrifyingly dull, placid eyes. "Tim," I spoke again, the word resonating slightly inside my skull as I exerted my Power. "Tim, pay attention to me. Listen to my words. Hear them in your thoughts, not just your ears." It sounded stupid, like a line from Star Trek or something, but it had sometimes worked back in Morrisville. I drew another shuddering breath and went on, trying to get the part of Tim's mind that could understand me to hear my Power-enhanced words. If I could do that I might be able to force it to 'wake up' and take control, but I could only reach him if it was aware of me in the first place. It was a tricky situation...
Someone touched my shoulder. I glanced up and saw that it wasn't Brian, but Maxine; she started to smile and say something. But she was cut off by my reaction before she could even begin. I flinched violently away from her and, fell against the bars of the gate on Tim's stall, and then jumped just as violently away from that too. I wound up crouched against the far wall, heart pounding and panting hard, struggling to keep from changing reflexively to norm form. I knew I couldn't take something like that right now, it would be the final straw. Again.
Maxine looked almost as scared as I felt. "I'm sorry!" She cried. "Oh my god, what did I do? Are you all right?" Brian rushed in and tried to figure out who to calm down first; even Tim had been startled by my reaction, he had been a little nervous to begin with.
I slowly pulled myself upright, eyes wide and breathing hard. "Uh... I... have to go to the bathroom," I stammered, and before either of them could respond I hurried out the door. Behind me I heard Maxine plaintively ask Brian what she had done, and Brian began trying to explain it tactfully. I clenched my fists and hurried faster, trying to get out of earshot.
I had done it again. I had panicked and failed.
Thankfully the bathroom was empty as I stormed in and slammed the door; I really needed a little privacy right now. I had to work this out, and work it out now. I had to prove, once and for all, that I could face this...
"Damn it!" I yelled, kicking the garbage can across the small room. It made a satisfyingly loud clatter on the tile, and when it came to rest I kicked it again. Paper towels flew everywhere. I collapsed against the sink with a sob, my eyes clenched. What am I doing? I asked myself. This wasn't going to help anything. I had already run out on Tim, I had already failed. Getting angry wasn't going to change that. Wasn't going to change what I was.
I opened my eyes and looked at myself in the mirror. "Coward," I muttered. "Nothing but a goddamn coward..." I had wanted to prove to myself I could face my fear. I had done the exact opposite. If only Brian and Maxine hadn't interfered... I shook my head. "No excuses!" I told myself vehemently. "No more excuses! You lost..."
I hesitated, suddenly a little puzzled. Exactly who was I trying to prove myself to? What the hell did I want out of all this? I glared at my reflection. "So you proved you couldn't do it. Now you know that if Jack hadn't been around, Brian would have been lost. Would you have preferred to prove it back then, to have let him die? Is it worth Tim's life to finally prove it now?"
I paused as if waiting for a reply. I don't know what I expected; perhaps a voice in my head like Jon had, or something even more deeply meaningful like Reimer's reflection appearing in the mirror. That would have been pretty deep, all right. But no 'darker side' of myself made an appearance; it was just me. Just me.
Gripping the edges of the sink tightly, I stared at my image with building fury. "You planned to face that bull alone," I accused myself. "You weren't planning to tell anyone if you succeeded. You just wanted to prove it to yourself, didn't you?
You didn't care what anyone else thought, as long as you felt good about yourself. It's all about you, isn't it? Well, Maxine's out there right now, crying over her lost brother. She's just like you, she thinks it's her fault, she feels pain and guilt over it just as bad. You gonna ignore that because you finally got to prove that you 'just can't do it'? Does it make you feel better that way, with that excuse? Well Damn you!" I slammed my head into the mirror with all my might, ramming my own reflection. WHAM! "Bastard!" WHAM! "Get out there-" WHAM! "And do it!" WHAM! "For her sake!" WHAM! "And for Tim's!" WHAM!
I screamed in rage and continued hammering at the mirror until it was a solid white web of cracks, until splinters of glass began tinkling into the porcelain basin. I suppose Dr. Samuel would have had something psychological to say about how I was fighting 'myself', but I didn't care. I just did it. And whenI was finally finished, I had won.
Breathing heavily but standing straight, I stormed out of the bathroom and headed back up toward the barn. The rush of adrenaline was making me almost dizzy; if my Power had been more like Jon's, my horns would probably be glowing up in the ultraviolet right now. I was so psyched I felt like I was ready to explode.
As I burst through the doors and back into the room I almost ran straight into Brian; he hopped back and eyed me worriedly. "Bryan! Are you all right? I was just going to go looking for you..."
I nodded. "I'm all right. I'm ready now." Brian continued to watch me, concern evident even in his perpetually fierce expression, but I brushed past him. I didn't want to face him until I had finished what I needed to do.
Maxine was sitting in front of Tim's stall, her head in her hands and obviously on the verge of tears. I hesitated, guilt once again momentarily stabbing my heart. She looked up at me and flinched. "I'm sorry," she began.
I shook my head, cutting her off. "No, please don't say that. It's not your fault. I've... well, if anything it's my fault. I shouldn't have let my problems get in the way of helping Tim like that. I should have been more careful..."
Maxine nodded, wiping her eyes and getting up. "I understand. I'll wait outside, I'll stay away..." But I cut her off again, taking her arm and stopping her from leaving. I barely managed to avoid jerking my hand back from touching her, but I forced myself to plough onward without hesitating.
"Please don't go. I've got to get through to Tim's human mind, get its attention somehow. You were very close, weren't you?" Maxine nodded, her eyes tearing up again. Shouldn't have used the past tense I berated myself. "The people I've tried to help before were all yanked out of their normal lives, so many of the lost had no one who knew them to help me reach them... Maxine, please stay and help me remind him of who he is. You know what's important to him, what will catch his attention and make him remember. Will you help me?"
Maxine's face lit up. "Of course!" I smiled and pulled up a stool in front of the stall next to her's. We sat down, and I took a deep breath to prepare myself. The bull that had been Tim had been watching us with vague suspicion and nervousness; he must have been picking up on our emotions like crazy. I'd have to keep calm if I was to soothe Tim's animal side enough to get through it.
"Okay. Let's begin. Start by telling me some of the things that are familiar to him, as if you were trying to get him involved in a conversation..."
Maxine helped eagerly, hope for her brother at least partially restored by the mere fact that I was trying to help. As time passed I began to feel a little hope, too. Tim was occasionally looking at me, as if he were actually listening to what we were saying instead of just glancing toward the source of a meaningless noise. But as I continued to coax, cajole and plead with him to do more than that, I began to get frustrated. It was as if Tim just wasn't interested, or perhaps was actually hiding under the animal's thoughts. Maxine was starting to get run ragged by the stress from her hope and the increasing fear that it was going to be dashed again...
Finally, I had had enough. I stood up, leaned over the gate of Tim's stall, grabbed him by his horns and yanked his head up to look directly into his eyes. I think I surprised him very thoroughly, considering his lack of resistance and the almost stunned expression on his bovine face. I know I certainly surprised Maxine and Brian. But I was too angry to worry about that right now. "Listen to me!" I shouted at the bull, my horns pounding from the force I was throwing into my Power. "Pay attention! You see this woman here?" I shoved his head to the side to look past me at her. "That's Maxine, your sister! You may be content to cower in there forever, hiding from your problems, but look what it's doing to her! You care about her, you asshole! Tell her that! Wake! Up!"
Before I could say any more, Tim recovered from his surprise and with an angry grunt jerked his horns out of my hands. I nearly fell over the gate trying to hold on to them, but fortunately my grip failed before my balance did and I was left standing outside the stall. I turned away from Tim in disgust, shaking slightly from my exertion. Maxine watched with wide eyes, first me and then Tim. I fixed my stare at the stacks of small cages on the opposite wall, frustrated by my continuing failure to get through. I noticed that Kim was currently perched next to a cage containing someone stuck as a kingfisher, reminding me of her growing problem too. I was surrounded with problems. And it didn't help that everyone was staring at me...
...that is, staring past me, at Tim's stall. A deep, hoarse voice came from behind my back. "M-Maxine?"
I spun at the sound, jaw dropping, just as Maxine rushed past me. She hurdled the stall's gate and flung herself around the bull's neck. "Tim! Oh god, Tim!" The bull, whom I suddenly realized looked a little more like a bull-morph on its hands and knees now than he did a normal bull, automatically responded to the hug despite his confusion.
"Maxine?" He repeated. "What happened? My hand..." He stared at the hand on the end of the arm he had wrapped around Maxine's body, still looking more like a cloven hoof than anything else. "...And you? My god, are you all right?"
Maxine's reply was completely indecipherable. Tim looked around for some sort of clue as to what was going, saw Brian and I, and then obviously decided he was better off not asking anything for the moment. He instead returned his attention to comforting Maxine, holding her tightly as he tried to shift to a more comfortable kneeling position. He got a horn caught on one of her antlers, and she helped him get disentangled with a delirious laugh.
"Oh, Tim!" She sobbed. "It's such a long story. Everyone changed into something, only some people more than others, and you got changed most of all and you were stuck for months and I thought it was all my fault, but he came and helped me finally get you back to normal..." Tim's eyes glazed over a little from the torrent of explanation, and Maxine laughed again. "Oh, never mind! I'm just so glad you're back..." She hugged him again. Tim looked over her shoulder at me.
"Do I know you?" He asked suspiciously.
I smiled faintly. "Not really."
Tim snorted. "Good. I thought I might be going crazy."
I sat quietly outside in the hallway, extremely tired and wondering what to do next. I didn't have anything in mind at the moment. Lacking any better ideas, I was simply relaxing. I guess it was a reasonable thing to do after all that ad just happened...
The door into the Barn opened, and I glanced up to see Maxine coming out. "Maxine. Is Tim all right?"
She nodded. "Those interns are all over him and Brian's been trying to fill him in on what's happened; I just had to step out for a moment to get a breath of fresh air and clear my head a little. And I wanted to thank you." She walked over to my bench and began to sit down next to me. She froze halfway down, though, and then asked uncertainly "Uh... is this okay?"
"Is what okay?" Then I realized what she was worried about. "Oh! No, that's okay." She finished sitting down. "I'm really sorry I'm so... afraid of your Power," I mumbled. "It's unfair, I know you really wouldn't do anything to me with it... and I know what it's like to have people react like that to me, because of my power..."
"I think I understand," Maxine said reassuringly. After a moment's silence, she asked "By the way, is your nose all right?"
Puzzled, I touched the bridge of my muzzle. I felt dried blood in my fur, realized where it must have come from, and laughed. "Yeah, I just had a few issues to work out with myself. I'm okay now." She accepted that without further inquiry, and I was glad I didn't have to explain how I'd been banging my head against a mirror. I'd have to arrange to pay for the damage somehow, I reflected. Then I sighed, casting my gaze downward at my hooves. "But I'm still afraid..."
Maxine smiled. "That's okay. I once read that real bravery isn't not being afraid, it's being afraid and doing the right thing anyway. Thank you, Bryan."
"I... I..." I found myself at a total loss for words, and looked up searchingly into Maxine's eyes. Then, on impulse, I hugged her. Deep down my stomach gave a little flip of terror, but I didn't yield to it. I never would again.
Copyright 1997, Bryan Derksen
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