Panic. Where are we? What’s that noise?
A gasping breath. Blankets. A floor, carpeted. It’s our heart beating.
Thump-thump, Thump-Thump, THUMP-THUMP. Why is it so loud?
Not loud. Strong. Feel it? We are strong.
Wait a minute. “We?”
Yes, “we.” It is “our” heart, now, strong enough for two. Breathe, stretch our limbs, and see.
Clifford responded to the inner voice. Inhaling deeply, he extended his arms and legs experimentally. The stretch felt good, like his muscles had awakened from a deep sleep. But, when his legs and arms reached their fully extended length, the stretch…kept going.
Four muffled pops, like the first kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn, came from the direction of his knees and elbows. He felt all four joints separate. He groaned, more from alarm than pain. Another series of pops ran up his spine, rising in volume as they reached the vertebrae in his neck, where it sounded like someone was firing a gun next to his ear. He winced, emitting what sounded astonishingly like a yelp.
We are transforming. I am coming out.
Only if you resist. Let go. Let me come.
Striving to relax, Clifford gulped air and tried a long exhalation of breath. It came out as a scream, morphing into a howl, a strange, eerie melody backed by the wet, crackling percussion of sinew and bone lengthening and changing shape. His torso began to thrash uncontrollably, like a fish suddenly pulled from the water to wriggle and gasp on dry land.
And then, it was over. He lay on his side, panting. Yes…panting.
“Get up,” said a voice in his head. It sounded like Claire.
Clifford cut his eyes upwards. The face of Claire’s wolf filled his vision. She licked his snout. “Get up,” she repeated. “See how it feels.” Excitement resonated in her stance.
Clifford considered how he might manage getting to his feet. The wolf took over, and before he realized it, he was standing on four legs, looking down at her.
“So,” said her voice in his head, “how’s it feel?”
It felt right and wrong at the same time. He tried to communicate that to her, emitting a strange sound, something between a yawn and a yowl.
“Don’t try to speak. Just think the words…in my direction.”
“IT FEELS OKAY, BUT A LITTLE…” They both winced at the volume.
“Think the words more softly,” she said.
“SORRY, I…DAMN.” They both winced again. He took a breath and tried once more. “Sorry. It feels different, but okay.”
“That’s better. You got the volume under control pretty quickly, for the first time. It’ll get even easier with practice.”
“THERE’S TWO OF…sorry…two of us…inside me.”
“There always was. Now you are aware of each other. For the most part, your human self is in control, but in this form you have to let your wolf do the things you can’t, like move your body around.”
“I want to…I mean, we… want to…go outside.”
She chuckled. “I’m not surprised. Let’s go for a run. It’s dark now. It should be relatively safe.”
He turned for the door.
“Not that way,” she said. “We’ll take the balcony.”
Claire padded over to the wall switch and nosed the lights off. Expecting the room to be plunged into darkness, Clifford was amazed to find he could see quite well. “WOW,” he gasped. “I mean, this is amazing. I can see!”
“Oh, this is nothing. You just wait.” She trotted towards the back of the living room, grasped a cord dangling beside the curtains in her mouth, and pulled. The curtains opened to reveal a sliding glass door to a balcony facing the rear of the building and overlooking the adjacent greenway. Cautiously, she pulled the door open.
Senses Clifford didn’t know he had, were assaulted as the night air wafted into the apartment. A thousand sounds and…smells! He raised his snout and inhaled. Oh, my God! He’d had no idea. He sneezed. A strange sensation tickled at his spine as Claire gave a mental giggle.
“Told you,” she gloated, stepping outside. “Follow me.”
She leapt over the rail. Clifford squeezed his bulk through the doorway - his body was much larger than he realized – and looked over the railing to see Claire’s wolf peering up at him from two stories below.
He hesitated. He didn’t want to look like a wimp, but it seemed like quite a jump. But before he could voice his reservations, his wolf leapt from the balcony. For a moment, he hovered in the air, until gravity took over and the ground rushed to meet him. He landed with a soft grunt, none the worse for wear.
Oh, God, this was cool as shit. A sensation his body could not contain rose in his chest. He raised his snout in the air to release it.
Claire’s shout gave him pause. He cocked his head at her.
She laughed. “You were about to howl. That would freak out everyone in the apartment complex. Curb your enthusiasm and come with me.” She turned and loped off towards the trees.
Something akin to an itch shivered up his spine. When it reached his skull, he twitched slightly. His head shook, and suddenly his whole body followed, jowls, ears, and loose skin flailing at the air for a few seconds, until the spasm passed back along his spine and disappeared out the tip of his tail.
What a sensation! Suppressing yet another urge to howl, he bounded after Claire. In just a few strides he reached the edge of the woods, where she sat on her haunches waiting for him. He skidded to a halt beside her, nearly crashing into a tree. Regaining his balance, he turned to face her, and sat on his haunches. A rhythmic rustling sound caught his attention.
“What’s that noise?” he asked.
She laughed again. “That’s your tail. It’s wagging.”
He looked over his shoulder and confirmed her observation. Bare earth was exposed where the appendage had swept away the dead leaves and other humus. “It won’t stop,” he complained.
“Don’t worry about it,” she laughed. “Let’s sneak down the hill, here, and make sure no humans are along the greenway. If it’s clear, we’ll stretch our legs a bit.”
She moved silently through the underbrush. He followed her, making much more noise.
“I don’t feel like I’m ‘sneaking’ very well,” he whispered.
“You’re doing better than you think,” she replied. “It will suffice for our purposes tonight. We’ll have to work on your skills before we go hunting, but I will teach you.” They’d reached the bottom of the hill, yards away from the jogging trail. “Wait here, while I check it out.”
He plopped down on his belly, resting his snout on his forepaws, as she disappeared silently into the foliage ahead. The rich aroma of the forest floor filled his sinuses, and he sneezed again. His head jerked up and his ears pricked at the sound of some small animal rustling in the leaves a short distance away. He inhaled its musky odor and was able to locate the little field mouse trembling in frozen fear under his gaze.
His mouth watered. Could he catch it? He leapt to his feet, and the mouse scampered for its life. He bounded after it, closing the distance in a single stride. He had it! But his jaws snapped on empty air just before his snout slammed into the earth at the base of a large tree, where the creature had disappeared into its burrow.
Frustrated and whining, he began digging furiously at the hole with his forepaws in an effort to widen the opening. The mouse was only inches away. He could smell it.
“Hey, what’s going on back here?”
Claire’s mental voice startled him. He jumped back from his task, feeling sheepish. “Uh…”
Her laughter tickled his spine. “Having an issue with a rodent?”
He sneezed, and she laughed again.
“I got a little carried away,” he admitted.
“But…I almost had it! I was, like, way over there, and it was just a few feet away from this hole, yet I almost caught it!”
“I’m sure,” she chuckled.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Of course I believe you. Don’t pout. Your wolf instinctively knew you had a chance of getting it. Physically, anyway. Problem is, neither of you yet have the necessary skills…or judgment. And you expended more energy digging that hole than you would have gained from eating the tiny morsel had you caught it.”
She trotted over to him. “Bend down here a second.”
He crouched. She reached up and began licking at his muzzle. He jerked his head back. “What are you doing?”
“You’ve got dirt all over your snout. Hold still.”
He complied with her wishes as best he could, but his body could barely contain itself. His ears pricked constantly at the plethora of sounds around him, and his nostrils flared at scent after scent wafting on the breeze. After seconds that seemed like hours, she stopped.
“Okay, I guess that will have to do. You look like you’re about to explode. We need to find you some open space. Follow me.”
He loped after her. They left the trees to follow a jogging trail for a hundred yards or so before she turned into the woods again. Since Clifford had spent a lot of time in the greenway, he was vaguely aware of where they were; but, he was observing with such unfamiliar senses that he couldn’t be sure of their exact location, until they emerged from the forest at the edge of a large field he recognized.
Often on weekends, this field was divided into two roughly-regulation-size soccer fields for use by the local Latino leagues. Even though he didn’t understand the rules, Clifford had enjoyed watching the games before, marveling at the skills of the men who played with such passion, despite their aging, beer-gutted bodies.
The field was deserted now. He and Claire were alone. The moon had yet to rise, and they’d not likely be seen by human eyes. He could contain himself no longer. He didn’t even check with Claire to see if it was okay. He felt her mental laughter recede into the distance behind him as he took off.