The first time I woke up, I felt even worse than when I went to bed. There was no more nausea, but I ached all over, and somehow felt both light-headed and as if my head was packed with cotton. I remembered a line from an old sitcom: "My hair hurts." There was a nasty taste in my mouth, and I couldn't stand the smell of myself.
I threw on a robe and staggered across the hall into the bathroom.
After the necessities, I studied my reflection. Knowing it was too soon made no difference; I couldn't resist looking for changes. There was nothing visible beyond a reasonable doubt, so I returned to my room, where I found my solid gray cat making burying motions on my bed.
"Thanks for that vote of approval, Vladimir."
I changed the bedding, glad that I was only messing up sheets in the heat of summer, and jotted my inconclusive observations on the night-stand notepad. Then it was time for another unappetizing power bar, a barely tolerable energy drink, and another sleeping pill, and I went back to sleep.
The next time I woke up, it was more of the same. When I looked in the mirror, I was pretty sure that my ears were stretching and migrating up the sides of my head. The roots of my medium brown hair were showing a lighter color. A pair of lumps were forming high on my forehead. My feet seemed longer, and the nails of my toes and fingers had fallen out.
On my third awakening, I crossed paths with Dad on my way to the bathroom. He asked, "How you feeling, son?"
"Remember last year, when we made venison sausage?"
"Well, that's something like how I feel: all chopped up and rearranged, with added ingredients. But the process isn't over yet. And Dad?"
"I have a hunch I might want to stay out of the woods during hunting season, this year."
"You could be right about that, son."
Carefully not looking at the mirror just yet, I climbed into the shower and started washing up. I noticed that my big toes were shrinking, and the middle two of the other four toes on each foot were becoming longer. They, and the bones leading out to them, were also becoming much thicker. It looked like the ends of the toes would soon be encased in dark brown hooves.
Similar, but far less drastic, changes were showing in my hands. The middle and ring fingers were only thickening a little bit –– at least, so far. The nails of those fingers were assuming a strange teardrop shape.
The first thing I noticed about my reflection was that the roots of my hair were rapidly growing out in a bright shade of orange that looked like it was probably fluorescent. My ears were getting longer and higher, and my face was apparently being stretched forward a little bit. The bumps on my forehead were definitely looking like the sort of lumps that antlers grow from.
It seems funny to use the word "routine" when I talk about my body changing so much, but that's what those days were. Wake up, clean up, map the changes, remake the bed, dose up, and go back to sleep.
When I woke up the sixth time, it was Saturday. I knew it was afternoon by the angle of the sunbeam coming through the gap in the curtains to cast light on the book Mom was reading as she sat next to the window in my desk chair. Something felt different when I turned my head, and I put a hand to my forehead. Sure enough, a pair of velvety antlers were growing from the lumps. They were warm to the touch, and as firm as bone at the base, but still as flexible as cartilage at the points.
I sighed and said, "So much for combat archery!"
Mom looked up and laughed, "What?!"
"Well, these things will make it mightily difficult to wear the required helmet, will they not?"
"They will, at that. I guess it'll be strictly target archery for you, now, Lord Conrad."
I liked the sound of that title, and I knew that was why she'd said it. My AoA was only about a month old, after all. I smiled. "Yes, Your Ladyship." It was an unusually formal way to address my own mother, but it was one way to acknowledge that she'd had her Laurel (or, more properly, her membership in the Order of the Laurel) for several years.
She smiled back at me. "So, if you can joke and make a stab at speaking forsoothly, I hope you're feeling better?"
"Some, but I don't think I'm quite finished yet. I still feel a little off."
She stood up. "I'll get out of your way and let you do what you need to. We can talk later," she said as she left the room.
I had to cautiously duck, going through doorways and climbing into the shower. In the shower, I had to be careful how I tilted my head. My antlers kept hitting the shower head or the sides of the shower stall, and I had to grit my teeth against the swear words that I knew my mother would have no trouble hearing. It was going to take some getting used to. Before I stepped out of the stall, I spent a minute or two using my hands to squeegee most of the water out of my pelt so a towel could make a good start at drying it.
My self-examination, begun while I was showering, showed that the transformation to my new cervine (a word I looked up later) form was progressing. My feet were shaped even more like the cloven hooves of a deer, and my body was covering itself with short tawny hair. Most of it was a blend of different colored hairs, somewhere between the reddish brown summer phase and the gray-black-brown winter phase. My crotch and belly, under my jaw, and a band arching across the bridge of my dark nose were nearly white.
I suspected my antlers weren't finished growing, but they were the forked-horns (nobody, but nobody, says, "two-point", though some say 2x2) of a young adult. I guessed they would end up a little over a foot above my head when they finished. The shape of my head wasn't changing as much as my feet were. There was a noticeably stretched muzzle, but not much of one. I wasn't sure where they drew the line between partial and absolute, but I guessed I was on my way to being classed as an absolute deer hybrid. Blacktail, complete with the short tail starting to grow its own brush of hair; black on top, and white on bottom.
When I returned to my bedroom, Mom had already changed the bedding, and I thanked her for it. I noticed belatedly that the bed was pulled back from the wall, and learned that Dad had enlisted some of my relatives to help him move the bed while I slept, in order to make room for my antlers. There was an additional bottle next to the energy pack portion on the night stand. I picked it up and saw that it was calcium supplement.
In answer to my raised eyebrow, Mom said, "When I saw the direction your morf was taking, I did some research. Antlers that grow and harden at the normal rate, over a few months, used to be the fastest-growing healthy bone tissue known to man. At the rate yours are going, they'll be fully grown by the time you finish stage two. They'll probably be fully hardened soon after, catching up to the season. Deer often rob minerals from their skeletons while they're producing their antlers, and then have to make it up in their diets later. Scientists call it 'resorption'. I don't know how much of what is in that energy pack, but there’s no harm in taking extra calcium for a while. I'd rather you flush out any excess than develop osteoporosis, even if it's only temporary."
I didn't see any reason to argue with her (not that there's ever any future in that), so I took several calcium tablets with my prescription stuff, and we wished each other good night. She closed the curtains, then shut the door behind her; Vladimir could use the pet door I'd installed in it some time before.
I woke up the next day feeling clear headed and free from aches and pains.
My self-inspection during and after my shower found that, while my feet had become deer hooves and my thighs were a couple inches shorter, the proportions of my legs were still more human than cervine. The middle and ring fingers of each hand, when held together, bore a distinct resemblance to a miniature hoof, but they were still separate and they still flexed normally. The nails of the index finger and pinky were also hooflike in material, with the small oval cross-section of dew claws. My thumbnails had the shape of normal human thumbnails, but they were thicker and had the same burnt umber color as the hooves. I smiled when I discovered retractable claws, also dark brown, hidden under those thumbnails. The thumbs, themselves, still looked and functioned like thumbs instead of dew claws, for which I was glad. Thumbs are good.
Almost my whole body was covered with standard-looking deer hair. Later, I could check to see if it provided extra insulation by being hollow. On closer examination, I saw that there was a dense, soft undercoat like Vladimir's. I had a feeling that I would be dressing lightly in all but the coldest weather.
I saw that my muscles had toned up, and in some places built up. My neck was a lot stronger than it ever was before, and noticeably longer. My nose and mouth were stretched into a muzzle about half as long as a deer's would be, but my profile was still more that of a human than a deer, until you got to the totally deer-like ears perched a few inches above their original locations. They were ovals, about eight inches long, angled outward like the arms of a capital "Y". My antlers leaned back and out over my ears, branching forward and curving in toward each other. Combine them with my longer neck and the fact that I was standing on the toes of stretched feet, and I was going to have to watch out for doorframes and light fixtures. The orange portion of my hair had grown out several inches. I was going to need a trim.
In nature, you can get a pretty good idea of where an animal sits on the food chain by looking at how the eyes are placed on the head. The predator has its eyes mounted parallel, on the front of its head, so that binocular vision gives it good depth perception when it attacks. The prey has its eyes mounted on the sides of the head, aiming away from each other, so that peripheral vision lets it see the predator coming from almost any direction. There are degrees between the extremes, of course.
My eyes were now angled slightly away from each other, giving me a slightly wider field of vision with a slightly narrower binocular overlap. They were the same brown color they'd always been, but maybe a touch larger.
When I got back to my bedroom, I found the bed made and a pair of shorts, with a brand new zipper-closed keyhole opening for my tail, laid out. The most comfortable underwear I could find to wear over my tail was a jock strap. I put on that, the shorts, and a green T-shirt that said, "Heralds don't pun, we CANT." It was a little tight across the shoulders, and I'd had to carefully stretch the neck to feed my antlers through. I suspected that I wouldn't be able to do that in later years when my antlers were bigger.
I ducked out the door and headed down the hall. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen. I thanked Mom for making my bed and altering the shorts, and mentioned how glad I was that the architect for our house had gone back to the old higher ceilings. I was also glad we didn't have any dangling light fixtures.
"So, we were right? You're done with stage two?"
"Yeah, I feel fine. Different, but fine. What's for breakfast?"
They were sitting at the breakfast bar, and Mom gestured at the large bowl of hot cereal waiting for me. (Fortunately, the overhead cupboard was on the kitchen side, but I still had to be careful of my antlers.) With a big glass of orange juice, some more calcium tablets, and a couple bananas, I should last until lunch.
Dad said, "We didn't know how your new body would handle meat, eggs, or dairy products, so we thought we'd play it safe for now. You need a few good meals in you before we experiment with any foods that an herbivore might not tolerate."
I nodded. "Sounds like a plan to me. I'm hungry!"
"There speaks a normal teenaged boy!"
Conversation was pretty much one-sided for a while. And contrary to certain wild allegations by my father, no sparks have ever been generated by my spoon. I listened, and nodded at the appropriate times. Mom began by telling me that they'd made a Monday post-MORFS appointment for me, and we needed to do some shopping before then. I took a moment to hold a lock of hair in front of my eyes with a two-finger scissor grip.
She nodded. "Okay. First stop, the barber. Then we need to get you some clothes, starting with underwear and pants, and something to keep your feet from slipping on hard floors. It's a good thing the weather lets us drive the convertible with the top down. There's not . . ."
At a glance from Dad, she cut off whatever she was about to say, and switched over to, "There's not much time til school starts. We might as well see what supplies we can take care of while we're out."
While I was rinsing my dishes, I asked if Uncle Fred had called while I was morfing.
Dad asked, "Do you mean Fred Buchannon, or Laird Kentigern MacFadden?"
"Both, really. I sent him the stills of the griffin just before I went to bed last week, and I haven't checked my e-mail yet."
I could hear the laughter in Mom's voice as she scolded me. "You're a wicked young man, Jason Buchannon. He'll be chomping at the bit, waiting to see the whole thing."
"I left a copy of it, right there on top of my desk."
"Did you tell anyone? Or at least leave a note? And how hard would it have been, to just send him the video clip along with the stills?"
"I had a few things on my mind at the time."
"A convenient excuse."
"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. On another note, did Tabitha call while I was out of it?"
"Not until last night. It seems she was down with MORFS at the same time, and finished her change late yesterday afternoon. She's a hybrid now, too, and she knows that you are. I didn't tell her what kind of hybrid you are, and stopped her from telling me what kind she is. What's life without a few surprises? Her appointment is at about the same time as yours. Maybe if you call her, she can meet us at the shopping center this afternoon."
She grinned as I hurried back to my bedroom. I bumped my antlers painfully against the doorframe when I didn't duck low enough, going through the door. I swore, but stifled it before I grabbed my mobile phone from its charging cradle and hit the speed-dial. It was answered on the first ring.
"Jason! Your mom told me you had MORFS at the same as I did! How weird is that?"
"It's pretty unusual. It's also convenient. We don't have to take turns waiting for each other."
"Right. We don't lose any precious time together, embarrassing my little brother and worrying our parents."
"That's the plan. Speaking of plans, what are you doing this afternoon?"
"What did you have in mind?"
"Lunch, and shopping. Care to meet us?"
"In a public place? With chaperones? You're no fun!" she teased.
"Later for that. Wanna come?"
"But you just said . . . !" After a moment's laughter, she said, "Fine. And as long as I won't have you to myself, anyway, . . How about I see if any of the others can show up?"
"Sure, why not? They can meet the two latest morfs of the class of '33."
We agreed on a restaurant and time, subject to parental decree. Changes to be coordinated. After our goodbyes, I told Mom the plan. She said that it would be just us going; Dad had something else he needed to do.
Soon, we were on our way. A brand-new back cushion, hanging from the head rest by an adjustable strap, let me sit back and still have space for my tail. It felt strange having the wind rushing past my ears and the velvet of my antlers. It was even stranger to be so aware of all the different scents in the air. I realized that, if I tried, I could identify the separate odors the way a music lover can train his ear to recognize the separate instruments of an orchestra.
First stop, the local barbershop. Before ducking through the door, I saw that the folding arm of the door closer was an added obstacle. As I ducked inside, Milt turned toward the door, saw Mom behind me, and asked, "Bucky?"
I nodded. "The one and only." I did the scissor-finger thing again. "Can I get a trim?"
He shook himself. "I don't mean to stare, but that's quite a change, young man. I take it you just finished?"
"Yes, this morning. I need something like the usual, if that's not a problem."
"I can see that you still have hair that needs cutting. Why should I turn away a customer? Especially as a friend of the family? Now, you want it clear of the eyes, and the rest manageable?"
He adjusted the chair as low as it went, and set to work. Soon, my hair was in order. It took him a little more time and effort, working around the ears and antlers. When he had it cut to my liking, he asked, "Are you sure you don't want me to dye it back to a natural color for you? Like black or brown?"
"It's not a natural color, but that's exactly why I think we should leave it as is."
"Uh, yeah, I see your reasoning, and I can’t argue."
Mom left him a nice tip for the extra bother, and we were out the door.
"Okay, Jason, it's time to get you some new clothes."
"Not quite yet."
"I don't know if you noticed, but there was a moment in there when I almost slipped and fell. I think we need to see about footwear before I go walking into just any store."
"I noticed, but I thought I should let you bring it up."
Only a few blocks from the hospital was a shoe store with a custom cobbler. The old craft had almost died out, but MORFS gave it new life. There was a continual supply of customers whose feet didn't fit into mass-production shoes. Some general morf types were common enough for limited runs of certain shoe designs to be made, but others had to be built from the sole up.
When we walked into the shop, the cobbler looked down at my feet and grunted, "Huh."
He looked up and smiled. "Hello. Will you be needing shoes for wearing on hard flooring? School, gym class, out and about?"
"Yes, exactly. What do you have?"
"Nothing in the way of shoes as such, I'm afraid. You can special-order some styles," he handed over a brochure, "but I warn you they are a bit expensive. We have something else that you may prefer."
He pointed to a small display near the counter. "With all the farms and pastures and woods around here, and a private school with equestrian arts in its curriculum, not to mention the various fairgrounds and rodeo arenas, there are bound to be some hooved morfs. Especially equines and bovines, but not just them. Fortunately, morfs with hooves of one type or another are common enough that I've been able to find a supplier making overhooves.
"These were inspired by the old-fashioned rubber overshoes that slip over regular shoes to provide traction and water protection. They slip on over your hooves to provide safe traction and to protect floors. You can carry a bagged pair in a belt pouch, purse, or schoolbag, ready when needed. They come in a few basic shapes, a range of sizes, and three standard colors: black, brown, and white. I've also stocked local school colors for gym class. Even black has a sole that's approved for gymnasium floors."
"How many white pairs do you sell?" Mom asked.
"You might be surprised. A lot of them go to medical workers and hospital employees."
"There are that many?"
"Yes. They generally work in MORFS clinics and other places where the bigots won't see." He turned back to me. "What would you like?"
They mostly reminded me of the caps I'd seen on some chair legs and crutches, with differences in shape and proportion. But, they seemed quite practical and the prices were reasonable. "Well, since I only just finished my change, I don't know my size yet. So, I guess that's the first order of business, and then we'll see what you have that fits."
We ended up getting one pair each of three different colors, for everyday, dress up, and gym: brown, black, and, believe it or not, orange. We also got a pamphlet about a custom glove service available through a work-clothing store in Salem.
From there, we finally moved on to the first clothing store. We were not impressed with the selection of pants and shorts supposedly made to accommodate tails. Most of them looked like the stores or manufacturers had taken the rejects from their regular lines, and had minimum-wage temps slash holes in them that got hap-hazardly hemmed. There was scant acknowledgment that not all tails are alike. I noticed Mom carefully examining the better-made ones that they wanted the proverbial arm and leg for.
I whispered to her, "With your experience making garb for the S.C.A., you could probably do a lot better than these!"
"Yes, darling, I'm sure I could. However, that would take more time than I can spare right now, so we need to get you at least a few pair to start with. And while we're here, it wouldn't hurt to have you re-measured for shirt size. That looks like it’s changed, as well."
We left that store with a few pairs of gym shorts, a couple shirts, and an orange, black and silver windbreaker with a Silverton Foxes logo on it. We would keep looking after lunch, and return if we had to.
The restaurant was a fast-food place catering mostly to the vegetarian market. There was no inside seating, and I was glad to not have to duck through another doorway. We got our veggie-burgers at the window, then found seats at a picnic table. Not all of the tables were covered by the awning, but it didn't much matter in that weather.
I was looking around among the other customers, when I my ears pivoted toward a familiar voice behind me.
* * *
The entire MORFS Universe can be found at http://morfs.nowhere2go.org/