Being unconscious is a feeling I was getting too much unwanted experience in.
I remembered lying face down on the ground with a psychotic poacher standing on my back, a rifle to my head. That part was emblazoned in my mind with such detail I could still feel the gun nozzle behind my ear. I rubbed the spot to convince myself it wasn’t there.
Then I remembered the rangers, shot down like the animals the poachers were after. After that, I couldn’t remember anything. Tears welled up and flowed from my eyes uncontrollably, dampening my face.
I was supposed to be dead.
I closed my eyes, just concentrating on my breathing. I was lying down on my back, no longer outside. It was quiet with a warm a glow of light right above me.
I stared at the light dangling from a wrapped green wire. The physical shape of the bulb struck me as odd, ruling out the idea that maybe I was in a hospital. Instead of a fluorescent bulb it was shaped like a tubular lantern attached to another set of lanterns connected by the same green wire. It ran all around the room illuminating the place in succession.
The irregular ceiling curved with some attempt at a level surface, its dark brown and gray texture revealing I was in some kind of underground dwelling. The strange room came more into view. The carved walls showed more interest from their makers for a flat surface but the jagged stone allowed for only so much.
I let out a deep sigh, sitting up, studying my surroundings. The room was cozy with several cots lined up against one wall, mine being one of them. Jars of various shapes filled with unknown liquids and powders were scattered on every shelf and table with obvious order to them. It looked more like an alchemist lab than a doctor’s office. Either way, it certainly much better than the predicament I had been in just a few moments before.
Well, it felt like it was only a few moments.
I climbed off the cot, exploring the empty room with the strange furniture and even stranger concoctions. All the furniture was hand-made from found material in the woods. There were few metal tools and even they had a crafted look about them.
I felt a little uncomfortable snooping around so went for the nearest door. That part was easy since there was only one leading in or out. It was a rounded wood door with metal studs holding it together, a medieval design that strangely didn’t look out of place. I figured the best thing to do was to go looking for whoever brought me here.
I still had to reach the rangers’ headquarters and warn them about the now homicidal poachers roaming the area. If they weren’t dangerous then they were so now with bodies to prove it.
As I reached for the door, I was greeted by a figure standing in the corner. I jumped, startled by my companion.
“You’re pretty big for a rat,” I said, amazed at its size. “Could you tell me where I am?”
The figure did not speak instead continuing to stare. She was covered in light brown fur with an even lighter brown muzzle, wearing a white tank top and had shoulder length red hair.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that it’s rude to stare?” I replied. Again, there was no answer, but her mouth moved without saying anything. I walked towards the rat whose unusual size didn’t quite register in my head. The rat should be about five foot five according to what I was seeing.
What a ridiculous notion. I’ve never heard of a rat that big. Of course not. That’s because there’s no such thing.
“Can you at least tell me your name?” I was determined to get an answer. The rat mouthed something only doing so when I spoke. I raised my hand to brush my bangs out of my face.
The rat did the same thing.
I froze at the sight. Disbelieving what was beginning to come together, I opened my mouth in an exaggerated manner, closing it quickly.
The rat followed suit movement for movement.
I raised my hand. So did my counterpart. My knees wobbled underneath me. In a vain attempt to keep standing I grabbed the table next to me, sending it over with me along with it. A huge crash echoed through the room as jars shatters and metal tools bounced with a ringing noise. I hit the dirt floor, my body shaking uncontrollably. That was no rat I was looking at and talking to. I was looking in a mirror.
I clutched myself, feeling the soft fur that now covered my body. My hands were paws with sharp little claws ending each digit. I traced the long muzzle that was now my face and the sensitive whiskers that sprouted from my snout. The moment was too surreal for me to handle.
I started screaming, tearing at myself. I didn’t know what I was trying to accomplish except maybe to wake up from this horrible nightmare. I wanted to be home, back in my own bed like none of this ever happened.
In my fit, I didn’t feel the two arms wrap around me. The crash has attracted whatever attention and they were now in the room trying to calm me down. I felt myself being pinned, more to keep myself from thrashing than in an attempt to do me harm.
“Breathe!” I heard a female voice yell in my ear. “Just breathe and calm down… yes… that’s it… just like that.”
With each word I slowed down into what felt like a catatonic state. My mind was blank, my only concern to not end up hyperventilating. The gentle, concerned female voice continued talking me thorough my panic attack until I was just a heavy breathing pile of nerves.
My eyes began to focus and that’s when I saw the first one. He was a squat little mouse with scraggly yellowish fur that at one time may have been pure white. He had on a green and brown tunic with his face framed by a pair of thick, green glass spectacles.
He took my hand, feeling for my pulse, placing a crude stethoscope to my chest. My heart must have sounded like a hummingbird. The knock on the door sounded like drums in my ears.
“Just hold on to her until she calms down a bit more,” the mouse said as he went to answer it. “She should be fine in a couple of minutes.”
Fine? I thought. Fine? This is fine? I looked over to the person holding me. She was a gray rat dressed in a plain white tunic. She held me gently, rocking a me as if I were a child. In a strange sense, I was.
She smiled when our eyes made contact but no words came out. I was terrified to talk as if doing so would reinforce the moment. I didn’t want it to be real. Making it so would mean accepting I was a rat of all things.
Why won’t I wake up and get this over with?
The door opened with a slow creak, the mouse stepping outside into the hallway.
“Is she okay?” another voice asked. “I got word she didn’t wake up in the best of moods.”
“Physically she is fine,” the mouse answered. “But considering the circumstances, I can’t be too sure. We can only guess what’s going through her head right now.”
“Maybe I should go in and see her.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Like you said Mr. Ages. We can only guess what’s she’s going through.”
There was an uncomfortable pause. “Just be careful with her.”
The door creaked again, this time with someone coming in. At this size, no one looked familiar. The figure came over, kneeling before me. It took a while for me to realize who it was.
“Justin?” My voice was barely a hoarse whisper.
The rat smiled. “I was afraid you wouldn’t remember me.”
The memories started coming back in tattered fragments. “You pushed the gun out of the way didn’t you? I… I’m dead…”
“Supposed to be,” Justin answered. “I refused to let that happen. I did what I could.”
The nurse’s hold relaxed, allowing me to touch my new face. “What happened to me?” I stuttered. “What did you do to me? What did you do?” My voice started to go up in pitch. “I am not a rat! I am a human being for Christ’s sake! A human being!”
I clutched myself again, my claws digging into my arms. The nurse grabbed me and Justin pulled my hands away.
“Don’t you hurt yourself!” Justin commanded. “I didn’t do this to you. It was the Stone.”
I stopped, staring at him through wide, tearing eyes. Satisfied that I wouldn’t scratch at myself, he let go of my hands, reaching for something at the back of his neck. A golden chain appeared as he pulled the loop over his head. A gold ring with a red sparking stone embedded in the center appeared from under his shirt. He dangled the radiant jewel before me.
“The Stone did it,” Justin answered softly. “I don’t know how. I can’t even tell you the precise moment.”
I reached out for the Stone, feeling its weight in my hands. It felt warm to the touch and twinkled in the light. My distorted reflection appeared in the curved surface. I turned it over, revealing the inscription on the back.
You can unlock any door if you only have the key.
Justin continued. “All I remember is suddenly there you were no longer in your human form. I just grabbed you and ran off. I’m not sure if the poacher followed us or not.”
Poachers. Now I remembered. And now they were the furthest thing from my mind.
“Will it change me back?” I asked, tears rolling down my face.
Justin shook his head. “I don’t know. I have no idea how it works, only that it does. Maybe when the time is right, the Stone will decide.”
That was not the answer I wanted to hear.
I sat on the floor quietly, still in shock from the whole ordeal. I didn’t know which was worse, having my life threatened by poachers or remaining a rat for the rest of my life. I closed my eyes, breathing heavily.
The nurse rat let me go. She was a little unsure what to do next. One thing was for certain, I couldn’t stay lying on the floor all night. Justin turned to the little mouse he called Mr. Ages. They walked over to the corner of the room, speaking low enough that I couldn’t hear, not that I was listening anyway.
“I am so tired…” I whispered through sobs.
“Poor thing,” the nurse replied as she helped me to my feet. “You’re exhausted. We’re going to have to find a proper bed for you. These cots aren’t the most comfortable things to stay on too long.”
Mr. Ages heard the nurse speaking. “I want her to get some food into her system first,” he replied. “A little soup will settle her nerves.” He then turned back to Justin. “Do you have someplace quiet she can stay in until morning? With all this broken glass that needs to be cleaned up, I don’t want her to sleep here.”
Justin nodded. “I arranged for Nancy to take her in, but it’s too late to ask now. It’s what, midnight? Almost one o’clock in the morning? I don’t want to disturb her. I can take her to my room for the night. I’ll sleep on the couch and she can have my bed. We can settle everything in the morning.”
“First make sure she eats,” Mr. Ages warned as he waved a finger. “I don’t know what she did when she was human but she’s a little on the skinny side for a rat.”
“I’ll have someone heat up something for her.”
My new legs needed a little getting used to. The nurse held me up as I regained my balance. When I thought I was still human, I was walking around without a problem. Now that I knew I was physically different, I was having difficulty dealing with the adjustments.
“Do you need me to come along?” the nurse asked Justin as she led me to him.
Justin turned to me. “I’m not sure. Anna, are you going to be okay?”
The sound of my name snapped me out of my daze. I looked up at Justin then looked at the nurse. “I’ll be all right.” I answered. I was going to be as all right as I could be at the moment.
Justin turned to Mr. Ages for the last time. “I’ll try to find some people to help you with that mess,” he said.
“We’ll just broom everything into the corner and save it for the morning. It’s late enough already.”
“Okay. Then I’ll see you later.”
We walked into the hallway as the door closed behind us. The corridor had the came carved cave look as the room did although not as illuminated. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Justin asked, still concerned.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay. It’s going to take me a while to get used to this.”
Justin took my hand. “A little food won’t hurt. It’s doctor’s orders. I could use a little soup myself. C’mon, I’m sure there’s someone in the kitchen working late.”
As we walked through the corridor I couldn’t help notice how tall Justin was. I was so used to how small he had been compared to my human size. Seeing him from this perspective was disorienting. When I towered before, I now barely reached past his chest. The insecurities that accompanied being in this awkward new body made me feel even smaller.
Once in a while he would look down, giving me a sweet smile. I found it difficult to return the gesture. I would instead look away extremely self-conscious about everything I thought I knew about myself.
We reached the dining hall, a cavernous room with high ceilings. The wide-open floor held numerous, scattered tables. The tables themselves varied in size, some only meant for two occupants, others for much larger parties. The setup calmed me down as I recognized it as a giant cafeteria. In fact, that was exactly what it was.
Although it was late in the night, some of the tables were occupied although not a fraction of what the room could hold. On one side of the room, a long, wide counter separated the hall from the kitchen. At the end nearest to the entrance were stacks of trays with racks of utensils.
We walked to a small table closest to the counter, Justin oblivious to the stares we were getting from the other rats in the hall. Well, of course he’d be oblivious, it was me they were staring at.
Justin pulled out a chair, urging me to sit. “I’ll go ahead and get something for the two of us,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” I answered as I watched him leave, folding my hands on the table. Twiddling my thumbs, I glanced out of the corner of my eyes trying to see my staring, whispering public without looking like I was bothered by it. I let out a nervous sigh. Swinging my feet, I looked up at the hanging lamps illuminating the room with a soft glow. The tiny flames flickered in their glass houses.
“Here we are.” Justin placed a tray down on the table. He placed a bowl in front of me, its hot contents making my stomach rumble. The soup was thick and white with pieces of grain and parsley garnish mixed in.
“It’s barley soup,” he answered, noticing me trying to figure out what it was.
“Hey, I had barley soup before,” I said as I picked up the wood spoon, blowing on the soup to cool it off. Much to my surprise it turned out rather delicious leading me to quickly finish the bowl. My stomach felt all warm and comfortable.
On the tray were two bread rolls and I helped myself to one of them. As I completed my meal, I leaned back in the chair, feeling calm and sleepy instead of just tired.
Justin smiled, satisfied by the results. “So I take it our food was a success,” he said, finishing off his own bowl. “It always tastes better when you get it fresh though. The kitchen stays with a modest supply during the overnight.”
“Oh, it was fine,” I answered. “A little bland yet I don’t think I could have handled anything else. Now I could use a good night’s sleep.”
Justin gathered everything up onto the tray as we both stood ready to leave. As he went back to the counter to return the tray, I caught a few rats quickly turning back to their own food. One rat looked back at me, waving his hand slightly in greeting. In my now better mood, I raised my hand returning the salutation, flashing a grin.
“Let’s go?” I heard Justin say. I turned to him nodding.
With my hunger sated and my mind somewhat at ease, I began to notice my surroundings better than before. Justin took a little time explaining that if I needed anything all I had to do was ask anyone. Very few places were forbidden except private living quarters and areas still under construction. Other than that I was welcome to use every public space in this community.
“Well, enough of all that,” he said as we stopped in front of a door. “It’s late enough as is.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
He opened the door, gesturing me in first. The room was smaller than the infirmary but just as cozy, if not more so due to its size. The room was furnished with simple cabinets, shelves and an overstuffed easy chair and sofa.
Along one wall sat an old, large desk made of dark-stained wood. The desk was elaborately decorated, out of place in its simple surroundings. On its surface was a sea of papers, pens and pencils. Seems even rats have problems keeping up with paperwork.
Justin closed the door, making way to another on the opposite wall. “This will be your room for the night,” he said, opening it. “I’ll take the sofa.”
I hesitated at his words. “I can’t kick you out of your own bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
Justin would not hear a word of it. “No, you are my guest and guests should get a bed. One night on a sofa will not kill me.”
He lit a small candle next on a nightstand I entered the room. The sight of the plush comforter and soft looking mattress made me sleepier than I was before. Yes, Justin can sleep on the sofa.
As I crawled into the inviting fabric, Justin rummaged in a closet pulling out an extra set of blankets for himself.
“I’ll be out there if you need anything,” he replied. “Good night, Anna.”
“Good night, Justin.”
With a tired smile, he pulled the creaking door closed, sending the room into darkness save for the candle. Pulling off the tank top, I leaned over, blowing out the flame.
Since this trip started I never managed a good night sleep. Now I was going to relish every minute of it.