“This can’t be happening!” Matt stood in front of the mirror and tugged at one of the two triangular, fur-covered growths on his head. “Ow!” He groaned. “It’s not a dream.”
When he had fallen asleep five hours ago, he had been a normal human. Sometime during the night, he had become… this. Pointed ears and a muzzle covered with light brown fur were just the beginning. The fur spread across every square inch of his body. He could see it on his paws and arms and feel it rub against his terrycloth bathrobe. “Could it get any worse?” A weight in his rear answered that question. “Of course.” He fell against the bathroom door and rubbed his forehead with his paws.
Matt forced himself to take a deep breath. “Okay. It’s not the end of the world,” he said. He closed his eyes and searched his mind for the trigger. Nothing, not even a whisper of the familiar power. His heart rate quickened. “I just have to wait here until the Committee figures out what the problem is.” He scolded himself for that defeatist rhetoric, but what could he do? He knew too little of the complex energies in this world to find a solution.
He heard the sound of someone walking down the hall, toward the bathroom. His throat filled with ice and his ears folded back against his head. “Carol,” he whispered to the empty air. No! She can’t see me like this! The Committee’s policy left no room for exceptions, not even for the woman he had chosen to spend his life with.
“Honey, are you okay?” Carol’s sleep-laden voice drifted to him from the other side of the door. “I heard you get up, and you sounded ill. Worried about the campaign speech?”
The reminder sent knives into Matt’s back. “It’s… I’m trying to figure it out myself,” Matt said. “Don’t trouble yourself over it. I’ll be okay. Go back to sleep.”
Carol yawned. “I need to use the bathroom myself, so I can wait until you’re out.”
Matt ground his fangs together. Her needs were more important than his, any day. But if she sees me, her life may be in danger! He could not think about the Committee now. If she saw him, what would she say? Or more importantly, what would she do? A dozen responses played through his mind, none of them pleasant. “I don’t know how long I’ll be,” he said.
Heat replaced the ice in his stomach. Wrong thing to say! His knees began to shake, and the tremors raced each other up his legs and to the base of his head. He spun around so he faced the wall, claws gouging small holes in the sheetrock.
Even worse. How would he explain that, even when he returned to a more acceptable form? He extruded his claws from the wall and wiped the dust away, but some still managed to cling to his fingers.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Carol asked. “What was that scratching noise?”
“I lost my balance,” he said. “My... uh… hands scratched the walls. I’ll be okay.” He gasped for breath, tongue lolling out of his mouth. Oh, if his siblings could see him now. They would point their claws at him and laugh, poking fun at the most high-strung pup in the family. So what if a porcupine had sent him scrambling up the nearest tree? He did not want to feel the business end of those quills.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll do that.” Matt stumbled over to the toilet and lowered himself, sitting at a slight angle to keep his tail from being crushed underneath his body. Funny how he remembered his old habits, even after years of living as a human. Think! What’s going on here? The human appearance couldn’t just fail on one person. The networking incantation affected every one of his kind. If he had reverted to his original form, so had all the others. Small comfort, especially now.
Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Carol paced outside. She needed to go, she said. Here he was hogging the bathroom, fretting about his own problems. He couldn’t lie to her, she was his wife! But how could he begin to explain this? “Carol, there’s something I need to tell you.” He could deal with the Committee later. He willed himself to stand and take the two steps to the door.
“Okay,” she said. “What is it?”
“Or maybe ‘show you’ is the better phrase.” His claws –fingers?—closed around the doorknob, and he cracked the door open a millimeter. He took another deep breath. Soon he would pass the point of no return. “Something was off when I woke up,” he said. “I… don’t look right.” He almost said “normal,” but that would be a lie.
Carol laughed. “Don’t tell me you have a pimple. Aren’t you too old for those?”
“I wish it were a pimple,” Matt mumbled. He touched the tip of his moist nose with his paw. “We’re talking more impressive than a skin ulcer.” He sighed. He may as well be straightforward. “Carol… I don’t look human anymore.”
“Cute, Matt. Now open the door and let me see what’s got you tied up in a knot.”
Matt squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself against the wall. “Here goes! Carol, please don’t scream.” He pulled the door and opened his eyes. His shadow appeared on the floor in the middle of a yellow rectangle of light. He allowed the door to open the rest of the way on its own and stepped into the hallway.
Carol covered her mouth with her hands and stepped back, her eyes wide. “Matt? What’s going on?”
Matt took two steps forward, paw extended. “Carol, don’t be afraid.” He touched her arm with his finger.
Carol cried out and shrank away. Sobs forced their way through her hands. “Don’t touch me!”
Carol’s plea sucked the air from Matt’s lungs. Holding back tears of his own, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you, Carol. I was like this when I woke up, okay? I didn’t choose this.”
She leaned forward, then shuffled an inch closer to him. “How could this happen?” Matt reached out to hold her hand, but she jerked away again.
Matt sighed. A tear trickled from his eye and dampened his fur. “I’m so sorry, Carol.”
DON’T LET WASHINGTON GO TO THE DOGS!
Matt studied the note card someone had slipped under his door as a deranged form of a good morning message. Glossy, one of the cheap runs that the print store downtown could churn out in an afternoon. A cartoony dog, wearing a business suit and holding a bone in his mouth, waved at the reader. The Capitol, decorated like a fire hydrant, stood in the background. “Charming.” He flipped the card over to see if anything was written on the back.
“In the midst of a national identity crisis, the most important thing voters can remember is, ‘Who can you trust?’ Trent has always put his electorate first, and none of his actions paint him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Small print at the bottom read, “Paid for by the Committee to Re-Elect Trent Weathers.”
Matt yawned and walked back to his unmade bed. No one was around, so why not? He stretched and pulled his laptop closer so he could check for new email messages. In the past few days he had received several, and every possible emotion was accounted for. “I wanted to let you know that I considered voting for you, but I refuse to give my support to a creep such as yourself.” That one landed in the delete folder. “I’m confused,” said another. “Where did these coyotes come from?” Matt saved that one for a response, just as soon as he sorted things out.
Checking into the hotel had not been the world’s simplest task, and within hours the media had found out their very own Matt Westin was one of the exposed beings. They’d camped out in front of his room ever since. Matt glanced out the window, hoping to catch them in the middle of a break. A shadow passed across the window, dancing. Looking for a gap in the curtains, no doubt. They would find none. Matt made sure to check them every few hours.
Some coyotes had found him because of the news coverage. Most messages were negative. “Traitorous filth. How dare you associate with humans? When the Committee sorts this out, I will demand they hold you accountable.” A few encouraged him. “I applaud your actions. We could really use one of our kind in government right now, show the world that we’re capable of reason.” One even invited him to join a new movement of coyotes to establish an independent state somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Matt had laughed at this. Every species had its crazies. That message was also canned.
But nothing from the one who mattered most. No emails, no phone calls, not even a letter delivered to the front desk. Fright-filled eyes haunted his mind every minute, and he could not strip the scream from his memory. The coyote was right. He was a traitor.
His phone chirped. Hopeful, Matt grabbed it, almost knocking over his laptop in the process. “Hello?”
“Hey Matt, it’s Chris.”
Matt’s heart sank. Not the one he wanted. “Oh. Hi Chris. What’s going on?”
“Yeah, you should be asking that! Are you going to be hiding in there another week? Look, the campaign staff are getting antsy. The ones who haven’t up and resigned, that is.” Matt heard muffled voices beneath Chris’ shouting. “I really appreciate your enthusiasm, Matt. It means a lot to me.”
Matt winced. Chris was right. He deserved better. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve been waiting for a phone call, and… you’re not it.”
“I understand. Hey, do you mind if I stop by? There’s something I wanted to ask you.”
Matt stared at the ceiling. “I guess. When can I expect you?” Someone knocked on the door three times. “Chris.”
“Already here. Uh, I can barely move what with the crowd and all, but I can keep them from coming in and bombarding you with camera lights and questions.”
Matt hurried to the door, holding the phone up to his ear with his shoulder. After practicing a few times, he could press it against his ear without it trying to slide off. “I’ll unlock the door and you rush in, okay?”
“Yeah, got it.”
“You know what to expect, right?” The phone went dead. Matt shrugged and tossed it onto the bed. It spun once before landing on the mattress and sliding under the sheets. He unlatched the door and pulled it in enough to make a small gap between the door and frame. A human on the other side barged in and slammed the door shut behind him, engaging the lock and gasping for breath.
“Wow,” he said. “It’s a circus out there.” He shoved a plastic bag in Matt’s direction. Matt took it and Chris turned his head. “I brought some clothes…” Chris trailed off, jaw slack. His gaze moved to the floor and followed a slow path up to Matt’s eye level. “Oh, wow.”
“Yes, I know. I don’t look remotely the same.”
“Uh-uh.” Chris shook his head. “So it’s really you?”
“It is.” Matt tore into the bag and pulled out a suit. Two weights at the bottom of the bag identified themselves as shoes. “What are these for?”
“I thought they were to wear, but if you don’t need clothes anymore, we’ll, um, think of something.”
Matt’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?” He looked down. He wore nothing but boxer shorts, modified to fit his tail. With fur covering every square inch of his body, did he even need clothes? “Ah. I have been more casual lately.” Matt studied his longtime friend again. He was taking all this remarkably well, but he wondered if the lack of eye contact suggested fear. “I can wear most of this. Not the shoes, though.”
Matt raised his leg and displayed his padded feet. “Nothing’s going to fit these,” he said. “Nothing I’ll find in a human store, at any rate.” Not only had his feet changed proportion, he walked on his toes.
“I got these from your house,” Chris said.
“Oh? How is Carol?”
“She wasn’t there. I used the spare key.”
“I really wish she’d call me back.” He sat on the bed and invited Chris to join him. “I’ve called her so many times I lost count.”
“Matt, you scared her out of her mind. I’m fighting instincts, myself. Yeah, I saw pictures of you so I knew what was coming, and we’ve talked a little, but this is too unreal.”
Chris’ remark opened the wounds again. “I know. I wish it could have gone another way.”
“Hey, I see you found Trent’s new promo material.” Chris picked up the card and flipped it to the floor. “Have to admit it’s catchy.”
“Okay, maybe not.” He sat down next to Matt and sighed. “So.”
“What are the clothes for?”
“I was hoping you’d ask. Don’t you think it’s time for the world to know what you’re going to do?” Matt narrowed his eyes and lay his ears flat against his head. Chris’ eyes widened, but he kept talking. “I arranged a press conference this afternoon.” A low growl escaped Matt’s throat. “Which was a very bad idea, and I’ll tell them to cancel right away!”
“Don’t bother.” Matt sized up the suit. “I brought a sewing kit with me. Give me a few minutes to adjust the pants, and we can have this interview.”
“What are you going to tell them?” Chris asked. “Are you going to see it through?”
“That’s just it.” Matt fished for his phone and checked for any missed calls or texts. “I have no motivation.”
Matt and Chris sat in the conference room of the hotel, facing five rows of empty folding chairs. “So do you think the place will be packed?” The thought of announcing his plans to a room of confused and perhaps hostile humans made him feel not a little queasy. He still wasn’t sure how he and Chris had forced their way through the mob of reporters.
“You saw the size of the crowd out there. It’ll be standing-room-only if security loses control.” Chris clapped his hands together. “Got your speech planned out?”
“I have something.” Matt shifted in his seat. The new opening in the back of his pants was well below a professional tailor’s quality, and if he were not careful, the seam would hitch onto the base of his tail and tug on his fur. Wincing because of being pinched and exposing his teeth would not be a good publicity move.
“So? Gonna share?” Chris moved to nudge him but kept his elbow several inches away. He was still nervous, apparently.
Matt gave a subtle wag of his tail. “You can wait. I enjoy keeping you in suspense.”
Chris blinked. “Does that mean you’re happy?” He reddened and buried his head in his hands. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have drawn that conclusion. I saw your tail and thought of a dog and… sorry.”
“No, that’s how my people express some positive emotions, happiness being one of them.” He sighed and leaned back. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy, though. It’s not like Carol to be silent this long. Even with all…this.” He gestured to himself. “She would still find answers. That’s how she is. And she was gone when you stopped by the house?” Matt bit off the end of a claw. “Does that sit well with you?”
“You know her better than me, Matt. I’m just wondering if I need to get another job. Don’t keep me waiting.”
Matt looked away. His lips were drawn back, but he didn’t want Chris to see now. “Yeah, okay.”
A balding security guard entered the room, slammed the door shut behind him, and leaned against it. He put his hand against his chest and bent at the waist, taking deep breaths. His face was pale. “There’s… someone here. For you, sir.” Still panting, he pointed at Matt. “I don’t know what they want. Just do something, please!”
Matt stood. “What’s the problem, sir?” He walked toward the man, his padded feet silent on the carpeted floor. He kept his gaze averted to try to avoid intimidating the man.
The guard reached for something at his side and held out his hand to stop him. “Don’t come any closer!” He shook his head and rubbed his temples. “Forgive me. That was out of line.”
“I understand. Believe me.” Matt lifted his gaze, looking the guard in the eye. The guard stiffened at first, but after a few seconds relaxed, bringing his hand away from his side. “I’m not going to hurt you. You know that, right?” The guard shook his head and glanced away. “Okay. Well, I won’t. What’s the problem?” he asked again.
The guard began to hyperventilate again, and he stared at the floor. He took a deep breath and shouted, “They’re here for you, sir!”
Matt took a step back. “They? Who is ‘they’?”
The man’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Coyotes.”
“Coyotes?” A chill ran down Matt’s spine, ending at the tip of his tail. He brought his ears back slightly and moaned. He supposed it was inevitable, since his location was well-known by now and Chris had alerted the media to his announcement. But why had they waited until now to come forward? Why not approach him in the middle of the night and spirit him away? If they wanted publicity, there were other ways to get it. But the Committee’s acts never made much sense.
He put a paw on the guard’s sleeve. The guard tensed, jaw clenched and hands balled into fists. He whispered back. “Are they right outside?” The guard nodded. The poor man. He was just a human wanting to do his job. Could he ever have imagined he would be confronted by a sapient canine? Matt removed his paw, and the guard relaxed. Matt turned and spoke to Chris. “I’m going out. Stay here.”
“Matt, stop!” Chris ran up the center aisle and pulled Matt away from the door. “Going out there is crazy.”
“I can’t stay here, Chris. At the very least, I will do this for him.” He nodded to the guard. “It’s not right to trap him here with us.” He sighed. “The coyotes want me, not you and not the other humans out there. You are not in danger. Go home.”
Chris mouthed the words, “Go home.” He shook his head and grasped the hem of Matt’s jacket. “Are you dropping out of the campaign? Are you saying you don’t need me as your public relations manager anymore?”
“No, I’m telling you to go home because you don’t need to stick around here. I’m not dropping out of the campaign unless the coyotes or the humans force me to. Although I doubt they’ll vote for a non-human.”
“If that’s how you want to be.”
Matt turned back to the guard. “Excuse me,” he said. “Thank you for alerting me.” He brought his mouth so close to the guard’s ear his whiskers brushed skin. “They will not touch you. Don’t be afraid of them.” The guard stepped to the side, permitting Matt to pass. Matt pulled on the wooden door’s brass handle and stepped through the doorway to the crowd and waiting canids on the other side.
He did not have to search for the coyotes. Two of them stood about ten feet from the door, the space immediately around them void of humans. Both wore white collared shirts and jeans, presumably better modified for their tails than his pants. The taller one, a thin coyote with predominantly gray fur, some white around his muzzle, stepped forward. “Matt Westin, I am John. My partner is Robert.” He nodded to the stockier, redder coyote behind him. “You should come with us.” Although an elder, his voice was strong.
“What do you want with me?” Matt came closer, but still out of the reach of either coyote. “I won’t go with you until you tell me your purpose.” At the sight of Matt, a photographer inched closer to the duo, camera poised below his throat. When Matt glanced at him, he stepped back, knocking the camera and causing it to flash.
John blinked at the light. “Fair question. You are not a pup who listens to strangers without first asking their motives.” He paused. “If you want to see your wife, you will come with us.”
The fur on the back of his neck bristled, and a growl underlined his words. “Where is she?”
“You are her husband. Do you not know?”
Matt bowed his head and slumped his shoulders. His tail was flat against his leg. This was a low blow. “I haven’t heard from her in days,” he said. He glared at the coyotes. “You’ve taken her.”
“Yes. Come with us if you want to see her. If not, we will pass her along to the Committee.” John stepped back and rejoined Roger, who had not spoken a word during this exchange. The two conversed in hushed tones, too quiet for Matt to hear.
At the thought of seeing her again, his heart raced. A week was too long to be without her! How he longed to take her in his arms and apologize for keeping his true identity hidden for so long. Never again would he make this mistake. But was it already too late? John’s question hung in the air. “Do you not know where she is? You are her husband.” As husband, it was his responsibility to care for her and protect her, yet what had he done at the sign of trouble? He had run to the nearest hotel to stay out of sight. To keep her from being distressed, he had justified it.
John was right to call him out.
The stocky coyote, Roger, stepped forward and motioned for Matt to lower his head. “We don’t want you to be embarrassed in front of the media any more than you do. Come with us quietly. That will be better for all.”
Matt looked at the door behind him. Chris was on the other side somewhere, perhaps talking about the strange day with the guard, whose name he had not even bothered to ask. Hadn’t it been right in front of him, on the brass nameplate he wore? And to think he did not know it. What sort of representative did he think he could be?
Chris would fume for a few minutes more, and then go home. Matt wondered if he would see him again, in either a professional or casual setting. If he held him in suspense too much longer, Matt suspected Chris would quit. He couldn’t be blamed for that.
The coyotes said they would pass Carol along to the Committee if he did not go with them. Blackmail, if ever there was such a thing. It was against their law for humans and coyotes to know each other, in this day. With the recent revelations, this rule had probably been put aside, but he and Carol had known each other for years, before finally being wedded. This would be far too much for the Committee to handle, he knew it. He thought of what they might do to her, and cold fear wrenched his stomach. He took a deep breath and faced the coyotes. “I don’t have much of a choice. Where are we going?”
The coyotes turned and walked through the crowd, toward the parking lot. The humans cleared the sidewalk around them, and their chatter degenerated into incomprehensible noise as they tried to compete with everyone else to be heard. Light came from flashbulbs all around, the culprits quick to hide themselves after taking their picture.
Should I consider calling the police? The thought came from his years of interaction with humans, who dominated this culture and could impose their ways on the disguised coyotes. At least that was how many coyotes saw it. Will they look beyond fang and fur, and help a fellow citizen, or will prejudice blind them to a man in need? The coyotes’ legal status was in question, according to news reports, so asking for government help was dangerous at best, since he did not have any friends in law enforcement. And he did not even know where the coyotes were keeping Carol, so what would he say to them? The coyotes weren’t stupid. They would deduce his plans very soon.
They were in charge here.
Heat radiated from the blacktop and shimmered above the cars. John and Roger stepped barepaw onto the lot, but Matt hesitated on the sidewalk. His pads were soft from years of living as a human. John stopped. He stared at Matt, one ear straight up and the other twitching. “I’m not going to carry you.” Matt jumped off the sidewalk and landed on the asphalt. The hot surface scorched his pads, and he bared his teeth in pain. He quick-stepped past John, who chuckled as he passed him.
Roger stopped in front of a blue Honda and pulled out a key fob. He aimed it at the car, saw Matt hopping on his feet, smirked, and dropped it to the blacktop. “Oops. Excuse me a moment.” He stretched, then bent down, scooping the key into his paws and unlocking the door. Matt forced himself to stop bouncing, panting as his pads burned. He stepped into the shade offered by the car, but even that surface was hot. “You’re pathetic.” Roger opened the rear passenger door and nodded. “Get in.”
Matt sat down and tucked his tail under him. Roger closed him in and opened the driver’s door. He slid into the seat as John joined them, taking his place in the front passenger seat. Roger cranked up the car, and John looked back at him. “Save your questions until we get on the road,” he said.
Warm air blasted from the vents and made its way to the backseat. “The car should cool off in a few minutes, but I don’t have any ice for your paws.” Roger winked and turned the air as cold as it could go. “A few weeks of wilderness hiking, and you’ll be on your way to being a proper coyote again.” Roger pulled the car out of the parking lot and into the flow of traffic. As the air cooled, Matt buckled, shifting in his seat to allow for tail comfort. “Thank you for coming willingly,” Roger said.
Matt put the back of his hand against the window. His nails tapped the tinted glass. “Can they see us?”
“Not well,” John said. “We have it as dark as legally permitted. We want to travel without disruption and cause as few accidents as possible. Doing our best to be good citizens and all.” He faced forward and yawned. “I have nothing against humans, but I could do without the publicity. Roger, you know where we’re going. I’m taking a nap.” He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes.
Matt decided to give voice to the question he had wanted to have the answer to for a week. “Why did we lose our ability to remain human? When will things be back to normal?”
“No one knows.” John half-opened an eye and glanced in the rearview mirror. “I’ll spare you the wild theories. As far as we can tell, this is the new normal. No more secrets.”
Roger drove them onto the highway, headed northeast. “So how long have you and Carol been married?” Roger spoke his first words since leaving. “She hasn’t been too willing to tell us.”
“Four years next January,” Matt said. “We met at her church, at an outing with her singles’ class a friend of mine invited me to.” He smiled at the memory. They had gone on a picnic and hike in the foothills. He had resisted the urge to shift to his coyote form then, to feel the warm soil beneath his paws and run with her up the hills, but he had kept himself in check. Over time, the urge to shift had diminished, and he had remained human until…
His smile wilted. “Why did you take her?” he asked. “Why not leave her alone?”
“Leave her alone? Do you think anyone is going to leave her alone now, man?” Roger spun around, but at a grunt from John, he returned his gaze to the road. “You made yourself a local celebrity by ‘coming out,’ so to speak. If the Committee didn’t get to her first, the humans surely would have harassed her.”
“We took her so the Committee wouldn’t,” John said. “You know the law. They allowed you to remain with her for a time, to see what would happen. They would have confronted you anyway, but now that we have been exposed, they have chosen to act.”
“And your place in this is?”
“You’ll figure it out, I’m sure.” John leaned his head back and yawned. “What made a pup like you get involved in human politics?”
Why change the subject? Matt didn’t have the authority to challenge them, so he went along with it. “I think the current political arrangement abuses the little guy. I want to help get back on his feet.”
“But you’re not a human.” Roger pressed the center of the steering wheel, honking the car’s horn at a slow driver in front of them. “Why do you care what the humans decide?”
“Because the humans’ decisions will affect our life.” John answered for Matt. “We are more integrated into human civilization than you like to think, Roger. If the human lifestyle collapses, ours will go with it. I would like to see a coyote representing our interests, or at least raising awareness of our needs, if we must be revealed to the world.” He turned around and smiled at Matt. “And a fresh outlook never hurts. It’ll be tough, though.”
“I know.” Matt stared at the floorboard, too embarrassed to make eye contact with John. He liked to speak directly, without dodging his point. Roger spoke the same way, but with much less tact. Despite John’s sometimes harsh words, his eyes remained gentle. Matt wondered how many pups John had helped to raise. He suspected Roger had no young ones of his own. “If I have Carol’s support, it will be okay.”
“She means a lot to you, I see.” John was facing away from him again. “The sacredness of marriage is something we have in common with many humans,” John said. He brought his hands together and interlocked his fingers. “Once together, never separate. Roger, you could stand to learn something about devotion from this pup. You’re not much more than a pup yourself.”
“With all due respect, John, I would prefer the tutelage of coyotes who haven’t fallen for hairless apes.” He glanced in the rearview mirror, and his yellow eyes glinted with arrogance. “Or gotten closer.”
Matt growled and lunged forward, but the seat belt restrained him. “You take that comment back right now!” His claws dug into the leather seat, tearing small holes in it. “Never refer to Carol that way again.”
Roger did not even blink. “I know you won’t dare attack me when I’m doing eighty. Sit down. If you want to fight me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities starting in about thirty minutes.”
Matt turned his attention to John. “Why didn’t you rebuke him?”
“Looks to me like you had it under control. My interference was not necessary.” He sighed and shook his head. “But I will admit your low opinion of humans becomes wearisome after a while, Roger. Let an old dog rest for a while, will you? Matt, please sit down. I can’t sleep with you breathing into my ear.”
Still glaring at Roger, Matt settled back into his seat. “Hey Matt, I have a question.” Roger tapped the horn again, drumming his claws against the plastic surface. “I don’t mean to be so abrasive about humans, it’s how I was raised. But you know them better than I do. So you can love a human?”
“Of course. I would always put her needs before mine.” Matt cocked his head to the side. “Why?”
“I’m a bachelor, so I don’t understand all of this. Just trying to understand.” Roger paused for a minute, then asked another question. “So, you and Carol. I know you’re married, so does this mean you two were intimate with each other?”
“That’s a personal question.”
John reached over and put a hand on Roger’s knee. “Roger, stop. It’s none of your business.”
“It’s a legitimate question,” Roger said. “Let me ask it.”
“No, you’re baiting him, and while I’ve tolerated a lot of nonsense from you in the past few hours, I’m telling you to stop now. Matt, come close to me.” Matt leaned forward, so his muzzle was between the frame of the car and the seat. His whiskers brushed against John’s ear. John turned his head, and they were so close their noses almost touched. He spoke in the softest of whispers. “Have you and she completed your union?” he asked. “You are free to decline to answer if you wish.”
Matt nodded and responded with a soft, “Yes. We have.”
The corners of John’s lips tightened, and his brow lowered with his ears. “I expected your answer, but I won’t deny that I’m disappointed. You’ve put yourself in a very bad place, Matt. I don’t know how to help you from it.” With that, he turned away.
Matt backed away and bowed his head. “I’m not going to apologize for my decision, but please honor me and protect her from the Committee.” He stared at the pads of his paws, soft from years of disuse. How was he supposed to take care of her now, if he was in such poor physical shape? It would take weeks to rebuild the coyote toughness. Roger’s comment about spending days in the wilderness suddenly appealed to him. If only the Committee were delayed somehow.
“Our duty is to them first,” John said, “and I can’t endorse your relationship. I swore to abide by their decisions, so a day or two is all I can promise you. I truly am sorry, but my hands are tied.”
The rest of the hour-long trip passed in silence. The crowded highway narrowed to a two-lane road, with few cars driving on it at this hour, if they ever did. The busy town gave way to empty land populated by the occasional house, barn, or herd of cattle. Matt wondered what new scents there were to experience, but his nose had been deadened by the stench of coyotes and warm leather.
Soon, they pulled onto a gravel road winding its way between two small, grassy hills. Matt pressed his face against the window to get a better look, leaving a wet spot on the glass where his nose touched it. Small white wildflowers traveled the gentle slope, providing some balance to the vibrant blue-green canvas. Then the car traveled into a dip, and the flowers were gone.
A two-story brick house with a white picket fence in front lay nestled against one of the hills, the red blocks glowing in the rays of the setting sun and framing a solid black door. Azaleas lined the porch, but the time for blooming had long passed and they provided no extra color to the scene.
Roger pulled around to the back of the house, parked the car, and unlocked the doors. “Out,” he said. “This is the first, last and only stop I am making today.” Matt left the vehicle, glad to stretch his legs and give his paws something more comfortable to stand on. John eased his way out of the car, and Matt extended his arm so the elder coyote could use it to balance himself.
“Thank you.” John patted his forearm and whispered, “I have been very lenient so far, but I ask that you give me your phone. I don’t want to risk more involvement with the authorities than we’re already guaranteed.”
Matt pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the display before surrendering it. It showed two missed calls, both from Chris. Matt sighed. He would just have to wait. “What if I didn’t comply?”
“I’m sure Roger would be glad to help enforce my request.” Matt took the hint and placed the phone in John’s waiting hand. The elder coyote opened the back, took out the battery, and returned the phone to him. “I am satisfied,” he said as he pocketed the battery. “Remind me to give this back to you before you go.”
Matt took a deep breath, and as he gazed at the house, his legs turned to rubber. “Is Carol in there?”
“She is.” John wrapped his arm around Matt’s elbow. “And lest you make a fool of yourself, you will go at the pace I dictate.”
“Is she alone?”
“Of course not.” John snorted. “Do you think I would do that to her? No, my wife is watching over her.” Matt chose not to pursue this line of questions further. He forced himself to keep pace with John’s slow, deliberate steps. Why was he making Matt wait?
Roger was already standing before a door at the side of the house, this one unpainted wood, much less fancy than the one at the front. He made eye contact with Matt, scowled, and started pacing back and forth. Maybe John was making someone else wait. “Where did you pick him up?” Matt asked. “The two of you make an odd team.”
“He is my nephew,” John said. “Not by blood, but by marriage. Our teamship was more by chance than planning. He is staying with Amelia and me until the fuss with the networking incantation resolves itself.” Before they reached Roger, John stopped and tapped the side of his jaw. “I had another question for you about your decision to run for office, but I forgot it.” He shrugged. “Don’t worry about it now. Let’s go to your wife, if she will see you.”
Don’t let them get to you, Matt. It’ll be fine in the end. He had to believe that. Already, the thought of seeing Carol again made him giddy. He broke away from John and jogged the rest of the way to the door, and for the second time that day, he heard John laughing at his actions. John could view him as a pup all he wanted. Carol was on the other side of that door, and right now nothing else mattered.
“Someone’s eager.” Roger unlocked the door when his uncle arrived, and he stepped into the house first, followed by Matt with John in the rear. They stood in a basement with a concrete slab for a floor and wooden studs partitioning the room into four spaces. A weak incandescent bulb overhead provided little light, overwhelmed by the sunlight streaming in from the outside. Stacks of boxes, all covered with blankets, lined the exterior wall of this room. One of the boxes gave off a strong, sour smell, which combined with the musty odor of the basement made Matt sneeze.
There were no signs of anyone living down here. Why would there be? John was a decent man. He would not have made Carol sleep down here. Roger, perhaps. Matt dropped his gaze to the floor, ashamed at his thoughts.
Roger led them to a staircase made of bare wooden, splintery boards that dug into Matt’s pads with each step up the rickety structure. Matt hardly noticed the pain. He was too focused on the thought of seeing Carol again for much else to register in his mind. He was aware of light appearing at the top of the stairs, and a slim, graying coyote waiting for them at the top.
She wore a lavender dress sewn from a floral pattern, with a green sash tied around her waist. The sleeves were so long they covered most of her hands, and Matt was surprised she wore such tight-fitting clothing. It would not have been tight by human standards, but clothing and fur rarely agreed with one another. By that standard, they were all overdressed.
She smiled as they came up. “I was wondering what took you two so long,” she said. Her voice was deep, yet hearing it relaxed Matt. Standing before him was a true matron of coyotes, who had raised many pups, he was sure of it. She bowed to Matt and Roger, but her tail began to wag when at last John made it to the top of the stairs. John brought her into his arms, and he licked her nose. “I get nervous every time you go out in this form.”
“I do what I must,” he said. “And sometimes pups require encouragement. Amelia, meet Matt Westin.”
This time, Matt lowered his head, the standard greeting to a coyote elder. Her initial act had been out of respect for his position, perhaps, and certainly a human gesture. “It has been some time since I have stood in the presence of a coyote,” he said. He had not heard from his family in over five years, and he had given up his search. “It is truly an honor.”
“I have heard of you, the potential representative.” She winked at him. “We wondered when you would finally come out of hiding.”
“Where is she?”
“Upstairs, in the guest room,” John said. “You can’t miss it, but I must warn you, don’t assume she will come to you willingly.” He shook his head at Roger, who descended the basement stairs. Once they were alone, John continued. “It is my prayer that you and she are reconciled, but you have not heard what we have heard. You hurt her, Matt, and you must realize this if you are to be joined to her once again.”
“John, would you mind checking on Roger?” Amelia asked. “I will take Matt upstairs.”
“That is agreeable.” With a final nod to Matt, John followed after his nephew.
As the coyote’s footsteps faded away, Amelia turned her attention to Matt. “You have raised quite a stir, young pup,” she said as she led him through the living room. Matt thought he had walked into an antique shop. An old yellow sofa rested against a far wall, and two matching reclining chairs sat on either side, opposite a fireplace. In the middle of the room, a brown coffee table served as a placeholder for a stack of leather books, and a marble globe sat in the center. Not a speck of dust sullied the furniture or the hardwood floor, and the lavender rug under the table was spotless. A faint hint of flowers combined with the stale ashes, filling his nostrils with a strangely pleasant scent, but Matt did not see the floral source. They probably were thrown out a day or so ago, he suspected. “I like some excitement in my life, but I could do without your variety.” She wiped a hand across her forehead, a symbolic act since coyotes did not sweat. “It wears us graymuzzles out.”
Just around the corner, a set of stairs ascended to the second floor. The wood floor gave way to cream-colored carpet on the first step. Matt could hardly contain himself, his ears alert and tail up, but he kept pace with Amelia, who labored up the incline. He stepped to the side and just behind her, putting his arm against her back as a brace. “Should you be climbing this?” he asked. “If you tell me which room, I can go up. Please don’t hurt yourself.”
Amelia shook her head and quickened her steps. “I’m not ready to surrender to old age yet.”
Matt held his tongue. He had not intended to be rude, and he doubted she understood him to be insulting, but her response told him not to encroach upon this subject again. “How has she been?”
“Not too well, I’m afraid.” Amelia stopped just before they reached the landing. “She hardly eats, and she only leaves her room to relieve herself, the poor thing.”
“You kidnapped her!”
“John and Roger protected her, young pup. It was for her own good.” Although she was a good five inches shorter than he, since she stood one step above, they were eye-to-eye. She was not about to back down, either. “She is free to move anywhere she wants in this house, and if she wanted to go outside, she would only need to be escorted by John or Roger.” She stabbed him in the chest. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into her, but after that stunt of yours, I wouldn’t be too inclined to talk right now if I were her.” Her expression softened. “I’ve been harsh enough. Carol is this way.”
Matt quivered with anticipation as they drew closer to her room. Amelia seemed to slow, although he knew she was moving at whatever pace her old body allowed. Once there, Amelia knocked at the door twice, then called out. “Mrs. Westin, it’s Amelia. May I come in?”
“Yes.” Carol’s voice sent arcs of joy into Matt’s chest. She really was on the other side! But her voice had lost its usual cheer. His arms ached to hold her, to rub his loving warmth into her body. He joined Amelia at the door, but she pushed him back. Amelia cracked open the door and stepped through, blocking Matt from entering.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but there’s someone who wants to see you.”
Matt could not contain himself any longer. “Carol!” He shoved the door open, using so much force it collided with the doorstop against the wall. He ran past Amelia and into the room, throwing himself to his knees and landing against the side of her bed. She gasped and took refuge on the other side, staring at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. Matt rose to his feet and took a step toward her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Stay away from me!” She backed to the head of her bed, grabbing a fistful of the quilt on top of her bed. “What do you want?”
Matt’s world fell out from under him. His jaw trembled, and his knees shook as he lowered himself to the foot of her bed. Tears came to his eyes, and as they blinked, rolled down his cheeks. “Carol, it’s me. Matt.” He inhaled deeply, and tried to steady his voice. “I can explain everything to you, I promise!”
Carol tore her gaze away from him and to Amelia, who nodded. “This is Matt Westin,” she said. “He is a coyote, like us.”
Carol shook her head. “No. He can’t be! You’re not him. He isn’t… that!” She pressed against the wall and the bed, cowering. “No, please no!”
“Matt, you should probably leave.” Matt wanted to acknowledge Amelia, but he couldn’t turn his head away from Carol. The scene from the hallway replayed in his mind. He inched closer to her, arm outstretched.
“Carol, please.” He dropped to his knees, head bowed. “I promise I won’t hurt you. I would never hurt you!”
“Matt, enough.” Amelia lifted him up with surprising strength, and directed him toward the door. “Don’t make it worse.”
Matt looked up at Amelia, pleading, but she motioned toward the door. Sulking, he plodded to the door, not wanting his wife’s terrified face to be the last image he had of this room.
“She turned him down, didn’t she?” Roger’s voice came from the basement and echoed in the living room. “What a surprise.”
“Will you not learn to control your tongue, pup?” John’s voice rose in response. “The man is grieving. I know you were taught to respect that.” The wooden steps groaned as the coyotes ascended. “Your passion for separation is admirable, but by our laws and those of the humans, they are one flesh, and it is a terrible sin to force them apart or applaud their disunion. I do not want you speaking like this again, do you understand me?”
Matt sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at the cold fireplace. Why had he been so foolish? If he had stayed with Carol that morning instead of running into hiding, maybe he would have had a chance to explain. Maybe all this could have been avoided. Maybe she would not shrink away from his touch or be frightened by his appearance.
Maybe he should have told her the truth from the beginning.
“I’ve been playing pretend for years,” he said to himself. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a stack of business cards he had stuck in there before the planned announcement. He huffed and threw them into the fireplace, wishing for a way to incinerate them. “I can’t represent them.” The basement door opened and closed behind him, but he didn’t bother to look. John and Roger were there, he already knew that. “I can’t even get Carol to look at me.” With his eyes, he traced a line down his arm, from his shoulder to the tip of his paws. He rocked his hand back and forth, letting the light expose the few streaks of tan fur at his knuckles. “If only I could be human.” He wiped another tear from his eye and pinched the base of his muzzle.
“But you’re not, and you will only fret your life away if you don’t come to terms with that fact.” John spoke from an elevated position behind him. From the sound of things, he sat in one of the recliners. “Matt, come up here.”
“I’m fine where I’m sitting.”
“That wasn’t a request. Come up here.” He pointed at an empty spot on the sofa, closest to his recliner. Matt groaned, stood up, and stumbled to the sofa. “Tell me what happened,” he said when Matt sat down.
Matt kept his gaze fixed on the globe, unwilling to look John in the eye. “She was scared of me. It was like in the hallway a week ago, when I tried to hug her but she pushed me away. But worse! What have you done to her?”
“We have kept her away from the Committee until we could get both of you together. I have already told you this.” He paused. Matt closed his eyes, but all he could see was Carol. “What are you going to do?”
“What can I do?”
“Talking to her is always an option.”
“That didn’t work.”
“Then try again. Amelia is still up there, but I don’t know if she’s been able to say much to help your wife. I have all confidence in her, but it isn’t her responsibility.” He glanced up the stairs and shrugged. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Matt forced himself to his feet and trudged up the stairs. Amelia stood before Carol’s door, and she stepped to the side when he came up. Matt took a deep breath, tried to compose himself, and knocked on her door. “Carol? It’s me, Matt. Please see me.” Amelia patted his hand and offered a reassuring smile. He smiled back, but immediately returned his attention to the door.
“I talked to her some,” she said. “She might be more receptive.”
After a minute, Carol came to the door and cracked it open. Matt kept his gaze at the floor, careful to keep from startling her. “Is that really you, Matt? I remember something, but it was dark, and I didn’t know what I saw.” Matt lifted his gaze, and he looked into her eyes. “Matt…” She backed away from the door, hand at level with her chest.
“Can I… can I come in?” She nodded. Mat entered and closed the door behind him. “I don’t know where to start. I should have told you about me before we agreed to… before we chose to spend our lives together.”
“But how?” She bit her lip and sank to the edge of the bed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Matt took a step closer, watching her expression to make sure he was not going to frighten her again. “When we met and started to spend time together, I wanted to live with the humans. At the time I… thought it wouldn’t matter.” He knew his words were terrible. What could he say?
“Not matter?” Carol sniffed. “How could it not matter? I thought I knew you, but you’ve been deceiving me all this time!” She bowed her head and spoke again through her tears. “And then you left. I didn’t know what to do or what to think. I didn’t even know if it was real or just a nightmare. How could you do that?”
Weeping, Matt sank to his knees for the second time that afternoon. “I was ashamed. I didn’t want you to have to see me this way, and I did not want to scare you. So I hid myself.” As he spoke them, his words became hollow in his ears. What a pathetic excuse! Instead of going back to her, he had waited in a hotel room for her to come to him! He was an idiot. “What I did was utterly wrong and selfish. I should have stayed with you, and I should have told you who I really was.” He was broken. How would she believe he loved her, after doing this to her? Wasn’t he a fool to expect it? He lowered himself until his nose touched the floor. “I am so very sorry. You deserve better than what I’ve given you.”
Carol slid off the bed and knelt beside him. Matt heard a sharp intake of breath, then felt her hand at the base of his neck, on the line separating shirt from fur. Her touch sent tingles from his skin to the tip of his fur, spreading to his entire body, and he gasped. “Matt, promise me you’ll never leave again.”
Matt rose from his prostrate position, took her hand and pressed it between his paws. He took his top paw and extended it for Carol to take in her other hand. Carol traced a path with her finger, circling the pads and feeling his claws. Matt held his breath. “I’m scared, Matt. What’s going to happen to us?”
Matt turned his thoughts to the coyotes waiting outside. Although they had brought him to be reunited with Carol, John still promised that he would turn them over to the Committee. Who knew how many peaceful hours they had together? Matt intended to experience all of them to the fullest. The Committee was nothing more than a specter.
Of course, his campaign was all but finished. He was not ready to call it quits yet, but he knew chances of success were slim, at best.
None of that mattered. Matt brought Carol close to him and embraced her. Carol buried her head in his chest, and Matt rested his muzzle atop her head. He breathed in her scent, noticing it for the first time in years. Lilac and salt. Carol looked up at him, and he touched her forehead with his tongue. “I will never leave you, Carol. I promise.” He sighed and lowered his head, brushing her cheek with his whiskers. “We’ll figure something out.” I might never be a human again, he thought. What will that mean for us? Is there even a place in society for a truly mixed marriage? He lifted her chin and smiled.
“I’ll have to get used to this new face.”
“Looks like it. Do you think you can?” Matt asked.
She smiled in return. “I think so.” She kissed his cheek. “We do have a lot to figure out. Do you have any other secrets to share with me?”
“You can probably guess my family is more furry than you imagined,” he said. “And I’ll tell you anything you want to know about coyotes, if I know the answer. No more secrets.”
Soon they would need to go downstairs and surrender to John and his family. Soon they would be at the mercy of coyotes who did not approve of them. As long as they were together, though, they would make it. “It’s going to be rough for a few weeks,” he said. “We’ve made a few enemies, and the humans may not care for us either. But I want you to know this. No matter what happens to us, you’ll always have me by your side.”
Matt Westin is a coyote disguised as a human and married to a human. Life is going well until he loses the ability to maintain his disguise. Then the problems begin.
This is a story that I wrote in the summer of 2009. I was not satisfied with the ending, though, so I've spent the past couple weeks re-writing it and posting it to the DIOM forums for them to read and offer suggestions for improvement. I was pleased with the response (non-furries and those who don't care for furry literature enjoyed it).
I am aware the ending leaves some questions unanswered. That is intentional, and I do have plans to resolve them sometime in the future, although I am not writing a sequel to this particular story.