I’m keeping pretty well ahead of the game for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month, which happens every year in November — authors all over the world aim to write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30). I’m averaging over 2,000 words a day, which is kind of an amazing thing in itself. Over the last four years, I haven’t done anything like that — I’d struggled to meet my 1,667 daily word count, but, like I said, I’d really lost faith in myself during that time. It’s amazing what finding a receptive audience does to boost your faith in yourself. It’s magical.
Here’s a couple of pages from my current story about Gabe, who’s a junior in high school, tall guy, likes reading and wants to be a mechanic working on jet engines in the Air Force. And suddenly, one morning, he wakes up as a horse. Then other kids his age around the area start changing into animals. Gabe and his grandpa have been bringing other kids — changelings — to his farm to give them a place to live.
Here’s a little sample of what I wrote.
So the changelings are starting to come over to Grandpa’s house. They’re kids whose parents aren’t helping them. They’ve been cut off, no place to live, no shelter, because they’re animals.
“I’ve been living outside for the last week,” said the groundhog. “I dug a nice hole in the ground. But I’ve been beside myself the whole time.”
“My parents keep throwing rocks at me,” said a fox.
“Dad can go feck himself,” said a bobcat.
So Grandpa and I brought them to his place, to live in or near the barn. The groundhog dug a hole, the fox made a den under the barn, and the bobcat lived up in the loft. The groundhog’s name was Jeff.
“We’re bros, man,” he told me while scrounging through the straw on the floor for bits of grain. I was cool with that.
We got another report of a missing teen south of town, a changeling who was replaced by a rabbit. Grandpa and I went out there after Grandpa asked the parents if we could come over. “I’m not acting in any official capacity, but this has happened to my family and I want to see if I can talk to you and help.” They weren’t really wild about it but said okay. So over we trotted, Grandpa on my back. I really liked carrying him around on my back. It was doing him a lot of good. He seemed to be getting healthier, and there was a spring in his step. He really did love riding horses, and he’d told me many times about how he loved to be a team with his horse, when he had an especially good one. I was glad that I could make that happen for the old man
When Grandpa knocked, the mom came to the door and talked through the screen.
“I’m sorry we asked you to come. You need to go away. Donella isn’t here. She’s been kidnapped by somebody who thought it was funny to play an awful prank.”
Grandpa looked at me, then back at the lady. “Was there an animal in ….”
“No! There wasn’t! My girl never would have turned to a changeling! She’s not like that.”
“Not like what?”
The woman glared at Grandpa for a long moment. I was shocked at the look on her face – as if he’d killed her daughter. Jesus.
She hissed, in a voice that scalded, “My. Daughter. Is not. A slut.”
And then she slammed the door.
Grandpa kind of stood there for a long minute, hat in hand. Then he turned and took a shaky breath.
“Honey,” he said. “Now what the hell was that about?”
“IDK,” I tapped, just as confused as he was.
All the same, apparently this lady was denying that her kid was a changeling. So I started looking around as Grandpa climbed up into the saddle on my back.
I called, “Hey, Donella! Donella? It’s me, Gabe. Do you need a place to stay? Until your folks, um … “
“Come on, honey,” Grandpa said. “Giddyup.”
We started walking away. I called, “Donella?”
A door flew open behind us. “Shut your damn horse up!” It slammed.
Grandpa straightened in the saddle – I felt him do this – and we rode away.
“Donella,” I whickered. “We can come back for you. Just in case.”
It wasn’t until we got into town that I thought of something. “Grandpa,” I clicked.
“I think I know why Donella’s mom said those things.”
I told him something I heard on the radio in the barn. Grandpa had the radio on a community radio station that had independent news that was verified. On some days with weird weather, though, other stations from other places would step on it with their religious stations. The people on those stations would talk about stuff that made my tail curl, about how the end of days was coming, and how women should never work outside the home, how hypnosis was just people playing with your mind, and how stuff like black holes and dinosaurs were just made-up science.
But one day they were talking about how changelings – kids like me – were abominations and sinners. “Do you know why they’re animals?” the preacher said. “Because they gave in to their animal urges. Though they were just kids, they were having sex at a young age when they shouldn’t have been. These kids chose to bring this punishment on themselves through their lewd actions.”
I was tempted to kick the radio. That sicko.
But now I told Grandpa what that guy had said.
“Jesus Christ,” Grandpa said. And we walked on for a while.
“Do you think?” Grandpa started to say, but then didn’t say anything for a long while. We just didn’t say anything for a long time.
“That preacher is full of shit,” I clicked.
He patted my neck ahead of the saddle. “I know,” he said.
That was our first idea of trouble.
Grandpa and I rode back into Donella’s part of town in the early evening, just going for a ride, not stopping. But actually, we wanted to see if we could find her and bring her back to Grandpa’s, where she wouldn’t be alone.
The sun was going down, and it was starting to get dark, but we had come out along the old railroad cut, where nobody would see us. Grandpa had stopped me when we’d gotten close, and he’d taken the clicker out of my mouth so I could call for her without dropping it.
So we were trotting around along the roads near Donella’s house, and below my breath I was calling “Donella! Hey! We’ll take you home and you can hang out until your parents come around. Donella? It’s Gabe. Grandpa’s got a big barn where –“
The blast of a rifle made me spring and scream out. “Grandpa! Did they –“
“YAH!” Grandpa commanded, sweeping the reins to the right and turning my head. He was flat on my neck as I wheeled and galloped away from her house. I mean a full-on gallop with Grandpa low on my neck. I’d never galloped before with him on my back, but he was on tight, and he was even spurring me on with both heels of his boots. So I put my head down and went like a racehorse. If they shot Grandpa, I thought, I’m going to get him out of range, and then I’m going to go back and kill them. They ain’t hurting my Grandpa. Not ever.
But Grandpa’s balance was superb. His knees were tight on my back. Wherever my center of balance was, he was square in the middle of it, and he stayed in it even when it shifted. Damn, that old man was a good rider. I had no idea.
We got back down into the railroad cut, down the long hill, and I went straight down that thing (actually at an angle) until Grandpa was in the shelter of the trees. I stopped and clacked my teeth together, letting him know I wanted the clicker, but he was already halfway off my back to give it to me.
“What the hell was that?” I clacked as soon as I got that thing between my teeth. “You ok?”
“Hell yeah. I was worried about you. Thought they got you.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“What the hell? Call the police!”
“I don’t know if I can under state law. People are allow to use rifles at random these days, if they thing they’re being threatened within 200 feet of their house.”
“We were just walking!”
“Not according to the NRA. I think their only reason for passing the law was to make sure that only gun owners survive. More people to buy their guns, then, see.”
I did a deep barrel-chested sigh. “I’m glad you’re okay,” I clacked.
“Come on, let’s get back home.”
I looked around for a stump or a rock to help Grandpa mount up. “Oh, honey, I’ll be fine,” he said. He stuck a foot in a stirrup, grabbed the pommel, took a deep breath, and sprang up into the saddle. Just like that. “See? Still spry.”
“Don’t keel over in the saddle,” I clacked at him.
“Yeah, yeah. Giddy-up, worrywart.”
But just then I heard a small voice call, “Stop! stop!”
“Who’s ….” I dropped the clacker out of my mouth so I could talk. “Who is it?” I called.
(Note: the clacker is attached to the bridle via a little string so it doesn’t fall clear to the ground.)
Grandpa stayed still and didn’t speak. He knew what it meant when I dropped my clicker and made that low whinny sound.
We were quiet for a long moment, listening in the twilight, but all that came to me was the sound of cicadas gearing up in the trees with their everlasting whining, and katydids calling.
Then I heard a little snuffle way up the hill.
I murmured, “Over here,” a low horsey rumble way down in my chest.
We waited again. I stepped into the shadows of a tree with brush all around its base just in case whoever had the rifle popped up over the edge of the hill, following my grumble.
Instead a rabbit came up, shivering through the grass.
“Donella?” I whispered. “That you?”
The rabbit came up close, and even in the shadows I could see her trembling. “Yeah,” she said. “My … my parents ….” Then she started to cry. This little rabbit. It broke my heart.
“Come on,” I whispered. “We got a place for you. At Grandpa’s. Got a barn with lots of clover.”
Honestly, that was the first thing I could think of. That just made her cry harder.
“I don’t want to be a rabbit. And I don’t want to leave my home!” she said. “I lived there all my life. All my stuff is there. Everything … everything I ever had ….”
I thought of my old room, my old stuffed animals that I used to cuddle when I was a little boy. My cozy bed with the soft flannel blankets where I used to cover my head and sleep in on Saturday mornings. All those books I’d read when I was a kid. My X-box and those old armchairs where I used to play Tour of Duty with Alex and Nick. That old lantern I bought at an auction when I was 10 because it looked so neat. My photograph board of all the people I loved. My room, the place that was my own, where I used to go to be myself. It was possible that I would never see it again, unless we found some cure, some way to change ourselves back to people again ….
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said. “We’ll try to find a way to bring you back. As a person. I don’t know how. But I swear I’m going to try and find out.”
I heard a shuff, like a footstep, at the top of the hill. Grandpa lay down on my neck so he wouldn’t draw attention to me.
I breathed, “We gotta go.”
As quietly as possible, I moved forward, sticking as much as possible to the bushes and trees. This wasn’t hard, because the old railroad cut was a tangled, overgrown mess. Donella hardly made a sound, but I could hear the brush of her feet in the old leaves and grass on the ground as she lippedy-lipped at my side, as a rabbit does.
Finally, when we were out of range, Grandpa got down, put my clicker back in my mouth, coaxed Donella into his arms, and he put her on my neck in front of the saddle, where she huddled in front of the pommel. Then he mounted up again, and I carried them both back home.
More to come, folks. Stay tuned.