A Life Sentence
by Andy Hollis
©1999 Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
There is much that love can survive,
but some changes are more difficult than others to accept.
The windshield shattered as Will's old sedan plowed into something large and dark in the middle of the road. He screamed as the car rolled. Sometime Later, he opened his eyes irritated by the flashing red lights of the emergency crew. Will's car, a battered Camry, lay at an impossible angle in a ditch with a tree branch poking through the roof.
A police officer forced the driver's door open. "Are you okay?"
"I've been better. I hurt too much to tell. What happened?"
"Looks like you hit a horse. Don't try to move, the paramedics will be here in any second."
"A horse?" Will managed to glance over his shoulder at the dark blob he could make out on the road. "What a waste. More money on the hoof than I'll ever see, and the owners couldn't keep it stabled?"
A siren sounded from behind as the ambulance arrived. "What's your name, sir, and is there someone I can call?"
"I'm Will Newton, and call my wife -- Jennifer. She'll never believe this. She ran into a hawk last week and it cracked the windshield. I had to go her one better." He winced with the pain. "What time is it?"
"Almost midnight," the officer answered then moved aside for the medics. "Someone from my department will meet you at the hospital, sir. We can get a statement when they patch you back together."
"Thanks." Will passed out as the medics placed the padded collar on his neck, and the backboard behind the seat.
If Will were to described his life it would be simply: "No complaints." After 50 years he had no significant accomplishments, but he was comfortable. His marriage of 30 years was sound, although it took many bumpy years to say that. All three kids were grown and didn't bring the grand kids over that often. A job in computer support was less than thrilling, but after an accident in basic training early on, many career doors had been closed.
He could have done without his paunch, and his balding head, he thought, but still -- no complaints.
Now, as he lay in traction, two weeks after his accident he had a big complaint. He glanced from the lawyer back to the paper and back to the man. "Ten million dollars? Are they on drugs or something? Even if I was at fault, and I'm not, where could I get that kind of money?"
"I am afraid that the Coopers are leaving that to you. You caused the death of one of their thoroughbreds and they expect full compensation."
"But it's their liability. They let the animal roam the streets as it were. The cops are charging them with neglect and their insurance is paying for all of this." Will gestured as best as he could. "I'm going to be here for months and months and they have the gall to pull this?"
"This is a civil case that has nothing to do with criminal liability or lack thereof. You will be notified about the court date. Good day, Mr. Newton."
Will cursed at the lawyer's back, and was still cursing when his wife arrived after work. He said nothing as he passed over the court papers.
Jennifer Newton screamed as she read the brief. "Ten million dollars? Oh, honey, now what are we going to do?"
"What about that lawyer friend of yours? Turney?"
"John Turney," Jennifer said and nodded her head.
"Maybe he can figure this out or what sort of counter suit to file. Isn't there something about nuisance suits? I can't believe this is happening to me. I've always loved horses. I read more horse books when I was a kid than my sister," Will said with a long sigh. "I'd have done anything to avoid hitting this one, but I didn't have the chance."
"It's like hitting a deer, or a hawk for that matter," Jennifer agreed. "It doesn't happen that often, but it wasn't your fault." She held Will's hand and tried not to look at the mass of cuts and stitches on his face.
"Oh well," Will said with a wide grin. "At least we're in the big time now."
"You and your so called sense of humor. This is not a joking matter, Will. We could be in real trouble."
"Nothing we can't handle, babe. Think of all the times we almost wound up in divorce court. That was trouble."
Will hobbled to his front door using his cane. After seven months he could just manage to bear his own weight. His hips and pelvis would never be the same.
He opened the door and stepped aside as his lawyer ushered an elderly couple inside.
"How are you doing?" Turney said patting Will on the back.
"About the same," Will grumbled and glanced at the newcomers. "Jennifer is out shopping."
Turney, a much taller man than Will, nodded and waved his arm at the couple. "Will, I'd like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Cooper. They owned the horse that caused your accident."
"I see," Will said and offered his hand.
"Glad to meet you," Mrs. Cooper said and shook. She looked to be at least ninety and her husband looked older still. "You can call me Ma, and that's Pa."
Will lowered himself into his chair. "Since we go to trial on your lawsuit in a few days I'll pass on that if you don't mind, Mrs. Cooper. What can I do for you?"
"Will, the Coopers are willing to reach an out of court settlement with you. They have an offer you really should consider."
"A plea bargain? John, I'm surprised at you. This lawsuit was their idea, and it's an open and shut case. Their negligence with their animal has caused me seven months of intense pain and suffering."
"I know how you're feeling, Willy boy," Mr. Cooper said. "But we do have an offer that will start to make things right between us. That ten million for the horse was a little much, but this way we will still claim our rights for our lost property and make up for your accident,"
"In other words you don't stand a chance in court."
"I wouldn't say that at all," Mrs. Cooper said. "But we wanted to make this offer to you before we had to fight it out."
"She is for real," Turney said. "Go with them out to their farm and let them show you the proposal. I'll tell Jennifer what happened."
"I'd love to see the horses, but I don't know anything about horse farming."
"Don't worry," Mr. Cooper said. "You will when we get finished."
Mr. Cooper and one of his many sons gave Will a guided tour of the farm by golf cart. Will counted at least four hundred head of horses spread out over twenty fields and that barely touched the size of the operation.
"I never dreamed this place was so extensive," Will said as Cooper pulled to a stop by a long duck pond. "Llamas?" Will looked over the water at a pair of the creatures.
"That's right. If you counted we have deer, and a lot of vermin. We have dogs, cats and foxes here to help keep the rodents down, but nothing helps. Well, what do you think?"
"I am really impressed, Mr. Cooper. You must have hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in this place and the animals."
"Yep, that we do. And we want you to be a part of it. By the end of the day you will be worth more money than you've ever dreamed of, and that's a promise."
"Exactly how much are we talking about?"
"That's up to you and Ma. She's the one with the business smarts. She's waiting for us at the office. Shall we go?"
Will nodded, "Let's get this over with. It's a long ride home and I'm beat."
They drove around the horse paddocks to a huge barn. Will stepped out of the cart and stretched as he breathed in the scent of straw and few more unpleasant odors.
Several horses whickered from their stalls as Cooper led Will through the barn to a large open area that looked like a medical facility. Trays of scalpels, syringes and sponges were laid out on several tables. "Glad you could make it, Willy," Mrs. Cooper said as she introduced two more of her sons. "This is the heart of our farm. This is where we make the horses we have for sale."
"I beg your pardon?" Will shrugged, and said, "Oh, you have a controlled breeding program?"
"Nope, too much of a bother. Did Pa tell you what we had to offer?"
"Not really, Mrs. Cooper. He left that to you. You have a settlement in mind?"
She shook her head, then brushed a strand of white hair off her face. "We sure do. You see, Willy, we never expected you to pay us ten million dollars. We ain't crazy after all, but we have lost a valuable horse. The thought of fighting this in court brings most people out here anyway. So, we want you to replace the horse for us."
"How do you expect me to do that? I've been on disability payments from my job for the last seven months, and my savings are gone."
Mrs. Cooper laughed. "You've got me all wrong, Willy. When I said we make horses here, I meant it. You're going to be a horse to replace the one you killed."
"Worth a lot more money as a horse than you ever were as a human," Mr. Cooper added.
"Oh, right. You're going to cast a spell at me and make me change or just ride me at nights when I'm dreaming? I have a fractured pelvis from the accident and a fractured back. Put me in a harness and see how much work you can get out of me."
"When did you break your back?" Mr. Cooper asked.
"In the army, if you must know. I fell from an obstacle in basic training when I was -- seventeen. I haven't been able to do hard work since."
"Well we can fix that for you," Mrs. Cooper said. "We'll have to take you back some, in fact, a lot, but I've got two mares that are nursing and you'll fit right in. Okay, strip."
"And if I don't?" Will looked around as the three younger Coopers' pulled pistols out. "All the way?"
"Nothing we ain't seen before, Willy." She pressed a button on the wall and a large examination table slid out into the room. "When you finish hop up there and lie face down."
"Okay, suppose a change like that is really possible," Will said trying to get settled on the tabletop. "That was another sucker I killed?" The table opened underneath Will's groin and chains were attached to his wrists and ankles.
"Yes, it was. Horses do get out from the stables here from time to time. Nothing we can do about that, but he picked your car to commit suicide. Your tough luck," Mrs. Cooper said with a loud laugh. "Get the first shot, Pa."
Moments later, Will felt a sharp stick in his hip. He yelped as the shot began to burn. As the heat wore off, and the serum had a chance to circulate, he felt a general tingling throughout his body. His stomach heaved several times before he threw up. The pressure on his bladder grew too intense and he let go. He had no time to worry about impropriety as he heaved again and again.
As he lost fluid, his body shriveled then shrank. His scalp tingled as hair grew in furiously up top, but fell off in clumps from the rest of his body. The chains fell off his arms and legs. He glanced down and laughed.
"I'm a kid. Look at me," he said more to himself as he examined his new arms and skinny chest.
"Going to make a fine colt," Mrs. Cooper said. She held up a mirror in front of Will's face.
"That doesn't look like me," Will said, curious. "My face was never that sharp when I was a kid the first time." He cleared his throat. "Even my voice changed back?"
"Yep, it did. We weren't picky about what kid you turned into, but we fixed your spine for you, though."
"Pa's right," Mrs. Cooper said. "Now you get the real shot."
The men reattached the chains to Will's thinner wrists and ankles, then lowered the tabletop.
Will flinched at the second shot, but didn't say anything. "Now what?"
"We wait. You have a choice. You can let yourself change into a horse -- or die. There is food and water in those troughs, until you can reach them on your own you will have nothing. As soon as your legs get long enough to hold you up, the table will slide back and the chains will open. You can drink your fill then, but we will have a mare to nurse you.
"People have fought the change for days until we let them die of thirst, and seeing all the water you lost changing down to a child, you won't be able to hold out for that long. The boys are going to muck out your stall, and give you fresh hay. We'll check back on you from time to time."
"How long do I have to spend as a horse? I do have a wife and mortgage to support."
Mrs. Cooper shook her head. "One change, and that's it. Once you're a horse you can never turn back no matter how much of the serum we gave you. Found that out the hard way with great grandpa. He didn't take it well, but at least we had a serum that really worked."
"I'll bet. I expected a law suit, but not a life sentence."
Will wanted to cry, but couldn't. From time to time he glanced at the mirror. His new face looked so familiar, but he couldn't place it. Even if he did get out of here, no one would believe his story. He looked to be eleven or twelve, and the best he could hope for was a stint in some state home, or life on the streets. Certain that the Coopers had a fail safe method of hiding human bodies, the thought of dying right then did not appeal to him. But neither did the thought of spending his life as a horse.
Gradually, the shadows in his stall lengthened, and he heard whickers and snuffles from the other horses in the barn. He wondered if any had gone through this, and would they understand him if he said something. Probably give the Coopers a great laugh at that, he thought. He wouldn't put it passed them to have the place wired.
That's it, Will thought and laughed. He remembered where he had seen that face before, and he felt as if he had remembered an old and dear friend... But was it possible to act on that memory? There was some serious thinking to do.
The change was somewhat self directed, he thought, since he could prevent the change from happening. But suppose he could go one step further and make the change follow his thoughts. One way to find out, and if this didn't work -- well, he would be a horse anyway. However, if it did work he could salvage something from his life.
At full dark, Will concentrated on his old memories and the face he had seen in the mirror until he built a realistic image in his mind's eye. He kept that image firmly in front of his thoughts as he felt his ears, then his arms and legs tingle.
Will's hands, then feet balled up into hooves. Leg and arm muscles stretched as the bones grew and reformed into four legs. The process did not hurt much, but it was tedious. He kept his eyes closed as he felt his tail grow in. Standing up on his new hooves, the table slide back into the wall, and the chains fell off.
A horrible itch ran up and down his spine, that spread to Will's legs as dark tan and brown hair sprouted over his body. He flicked his tail a few times, but found no relief. Then the next change started. Will's neck began to stretch pulling his upper torso with it. He felt it grow up and around his newly equine shoulders and forelegs. Will bent over and lowered his head to the water. He drank, then studied his reflection as best as he could in the dimly lit trough. Still a boy, with a wet face, and elf pointed ears. Two nubs formed on his neck as human style shoulder bones grew in with a new clavicle framing his human neck. The bumps gradually filled out and he flexed his arms, then hands and fingers. The tingling stopped, and he ran his hands down his human chest to the line of horse's hair that came in right where he would expect a navel.
For the next hour, Will practiced being a centaur and learned two important lessons. The less he thought about walking the easier it was to control four limbs, and that his digestive processes were entirely equine. In fact, he had the same control over bodily functions as a horse. Sleeping inside would be out of the question for the time being. Confident he could walk and run on his new legs Will took a long drink from the trough. Although he figured he was now a vegetarian the horse chow looked less than appealing.
It was odd to feel the water travel all the way down his chest to his horses stomach. Just as odd as feeling his breath follow a similar route. C. S. Lewis was wrong. He did not have two stomachs or two sets of lungs. As far as he could tell he had nothing in his human half except the shoulder bones and ribs. Oh well, can't worry about the mechanics of the change, he thought, he had to get out of there.
Since the Coopers' had left his clothes in the stall, he pulled on his undershirt. It hung on him like a dress, but it was something to cover his bare chest. There would be no point in trying to wear pants. He checked his wallet, then tied his pants around his waist. He pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and wrote out a note:
|Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cooper:
So nice of you to have me over. Sorry I couldn't stay longer, but other business calls. If you need me you can reach me through my lawyer. Loved that bit about turning people into horses. What a riot.
Thanks for a lovely time.
He trotted out of his stall to face half a dozen horses. "Well? What do you think?" Several of the animals snorted as he demonstrated his new form. "Wish me luck, and believe me, I'm not about to run in front of any cars."
It took a minute to get oriented outside. Will ran, with a steady canter, in the direction of the main road. He made it, and successfully jumped the property fence. He laughed, and fought the urge to jump it again. This new body was incredible. It would take a while to get used to the extra mass not to mention the extra legs, but every muscle felt charged with electricity. He could run all night if wished and still feel ready for more.
Pacing himself, he trotted along the road as deeply in the woods as he could manage. He gave silent thanks that there was no traffic. He crossed the road to a small strip shopping center deserted by the hour of the evening. Keeping behind the buildings, he waited for a while before he dared to use a pay phone partially hidden on the wall of a convenience store.
"Hello?" Jennifer's voice sounded strained.
Will tried to lower his voice, but the best he could manage was a scratchy squeak. "Hi, babe, it's me. I got away from that -- farm, and I need help."
"Will?" Jennifer half screamed. "Are you alright? Where have you been all day? Your voice sounds awful. Were you hurt?"
"No. I've never been better as a matter of fact, but the Coopers did something to me. Please Jen, meet me at the Evan's market with the van. Just pull into the lot, open the gate and promise me you won't start screaming no matter what you see when I get in."
"It's that bad?"
"You wouldn't believe this in a million years, babe. At least, not until you see me. Call John Turney and get him to meet us at the house. That was some -- settlement he worked out."
"Okay, I'll be there in a few minutes."
"I knew I could count on you. Love you."
Will trotted away from the phone booth and back into the woods as he headed down the street to the market. If anyone was coming after him, that phone booth would be the most logical place to look.
Twenty minutes later he heard the van pull into the parking lot, and stop with the engine idling. He flicked his tail back and forth until he heard the gate pop open. After a quick peek around the building, he made a dash for the car. Will half-jumped, then half-crawled into the van, and grabbed a blanket to cover his lower half before he closed the gate.
"That's it, babe. I'm in. Let's get out of here."
Jennifer stared at the apparition in the back of her car. She saw a small boy, with sharply pointed ears wearing what appeared to be Will's undershirt. "Who are you? What are you?"
"It's me, or at least what's left of me. I'm still your husband -- I swear it, although I know I look a little different."
"Oh, Will, must you? This is no time for your so-called sense of humor. What did they do to you. I could swear I -- take off that blanket."
"What, now? In public? I'm really surprised at you, Jen," he said catching the expression on his wife's face. "Okay."
In the van's interior lights, they took a minute to study Will's dark tan and brown nether regions. He had a coal black tail and black hooves.
"Kind of cute, don't you think?" Will asked with a wide grin.
Jennifer shook her head as she revved the engine and headed for home. "John should beat us there."
Parking in the garage, Jennifer made sure the door shut before she helped Will out of the van. Will found that standing he was now a bit shorter than his wife even with his long equine legs. In fact, he came up to her shoulders. He tried for a hug, but Jennifer pulled quickly away.
"I told John to wait inside. We'd better check on him."
Will's hooves clattered on the kitchen tile and he hurried through to the living room carpet. "John?"
John Turney took one look at Will and spat out his drink. "Jennifer? Will?"
"It's me, John," Will said and held out his arms. "In the flesh -- mostly horseflesh now, I'll admit but it's still me."
Jennifer came up behind Will. "It's Will, John, it really is."
"But -- but this is impossible. I can't believe you pulled me out of bed for this trick."
"No trick," Will said and pulled up his undershirt. "The connection is real, and if you would care to step out into the back lawn with me I'll prove to you, in no uncertain terms, how real this form is." He headed for the glass doors.
"What do you mean?" Jennifer asked.
"Just think of it as free fertilizer."
"Will? Do you have to mention that?"
"Yes, I do, babe, because in a minute it will be on the carpet. I'm not housebroken yet." He stepped outside but left the door open until he had finished.
"Okay, I believe you," Turney said quietly. "What happened on the farm?"
"Besides this? Not much. They've been doing this for years."
"What? Making centaurs?"
Will shook his head. "They have a serum that turns people into horses. It would be interesting to find out how many people have vanished from that farm never to be found again. It isn't murder since there are no bodies to be found, but it is a life sentence.
"For me, they had to go an extra step because of my back. They couldn't sell a horse with a fractured spine, so they took me back before I had my accident in basic. So, they make me a kid, then shot me with the horse juice. They didn't count on this, though. I tried to direct the change myself, and it worked. Instead of just another plow horse, I'm a centaur."
"But why do that to yourself?" Jennifer demanded.
"For one thing, I didn't want to wind up a mute animal. You would never have found out what happened to me; besides as the world's only living centaur, I'll bet I'm worth a mint on the talk show circuit. It's a good thing I remembered my childhood, because they had a mare all set to nurse me."
"What do you mean?" Turney cut in.
"When I was growing up, my favorite TV show was the cartoon adventures of Hercules. The show featured a young centaur named..."
"Newton, of course," Turney said with a sigh.
"Right. I really identified with Newton when I was a kid and I spent hours trying to feel like and be a centaur. I loved that show." Will laughed, "Then there was Matt Bradley. Good old Matt. He was a football player in junior high school. You know the type, mostly brawn and short on brains, but he was pretty nice when you got to know him.
"For years he had been a bully -- to me and a lot of the other kids. I remember one afternoon, he caught me by my locker, and said, 'Hey, Newton.' Instead of trying to run I answered back, 'Hey, Hercules, what are we going to do today, Herc?' I started playing up the centaur sidekick to the hilt, and Matt loved it. In fact, that name caught on and for years everyone called him 'Herc'."
"I don't like this one little bit, Will. I don't like the expression on your face and the tone in your voice when you told us that. How close were you to this boy?"
Will gave his wife a direct glance and smiled again. "Very. We were both young, and we did fool around, quite a lot. All through Junior High we had this thing going. He found girls when we moved into High School, and so did I. Our relationship wasn't that passionate, but we did have our moments."
"And where is this Matt now?" Jennifer asked with ice in her voice.
"He died in Viet Nam. His mother knew about us, and she was very gentle with me when she broke the news. My mother and father couldn't understand how much I grieved for him.
"I volunteered for the army, Jen. This was before the lottery and I had heard that volunteers got better treatment than the draftees. I wanted to fight for Matt's memory. I didn't intend to break my back in basic. "Look, Jen, I know you are going to fuss about this, but try not to be jealous of a very old memory. Right now, I am remembering a lot of things that happened to me when I was eleven and twelve the first time. Matt was someone I loved, in a way, long ago, and after thirty years of marriage you should know who won my heart for real."
"I know, but I never knew about this. You never told me you had a -- boy friend."
Will nodded, "It wasn't something I thought about much. Can we do anything about this scam, John?"
"Changing the subject is the best thing we can do," Turney commented. "It will take time and research, but what are you going to do? It's not going to be easy hiding a centaur."
"I don't intend to hide, at least, not for long."
The next morning, an uniformed policeman knocked on the door with a search warrant. "I'm sorry for the interruption, Mrs. Newton, but we have a report that your husband may have taken a valuable colt from the Cooper Farm."
"Feel free to look, but I haven't seen Will since yesterday afternoon. All I ask is that you keep the noise down, please. My nephew, Evan, is staying with us. He's eleven, and a late sleeper. This has to be some sort of mistake. Will's not a thief."
"Maybe so, but the Coopers insist that he's responsible and that he has the horse with him."
Jennifer laughed. "That's definitely not my Will. He's never ridden a horse in his life, due to his fractured spine and he wouldn't have the first idea what to do with one. He really didn't mean to hurt the first horse, you know. He wouldn't do anything to hurt another."
"I know it doesn't make sense, but we just go by the reports."
With Jennifer's cooperation, the police were finished quickly and did not wake the sleeping nephew in the guestroom.
Over breakfast, Will found that his new stomach loved Cheerios with milk and needed a lot more than his usual one bowl. Orange juice was in, but coffee was right out.
"We have to do something," Will said as he finished. "We can't just hide all the time and the Coopers are not going to give up on me. I did a lot of thinking last night, and I want you to trust me on something."
"Okay, but I don't like the sound of this."
Will poured another glass of milk. "We need to get out of here. I'll call Mrs. Cooper from the car."
"But... Okay, I know that look, too. I'll get ready." Outside, Jennifer started the van and checked the street several times before backing out and driving away from the house. Will dialed the phone and waited. "Ma Cooper, please. It's Will Newton calling."
After a few minutes, Mrs. Cooper answered. "Is that you, Willy? Thought that serum might get you into trouble. You ready to come back, yet?"
"I'm fine, Ma. I'm not in any trouble at all. You might be having the problems, though. I'm going public with this today, and there's nothing you can do to stop me. I have more than enough proof to blow your operation sky high. As I see it, we can do this the easy way and we will all make a lot of money at it, or we can do it the hard way."
"Okay, I'm willing to listen, but I don't want none of that high and mighty language of yours."
"Of course not. But come on Ma, I don't believe for a second that you're just a back woods country girl. Now this is what I had in mind. I think it's time that you and Pa quit scamming suckers like me. I have a better way."
"To be blunt, have you ever thought of using your powers for good instead of evil?" Will had to grin in spite of the harsh look on Jennifer's face.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"You and Pa have caused a lot of pain and heartache over the years, but what for? Suppose I told you I could get you volunteers. In fact, I could get you people that would be willing to pay good money for the privilege of working your farm as horses. I can get you draft horses, Andalusians, race horses -- you name it."
"Folks would want to be horses?" She said slowly, as if not believing a word.
"Once I prove to them that the change is real they will be pounding on your door begging for that serum. After we do the horses, since the change is self-directed, we can work on the mules and the deer. Do you have any idea how popular werewolves are right now? You could start your own pack since you and the boys would fit right in. I also know several otters and a porcupine or two.
"Once word gets out about your age regression serum think of all the big name stars that would have to visit the Cooper Salon. Word of mouth advertising, in this case, would pay off almost instantly. Take off a few years or a lot and you will be a goddess in Hollywood."
"That does make sense. Could you hold on for a minute?"
"Sure, Ma, go right ahead."
After a long wait, Mrs. Cooper came back on the line. "That should do her. I don't want to be mean, now, Willy, but did you know that Pa Cooper and all of the boys are outside your house right now?"
"No, I didn't. Are you sure you got the right address? I sure don't see anyone outside."
"It's 1164 Willow Tree Lane?" Ma asked slowly.
"Yes, it is."
"Then you had better walk out that front door with your hands up or my boys will start blasting the house and anyone in it."
"Glad you said that, Ma. Jennifer and I are nowhere near the house. In fact we're driving away as fast as we can. I mean, you have heard of cell phones after all, haven't you? And since I have your confession, as it were, on tape, I hope you tell your boys not to do anything rash because you will pay for it."
"Hold on... Okay, they checked and your garage is empty. Now what?"
"That's up to you, Ma. In a few minutes, I'm going to display my proof to the -- well I don't want to say exactly where I am right now, but to the general public and then the TV men and reporters. So, what do I say about the Cooper Farm?"
"What sort of proof do you have? No one's going to believe your story about people changing into horses, or little boys."
"I know that. But I did change last night and quite a bit. It's just that I changed into a centaur and not a full horse. When the good people around here see me and check me out to make sure that I'm real..."
"Oh my God. We're finished."
"I may be a city boy, but I never said I was a rube. Half of all you make from my ideas or there will be a lot of angry people asking questions about what happened to all those missing farm hands."
The alarm rang promptly at six. Will yawned, stretched, and switched on his stereo. Half-dancing to the music, he mucked out his stall, swept the stable and added fresh straw for the night. He turned off the radio, picked up the package and trotted to the house. He put on the coffeepot for Jennifer, started a large helping of oatmeal for himself and waited.
Jennifer walked into the kitchen yawning. "Thought I heard you down here."
"Happy Anniversary," Will said and pulled out his package. "I can't believe it's been 32 years, Jen."
"It's too early for this, Will," Jennifer said quickly pulling away from the offered hug. "I didn't get you anything, but then why bother?"
"It's okay," Will said trying to shrug off the statement. "We can still celebrate. I'm not old enough to drink, yet, but the vet said I would reach adolescence next year..."
"Oh, goody," Jennifer commented. "You really are into this whole thing aren't you?"
"Sure, the herd is growing every week now with new converts, I have more offers than I know what to do with, and we are richer than I ever dreamed possible. I didn't hear any complaints when we moved in here," Will said waving his arms to include the entire ranch house.
"No, it's not that, it's that," she said pointed at Will's lower body. "You really love being a centaur. I mean, you never walk anywhere -- you prance. Your tail is always up and flowing and you never get rid of that stupid grin of yours."
"I'm happy. There's nothing wrong with that -- is there? This body is incredible. I know, one of these days I will be taller than you again, but this has been a fantastic year -- year and a half. I do love this shape and so does everyone else at the farm. Shelley Carter is expecting a foal, and..."
"It's disgusting," Jennifer said. "There, I said it. How can you live like that -- like some animal out in the barn? You aren't the man I married -- you aren't even a man anymore."
"I will grow," Will protested.
"I didn't mean that. You aren't human, and it's very hard for me to keep looking at you. In fact, I wish you had never called me that night you changed. I've tried, Will, I've tried so hard, but you're a monster, an abomination, and I can't stand it anymore."
"Jen, there isn't anyone in the world that knows your heart, mind and soul better than I do. I can't believe I'm hearing this. Would you rather I had turned into a horse to be sold by the Coopers? You never would have found out what happened."
"Yes, that would have been much better than this. I know you can't change back to human, and I know you didn't choose this, but it's too much." Jennifer broke into tears. "I keep thinking of you out there in that stable at night instead of in bed with me, and I hate it. I know you can't move back in without an unholy mess, but..."
"You could join me," Will said almost in a whisper. "You would make a fine looking filly and we could grow up together."
"Only to mate like horses? You want me to carry foals? I am not and I never will be an animal. Go. Live with your herd. Find yourself a filly to grow up with, or a stallion if you want, but get out of here. I'll have John serve divorce papers at the Farm."
"Jen, you can't be serious. I know we've talked about divorce often enough in the old days, but everything was getting to be so good again. Ma and Pa Cooper took a lot from us, but instead of turning on each other couldn't we make the best of this situation?"
"No! There is no situation for us ever again. You want me to make a change that I cannot do, and I want you to change back. We're through, Will. Get used to it, horse boy. Go find another Hercules."
"That's low, Jen, really low," Will said choking back anger. "What's going on -- really. This isn't like you."
"It is now," she poured a cup of coffee. "Look, Will, I met someone. He's our age, but at least he's human and not a pre-adolescent horse. You had your fling now I'm having mine."
"But mine was ten years before I even met you and vowed to be faithful. Okay, okay. I get the message. I'll make arrangements to move the things out of my stable."
Dazed and disoriented Will packed a suitcase and called for a ride over to the farm. He still did not care for the Coopers' or their "boys", since the change a year and a half ago, but there was room for him at the centaur paddock.
"Got a big surprise for you," Chet Cooper said as they pulled into the farm property. "See Ma at the Changing Salon. She's been waiting since you called."
"Got it," Will answered.
Gone was the barn setting he had endured. Now the Coopers had built a huge glass and concrete building that served as an age regression and transformation clinic. Will trotted into the building only to be grabbed by a small bundle of living energy.
"Grandpa, you're here. I'm gonna be a centaur too. Just like you."
"Bobby? Where are your folks?" Will carried the five-year-old back into the waiting room. "Angie? Bill?"
"Oh, hi, Dad," Bill Newton said. "Didn't expect you here today." "There you go, kiddo," Will said and set the boy down. "Have you talked to your mother about this?"
"No," Bill admitted. "It was going to be a surprise. All of us are going through with this, and we have talked about this for a long time. Bobby can't wait, and for that matter, neither can we," Bill said with a quick grin at his wife. "I must have come by this weird desire to be a centaur honestly."
Will smiled and shook his head. "That you did, and fully corrupted your family as well. Bill, this is going to kill your mother. She just handed me my walking papers because I'm not a human anymore. In fact, I'm a beast -- a monster and an abomination to use her words.
"She will blame me for this," Will said with an irritated flick of his tail, "but, welcome to the herd." He hugged his son and daughter -in-law. "I can't tell you how much I've loved being a centaur, and I know you will, but be prepared for a real hard time from your Mom."
"Tell her you went through the change as a surprise and it was over by the time I came in."
"Okay, we're ready," Angie said. "I am so sorry about you and Jen. Isn't today your anniversary?"
"Yes, it is -- was. Great day for a divorce -- sorry, I didn't mean to sound bitter, but I don't know how I can get over this."
"You folks ready?" Ma asked from the door to her office.
"Yes, we are," Bill said firmly. "Can we go together?"
"Of course, that will help the change -- especially for the colt. You staying here, Willy?"
"I would like to be there, too."
The whole process, now that it wasn't forced, seemed to take a few minutes. Bobby changed first, and easily with his grandfather holding his hand and talking him through it. Will held him up as the boy grew used to his new and somewhat wobbly legs. Will was happy to see that both Angie and Bill had elected to do the age regression as well.
"We can stay here, for a while," Will said, "or we can talk about getting a new place more horse friendly."
"That would be great, Dad. The herd leader -- Mark? He thought it would be a good idea if we stayed with the herd and let Bobby adjust with the other colts."
"Look at me," Bobby said started to jump and kick his new legs. "This is so cool. Can we go running, Dad?"
"You bet, kid. We all have a lot to learn about this."
"Mom," Bill said into the phone. "How are you..?
"Yes, I talked to Dad this morning, and he told me what happened...
"No, I'm not taking his side over yours, but Dad and I have always been close...
"Yes, even after his change. I've always loved centaurs, too, and you know how Bobby feels about his grandpa. That's one of the reasons I was calling. I know how much you hated what happened to Dad, but I never once heard you say anything against centaurs in general...
"I wouldn't say that. Mom, Dad's been a natural in all the movie and TV parts he's had. I've seen every one of his pictures with Bobby, and -- and we think Bobby would be a natural, too." Bill held the phone away from his ear.
"Mom, listen to me. There's nothing wrong with centaurs. How can you say that? You've lived with Dad for over a year and he...
"I know he's not human, but he's still Dad, and we love him. Of course I love you too, Mom, and so does Bobby...
"You know that, but Dad was too late this morning... I mean, today was your anniversary and we wanted to give you and Dad a really great surprise...
"We turned into centaurs too... Yes, Angie and Bobby did as well. Angie and I are about Dad's age, and Bobby is still a tiny colt, but...
"No, I didn't talk this over with Lori or Sean... Mom, if you could have seen the look of pure joy on Bobby's face this morning when Dad first held him up on his new legs you wouldn't say that. He glowed. So did Angie for that matter. The experience is incredible...
"Dad's agent says he can get Bobby a lot of work, and the four of us are already booked onto a talk show... No, it's not one of the raunchy ones... You could come too, Mom... Okay, fine. I'll tell him but this wasn't his idea at all. No, he's out showing Bobby around the complex, and letting him get to know the other foals...
"If that's the way you feel, okay. I'll forget the number. Goodbye."
Angie put her arms around Bill's shoulders. "I take it she isn't thrilled with our choices?"
"No, she wants nothing to do with us ever again. We're monsters and abominations like Dad. I'd better call my brother and sister before Mom turns this into a family war."
"They seemed to take the news well about me," Will commented from the doorway. "I'll call them, if you like."
"Would you? It may go over better if you did. Where's the kid?"
"He's still down at the otter lake playing with the pups. Mark, Cheri and Tony are with him. You go on, kids. I'll let you know about the others."
Bill and Angie returned with their son in tow about twenty minutes later. "For the last time, Bobby, you can't be an otter. You've already changed all that you can. I know, sweetheart, they are having more fun than you, but you're going to be on TV and in the movies with your grandpa and they aren't."
"Oh, then I want to be in the movies with grandpa."
"Interesting news," Will said. "Sean and his crew will be here within the week. He was thinking along the same lines as you were, and this made up his mind. The kids are ready but I'm not sure about Elaine. Lori wants to, but Ted seems to agree with Jenny about our status as monsters.
"With five more coming from our family, I'd better ask Ma about building a couple more paddocks here -- first class all the way with stereos, computers and TVs. Nothing's too good for my grand kids."
The entire herd, as well as a camera crew and reporters gathered for the first live birth of a centaur. The vet and midwife helped the new centaur into the world proving that the species was viable and would breed true. The infant rose to her feet as any foal, as the crowd cheered. They left the mother to nurse in private.
"Looks like we got some more news going on," Ma said to the reporters. "Got a bunch of folks out front protesting and demonstrating against this birth."
"Come on, Dad, we can handle this." Sean Newton, unlike his brother was a fully adult centaur, and towered over the others.
"Okay," Will said, "but has anyone called the police about this?"
"Yep," Pa Cooper said. "I just did."
Twenty people crowded around the front gate. All of them carried signs and most shouted out slogans as the cameras set up.
"Hey, there's the horse boy," said John Turney standing next to Jennifer Newton.
"Here we are, Will," Jennifer said holding onto John's arm possessively. "Going to do anything about it?"
A flood of emotions crossed Will's face as he stared at the couple. "You knew? You knew I was going to be a horse?" The smug expression on Turney's face confirmed it for the lawyer, but Jennifer shook her head.
"Of course not, Will. How could you think of such a..." Jennifer also saw the look on the man's face. "You knew what would happen when you sent him here that day?"
"It was for us, Jennifer. I couldn't stand to see you wasting yourself on that loser. None of this would have happened if those two fools had turned him all the way to horse. Don't give me that. Will would have been much better off as a horse instead of a human."
Jennifer backed away from the lawyer shaking her head. "I believed in you -- over my husband and for what?"
"Ladies and gentleman," Will said with a bow for the rest of the crowd. "Today we are celebrating the birth of a healthy baby girl. This little one is the first natural centaur birth since the herd formed a well over a year ago..."
"Monsters, demons," several people shouted out. "How could you condemn an innocent baby to live her life as a freak?"
"We aren't here to argue or to try to justify the changes that we made. There's nothing here to see," Will announced. "You may as well go home, before the police get here."
"Freak," someone shouted. "You're nothing but an animal -- a soulless animal."
The shouts grew louder and louder. Will heard the sirens in the background. "Freaks, freaks, kill the freaks," the shouts started sounding like a roar.
"What have we ever done to you?" Sean demanded.
"Kill the freaks."
Will spotted the man with the revolver just as it fired. He felt a sting on the left side of his chest. Jennifer screamed as several men wrestled the gunman down. Will held his hand to the freely bleeding wound more surprised that anything else. Slowly his legs buckled underneath. Sean supported his father down to the ground.
Jennifer ran through the gate to kneel beside the centaur. "Oh, Will, this wasn't supposed to happen."
"What else could have happened?" Will coughed. At least the gunshot had silenced the crowd. "I'll never understand how your love for me and our kids could have turned sour like it did. But whenever you start using the language of hate you will always find crackpots to join you. It had to end like this.
"You're protesting the birth of a baby? What do you want us to do? Kill her too because she's different?"
"But it's wrong..." Jennifer said, but without conviction. She looked back at Turney.
"By whose definition?" Will held out his hand and this time Jennifer took it. "Everyone here made the choice to be here. It's right for us. No centaur has ever committed a crime, or bothered any two legger. But still you hate us for being different..." Will let his voice fade as he closed his eyes.
"No. Will you have to hang on until the ambulance gets here. I can't lose you now."
"I'm just a monster -- a soulless animal. Does it matter to you?"
"I never stopped loving you. I just pray that someday you could forgive me for what I've done. You were different. I didn't understand the changes that had happened to you. I was scared. I didn't want anyone to think I had become an animal too. Will, I'd make the change right now to be with you again, and if it would help bring you back? I was mad -- more than I could say about the thought of you and that boy. I know it doesn't make sense, but that's they way I felt. I had to do something, and I hated the centaur part since you loved it so much. But I never wanted to see you hurt like this. I don't want you to die on me."
"But..." Will said trying to sit up, but Jennifer held him down.
"Don't try to move." She checked the bandage on Will's chest. "Barry shot you in the heart."
Two policemen approached. "There is an ambulance on the way. Are you okay?"
"I've been better," Will said. "Must you always ask that? I've been shot in chest. I ran into a horse. No, I'm not okay."
"Looks like it just missed your heart, son. You've been incredibly lucky."
"I know," Will said and coughed again with a firm glance at his sons. "And now, my wife and their mother is coming back, and it's about time. I'm hanging in there," he said with a squeeze to Jennifer's hand, "with your support, Jen."
"Dad?" Bill said.
"Get Ma, when I go to the hospital she can get your mother ready for the big change. I know I'll make it now, sweetheart. We'll be back together again, and you will..." Will coughed again and let his hand slip from Jennifer's."
"I'll do it, Will. I'll do anything for you. I can't lose you."
"Want me to take that slug out of your chest?"
"Oh, hi, Doc," Will said with a sheepish grin.
"I tried to tell you, Dad."
"This will just take a moment," the vet said rummaging in his bag.
"But with the bullet that close to his heart doesn't he need open heart surgery?" one of the officers asked.
"His heart's fine," the vet said slapping Will's equine chest. "Nothing there except muscle and bone. I'll get an x-ray later to make sure. I'd say he's going to be sore for a while, but that's all. There'll be a little sting for the lidocaine, sonny, and I'll have that out in no time."
"But I was in the middle of my best death scene, Doc. Jennifer, I..."
She shook her head. "Only you would have that much gall. I remembered after he said that. We talked about that ages ago, but when I saw you hit all I could think of was how much you really meant to me. Your packaging has changed a little, but you never really changed on the inside. I should have known, but I was too stupid to see that. Would you really have me back?"
"In a heartbeat, Jen. I won't hold you to changing, but we belong together."
"He's right, Mom." Sean said. "All of us would welcome you back."
Jennifer looked back at the few remaining people from her protest. "No more hate, but let me see the kids first. It's a big decision."
Will flashed a thumbs up to his sons. "Go on. I'll be fine here."
As the last of the crowd dispersed, Will shook his head. There would be always be people that hated anything different; and there would always be violence, but every once in a while love did show through. "Aren't you done yet? I've got to get back to my wife."
"There. It's out. Take it easy, son. You did lose a lot of blood. Let Jennifer decide for herself. I'll take you back to the clinic for some orange juice and rest."
"But I don't need... You're right, Doc. For once things are really looking up and I'm not going to spoil them now." Will let the vet help him to his feet. "Things are really getting better." He glanced out at the farm with warm smile. "Better and better. Does that serum have to be injected?"
"Don't even think about it." The vet swatted Will on the rump. "Or I will tell Jennifer everything."
"Okay, Doc, I get the point. You grown-ups are all alike. Will we grow up again as fast as horses or people?"
"You're going to find that out for yourself."
"You don't know either. Okay, but I can hardly wait to find out." With thoughts of what Jennifer would look like as a filly, he followed the vet back to the clinic.
About the Author
Andy Hollis has been writing fantasy and transformation stories since grade school. He is married, forty something and working on several novels as well as short stories. He is into Russian Music, English Literature and is learning the balalaika.