She was free. Free as a bird, spinning happily along the hillside, her dress whirling about her, all her cares and worries gone. She was human again, human for good, and the whole horrible nightmare of being a monster was gone, a wisp of a memory. He raced across the hillside and swept her up in his arms, and she swooned. She was human again, finally.
Caitlyn frowned. That girl was also a badly-acted character in a sappy movie on a TV set that couldn’t even be heard over the din of the bar. Stupid Hollywood. What did they know about dealing with this? And then, as suddenly as she had appeared, the irritating girl vanished into the unreality that had spawned her as the bartender continued flipping through channels.
Reality was less enjoyable. Caitlyn had already turned down at least three guys who’d tried to pick her up, each with successively worse pick-up lines. “Win any races lately?” had to have been the worst of the lot, at least for tonight, and the bartender had barely stifled a laugh when she’d pounded a fist over the head it came from.
Kat had been dancing at the time. Actually, she was still dancing even now. The girl was an accident waiting to happen — waiting? Hah. That boat had sailed ages ago, and had probably docked in every major world port by now. Kat was a walking disaster area covered in black fur, but she was a pretty walking disaster area covered in black fur, and guys all-too-readily forgave her klutziness and cluelessness the moment they saw her face. Caitlyn was pretty sure a few guys even liked her for that klutziness and cluelessness.
Kat walked over, surrounded by a pair of what Caitlyn presumed were men. One was at least recognizable, in Caitlyn’s mind a bit like a cross between cheetah and a lion, while the other could only be described as a tree. Not a walking, talking, tree-like man: A tree. Caitlyn looked down, and couldn’t for the life of her figure out how he moved or where his roots went as they seemed to disappear in the floor. His leaves were orangey-red, and he seemed to have left a trail of them behind him where he’d been — well, for lack of a better term, dancing.
“Hiya, Caity!” shouted Kat cheerfully. “This is Alberto,” she added, pointing at the tall, muscular, feline man on her right, “and this is Bob. He’s a tree.”
“I can see that,” said Caitlyn.
“What? You have to speak up!” shouted Kat, still dancing slightly.
“Nevermind,” said Caitlyn.
“Can we go home now?” shouted Caitlyn.
“What, why? Aren’t you having fun?”
“No. Can we go home now?” blared Caitlyn as the music suddenly stopped. She paused as a few of the other patrons stared at her. The silence was broken as the DJ announced in a loud blaring monotone whose words were mostly garbled by the microphone that he was going on break, and that they shouldn’t go anywhere because he’d be back in fifteen minutes.
“So anyway,” said Kat, “what’s the matter? There are tons of hot guys here.”
“And a tree,” said Caitlyn.
“Bob’s cool!” said Kat. “He spends all day in Central Park. His job is to ask the other trees how they’re doing and if they need anything. He saved the Park Service like fifty grand last year in like plant food and stuff.”
“Right. Hi, Bob,” said Caitlyn.
One of the tree’s branches waved at her, and then the tree turned around — although she wasn’t sure it had been facing toward her to begin with — and wandered off to the far side of the room where it struck up a conversation with a woman who appeared to have been partially turned into a bee.
“So, anyway, can we go?” asked Caitlyn.
“What? No way! You promised me three hours.”
“I didn’t promise three hours,” said Caitlyn. “You told me I was going to be out for three hours, and then you stole my keys on the subway.”
“I didn’t steal them,” said Kat. “I just borrowed them. You can have them back in... an hour and forty-five minutes.”
Caitlyn’s eyes rolled. They’d only been here an hour and fifteen? It felt like she ought to have grandchildren by now.
She blinked. Grandchildren? In this body? She had no intention of ever sticking some poor kid with half a horse for life, much less a grandkid. With any luck, she would die miserable, lonely, and childless, and her genes, her lousy rotten stinking genes, wouldn’t get passed on to some poor —
“Hey, so I’m gonna go get a table with Alberto. You wanna come?” asked Kat.
“Nah, you kids have fun,” said Caitlyn dryly. It didn’t matter. She had a spare set of keys hidden, and if Kat was gonna spend the entire night out with yet another nameless Mister-tall-dark-and-fuzzy, that was her choice. The sooner Kat got lost, the sooner Caitlyn could go home, grab that carton of slightly-freezer-burned chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, put the Neverending Story into the DVD player, curl up on the couch as best she could, and drown in somebody else’s crazy fantasies for awhile.
Kat wandered off with the the cheetah-lion man, and Caitlyn turned back to the bar. Her drink of choice tonight was, in fact, pink lemonade. Actually, it was always pink lemonade The bartender here had gotten to know her a little in the last couple of months that Kat had dragged her here, and there was always a pink lemonade ready for her, with a little umbrella and swizzle stick that made it look like a much harder drink than it actually was. And she usually didn’t even drink it until she left: It was mainly just to ward off guys who wanted to buy her drinks as a pick-up line.
“You gonna drink that?” asked a man next to her.
“Eventually,” she answered, and turned her head a little to glance at him. He was — well, near as she could tell, he looked human.
“You don’t have to be human in here,” she said. “Nobody else is.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Best Change club in the city.”
“So, you gonna change, or what?” she grumped.
“You can’t change back?”
She eyed him quizzically. “Then what’re you doing here?”
“Enjoying,” he said, smiling right into her eyes. He had a strong jawline, and wavy hair, and the way his eyes shimmered — no, she was not going to be attracted to him, no matter how good-looking he was.
“Very funny,” she said, ripping her eyes away and turning back to her drink. “That your best pick-up line?”
“Oh, I have plenty more. Which I’d use if I were trying to pick you up. Which I’m not. Just friendly conversation, y’see? Beats trying to watch that TV over there.”
“So what’s the deal?” she asked. “You got some kind of weird Change fetish or something?”
“No, I just come for the drinks,” he said.
She glanced at his glass. Water. No ice.
“You’re very strange. And — I’m very going home,” she added, as Kat walked out the front door with the cheetah-lion man, oblivious to anyone else. “Pleased to meet you, goodbye.”
“Where’s home?” the man beside her asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said. She downed her drink and started to back away from the bar.
“Actually, I would,” he said, his hand suddenly landing — gently — on hers. A tingle ran up her arm and her hand nearly jerked free of its own accord. He looked up at her with those dark, shining brown eyes, and she stopped moving. He wasn’t attractive. He wasn’t. He was — just a guy. With wavy hair. And besides, she was ugly. Which meant that those gorgeous deep eyes couldn’t possibly be looking at her like that.
“Hah, uh, I... uh... the east side. 96th. I mean 97th. I mean — but — it’s just an apartment. The Pembroke Apartments. But I’ve only lived there a few years. I’m actually from out on Long Island. Why do you want to kn — ”
“She brought you here, right? I’ve seen you two before. That girl’s something else. She loves it, you hate it, you two’re a great match-up. You’re an indoorsy kinda person, and she drags you here ‘for your own good,’ right? You don’t fit these clubs any more than I do, but I don’t do the home alone thing as well as you do. I hate the clubs, but I’m a people person, y’see? So how about next Friday, I pick you up, she sees you go out, and we can separate at Central Park? You get your night back, I get something to do with a Friday night, and she’s happy you’re ‘doing something with your time.’ It’s probably a quick jog back for you once she’s gone.”
Caitlyn bit her lip. She didn’t want to give him credit for a good idea, but —
“O — okay. That’s — that’s not a bad idea.”
“It’s settled then. Friday night at seven, it’s a not-a-date. I’m Wils, by the way.”
“‘Wills?’ Not ‘Will?’”
“Mom was Belgian,” he said. “A ‘W,’ an ‘I,’ only one ‘L,’ and an ‘S.’ I’d tell you my last name, but you’d never even hope to spell it. I was in high school before I got it right the first time.”
“Yeah, uh, don’t bother then.”
“So, anyway, Friday at seven?” he asked, his hand still resting gently on hers.
“Uh... sure. Friday at seven.”
She blinked a few times, realized she was staring at him, yanked her hand free, turned, and darted away. Slamming full-speed into the glass exit door, she turned toward him and smiled stupidly, opened it, and ran out at a faster gallop she’d ever imagined existed.