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July 2012 Volume 14 , Issue 7 submit to us!
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Changed
by Anil Balan -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

Simon woke up in a cold sweat, his head pounding to the sound of distant thunder. He was sure that he could taste blood in his mouth and for a terrible moment he wondered if the dream that he had been having had in fact been real. As he slowly came to his senses, however, he looked around and saw that he was in a bedroom surrounded by the safety of walls and a roof -- not in a forest amid a fall of leaves, which was all that he could remember before he had woken up.

The ominous feeling deep within him would not go away and it was reinforced sharply when he noticed that under the bedclothes he was naked and, more than that, he was filthy. Mud and grime were caked all over his body and there was even -- could that really be blood? Panic set in as Simon saw that his clothes lay discarded in a heap on the floor. He forced himself out of bed, his limbs creaking in protest, and lurched towards the pile, noticing with a sinking feeling that the garments were now un-wearable -- his shirt and trousers were in tatters and his jacket was covered in more stains that looked like they would require an industrial strength cleaner to remove. With a shudder Simon saw that the stains were the same mixture of muck and apparent blood that marked his own body. When he bent to examine the discarded attire something popped in his back and pain flared through his body. For a moment he was unable to move and it was only with a supreme effort that he resisted the urge to scream as he straightened his back, every movement bringing further agony as he did so. His head swam as he tried to digest what was going on -- what the hell had happened to him?

He had been having the same dream for a week now and, although on each occasion it had become more vivid and disturbing, this was the first time that something like this had happened. The dream was always the same -- he woke up naked and shivering in the woods, an almost overpowering hunger deep inside him. The hunger seemed to drive him in the dream as he always began by sniffing the air, searching the trees and stalking the forest as if in search of prey. Simon had no control over what he was doing in the dream for it was as if he had changed into something else even though he still wore the same body -- his senses and thoughts were not his own and he became all instinct. Just like an animal. The dream had also always ended in the same way, with him about to catch his prey -- although he had no idea what it was -- but just at the moment when he was ready to pounce everything went black.

Simon had no idea what the dream meant and he had told no one about it, dismissing it as the result of some sort of anxiety stemming from leaving home for the first time and starting life at university. He had been away from home before, of course, but never for so long and he thought that perhaps the fear and uncertainty that he felt on some deep level was expressing itself in this way. Unfortunately, attempting to explain the dream away as just the result of his inner anxiety did not really work because in it he was not frightened of or running away from anything -- he was a hunter with a burning bloodlust in his heart. And his explanation did not account for the fact that the dream seemed to have somehow become a reality.

Looking at himself in the mirror Simon saw that mud and bloodstains were not the only things that he had apparently picked up the night before. His body was covered in scratches and small cuts -- exactly the types of markings that he might have picked up if he had been running through a forest, whipped by the branches of trees and sliced by the sharp leaves of thick undergrowth. But in a subtle way that no one other than him might have noticed, Simon's body looked slightly different -- leaner and more muscular, as if he had been exercising rigorously. The trouble was, during his first week at university Simon had divided the majority of his waking hours between getting to know the other freshers in the college bar and reluctantly hitting the books in the library. At no point had he done sufficient exercise to justify the changes, however slight, that his body now showed.

Before Simon could pursue his thoughts to their inevitable conclusion, however, he heard a loud knock on his door. A different sort of panic surged through him then as he looked at his blood-and-grime stained body in the mirror. "Just a minute" he said, although it was more of a croak than anything resembling coherent speech. At that point, however, he did not really care whether he was understood or not, he just wanted to get rid of whoever the visitor was. He threw on a bathrobe because it was the only thing large enough to cover his entire body and went to answer the door, making sure that the pile of ragged and discarded clothes in the centre of the room was safely moved under the bed and out of sight as he did so.

When Simon opened the door and saw that it was only Ian he heaved a sigh of relief -- not because he was particularly glad to see him but because he would be easy to get rid of.

"Where have you been? We've been waiting for you . . . " Ian had started talking when the door opened and before he had seen Simon. When he did he stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open as if he was suddenly unable to form words and sentences.

"What is it?" said Simon, not bothering to keep his tone polite. He was unnerved by the other's expression and felt horribly self-conscious. Simon had covered himself up as best he could and wiped the stains off his face -- what could possibly be bothering Ian so much now?

"Nothing Si -- are you alright?"

"Yes, it's just that you woke me up," said Simon then added, thinking quickly as Ian looked pointedly at his bathrobe, "I was about to go for a shower. What's up anyway?"

Ian nodded, although he looked unconvinced by his explanation. What was his problem? Simon thought, feeling irrationally annoyed.

"You didn't turn up for this morning's supervision and the others sent me to look for you. Doctor Perkins was pretty upset so I'm supposed to rush back with you but if you're not feeling up to it . . . " Ian trailed off, this time refusing to look Simon in the eye.

Simon's heart sunk -- he had completely forgotten about the first session of the term with his criminal law professor and for a moment he thought of making up an excuse not to attend. A few minutes ago a story about a headache might not have been a lie, so queasy had he felt, but that had passed and if anything he now felt strangely invigorated. He suddenly had lots of pent up energy which he wanted to spend running and clearing his thoughts, not cooped up in a room with his books. Just then a supervision with his tutor was the last thing that Simon felt he needed but he realised that he could not afford to make a bad impression at this early stage.

"Just give me a minute," said Simon with a sense of resignation. He did not invite Ian in, however, and pointedly closed the door on him while he got changed.

A sense of normality descended on Simon as he went through the usual routine of brushing his teeth and putting on a pair of jeans and a casual shirt. Although it was October it was still mild and, hoping it would not rain, he did not put on a coat -- the only one that would have been light enough for the time of year was under his bed covered in dirt and blood and probably ruined permanently in any case.

Luckily for Simon it was clear and bright when they stepped outside, although there was a slight chill in the air serving notice of the colder days ahead. He felt much better out in the open for some reason, however, and the vague fuzzy sensation in his head began to clear for the first time since he had got out of bed. Despite this improved sense of wellbeing Simon did not yet feel up to conversation and had cause to be grateful for the fact that Ian seemed to be in such a fearful rush that he did not attempt to enter into a dialogue. Simon felt only a slight twinge of guilt at the fact that his bad temper was probably as much the reason for this as the need for the haste.

Like most freshers at Jesus College Simon's room was in First Court, an open-ended quadrangle exposed on one side to the green expanse of the Orchard, a well-trimmed lawn decorated by a couple of odd-looking sculptures, and the wilder grass of the hockey pitch beyond it. Unusually among the older colleges of the university, most of which were crammed into Cambridge's tiny town centre fighting for space with the many shops, houses and municipal buildings, Jesus was situated in spacious grounds slightly east of the busy hub, surrounded by groves, gardens and fine meadows of its own, with views across the stream to Jesus Green and across the road to Midsummer Common. The green tranquillity reflected the original function of the site, to provide a suitably reflective home for the nuns of the Benedictine convent that had once stood there until it was closed down by the Bishop of nearby Ely and re-founded as a college over five hundred years ago.

It was this peace and quiet that had drawn Simon to the college when he had first visited Cambridge, as well as its location, sheltered by the riverside meadows from the din of the outside world. In sight of the extensive grounds of Jesus, Simon felt at peace and he was seized by the sudden need to escape into the greenery all around him. Ian's presence was almost the only thing that prevented Simon from haring off into the trees then and there. He felt resentment boil up inside him although whether it was directed at Ian, his suddenly intrusive studies or something else entirely he could not have said.

As they passed from First Court into Cloister Court, where Doctor Perkins' rooms were located, Simon began to feel the sense of unease that he had suffered while he had been inside earlier return. Cloister Court, a place of gothic arches and richly carved wooden screens, was the heart of the old nunnery. The wildness that could be viewed from the more open First Court was replaced by the peace and quiet of a monastic enclave. Rather than soothing him, however, Simon grew gradually more unnerved. He felt stifled suddenly as the ancient walls closed in around him and he lost sight of the green earth and the blue sky. A thumping that he had barely been aware of since he had woken up that morning grew steadily fainter deep inside him, like footsteps fading away in the distance. He did not feel comforted by the feeling, however, and the instant that the thumping disappeared altogether, Simon wanted it back. He felt less alive without it.

As they walked Simon was conscious that his companion kept directing furtive glances his way when he thought that he was not aware of it. He could guess that Ian probably wanted to ask him again whether he was alright and wondered what discouraged him -- not that he was complaining of course. Like most of the freshers drawn together at Jesus that year Simon and Ian only knew each other in the most superficial of ways. They had shared a couple of pints in the college bar and spoken of their lives leading up to that point -- a fairly mundane exchange on both their parts consisting of the monotonous regurgitation of ‘A' Level results and stories of their summer holidays, schools and home towns. Subjects outside this comfort zone had not been covered by either of them, which probably explained Ian's reluctance to push the matter too far with him just then.

When they eventually reached the staircase leading up to the supervision room, Ian turned to Simon with an embarrassed look.

"Do you want me to wait while you," he gestured vaguely at nothing in particular, "you know . . . "

"While I what?" said Simon, in no mood to play guessing games.

"Don't you want to clean up?" said Ian.

Simon gave him a puzzled look. He knew that he had not had a chance to shower but he had already changed and wiped most of the dirt off his face and body -- what more did Ian want?

"I'm fine, really." He said, hoping that would be an end to it.

Ian gave him an incredulous look before finally, after a delay that made it clear that the words had only come out of him unwillingly, bursting out.

"You look like you haven't shaved for a month and the smell -- it's worse than my dog at home!"

Simon was so shocked by Ian's outburst that he took a step back. He nodded wordlessly at him and after only a slight hesitation Ian disappeared up the staircase to Doctor Perkins' room. Worried now, Simon ducked into the toilet on the ground floor of the building.

The fluorescent lighting in the public lavatory was much brighter than the dim bulb in his own room and in its glare Simon gave himself a really good look in the mirror for the first time, seeing details that had been obscured previously by the grime that had covered him earlier. With a shock Simon saw that Ian had been right, even though he knew that he had shaved the previous morning he now looked like he had not picked up a razor for weeks. Adding to the wild look was his hair, grown shaggy and unkempt despite the fact that it had only recently been cut. God only knew what he smelt like.

As he looked at himself in the mirror Simon saw something which suddenly made his blood run cold. There was something in the eyes of the image staring back at him that was unfamiliar -- a flicker like a distant flame. Maybe it was just a strange reflection of the light but for a moment Simon thought that his eyes had shone yellow. Like the eyes of a wolf.

Fighting the urge to strike the mirror and break it into tiny pieces Simon instead gave his face another wash. There was no help for the days-old stubble that he suddenly found he had but he at least did his best to straighten out his hair. There was no aftershave in the washroom but he lathered some soap and scrubbed his face and neck, hoping that would be enough to dispel the animal odour that Ian had insisted also clung to him.

When he felt that he had made himself as presentable as he could he summoned up the courage to go to the supervision. However, each step that he took up the staircase which led to Professor Perkins' room became harder. His feet seemed to grow heavier and it was as if he was pushing against an invisible wall that grew stronger the nearer he got to his destination. Even though his mind wanted him to attend the session with the Professor, his body was rebelling against his mental instructions. A part of him, the same part that had almost bitten off Ian's head earlier and made him want to shatter the reflection that he saw in the mirror, wanted to take him away from other humans and their constructions. Away and out into the wild.

It was only with a supreme effort of will that Simon got to the top of the stairs and knocked on the Professor's door. On hearing the faint sound of his tutor's voice through the wood it took a further exertion of his resolve for Simon to actually open the door and step through it into the room beyond.

Professor Perkins, a small bespectacled man wearing the requisite Cambridge Don's tweed jacket, was sat in his customary armchair while the rest of the supervision group was spread out around him with Ian perching uncomfortably on the window seat and the two girls, plump Martha and freckled Amelia, having parked themselves on the rather more comfortable sofa. The scene was casual and familiar to Simon from the two supervisions that he had already attended earlier that term but for the first time he felt that there was something off-kilter about the whole situation -- as if it was as unreal as the dreams that he had been having. He felt more forcefully than ever that he did not really belong there and it was all that he could do to make himself sit down rather than turning around and bolting down the stairs.

"I hope you're well Mister Rees-Davies," said Professor Perkins when he had settled himself, "Mister Evans told us about your illness -- I trust that you're well enough to attend this supervision and that it's nothing contagious?"

Simon almost smiled as he noticed the faint look of distaste on the Professor's face when he said the word ‘contagious'. Dons were not known for being particularly sympathetic to student maladies, assuming that most of their ills were due to an excess of drinking and an insufficiency of sleep. Professor Perkins was therefore no doubt sceptical that there was anything serious the matter with Simon and probably suspected that the whole thing was an elaborate scheme that he and Ian had cooked up between themselves as an excuse for failing to complete his essay from the previous week. Simon had in fact completed the essay late the previous evening and took some small satisfaction from the look of surprise on his tutor's face as he handed it to him.

As the Professor scanned the pages his eyebrows raised and he nodded several times. Simon was unsure how to interpret the action as throughout this Professor Perkins' face remained inscrutable -- he might equally have been nodding in appreciation or exasperation at his student's work. He stopped reading before he reached the end of Simon's essay and looked up at him, fixing him in place with a piercing blue-eyed gaze.

"This is most interesting Mr Rees-Davies," he said, "Would you mind reading this out to the rest of us?"

Simon gave a resigned nod since this clearly was not a request. Dons tended to prefer to do most of the talking during supervisions but every so often, perhaps to punish tardiness or even just to be perverse, they would pick on a hapless student to read out his work and then dissect it in front of the rest of the group. In his present state this was just about the last thing that Simon needed -- his head had started to pound again the moment he had entered the room -- but he could see no immediate means of escape and stood to oblige the Professor, taking a deep breath before he started.

"If we are to accept the proposition that motives, no matter how creditable, are irrelevant, we must also accept that in order to establish mens rea, the prosecution has merely to satisfy the court that the defendant possessed the specified mental state toward the required actus reus. However, such a position fails to acknowledge that motive often drives intention. Discuss."

Right, he had read out the title without having a breakdown. That was a good start. Forcing himself to focus on the page in front of him, he tried to continue.

"In my essay I have approached the proposition in question by breaking it down into its constituent parts as follows . . . "

Professor Perkins had been nodding, as if Simon had made a promising start, but he looked puzzled when he broke off.

"Yes Simon, do carry on."

The problem was that Simon could not go on. He was having some difficulty focusing on the words on the page because what he really wanted to do was tear the paper apart with his bare teeth. A tidal wave of rage, stronger than anything else he had felt that day, rose up within him and try as he might he could not control it. He had to get out of the Professor's study, out into the open air; that was the only way that he was going to be able to master himself.

"I'm sorry, I think I'm going to be sick, do you mind if I . . . "

Simon did not wait for Professor Perkins to respond and, only pausing long enough to register the almost comical looks of surprise on the faces of his supervision colleagues, he half-walked, half-ran out of the door and down the staircase.

He felt better the moment he was outdoors. The sense of well-being that Simon had experienced earlier that day in First Court near the Orchard returned as the fresh air hit his face. For a moment he savoured the feeling of simply being under the open sky again until at length something tugged at him and he headed out of college towards Jesus Green. He crossed the road at the traffic lights and then, when he was on the other side, the feeling of being drawn grew stronger and he began to hurry again.

When he reached the Green, he was glad to finally be out among the trees and grass. It was a reminder of his dream, the freedom that he felt here. But something was wrong. Simon stopped and sniffed but gave up in annoyance when his inadequate human nose failed to pick up the same kaleidoscope of intoxicating scents that had revealed themselves to him before, while he had been changed. His irritation grew as he began to feel increasingly constricted by the clothes he was wearing and even by the shape that he was in. Simon wanted to be free of the woven materials that scratched his skin, free and able to run on all fours through the wide grasses all around him.

In a tiny corner of his mind a voice screamed inside Simon, telling him that what he was thinking and doing was madness, but the longer that he was out of doors the easier it became to ignore the voice. Pausing only to look around and make sure that he could not be seen, Simon began to strip off his clothes until they lay in a heap at his feet, in much the same way that he had found them beside his bed that morning. When he was naked he began to run, heading for the cover of the trees that bordered the Green.

It was awkward, running on all fours while in human form, but since he did not know how to assume any other form it would have to do for now. Besides, it was still better than walking around like all of the other two-legs, pretending he was something that he was not. Other needs rose up within him, needs that cried out for immediate satisfaction. His stomach was empty and he needed to eat.

Simon scanned the trees and saw the flick of a white bobtail indicating the presence of a rabbit. Perfect. He began to salivate at the thought of the meal in prospect, of tearing into raw flesh and feeling the blood trickle down his throat. He stalked his prey carefully, doing his best to stay still and silent so that he could get as close as possible before he pounced. Sure enough, he soon came across the rabbit again, this time out in the open, its nose twitching as if sensing danger on the air. Simon crawled as close as he dared, keeping his belly close to the ground, and then, when he was sure that he could not miss, he threw himself forward. He was far too slow, however, and the rabbit was long gone by the time he landed on the spot where it had been. Simon almost howled in frustration as he saw the animal disappear down a hole in the ground, its bobtail winking at him again as if making fun of him. He dived after it, fully intending to dig his way to his prey.

"It looks like I found you just in time."

Simon turned around at the words and saw a man standing behind him. He was tall and broad-chested but also weather-beaten, as if from a life spent mainly out of doors. There was a grim look in his eyes as he regarded Simon, who found himself unable to move under the penetrating gaze. Simon's wits started to return slowly as the stranger stood there staring at him, and his mind recoiled in horror as he realised where he was and what he was doing. He was out in the open naked trying to kill a bunny!

"Good, I see that you're starting to remember who you are," said the man, then threw a bundle at his feet, "You might need these."

Simon looked down and saw that what the stranger had thrown at him was his clothes. Feeling acute embarrassment, Simon reached forward and started to pick up and put on the items one by one. All the while the man continued to stand there and stare at him. Oddly, Simon did not feel uncomfortable under that gaze, only shameful and horrified at what he had done and been about to do. He had lost it completely, just like in the dream, but this time it had been the middle of the day -- and he had been wide awake when it happened.

"I'm Connor," said the man as soon as Simon was dressed, "and we need to talk. Now."

Simon did not feel any immediate sense of danger from the man -- Connor -- but he backed away nonetheless.

"I'm sorry Mister . . . Connor but I don't know who you are and I don't see what we have to talk about, unless you're a doctor," which I very much doubt, Simon added silently, "so I'll just be on my way. I need to get back to college and check myself into the infirmary. I'm sure that I just had a funny turn or something -- an aspirin or three should sort me out."

Anger flashed in Connor's eyes but he said nothing and made no move to stop him as Simon turned around and walked away. Simon felt eyes watching him all the way on the long walk back to college but he could not have said afterwards whether they were those of Connor or of something else entirely.

 
 
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Features -- July 2012 -- Mid Month Issue