Metaforming by Peter S. Drang

Dog is Berty’s first choice, cat a poor second, and anything’s better than rat. Anything.

Three years ago, at Berty’s eleventh birthday party, aunty Terrine said God was punishing the world for our many sins, and it wasn’t the Moreau virus like the leaflets said. But even though aunty Terrine went to church, the very next day her ears went floppy. She formed the dog, border collie—she was always lucky. Berty tried to keep her, but she ran away.

Berty’s little sister Chrissy hops past him, sticking out her front teeth. “I’ll be a rabbit someday!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Berty says. “That ain’t one of the forms.” You get dog, cat, or rat. That’s all.

She pouts, kicks him lightly, and runs away. Berty doesn’t chase her nor try to kick her back. They only have each other since first grandma, then mom and dad, and last of all aunty Terrine formed.

Besides, she was only seven and hadn’t hurt Berty with that pitiful little-sister kick.

Berty never did believe aunty Terrine about the sins, because forming looks more to do with age than holiness. The oldest, more or less, formed first—not the sinful-est.

Grandma formed three years before dad and ma. All three ended up cats. Chrissy cried and cried when dad and ma turned, both the same week. They purred and let Chrissy pet them. That helped. But the next morning, they’d run away, and the crying started all over.

There’re hardly any adults left now, besides Mr. Crenshaw. He’s about grandma’s age. It’s been years since Grandma slinked out the kitchen window, but Crenshaw’s still human.

See, Crenshaw always acted younger than his age: playing kickball with the kids, singing for no reason at all on sunny days, always smiling.

He was a third-grade teacher once. Maybe hanging around little kids all day for forty years kept his soul younger than most folks his age and delayed him from forming. But after his granddaughter shot herself last month he’s been down. He doesn’t sing no more, nor even smile–just mopes around in his yard.

Sister Chrissy’s hungry. Berty tells her to stay inside, then he heads down to the Metaforming Relief Station to get the week’s food. There’s less and less there every time.

Berty passes by Mr. Crenshaw’s yard; he’s raking leaves. “Hi Mister C.”

Crenshaw waves back halfheartedly. Long, stiff whiskers are starting to come straight out from his cheeks. That means either rat or cat because dog whiskers are usually short and soft. Crenshaw doesn’t deserve rat; he’s a nice old man. No way to tell for sure, though, not for a week or so: that’s when the tail will sprout. That bare, naked tail, that gives away rat every time. Every damn time. Then after that, there’s a lot of shrinking, sloughing and screaming, until the forming is done.

At the Relief Station, everyone in the long line is real young. The soldiers don’t even look like they shave yet. A sign on the station wall says a cure for Moreau virus is coming very soon. Victory is in sight. It’s old, yellowing, tattered.

Berty doesn’t know anyone his own age who formed yet. Silvia McCrary down the street just started forming, and she’s nineteen, five years older than Berty. He always liked looking at Silvia, especially her hair. Her tail just came out, really cute, puffy fur. Her whiskers are soft and blonde like her beautiful hair, so she’s all set for dog. But she doesn’t seem too happy about it—Berty rang her doorbell yesterday but she stayed inside whimpering. She should be happy she’s not forming the rat. Her dad and mom both got rat, and it was just awful. Just plain damn awful.

Berty doesn’t have too long–he reckons a year or two now that the late teenagers are forming. Seems to keep getting faster and younger every month. Maybe the stress young people are getting hit with is making things quicker, like the stress that finally caught up to Crenshaw.

If Berty forms the dog, maybe he could find Sylvia and they could run together through the fields. That would be awesome. That would be a future to look forward to. But he worries about sister Chrissy being alone. She’s so young. He tries not to worry because maybe that makes it happen faster. He should act like Crenshaw used to act. Maybe keep it at bay.

The Metaforming Relief Station only gives Berty a sixpack of water bottles, a pound bag of trail mix, a box of crackers and eight freeze-dried lasagna packets. It’s not nearly enough for the week. Berty can get more water at the creek and build a campfire to boil it for the lasagna. He’ll scrounge some wild mushrooms from the woods. The acorns are falling too. They’ll get by. He’ll teach Chrissy how to survive on her own. He’ll really try.

On the way back, Berty sees a border collie chewing up a rat. Maybe it’s aunty Terrine eating Sylvia’s mom or dad? Rat’s a dangerous form all around.

Berty gets home and gives Chrissy some trail mix. They share a water bottle. Chrissy picks out the raisins and saves them for dessert because they’re sweet and chewy. Berty smiles and imitates her.

“Chrissy, after dinner, let’s gather up some acorns for tomorrow.”

She finishes a swig of water. “Can we play kickball first?”

“Sure, baby sister, sure.” He closes his eyes and faces the sun, feels the comforting warmth, smiles. He pretends he’s seven too: sings a silly old song about dancing bananas that makes Chrissy laugh.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Even if acting young doesn’t work. Even if he forms the rat, Berty could stay and help Chrissy gather food, and it will still be okay.

It really will.

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