“Do you mind telling me why she sent you?”
“She found out what I was. If she can, others can, etc.”
“Do you mind telling me what you remember of how she did?”
“All right, then. Whatever you can.”
I nodded and started.
“I was at the stream in the park. I stared at the water a moment, trying to make myself see. Something didn’t fit. I knew it was clear as day; I just couldn’t see it.
“ ‘Day,’ I said aloud. ‘Day, day, bright, sun, yellow—‘
“For a moment, I just stood there. I had just said the important bit, but for some reason it wasn’t clicking. Nothing was ever quite real for me until I spoke it aloud. If I wanted to think, I had to talk. And that got very distressing with company, or in public. The crazy old lady who talks to herself is bad enough, but what I’ve got means I can’t screen out. None of that secret stuff you don’t say because it’ll insult somebody, if I want to know it, I’ve got to say it.
“ ‘The water’s yellow.’ I started a little with the realization. With that said, I could realize that not only was it yellow, it was not a natural yellow. Natural would be autumn leaves. This was sickly, diseased, chemical…
“ ‘Wrong,’ I said aloud.
“I frowned, sighing a little. I’d finally gotten a place where no one went, so I could think. Naturally the first thing to happen would be someone finding it.
“Turn. Autopilot. My thoughts went to a near standstill, but normal etiquette takes very little thought ever since I caught the rhythm.
“ ‘Hello,’ badge, blue uniform ‘officer.’
“ ‘Hello, miss. Any particular reason you’re here?’
“ ‘I just like a spot to think. This was a nice one.’
“The officer nodded at that. ‘The water’s turned rather sickly.’
“I nodded. If there was something more the officer wanted, it had to be something obvious, since she wasn’t saying. ‘I’m Annabelle.’
“Officer Brown. I would have thought you’d’ve noticed how the water was before getting this far along.”
“I shrugged. ‘It didn’t seem important.’ Which was true. It had been hammering at my head, but that was a familiar enough sensation that I could describe it without going through the motions of talking. It hadn’t seemed important.
“ ‘The water’s yellower than some poisonous insects I’ve seen. It didn’t seem dangerous?’
“I wrinkled my brow, trying to look dull. This was getting beyond what I was used to. Whatever bought me time. ‘No.’ Why not, I muttered under my breath. ‘Because it didn’t smell wrong.’ Smell. That I got. Smell, taste, touch, that was fine. Hearing was almost always fine. It’s just abstracts, and sight. They aren’t…real.
“ ‘I’m sorry, what did you say? Between no and because.’
“ ‘Just ordering my thoughts. Sorry, I’ve been in my own head for a while now.’
“Officer Brown nodded. ‘Of course.’ That surprised me. Most people tend not to like that sort of answer, especially people trying to figure me out. And, I hope you don’t mind me sayin’, that seems to be the better part of a cop’s job.”
He gave me a little gesture that meant, ‘No offense taken,’ with a hint of what might’ve been, ‘You’re right.’
“She looked at the stream a moment.”
" 'It's just paint, isn't it?'
I hesitated. Force of habit, hiding. He already knew.
“ ‘You don’t have to hide.’
“ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I said it without missing a beat, which probably gave me away more quickly than anything else could have. After hesitating over everything, screening it without really thinking, giving that automatically…it meant I was used to it.”
“You seem used to this.” I could have said it along with him.
“I knew you wanted to talk to me. I’ve been practicing the stuff to say, I’ve got an outline for everything already in my head. And it's a lot easier once I get going.”
He seemed to accept that, and made no mention of my admission that I had specifically done what allowed me to lie to him. He might not have noticed; he might just have planned on surprising me. Who knows? Maybe he just thought he’d be able to tell.
“Anyway, she called me on what I just described. I winced. ‘Got me.’
He looked at me.
“It’s the PC way of saying werewolf.”
That was a lie. Werewolves are carefully hidden, or hide themselves. They go rabid at full moons. Morphs don’t do that unless they don’t shift for a moon cycle. Since we’d done such a good job of hiding weres from the general populace, most of them called us werewhatevers.
“I shook my head. ‘Ursamorph.’
“She paused a moment, then nodded. ‘Bear. Wouldn’t’ve guessed.’”
I don’t think it really needed explaining why. I’m not exactly imposing. Until a few weeks before that, I was still seeing ribs in the mirror; I’ve never kept weight on well. Just naturally waif-y, I guess.
"May I ask a question?"
"How you see...how does that work? Is stuff out-of focus?"
“No…it’s not that we have bad eyesight. Bears have pretty good eyesight—not a lot of people know that, but it’s true. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see; I don’t need glasses or anything like that. I just…it’s like I have to force myself to pay attention, unless I've linked some sight to a reflex. I don’t think it has anything to do with being an ursamorph, or any kind of morph. Though it might be a disorder limited to us. I haven’t studied.
“But still, it’s usually enough to tip people off. That’s why I find my private places.”
“Why not just try and work around it?”
Expected or not, my lips twitched in something approaching a snarl before I stopped them.
“It’s like thinking through molasses. I—it is an unpleasant feeling.
“She told me that she wasn’t the only one who’d spotted me. Like I said, even though it’s not really limited to me, my type of issue has some fairly clear symptoms, once you're looking. I end up looking like an idiot in front of just about everyone, and then I get really deep around people I know well. It’s not like I’m stupid; I do well on tests so long as they don’t throw me out for cheating, and if I can mutter to myself I’ll win just about any debate. That’s common, with us. At least, it is from what I can tell. I suppose that if I weren’t bright to begin with, this thing I have wouldn’t be nearly so obvious.
“Then she took me in, and took me here. I heard that it’s suggested we tell you what we are.”
“Not necessary, but yes. We can’t tell when someone’s a morph, and it’s another possible pattern to take into account if there is a string of robberies or something.”
A sudden burst of sparkling clarity hit me like a diamond hammer to the side of the head. It was, roughly: My goodness, you used the right term. You’re faking,.
“May I ask a question?”
“Do they ask officers applying?”
“No, why?” He didn’t miss a beat.
“You just said, ‘morph.’ Before, you looked like you had no idea what lupomorph meant, but you just used it like you’re used to it.”
Now he paused. “Neither of us will be sharing this.”
“Of course. But…well…I’m sorry; I’m not rehearsed anymore; are you an ursamorph?”
“I’ve never…met one.”
His emotions were entirely clear for the first time in the conversation, if only for a moment. I'd shocked him. “Your parents, surely.”
I shook my head. “It’s a recessive. Both of ’em were carriers, not bearers. No pun intended.”
“Who taught you about shifting?”
“Grandma. She died when I was six, but I’d figured most of it out by then. Find a good forest; find a place to put a spare set of clothes; keep track of the moon. And find a friend, but that was more grandmother to granddaughter than teacher to student.”
He stared at me. Something was flickering in his face, but it was too fast and too complex for me to figure out.
“I’m so going to regret this,” he sighed, so quietly I barely made it out. His movements might have been resigned as he took out his card. “If you ever need a hand with anything, this is my personal stuff. And yes, I am an ursamorph, and no one living save my dear old mother knows that, so keep your mouth shut about it.”
“Will do.” I stared at the card. “You do realize the fact that you gave this to me means I’m going to need it within the next week, right?”
“I was thinking something along those lines, Annabelle. Considering how we would meet, I sincerely hope I won’t see you; considering how we’re going to meet, I hope I see you before you get into too much trouble.”
Very softly, I said, “Genre-savvy, ursamorph cop and poor little girl with little to no family who could begin to understand her life. Here we go.” I got up to go.
Over my shoulder, louder, I called, “Chapter one.”
Joseph knew the kiddy morph saying. “Just begun.”