I assumed the hangover was doing its magic when everyone’s eyes grew hollow–distant and imperceivable, like those of gods. But when they threw themselves from me, gasping and pointing, I glanced down. My nails grew like claws, the hair on my arm darkened, thickened, and the colors of the conference room faded to shades of gray.
I stood up, but my legs collapsed under me. Feeling queasy, I started for the bathroom; I rose to my feet only to fall again. Resorting to a crawl, which soon became a trot, I hobbled towards the exit. A pang in my stomach lurched me into a sprint, the ease of which it came alarmed me.
The gasps of my colleagues turned to laughs and indiscernible murmurs of amusement as I galloped out of the conference room and down the hallway. After shouldering the bathroom door open, I pounced up to the sink to look at the mirror.
The reflection was that of a beast. My hair on my head had grown coarse, like fur. It conjoined with the hair on my arm to dominate the rest of my body; my face was barely visible under its coat.
I threw myself from the reflection, sprinting through the hallway again. Now the phones were out, filming their CEO as he abandoned humanity.
The streets, cars and people outside were a blur. The eyes of the gods out on the sidewalks were no less biting.
I fled through the labyrinth of civilization and didn’t find a semblance of peace until I slinked into the swamp off of Highway 36 and nestled among a cluster of cedar trees.
There I laid, too broken to weep, until hunger urged me to action. At dusk I stepped out of my hollow and inhaled a lung-full. My senses were alive; my eyes, although darkened, detected the most subtle movements, and my nose picked up the hint that a meal was nearby.
My hands and feet were now crude paws, and they helped me patter quietly towards the scent of food. As I approached, the odor grew in potency.
I paused to watch and listen while nose directed my attention to an alder thicket. It was a rabbit; I could see one of its eyes staring out at me. Motionless it waited, apparently thinking it was safe if it remained thus.
I lunged at it, and it sprang into a sprint. The rush, the honed senses, the primal grit–it all coursed through me as I careened over the damp moss in pursuit. The furry critter sped farther away, but this was the best part; the chase was on. Ripping branches and shredding cool earth, I clawed after it.
The furry meal ran deeper into the swamp. It proved itself accustomed to the world that was still fresh to me, so it wasn’t long before its scent vanished. I then realized it wasn’t the only thing I lost–I had no hope of knowing where I was or how to return to the highway.
I relished it.
For months I roamed the bog, surviving on buds and grubs. I ran free, abandoning all that defined my life before. The sun above grew hot–not in temperature, you understand–in its relentless gaze, like the eyes of the gods. The occasional clouds were my saviors, offering a veil to shield me. The moon was a more appealing deity; it was lesser than the one that governed the day, but it was safer, an easier god to worship, and that gave me comfort.
On the morning of the fifth moon, as I swam and drank in the deep pool of the forest stream, the sky became enflamed in red. The blacks and grays had given way to color; my eyes throbbed at the sensory overload.
I rose out of the water, standing on my hind legs. The presence of Beauty dripped words on my mouth.
“I am…” It was all I could say. “I am…”
Something like a soft breeze pierced my skin, then it began twisting and writhing inside. A voice, like mine, but at the same time like another’s, whispered in my head. “I am…”
I closed my eyes, my knees weakened. This time I spoke with my own voice: “I am…naught.”
I collapsed into the pool, tearing out the hair from my body, which had all at once become so strange to me. Memories of the budget meeting, the transformation, and the flight from the city sprang at me. Throwing myself onto the shore, I wandered through the cedars at a quickened pace, searching for a way back to humanity. My body cracked and ached as it readjusted to walking upright.
The day after that, my pitiful form came upon Highway 36. My soil-ridden, naked frame staggering along the shoulder caught the sight of more than one driver. A simple call to the authorities soon got me buckled into the backseat of the highway patrol’s Ford Taurus.
After bumbling off a few growls and simple words, the police station shipped me to the ward. The rest is a bittersweet story of regathering my name. Google searches now present me not as a CEO but as a loon. My name is forever marred by humiliation.
But I am not moved by this; what moves me today is the wind. Sometimes it passes through my hair in just the right way, beckoning me back to the forest, the dirt, the mires. The beast haunts me like a childhood dream, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve even woken yet.
A long path is laid for those pursued by the beast. Indeed, it still feels wrong to call myself human again, and despite the fire inside my soul–the urge to sink my feet into the swamp moss–I’m destined to abide in this upright frame until I make the final fade into soil.
I have no choice but to disregard the counsel of everyone and everything that made me who I was. Out there, over the endless stretches of swamp moss, I ran free, aimless and boundless; but now I gladly cling to a new wind that has bridled my soul. Now I am free.
Yes, I see it now: the calloused pursuit of esteem, image and enterprise of my former life is but the shadows that shade my soul’s present portrait. Without the collapse of my world it would’ve darkened into a permanent sheet of black, forever numb to the nudge of goodness. But because of such shadows in my past, no matter how distracting their memory is, I can more vividly see the light.