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Water covered the road at the lowest part, promising slippery and very muddy
footing. Geoff weighed his desire to visit the stables at the other end
against the likelihood that he'd end up with 50 pounds of English countryside
stuck to his boots and pants. The decision was made a little easier by the
knowledge that most of the grounds around his destination would be in the
same, if not worse, condition. It was almost worth the mess to do some equine
visitation, but not quite.
Sighing, he turned around and started back up the rutted path. The sky was already starting to darken. Maybe an hour before rain started falling again. Still, he had a little sunshine left, and other places he could visit. There were horses grazing in the pasture at the top of the hill, a dark bay and a palomino in a fly blanket. Both were more interested in fresh clover than in the prospect of a good scritch, and he was totally ignored.
The old path by the hedge was a more desperate prospect. It ran up to the top of a hill, and wandered through a small forest. He used the area a lot himself when he rode, and there was a slim chance he'd see someone else enjoying some quality saddle time. Of course, he would be as happy on four hooves as sitting in the saddle, but that was pretty much a moot point.
As he started up the worn trail, a second path caught his eye. It branched off from the one he was on and led up to another area of the woods. That was strange. Geoff knew this area well, having walked these same paths and roads for years. Yet the unfamiliar trail looked as old and worn as the one he was on. Curious, he followed the new branch into the trees. There was a momentary flicker of disorientation, and he stumbled slightly as he walked between the trees. He shook his head grinned to himself as he picked out his footing a bit more carefully.
There were hoof prints visible in the soft ground now. He stopped and gave them a puzzled look. At least one set belonged to a draft-sized animal, even though he was sure none were stabled around here. And of the four separate tracks he could distinguish, not one was shod. Shrugging, he continued on. Maybe there was some sort of gathering of visiting riders. One of the historical groups doing a costumed recreation.
After a few more minutes, he began to get concerned. Nothing looked familiar. Even if the path was new, he knew this area well. The ground should be falling down towards a valley. Instead, it continued straight and level through ancient forest. Some of the trees here were massive, centuries old at least. Curiosity drove him on, following the clear hoof prints. Maybe he'd walked further than he realized. Regardless, he couldn't be but so far from home.
There was a break up ahead, and he stopped and stared when he reached it. A huge meadow stretched out almost as far as he could see, rolling hills of bright green under the bluest sky he had ever seen. And the horses! Dozens of them, maybe hundreds spread over the grassy landscape. Every type and size imaginable, from a rather drab little donkey munching clover, to huge shaggy draft horses. He blinked. A zebra? And wild ponies. Who could possibly afford such a huge and diverse herd?
Almost in a trance, he pushed forward through the last brush and stepped out onto the field itself. A wave of disorientation hit him, much stronger than before, and he toppled forward. Catching himself before his face hit the ground, he waited until the dizziness passed before trying to get up. His initial alarm turned to growing confusion as he discovered he was already standing. On four legs.
Twisting his head around incredibly far, he was able to examine the large, hairy, and very equine body that seemed to be his. A stallion. White, with dark hooves. An Andalusian? The shape seemed right, though it was hard to tell without seeing his head. It occurred to him that vision was grainy and a bit distorted, but not blurred or colorless. Maybe somewhat washed out, lacking the saturation. Yet both the vision and the overall sensations of this four-legged animal form felt perfectly normal and natural.
He should be terrified. Bewildered. Or at least, concerned about how this had happened. Truth was, he didn't care. Geoff felt wonderful. It was all some wild, improbable daydream. He'd knocked himself out when he fell, and was having a very pleasant and realistic hallucination. One he certainly wasn't going to waste. No looking this gift horse in the mouth.
Cautious first steps turned into a trot, then a canter, and finally, a flat- out run across the pasture. Movement was fluid and graceful, and he reveled at the feeling of power and mass. There was no need to examine himself, to explore the differences between horse and human. This was just, well, right. Mane slapping his neck, tail up and flying like a plume behind him. The steady rhythm of hooves pounding across the soft ground. Scents and sounds of the horses around him.
There were so many! It wasn't so obvious just looking, as the huge expanse of open land swallowed them up. His nose wasn't so easily fooled. Mares, stallions, colts, fillies, Jacks, Jennies. Each scent was a clear identity, and he was almost overwhelmed by the richness around him. Oddly, none of the animals seemed ill at ease with the others, even the stallions. His herd- mates were rather indifferent for the most part, except for an occasional mare's whickered invitation.
The stallion's nature was so comfortable that he was almost fully engaged with a mare before he realized what he was doing. Throwing himself off her, he shook his head violently and beat a hasty retreat to another part of the pasture too cool off. Hallucination or not, he didn't want to go quite that far with this horse experience. Not yet, anyway. Besides, he was a married horse. Er, man. Would it be considered bigamy or bestiality? Or just plain nuts?
In an attempt to distract himself from the females, he started exploring the edges of the field. One thing was certain. There were a lot of ways to get here. At least a hundred paths branched off into different parts of the surrounding woods. Even more interesting was the discovery that each path had its own scent. Many of the scents were familiar, and he traced them to individual horses in the field. Sure enough, back-tracking his own odor led him to the path he had entered from.
He wasn't ready to end this experience just yet, so he didn't take a chance on trying his own path. Instead, he checked out the one belonging to the zebra. Nothing looked unusual or different about the trail, so he pressed through the brush. And stopped.
Mildly surprised, Geoff consciously stepped forward. Or tried to. His legs would not respond. Backing up, turning, even rearing up was no problem. He just couldn't move forward. Some sort of barrier blocked him, yet there was no visible fence or wire. Other paths proved to have the same restriction. At first, he thought the paths might be strictly one-way. But then he saw a brown Thoroughbred amble off on the other side. The same path refused to admit him.
One of the mules started towards the edge, and he followed her. She reached the barrier and pressed through, though she seemed to vanish on the other side. Whatever opened the gateway worked quickly, for he was stopped as before even though he was almost touching her. Guess there was only one way in and out for him. Then he snorted in disgust. Stupid! This was just a hallucination. The way out was waking up, probably in a hospital somewhere.
The pasture was starting to look emptier, and he realized that much of the herd had taken leave. The sky was noticeably darker, indicating the approach of evening. A core of animals remained, but he had a feeling that he needed to leave as well. More than a feeling, actually. As the shadows deepened, he felt a stronger draw towards the spot he had entered from, like an invisible rope pulling at him. Reluctantly, he finally gave in and followed his own scent to the break in the trees. Then he stepped through.
If he hadn't already been on hands and knees, he would have fallen face first in the dirt. Confused, Geoff scrambled up and staggered back towards the main road, aided by the downward slope. The action was almost instinctive, and he stopped himself before he got to the bottom. Despite a careful examination, he couldn't find any sign of a bump or bruise. He looked back up at the hillside. There was only the single, familiar path. He climbed back up, and searched the area. Nothing. The landscape was just as it should be. No strange paths, no open pasture. And getting dark.
Dark! As in evening. With a sudden rush of remorse, Geoff spun around and almost ran for home. He'd left the house before 10 this morning. Ana would be worried sick. Might have the police out looking for him already! What the Hell was he going to tell her? He'd hit his head? With no bruise or bump? Or that he'd just fallen aleep?
Luckily, neither excuse was required. There was a note from Ana on the computer saying that she'd taken the kids shopping with her, and they'd be gone most of the day. Geoff had time to give the dog a much-needed walk and even tidy up a bit before the family returned. Even luckier, his wife didn't press for details when she asked what he'd done all day. It was a lot easier to shrug and say "Oh, you know. Telly, played with the computer a bit."
Actually, he was the one on edge for the rest of the night. What little sleep he'd gotten was filled with dreams of the pasture. And come morning, all he could think about was trying to find the path again. Of course, he had chores to take care of. And the kids wanted to try a new video game. Even as he agonized over the delays, he was kicking himself mentally for being so stupid. Just what was he expecting? A repeat of yesterday's hallucination? If he was so clumsy as to fall again, he might end up with some real bruises and bumps.
By noon, the chores were done and the kids were glued to the TV screen. Ana didn't even raise an eyebrow when he told her he was going to take a long walk. Nodding at her reminder to be back in time for tea, he set out for the woods.
Geoff didn't really expect to find anything. So he experienced a mixture of surprise, fear, and relief when the second path was there. This time, the initial disorientation was very mild. Approaching the clearing, he swallowed hard and stepped over the second crossing.
The transition was practically unnoticeable this time. One moment, he was walking on two legs. The next, he was just as naturally trotting across the grass on four hooves. It was all as he had remembered. Some of the horses he had seen yesterday were missing, replaced by others he didn't remember. One of these was a pure white Arabian filly, full of herself and ready to play. He watched her get chased away by some of the older horses, who obviously wanted to simply graze and enjoy the warm sun. Then she spotted him.
Unlike the mares from yesterday, this female was too young to inspire any embarrassing reaction. So when she nipped at his side and danced around him, he kicked up his heels and gave chase. Some of the other animals watched him with what he assumed was amusement as they romped around the field. She was a little awkward and gangly, and he had to be careful because of his greater size and weight. Still, he thoroughly enjoyed himself. Unfortunately, he lacked the energy to keep up with her for long. After an hour or so, he gave up and ignored her as best he could. She seemed willing to be his shadow, trotting after him as he examined some of the different paths again.
She started to get pushy again as he approached a trail just behind a small pond. It took a moment for the connection to click. The path's scent was hers. She hopped around him, and then jumped through. Her disembodied head poked back through the barrier, floating in mid air. Then she leaped back to his side, bumping against him as if to push him through. Probably didn't know about the one gate rule. Geoff demonstrated by leaning forward until he could move no further. She snorted, and sprang back through the barrier. The resistance suddenly vanished, and caught off guard, Geoff went sprawling.
Pain. Geoff screamed as his body was ripped apart. This was no simple feeling of disorientation. He convulsed, curling instinctively into a fetal postion. A high-pitched wail filled his ears, almost obliterated by the waves of pure agony which washed away all thought, all reason. And then it was over.
He lay on the ground, shivering, afraid to open his eyes. A cool, soft hand stroked his cheek. "Are you OK?" A girl's voice. Very young. And then something odd. A giggle.
Curiosity overcame fear, and he sat up carefully and checked out his companion. She was the human embodiment of her equine form - cute, maybe 10 or 11, wearing a faded green T-shirt and patched jeans. Her bright blue eyes regarded him from under a wild mop of white-blonde hair. She giggled again, prompting an annoyed frown on his part.
"What's so funny?" He frowned again, this time because of the sound of his voice. It sounded unfamiliar, almost like Geoff scrambled up suddenly and stared down at himself. A feded green T-shirt and worn, dirty jeans covered what appeared to be a child's body. And the thick mass of hair falling over his eyes was the same near white color.
A panicked grab reassured him that he was still male, though the proof wasn't excessive. He looked back at the girl. No way to be sure without a mirror, but it seemed he'd become her twin brother. There were a few differences. His hair wasn't quite as long as hers. And she was maybe an inch taller than him. Taller? Oh, yeah. Girls matured faster than boys.
Somehow, it was harder becoming a different human than it had been turning into a horse. He felt awkward, and even walking turned out to be an adventure in clumsiness. Whatever automatic adjustment feature he'd been given before was missing. He was a grown man in a boy's body, and every effort was too short, too weak. Fighting growing panic, he turned back to the girl. "What happened? Where are we?" He looked towards the path they had entered from. "Where were we?"
She wrinkled her nose, and then shrugged. "I don't know for sure. Where we were, I mean. I just call it the Horse place. I found this path goin' out behind the school one day. Never saw it before. And when I went into the pasture, I was this little horse. It was cool!"
The girl's accent suddenly clicked in Geoff's head. "You're American!"
"Well, duh!" She grinned. "You talk sorta like those guys on public television. That mean you're English, right?"
Nodding, Geoff looked past her at the large brick building behind them. "That's your school? We're in the States?"
"Yeah. Murray Simmons Elementary School. In Bolle, Kansas."
It was hard not to laugh. "So I guess we are in Kansas, Toto."
"Huh?" The girl looked at him oddly, and then brightened. "Oh, right! Like in Wizard of Oz. I get it." Another frown. "So, how come you turn into a big horse? I figured kids was colts and filleys, and grownups were the mares and stallions. We're about the same age." She looked at his shirt, apparently noticing it for the first time. "Weird! You got the same clothes I got." A deeper frown. "And you look awful familiar" Her voice trailed off as she made the same connection he had. "Oh, shit!"
"Shit, indeed." Geoff leaned against a tree wearily, shaking his head. "I'm no kid. Or at least, I wasn't until I fell through here.. I'm married, with two kids of my own. One is older than you are. And me."
"This is so cool! A twin brother!" Her eyes widened. "I wonder what Mom is gonna say?"
"I'm not your brother! Not really." He stared down at himself, chewing his lip absently. Might fun to see what being ten was like. See the world the way Christopher saw it. "Maybe you could tell her I'm a friend from your school?"
She shrugged. "I guess so. She don't pay a lot of attention most of the time. The clothes are gonna be hard to explain, though. Come on! I can get you a different shirt when we get home." She headed off at a brisk walk.
Geoff looked back towards the path, struggling with mixed feelings. Curiosity won out yet again, and he scrambled after the girl. "Wait up, Sarah!"
She spun around. "How did you know my name?"
Blinking, he tried to recall where he had heard it. "You must have told me."
With a shrug, she headed off again, a little faster this time. Trying to show him up, no doubt. He jogged along beside her for a few blocks, and then started to pick up the pace. She caught up, and passed him. OK, that was enough of that! Geoff charged past her, arms and legs pumping at top speed. She shouted and did her best to catch up. He could hear her behind him all the way into the yard of a dilapidated little house, and just managed to slap the porch railing a second before she did. "I win!"
Just then, the door opened and a woman about Geoff's real age stuck her head out. "Where have you two been? Dinner will be ready in an hour. I want homework done!" She looked directly at Geoff. "And take the dog for a walk, Davy!"
"No fair, Mom! It's Sarah's" He broke off in mid-sentence. What was he saying? Flustered, he nodded. "Uh, sure." The girl pushed past her mother and ran inside. Taking advantage of the woman's distraction, Geoff ran around to the side yard and leaned against the house, panting more from fear than the impromptu race. It wasn't just that this strange woman seemed to think he was her son. He was having flashes of memory himself. Davy's memory.
Sarah came around from the back., obviously excited. "You really are my brother! There's two beds in my room, and stuff for a boy on one side. An' pictures of us when we were little!"
Geoff's eyes widened as he looked at her. He 'remembered' posing for some of those pictures. And when he tried to conjure up his own children's faces, they were blurred and indistinct. If he stayed here, his whole life would change. He would change. Everything that made him who he was would vanish, replaced by some tow-headed kid named Davy.
He grabbed the girl. "The path! Where's the path? I gotta get back!"
"It'll be gone by now. It always goes away when I come back." She pointed up. "'Sides, it's getting dark. You can't go back at night. Come on! We can find it again tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? That'll be too late! I don't wanna be stuck as some kid!" He turned and ran for the school, his clear knowledge of its location only making him that much more desperate. Every passing minute made Davy more real, and Geoff a fading memory.
The too-familiar brick building loomed ahead, and he headed for the path. Or where it should be. Oh, God! Where was it? Sarah was close behind, and he could feel himself slipping away. What was he so anxious to go back for, anyway? It would be so easy just to let go.
"No!" He spotted a very faint impression and threw himself towards it. And was back in the pasture. As expected, a white Arabian colt. There was a confusing mix of almost identical odors, male and female versions of the same foal. The filly's scent faded away rapidly, leaving only his linked to the path. He should go back. The pull was almost overwhelming, an urge to return home. To Davy.
Enough of that. He spun around and galloped away from Kansas and the would-be sister. He had a family of his own! And right now, he wanted to get back to them. His path was over there, by that clump of oaks. He remembered the general area. Where was the scent? Oh, damn! He couldn't pick up the scent! No. Wait. He was searching for a match to the odor he had now. What had he smelled like as an Andalusian? There it was. Faint, but still traceable.
He didn't expect the resistance. At least, not until after he stopped dead in his tracks. Damn! Had he been cut off from his own exit? A chill ran through him. What if his only way out was Davy? It couldn't be! He wasn't Davy! He was Geoff! Focusing on memories of his family, he tried again. The barrier seemed to stretch a bit before forcing him back.
It was getting darker, and he realized that the pasture had started to empty. What would happen if he got stuck here? A group of horses remained near the center of the pasture, seemingly unconcerned by the approach of night. Permanent residents? No, that was no better than ending up as Davy.
He wanted his own family back! The barrier had seemed to give a little. Maybe if he threw himself at it. Memory of the agony he'd gone through before was still fresh, and he had to force it from his mind. There wasn't much time left. The trail was fading now. He charged forward and made a desperate leap. There was a shock of pain, and then blackness.
"Geoff?" Ana's voice. She was patting his hand. Groaning, he opened his eyes and tried to focus blurred vision. "Take it easy. You hit your head somehow. Knocked yourself out. We're at the Hospital."
He blinked, and tried to sit up.
"Not so fast, cowboy." Ana pushed him back easily. "You're gonna be fine. Just a bump on the noggin."
Geoff relaxed, feeling a bit silly and more than a little disappointed. Whacked himself on the head? Must have slipped in the muddy field. It had all been just another weird hallucination. But if both he and Ana were at the hospital, who was watching the boys? "Where are Nigel and Christopher?"
Ana clucked her tongue. "Both of your brothers are home in bed, if they know what's good for them. Tomorrow's a school day. I suppose we'll have to call you in sick, though."
It took a moment for her words to register. Sitting up suddenly made the room spin around a bit, but he was able to get a good look at himself before his mum made him lay back down. Looked like Sarah would have a playmate in the pasture after all.