The half-ton pickup stopped at the wide sidewalk leading to the front door of the country mansion. In the back was a large, very well-endowed woman with black hair and wearing glasses, who was leaning on an old blanket folded and draped over the side of the truck. The driver, a pleasant-looking woman in her late twenties, hurried around to lower the tailgate. Her cargo, who had a windblown look from riding in the open, watched her with haunted eyes and a numb expression. Once the gate was down the second woman stood... and revealed herself to be something other than human. The torso was attached to the body of a large, well-figured mare. As the centaur clambered carefully to the ground, the pickup's suspension rebounded with an audible groan. Inside the mansion the arrival was noted and word spread: their new subject was here.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" asked Charlene, reaching up to put a hand on the centaur's arm as the creature from mythology gathered her luggage. "I mean, you'll be stuck here all by yourself with no way home if something comes up."
The front door of the mansion opened; a man and a woman in medical coats came out. More people stood behind them.
"I'll be fine," said Marian, with an assurance she didn't feel. "Don't worry, I'll call if I need anything."
Still not certain she was doing the right thing, Charlene got into the truck and drove slowly down the long, curving gravel driveway to the country road, looking back several times. Marian waved farewell, both glad and reluctant to see her go. After she had learned of this investigation it had taken nearly a week to work up the courage to call for an appointment, and then she had learned that the next available opening was nearly another week away. She had been quite anxious to begin by the time Charlene had stopped by with her husband's truck to give Marian a ride. Now Marian was having doubts again.
Marian Holst turned toward the small group of people standing on the front porch. A stocky, middle-aged man with iron grey hair came briskly toward her. Close behind him came another man of about the same age, though leaner and more formally dressed.
"Marian Holst? I'm Donald Criswold." He reached up and shook Marian's hand with a firm grip, then turned to the other man. "This is Harv. He'll take care of your bags and show you to your room. Anything you need, just ask him; he runs the place for me."
Criswold escorted her to the front porch, waiting politely while Marian carefully negotiated the five steps. He then introduced her to the people standing there. Harv waited patiently behind them with the suitcases.
"These are Doctors William Swenson and Louise Carter," said Criswold, with a casual wave. "They and their lab assistants will carry out the examinations. This lovely woman is Ruth Thomas, and that little rascal is her son, Paul. He's one of you folk, though he didn't change shape like you did."
Marian had heard of others who had been affected by whatever it was that had turned her into a centaur, and even seen some of them in the media. Paul, who looked about 11, was the first she had met. There were some mumbled greetings on all sides, the situation leaving Marian feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Paul, bless him, broke the ice.
"Are you stuck that way or can you change back?"
"Paul!" scolded his mother.
"I'm afraid I'm stuck this way," said Marian, managing a slight smile.
Criswold motioned the group inside, Marian having to duck to clear the door. The house was old and carefully restored, causing Marian to move more carefully than usual as the odd entourage made its way through the foyer and down one long hall. As promised, Harv led Marian to her room. Fortunately, this was on the ground floor, at the back of the house in what had apparently been servants quarters in another era. Out of consideration for Marian's weight, the bed had been dismantled and the mattress laid directly on the floor. This bit of thoughtfulness caused her a deep pang; Marian's husband had done the same thing a month earlier, then announced that he was sleeping on the couch.
Criswold explained the layout of the house as Harv placed her luggage on the floor. Marian was distressed to learn that the examining rooms were in the basement. She told Criswold that she wasn't sure she could negotiate the steps.
"Hey, I'll carry you down," Paul offered. "I'm awful strong."
"Paul!" Ruth said.
Marian got the impression that this was a common exchange between her to her son.
"You certainly got this enterprise off the ground quickly," Marian told Criswold. "It has only been four and a bit weeks since whatever it was happened."
"Yeah, well, I've always had a knack for being able to get down to work in a hurry," said Criswold. "I already had the house available - my ex decorated it so I didn't have much use for it - and figured it would do until I found something more permanent. I also knew where I could find some medical people, from my experience in aerospace research. So I just put the two together. We've been open just over a week, and have already seen nine people, not counting you and Paul."
As if letting Marian know they were all too busy to stand around chatting, Criswold then ushered everyone out but her. There was barely time for Dr. Swenson to tell Marian they were ready to start the examination when she was.
Once she was alone, Marian decided to change into something more suited to wearing indoors. She loved to dress well, and had chosen her traveling attire as a compromise between appearance and practicality. Since the staff wanted to start right away, Marian decided on a simple blouse. No jewelry, no new makeup. As she sorted through her suitcase, she caught sight of her reflection in the dresser mirror and winced. Without clothing, the conundrum Marian presented was more obvious. At first glance she seemed to be a normal human from the waist up and a Tennessee Walking Horse mare from the waist down. Her torso might have seemed unchanged from before, but a second look made it apparent that it was actually larger, now in scale with the horse part. She stood at better than eight feet from hoof to crown. Additionally, Marian's breasts had increased in size even more than the rest of her upper body. Fortunately, though they were huge they were also well shaped and not pendulous. In fact, they were surprising pert for being so large. Marian hadn't found any bras yet that fit, and she was very glad that her new endowments were self-supporting. Even after more than a month, her appearance still occasionally caught her by surprise. Marian sighed, slipped the blouse on and regarded her reflection. With nothing underneath she showed far more than she liked, even if one credited her equine portion as not requiring clothes. Still, she knew better than to dress too elaborately when going to a physical examination.
With the same numb resignation she had felt nearly ever day since her transformation, Marian opened the door and headed for the downstairs lab.
* * *
"I'll admit, I was reluctant to come here," said Marian, as she stood in front of Dr. Swenson, her hands fluttering nervously. "I've been poked and prodded so much the past month..."
"I understand," he replied, soothingly. "We'll try to avoid anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Don't be afraid to speak up, either; your anatomy is different from what we are used to, and we might not anticipate all the differences."
The first series of tests was similar to what Marian had already been through several times. After carefully making her way across the parquet floor of the kitchen and down the stairs into the basement, she was weighed, measured and questioned, and her medical history was reviewed. Dr. Swenson, who appeared to be in charge of the research, also took pains to question Marian extensively about all aspects of her new form. Then various samples were taken. That took up the rest of the morning. Marian had worried about getting back up the stairs for lunch, but fortunately a thoughtful aide arranged for her meal to be brought down to the staff break room. She also learned that there was a door which led directly outside from the basement, which was a welcome relief.
"Is that all you're going to eat?" asked Dr. Swenson, when he saw the food left on Marian's plate.
"I'm not really hungry," said Marian, voice almost inaudible.
"That's barely enough for a normal-sized person, "Dr. Swenson persisted. "I thought you looked a little thin. Is this as much as you normally have?"
"I weigh enough already," said Marian, shrugging.
"No, you don't." Swenson looked her in the eye. "I had already planned to call in a vet, to ask his opinion about your health. I'm going to make sure and work with him to provide some guidelines about what you should eat and how much. I'm also calling a farrier so that you can get some shoes. And don't look at me like that. I don't know much about horses, but even I can see that your hooves already are showing some signs of damage."
"If you think it necessary," replied Marian, without enthusiasm.
In the afternoon the procedure took a different tack. For instance, there was a series of physical tests, to learn, among other things, just how strong Marian was. One third of the basement had been set aside for the necessary equipment. There were weight racks, nautilus machines and items Marian couldn't identify. Marty, the physical therapist in charge of this part of the investigation, guided her first to a strange device which consisted of a steel bar on an adjustable stand. A cable ran from the bar and around two pulleys to a weight rack.
"Just grab that bar and do a curl," Marty told her. "Yeah, like that."
"How much am I lifting?" Marian asked, as she raised the bar to her chest with little effort.
"That's three hundred pounds," he replied, not noticing Marian's startled expression. "I figured you'd be pretty strong. That's why I went straight to this gizmo. Now, since that was easy for you, let's step up to an even thousand."
Marian found that she could, without difficulty, curl a ton, which was as high as the makeshift equipment could go. Marty wasn't surprised. Marian was.
"I knew I was stronger, now," said Marian, amazed. "I mean, I broke several things by accident the first few days - but this...!"
"We've had several people in here who went the limit. Even Kid Power. Great strength seems to be pretty common with you people. Guess we'll have to get better equipment."
"Kid Power?" said Marian. "You mean Paul? I remember someone else calling him that."
"Yeah, he's picked that as a nickname," the technician replied, with a smile and a shake of his head. "Seems to think he's a super hero, or something."
They also wanted to test Marian's speed, but Swenson decided to postpone that part until later. Instead, Marian went directly to the psychological evaluation.
"Why do you need to put me through that?" she demanded, a bit irritated. "Do you think this is all in my head?"
"Not exactly," said Dr. Swenson, grinning. "Every bit of data helps. It may be that all the people who were affected by this have some mental characteristic in common. Also, I expect that many of you will need therapy to help you adjust, and the sooner that is started, the better."
Dr. Carter conducted that exam, first simply going down a list of questions and marking Marian's replies. This took a little over an hour. Then she switched to a more personal tact.
"Tell me about what bothers you, mentally and physically," Dr. Carter asked her, leaning back and putting the pencil eraser absent-mindedly to her lips. "I want to know about your discomforts, gripes, pains and peeves."
"I guess my biggest problem is with the way people react to me," said Marian, starting slowly, as she unconsciously kneaded her hands together. "Some of them stare, some of them don't stare but peer at me out of the corner of their eye. Some of them ignore me, as if they hope I'll go away if they don't look. And then there are the people who see me as a target, for whatever reason. I've even been used as an example by a fundamentalist preacher, who claims that I'm being punished for not staying at home and caring for my children."
Marian stopped and took a deep breath. Her voice had grown steadily louder and shriller as she talked, and there were tears in her eyes. She paused for a moment to regain control, accepting the tissue Dr. Carter offered.
"Physically I feel fine," she continued. "I haven't been sick since I changed; even my allergies have gone."
She took her glasses off, and waved them around.
"I don't even need these any more, although I still wear them out of habit."
"We have only examined ten people so far," Dr. Carter said. "Most of those have some problem associated with their new abilities or form, which is why they came here. Two of them have had their bodies changed drastically, much as you have. What's interesting is that seven of the remaining eight, as well as some others we have learned about, can change into an alternate form or back at will."
Marian nodded politely, not sure what the point was.
"There is a chance that you and the others who have been physically changed may have the same ability, and simply haven't managed to access it yet," Dr. Carter continued. "A cure could be as simple as learning how to change back."
"That would be great," said Marian, though without much enthusiasm. "I just don't think that's the case with me, though. I don't know why, but I have a feeling that I'm stuck this way."
Dr. Carter ended the session by making it clear that free counseling was available for Marian if she felt she needed it. Marian hesitated for a moment, tail swishing nervously, then decided to confide in her.
"Actually, I'm glad you are here," she said, almost meekly. "I've... been through a lot lately. As if the change weren't enough, I've been having major mood swings, though those seem to have settled down some the past week. On top of that, people have been making things worse. My sons saw me change, and now are frightened of me. Someone spray painted the crude outline of a horse on the side of my house. My husband packed his bags and moved out the day after the vandalism, giving me the excuse that his mother needed help with the boys. I later heard through a friend that he had already seen a lawyer. He filed for divorce just last week.
"Even if you could change me back tomorrow, my life would still be permanently marred by what has happened to me," Marian concluded, lowering her head, as more tears welled. "There are times I just want to scream 'It's not my fault, I didn't choose to be like this!' But what would that help?"
"You'd be surprised," said Dr. Carter, gently. "Most of the people I treat would be a lot better off if they would scream occasionally. Try it; you just might feel better if you let off a little steam. And any time you need to talk about something, just let me know. Meanwhile, I want you to think of the things that haven't changed. What is still stable in your life?"
"Well, there's Charlene and Frank Potter, the friends I'm staying with now," said Marian, with a shy grin. "There's also Craig Switzer, my boss. He called recently and said he needed me at the office. He's always been good to me."
"That's the sort of thing," said Carter, encouragingly. "Between now and tomorrow, I want you to keep on thinking of who and what you can still depend on."
Marian agreed and left; oddly, she felt better already.
For the last part of her first day's participation in the program, Dr. Swenson asked Marian into his office to explain what had been learned from her and from the other subjects they had studied. Marian was surprised to see that he had thought to provide a thick foam pad for her to lie on. Once she had settled herself, Swenson sat in his own chair, behind a desk. Her head was still higher than his, but not so much now.
"Where shall we begin?" he said, smiling. "I can guess at some of your questions. While we don't have any positive answers yet on what has caused this strange phenomenon, I can provide you with some educated guesses. Before we get into the speculation, though, let me tell you what is known for certain.
"On an otherwise ordinary Spring day, several hundred - at least - people had something strange happen to them. While there have been reports from the rest of the country and other parts of the world, these Gifts seem to have appeared mainly in the south-eastern United States."
"Gifts?" asked Marian, hearing the capital letter emphasis.
"The term we are using for these sets of powers," replied Swenson. "It seems fitting. A large portion of these Gifts seem to include the capacity for physical transformation. One of the first Gifted to make a public appearance is a young woman who is calling herself Cheetah Girl. She was spotted running down Limestone Street in Lexington, Kentucky, only minutes after the Gifting occurred. In the form of a cheetah, of course.
"Gifted people in general seem to have been granted perfect health," Swenson continued. "They also heal completely from any injury, without scars. You told me that all your fillings fell out within a few hours, pushed out by healthy enamel. That's typical. Even artificial body parts were rejected and replaced, which has caused some problems. Gifted can't wear pierced earrings, either, since the holes heal shut in a couple of hours, even if an earring or post is kept in it. The foreign object is simply ejected.
"In most cases, biochemistry and DNA remain unchanged," Swenson told her. "That's why you can eat meat and such. Despite appearances you are not part horse."
"But what is causing this?" demanded Marian, surprised at the intensity of emotion in her voice.
"That is still open to speculation," Swenson said, spreading his hands. "The best theory I have heard so far is that this is simply something which happens from time to time, and that previous such events are responsible for many of the myths and legends of our world."
"All right," Marian said thoughtfully, "if this is indeed the same sort of event which was responsible for mythologies, I can almost understand why I am a centaur. But why did my breasts get so large?"
"Did you ever wish you had larger breasts?" asked Swenson.
"What does that have to do with it?" Marian frowned.
Swenson shifted slightly, and shrugged.
"There is strong evidence that the exact expression of many Gifts was influenced by the receiver's personality or secret desires."
"Oh. My. God." Marian leaned back in shock.
"Is something wrong?" asked Swenson, suddenly concerned.
"When I was a little girl," said Marian, quietly, "I wanted to be a horse."
"I beg your pardon?"
Marian shook herself, as if coming out of a trance.
"When I was seven years old, I decided that when I grew up I was going to be a horse." She sighed. "I trotted instead of running, and whinnied and tossed my head. In short, I acted as much like a horse as a little girl could."
"That doesn't mean that your current physical state..."
"No, I have to admit it to myself," said Marian, with a sad smile. "My
current physical state, as you put it, is my own fault. Be careful what
you wish for, I guess.
"There is something else," Swenson told her, quietly.
He pulled a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. While looking at it, he made a graceful gesture in the air, and muttered something under his breath. A ball of light appeared at his fingertips. Under his direction it floated around the room for a few seconds, before vanishing. Marian was staring at him, mouth agape.
"Magic works, now," he explained. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I call it magic because I don't know what else to call it. The fact is that anyone who is willing to learn can perform such feats as you just saw. One of our first subjects taught me that spell six days ago. Some Gifted seem to have an innate ability for magic. But, as you can see, anyone can learn."
* * *
"Look out below!" cried Paul.
Marian glanced up just in time to see his plummeting figure come sailing over the mansion. She ducked reflexively, as Paul thumped gracelessly into the ground beside her.
"Gotta work on those landings," he announced cheerfully, as he clambered to his feet. "Dr. Bill asked me to tell you that they're ready for your running test."
"You were flying!" gasped Marian.
The boy was wearing a costume he obviously made himself from a pair of pajamas and a bath towel. The letters "KP" were crudely stitched on the front. Paul lifted off the ground a few inches, hovered waveringly, then dropped back down.
"Still learning, but I'm getting better every day."
Marian, smiling, reached out and stroked his hair, causing Paul to grin and duck his head. The two of them had developed an interesting rapport in just over a day. For his part, Paul found Marian's form fascinating, and his open curiosity and enthusiasm made her feel comfortable around him. Besides, with his strength and resilience Marian didn't have to worry about accidentally hurting him. Fortunately, his mother didn't seem to mind the two of them being friends, and even encouraged it.
"Paul!" came a faint cry.
He leapt into the air, careened around the corner at low level, and disappeared. Marian sighed and turned the other way. This second day of examination had been more of the same, for the most part. The major portion had been spent on further testing Marian's physical limits. Now they wanted her to run.
There was an old exercise track behind the mansion, dating back to the days when this had been a horse farm, instead of an industrialist's country home. Criswold had ordered it cleared before Marian had even heard of him, since another common power was enhanced speed. Marian didn't like the idea of running around on a horse track, but Dr. Swenson had persuaded her to participate anyway.
"Ah, there you are," said "Dr. Bill" Swenson. "If you will stand at the line, there, I want you to just start running as fast as you can when I say 'go.'"
Marian took her mark and waited, then lurched forward on command. Her initial strides were awkward, clumsy; this was the first time since her transformation that she had tried to run. She soon got into the rhythm, though, and found that she enjoyed the sensation. The wind whistled through her hair, and she strained to go faster. Finally, Swenson signaled her to stop, though she was not really tired.
"How fast did I go?" gasped Marian, breathing hard more from excitement than exertion.
"Your best lap was just over forty miles per hour," Swenson told her. "Don't get smug, though. Last week we had a guy here who hit over a hundred. Still, maybe we ought to start training you for the Kentucky Derby."
Marian was timed in sprints over various distances, and her jump measured. By that time she was tired, and welcomed the announcement that the tests were over for the day. She was even feeling hungry.
"To paraphrase an old joke, I must be glowing like a cart horse," said Marian, still a bit breathless. "I'm hot."
"You're falling prey to the squared-cubed law," Swenson explained. "You have a lot more mass per unit of surface area, now, so it is harder for you to get rid of heat."
Marian was actually glad to join the others in the dining room, and not just because of her newfound appetite. Swenson had brought the pad from his office and placed it on the floor by the table her first evening at the mansion, and again at every subsequent meal. This meant that Marian could eat comfortably from a table like a normal person again. For that alone, she felt that the trip here had been worthwhile.
"Working out of my basement is okay for the short term," Criswold announced, as the conversation wandered from the day's test results to what they would like to do in the future. "We need something larger for any sort of long-term effort."
"Maybe I can help," said Marian, tentatively. "I work in a real estate office. Let me know what you want, and what you'll pay for it, and I'll try to find you something."
"You do that," promised Criswold, "and I'll give you a free lifetime membership!"
"Just tell me one thing," said Marian. "Why are you doing all this?"
"I could claim altruism, and be at least partly honest," Criswold told her, without having to pause for thought. "To be completely honest, though, I need to tell you something about myself. I've been flying most of my life. I'm pretty good at it, too. I was a Korean War jet ace, and a test pilot afterwards."
He smiled at Marian.
"You see, I want to fly. For real, not with a machine. If we can figure out how you folks do what you do, that dream may become a reality."
* * *
"I'll say one thing," announced the farrier, "you're my first talkin' customer!"
Marian decided not to reply to this, since the only responses she could think of were retorts. Instead she twisted around and tried to watch as the man filed her left rear hoof. He inspected Marian's foot with a practiced eye, then nodded and lowered it to the ground. He was a surprisingly young man, in his late twenties, and had the unlikely name of Dobbins.
"That's got the shaping done. That left forefoot was a near thing. You let the wall get pretty chipped and worn down, and the sole was beginning to suffer for it. You must've let your hooves get too wet, which makes 'em brittle when they dry."
He walked back to his truck and put away the rasp, then returned with a horseshoe in each hand.
"This is the standard steel shoe for something your size. This is its rubber counterpart. I recommend the rubber shoe for you. Not only will it protect any floors you walk on, it'll be better for you, since you'll be walkin' so much on hard surfaces."
In addition to feeling uncomfortable about having a non-medical stranger examining her body, Marian had been rather unnerved when she had seen the tools he had brought out. Fortunately, Dobbins' matter-of-fact manner and obvious skill had gradually put her at ease. He was a professional, and as a professional herself, she could deal with him on that level.
"I didn't know there were such things!" exclaimed Marian, as she examined the rubber shoe.
"Oh, yeah," replied the farrier. "Horses, mules and donkeys that walk on pavement a lot wear them. Most police horses, for instance. You think that's somethin', there's even pullover rubber boots! Anyway, these rubber shoes'll give you better traction than either steel shoes or bare feet."
"I better take the rubber shoes," Marian decided. "How long will they last?"
"Depends," Dobbins replied, as he brought three additional rubber shoes and his shoeing box over. "On how much you walk, on what surfaces and how fast, and how much you carry. Maybe a month, maybe more. You'll need your feet tended about every month or two, anyway, so that will come about the time you'll need new shoes."
He lifted Marian's left forefoot and placed it deftly between his thighs, talking as he worked. He either didn't notice or didn't show that he noticed that this intimate contact made Marian very uneasy. Dobbins placed the shoe, positioned the nail, and began hammering. This was unnerving, though not painful. The impacts were transmitted up through the complex structure of the hoof, through the leg and into Marian's body, and seemed to jar her from teeth to tail. The farrier explained what he was doing as he worked, which Marian appreciated, and went on to tell her about what she needed to do to keep her feet healthy.
"I can barely reach my rear feet, let alone clean them," Marian interrupted.
"Then you'll have to get someone else to do it for you," he replied. "I can recommend several good farriers in your area, if you want."
When he was finished, Marian lifted a foot and shook it experimentally.
"I can barely feel them."
"Them rubber shoes is light," Dobbins acknowledged. "Also, I had to trim a lot off your hooves, especially the rear ones. There's not much change in weight."
Marian walked around the old barnyard a few times, then trotted to the house and back. Satisfied, she thanked Dobbins.
"Don't mention it. This is somethin' I can tell my grandkids about."
* * *
Criswold walked from room to empty room, looking into everything, and even occasionally moving some stray piece of debris aside.
"Looks good," he said, finally. "If we can come to terms on a price, I'll take it."
Craig Switzer, Marian's boss from the real estate agency, nodded, and the two men began talking money. Marian heard something from the stairs, and turned to see Dr. Swenson returning from his tour of the upper floors.
"It has everything we need," he told Marian. "Even a small elevator. We can remodel the upstairs into quarters for the patients and use the ground level for offices and examination and testing rooms. The basement can be used for storage, and maybe for the heavy test equipment."
"And its already zoned for medical use," Marian added, smiling.
Getting back into the business of matching buyer with property had felt surprisingly good, and Craig had insisted on Marian receiving the commission, in spite of the fact that she had moved from sales to management over two years earlier. She felt so good, in fact, that she was starting back to work on a regular basis Monday.
"Well, that's that," said Criswold, smiling and rubbing his hands as he approached Marian and Swenson. "We have a deal. Well, if the current owner aggress."
"We'll close tomorrow, and you can get your contractors in as soon after that as you want," Craig added.
There was some congratulatory small talk; then Criswold managed to maneuver Marian into one of the side rooms on a pretense.
"This is really coming together," Criswold told her. "We've got the building and most of the staff is lined up, waiting to start. We should be in business by the end of next month."
"Is that what you lured me in here for?" asked Marian.
"No," said Criswold, losing some of his bravado. "Listen, I heard that the divorce judge gave your husband the house. I want you to know that I meant what I said at the mansion. You have a room here for as long as you want. We planned from the start to provide a place to stay for those who need help; that's why we were so picky about the zoning. We will have a set of rooms which can be altered to help any Gifted person who has some physical change that requires special support, you included. You'll have furniture that fits and floors that you won't have to worry about holding you."
"All right, all right, I'm convinced!" exclaimed Marian, grinning. "Frankly, I'm relieved. I didn't want to have to stay with Charlene and Frank any longer; I've imposed on them enough as it is. Speaking of which, I'm also going to need some sort of vehicle. I can't keep hitching rides in the back of a pickup."
"We'll work on it," promised Criswold.
This work is Copyright 1990 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing
to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be reached
An image of Marian by me: Marian Holst
To see another image of Marian (this one by Sherry Watson) click on "Does It Come In A Larger Size?"