On Her Own Two Feet
I perched atop the oversized tire, switching my tail in anticipation of the overture. I suppose every actress gets the first night jitters. I don't know how many shed from sheer panic. All I knew was that if this run of Cats didn't work out, I'd be back on the street. Back to scrounging in alleys for scraps. Back to sleeping curled up under newspapers, in boxes. My family would sniff in disdain. None of them had the urge to dance, to sing. They'd never understood what drew me to the stage month after month. None of them appreciated the magic of theater, the wonder of music, the camaraderie among the actors.
The house lights dropped. The curtain rose. The first number went perfectly. I danced with as much grace as anything on two legs could. Still, I couldn't ignore the nervous tingling in my toes.
Waiting offstage for my next entrance, I actually felt glad that I only had a minor part. It gave me a chance to soothe my ruffled nerves. A hand touched my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my costume.
"Easy there," whispered John. "Stay loose."
I nodded. I liked John. He wore his costume well, almost as though it were his own skin. Almost leonine, John, with his mane of red-gold hair. Sleek and muscled, graceful, with such a powerful voice.
"Looking good tonight," he added. "You'd think that was a real tail, the way you carry it."
"Thanks," I said, not trusting myself to say more. I bounced on my toes, ready for my cue.
The tingling spread over my ankles. Still, as the saying goes, "the show must go on," and so did I. With every twist and leap, the tingling got worse and worse.
And my dancing got better and better.
I could feel their eyes on me. All of them. The eyes of the audience, rapt, under the spell of the show. The eyes of my castmates, casting surreptitious glances my way. The other eyes, moonlit outside the windows of the tiny theater. These watched me, knowingly, while the tingling crept over my knees and hummed up my spine. My joints loosened. Still I danced.
Someone in the audience had smuggled in a packet of jerky. I could smell it. Rich, salty.the aroma made me dizzy.
More eyes shone in the moonlight outside. The whole family. What were they doing here, tonight of all nights? None of them could tell Andrew Lloyd Webber's music from traffic noise. Why did they have to come? I ignored them and concentrated on the music, the thrumming of the stage beneath dancing feet, the energy flowing through us all in warm counterpoint to the sharp, deceptive current crackling through my body. So much harmony and light, such wonderful, glowing color.
Terpsichore, please. Let me hold on, just a little longer. Keep the world from twisting away. Keep this power at bay. If it gets to my throat I'll never make it. I only have to finish this one show. Let it work, just once. Please.
Almost there. Just the last chorus! I opened my mouth to sing.
...And a true cat's cry wailed from my throat. Too late! I bolted from the stage, the rest of the cast covering my escape as best they could. I'm just grateful no one saw me leap through the open window.
By the time I'd fled halfway down the block the change was complete. I leapt on top of a stack of crates and sat down to wash traces of greasepaint from my fur. Thick, oily.the stuff clogged my tongue. I wanted to spit, but I couldn't. I couldn't cry, couldn't curse, so I washed with fierce disdain. Greasepaint. Human stuff. Stupid human stuff. Like giant pretend tires. Silly. All fake, pretending to be something they're not. Real tires stink of rubber, and they're always full of sludgy water when you want to sleep in them.
The theater emptied. I crept back up the alley and watched the humans spill onto the street, chattering and laughing. The door thudded closed, trapping the warm light inside. I sat with my tail wrapped around me, waiting.
The door creaked open again. I recognized John's shadow, his scent, even before he spoke.
"Um, Victoria? You out here? Are you OK?" He took a gulp of soda from the can he carried, and stepped into the alley.
I ran to press against his legs. He'd changed out of his costume. Now he wore those wonderful old jeans of his, heavy with the odors of backdrop paint and dust from the recesses of Wardrobe, and his own clean, masculine scent. I purred. He stiffened, and then pushed me away.
"Go away, cat. I'm busy. Victoria! Where are you?"
He stalked off. I followed. I tried to call his name, but all that came out was a meow.
"I said get out of here!"
I recognized that tone, the raised, half-clenched hand. It said: "Run!" But this wasn't just some human. This was John.
The can hit me alongside the head, splattering me with cola. The blow stung. The look in John's eyes.THAT hurt. I stared at him for one long moment, remembering, before I ran.
Slowly, the rest of my family crept out of hiding, purring sympathy, washing soda from my matted fur. I should have realized-they may not understand the arts, but they all recognize the family curse. It takes different forms in each of us, but the pull is always there. The urge to change never dies.
I felt their purring caressing my skin, soothing my heart. I purred back. But deep inside, I still heard music like no cat ever made.
That's the blessing of lycanthropy, such as it is. Three things are certain: The cycle will always come around again. When it strikes hardest, the others will always be there, ready to offer comfort. And when the time comes, I'll get another chance to stand on my own two feet.
Melissa Mead lives in Upstate New York with her husband and two cats. She's had stories in several magazines, including The First Line, Continuum SF, Between Kisses and her most recent sale was to Story House.
Published by permission of the author.