My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 3

“Phoebe, are you okay?” Leslie asked me during Social Studies. I suddenly realized that I’d been staring at the back of one of my classmates’ heads for the past fifteen minutes, thinking about the new revelation that they were completely human. I couldn’t count how many times I had been on the verge of asking one of them what their animal side was.

“Do you feel well?” Leslie prodded.

I shook my head. The place where my wings normally were bristled, as if the feathers would have ruffled if they were there.

“Do you need to go to the nurse?”

Hah, that was the last thing I needed, seeing as I probably needed to change sometime before the end of school. No, nurse, really! I was just going to try out for the part of Big Bird in a local play! I shook my head again. Leslie seemed to calm down, but she approached me at the end of class.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, packing up her books. During the week in which Mark and I were sleeping in the car in a Walmart parking lot, gun in the glove compartment and a wand in my pocket, Mark hadn’t let me off school. He himself was house-hunting for a place to rent out, somewhere we’d have a small house to ourselves (necessary because of our animal sides). Somehow, Leslie had managed to press her way into friendship with me. She had an uncanny way of reading my emotions.

There was no point in lying. “No.”

She backed into an empty bathroom and beckoned me over. Interested, I followed.

“Does it have something to do with this?” she asked quietly, drawing a wand from her pocket. Automatically, I groped inside my own pockets. Sure enough, my wand was missing. Leslie was holding it.

“Is it real?” she breathed, too softly for anyone outside to hear.

I said nothing. I couldn’t lie to her, but there was no way I could tell the truth.

“You wouldn’t be carrying it if…” Her eyes glinted with something like recognition.

“Do you know someone?” I asked, unable to believe that she believed this of her own accord.

“My brother,” she said. “He’s a lot older than me. Left home a long time ago. He still sends us postcards, but I haven’t seen him in years.”

“That’s sad,” I said.

“I know,” she said. She handed me my wand. “Are you a mage too?”

“Yes,” I said. I was dying to show her the full extent of my problems, to tell everything… but I’d just gotten to know Leslie, and I wasn’t sure how much to trust her, contacts or not. “I have been for as long as I can remember, and Mark just told me other people aren’t. That it wasn’t normal.”

“That would upset anyone,” Leslie said reasonably. “But it wasn’t fair not to tell you before now.”

“Leslie, there’s something else,” I said, coming to a decision. “I’m”—

But then the one-minute warning bell rang, and I said, “It’s not important—go to class!” I was hungry for a chance to explain everything to someone other than Mark, and if I was going to explain to someone, it was going to be Leslie. But I wasn’t willing to make her late.

Leslie cautiously glanced back at me several times as we both bolted out of the bathroom and hurried to class. I managed to vault myself into my seat just as the bell rang for the second time, the real bell that signaled the start of the next class. My heart was racing, not because I’d raced to class, but because I had come so close to doing exactly, exactly what I needed to do. I had never needed someone to understand me so much before. Usually, Mark was there for that, but now he was the source of the problem. I had only Leslie to talk to about this, and she was… I don’t know… dangerous. Unsafe. I still wasn’t sure how much I could tell her before she’d flip and tell people.

And yet… Leslie was always the one who would touch my arm comfortingly, and who would know exactly what I was thinking. Somehow, she knew my wand was real, even though it was much more likely that it was a costume wand or a craft or a particularly straight stick that I’d randomly stuck in my pocket. And she’d given it back, and not made a fuss.

I realized that I was staring into space again and tried to concentrate on decimals instead. It wasn’t working. Fortunately, the teacher didn’t seem to notice, since I didn’t usually have any problems in that class. Math and science were my favorites: math was easy, and science was interesting.

Even though my predicament might be interesting, it definitely wasn’t easy, and yet it managed to catch my attention more than either subject did, as I found out later. Microbes, schmicrobes! Humans didn’t have an animal side, and I did, and it wasn’t working right, and I couldn’t talk to Mark about it. That was what mattered just then.

I was facing a dilemma. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to catch Leslie’s attention when school let out—I was sure she’d be trying to find me, to talk to me again. But should I respond? I decided that Leslie might deduce something worse if I didn’t show her exactly what was bothering me. Or, worse, she’d never trust me again. Or even worse, she might force me to tell her in public. Leslie was able to wriggle everything out of me—I found that out three days ago, when she’d finally forced me to admit that I’d stubbed my toe on a desk leg. No, better to tell only Leslie, instead of the entire school.

Then, as if it had waited for me to settle my decision, the last bell of the school day rang and everyone rushed out. I turned in my halfheartedly completed assignment and left to look for Leslie.

I met her in front of the library. Immediately, I said, “Leslie, there’s something else,” but she cut me off.

“Not here,” she said. Leslie strode straight out of the front doors of the school. I had to jog to keep up as she whipped around the corner of the school, sneakers flying, to the back of the school.

“Not here, either,” I said, eyeing the kids coming out of the school.

“That bad?” Leslie asked, raising her eyebrows. “Well, come on. This isn’t exactly an urban neighborhood, as you may have noticed. If we hang around the back long enough…”

“No,” I said. “There are cameras around here.”

Leslie gave me a look that clearly told me that she thought I was being paranoid, but she complied.

“There’s a little ditch by a stream near here, about five minutes’ walk. It has a tree planted over it and there’s typically not a soul around. I’ve used it to change out of muddy clothes before. Come on.” She strode straight off again with her quick-paced walk, again making me race to follow her. These farm kids were tougher than they looked.

We reached the ditch. Leslie jumped straight down into it. I tried to copy her and jarred my knees.

“Well?” Leslie said, clearly bemused by my insistence on secrecy. I whipped off my windbreaker and handed it to an even-more-confused Leslie. I reached around and undid the snaps that held the back of my wing-hole-shredded shirt together. Then I took my wand from my pocket and relaxed the spell, allowing another 25% of phoenix to show straight through.

“You’re an Epselan!” Leslie exclaimed in a whisper. “Why do you carry a wand, then?”

“I’m a phoenix Epselan,” I explained. “My magic doesn’t work quite right. Mark says it’s because my phoenix side is overpowering my human side.”

“That can’t be good,” Leslie muttered.

“How do you know about Epselans, anyway?” I asked.

“My brother did one thing before he left,” Leslie said in a grave voice. “He gave me enough magic to read minds. What he didn’t expect was that the first thing I did with that ability was to read his. I even did it while he was sleeping. I hid under his bed. I was young and very skinny then. Somehow, I managed to learn most of the rules of the magical world. I would have guessed you were an Epselan long before this, but when I found your wand… you must be a mage, too?”

I nodded. Her blue eyes glared at me. “And I’m surprised you trusted me. You need to be much more careful than that. You need to learn to be independent. But yes”—and she put her hand to my elbow in that oddly comforting way—“I understand you.”

“Why… would you have guessed I was an Epselan?” I asked.

“Sis, I’ve never seen someone need to leave English for the bathroom that urgently. I knew it must have been a malfunctioning cloaking spell, coming from you. Your mind is… interesting.” Leslie cracked a rare smile. “However, I know a little magic that’s a mite dangerous, so Mark won’t tell you about it. Did you know that there’s an opposite to the hiding spell?”

I shook my head.

“There is,” she said. “You become 75% animalina and 25% human. It kind of hurts. But… oh, all right, you showed me yours.” And she changed, relinquishing her human façade for her half-animal side.

“I’m part doe, see,” she said. She was positioned somewhat like a centaur on a doe’s body. “That was another thing my brother did to me. Epselans aren’t always natural-born.”

“You say he did it to you…” I said. “Like it’s a bad thing.”

“Haven’t you ever wished you could be all human?” she shot back.

“No.” It wasn’t like I’d realized it could be possible.

“…Me neither. Except that we’re hunted.”

“How do you do that spell you were talking about, then?” I asked hopefully.

“I’ll do it,” she said. I would have stopped her, told her to simply give me directions, but I was too interested, and she was already doing the spell.

Now Leslie looked completely like a doe.

“This is where the talking-animal stories come from,” she said. “The frog princes? Epselans. The witches that turn into cats? Epselans. And I’m not even going to comment on Shrek, because that one’s still under question. The 25% you keep is your mind, your voice and your magic. And no—I’m not going to tell you how to do it. Not a phoenix. Not with your magic.”

She changed back into her centaur-ish form. “This is definitely more comfortable,” she said.

“I know what you mean,” I said, putting all thoughts of Bambi out of my mind.

“My parents don’t know,” she said sadly. “And my brother’s never here. I don’t even have someone to brag to when I discover a new spell.”

“There’s always me,” I offered. “Another Epselan—safe enough. Except Mark wants to whisk me away to some Epselan haven or something to try and figure out this magic. But you could just make like your brother and run off with us. I’m sure Mark wouldn’t mind—if he knew that you weren’t all human, I mean.”

“Mm,” Leslie said. “I don’t know if I could do that to my parents.”

“Think about it,” I said. “I bet our route is plenty more dangerous, but your folks don’t exactly understand you. And I’m sure you’d be welcome at the Epselan place—if it isn’t one of Mark’s excuses to go somewhere where it’s absolutely freezing or something. He’s a polar bear.”

“That’s funny,” Leslie said. “And it explains why you said you’re the cook of the house.”

“You have me for now, at least,” I said. “Nothing’s going to freak Phoebe out any more.”

“Ha, Phoebe,” Leslie said. “Your name fits all the more, doesn’t it? You must be a natural Epselan. It sounds like your parents must have known. But how…?”


“How could they have known you’d be a phoenix? It’s not an easy guess.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they could see the future?”

“Why don’t you ask them?” Leslie asked.

“I don’t even know who they are. Mark adopted me.”

I could just see the connections and questions forming in Leslie’s mind, possibilities generating for her. Apparently, though, she didn’t like any of them, because she didn’t start theorizing. Not out loud, anyway.

“That’s a shame,” she said instead. I could tell that she wasn’t saying everything that was on her mind. “You’d better get back to Mark. And I don’t advise flying.”

“I’m going to get out of this hole first,” I said. I gave a little jump, helped by wings, to check that nobody was lurking in the shadows of  the trees nearby or anything. When I was satisfied that nobody was there, I flew straight out of the hole, performed my spell, and watched Leslie bound up after me and do the same—minus the wand.

“One more thing,” she said. “If your human side really has mage power, then I could teach you some spells I found in my brother’s mind. He was a really good spellcaster, and you’d probably find it handy in your travels, whether I come or not. I’m no mage, but I know the same words and stuff that he did.”

“Cool,” I said. “We should try that soon.”

But Leslie, with one great and magical bound across the stream (which she managed even in human form), was gone and out of earshot. Her shoulder-length brown hair flashed a little in the sunlight from across the stream, and she disappeared down a hill. I couldn’t see her anywhere. There was nothing to do but disappear myself.

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