Joey rubbed his eyes, fighting off drowsiness, that sinking lead weight. He sat up straighter in the too-comfortable driver's seat, breathed deep, and drank the last of his gas station coffee from the thin foam cup. He made a face; it wasn't any better cold than it had been hot. He turned on the radio, but he couldn't find anything fast enough to get his adrenaline going, and he was sick to death of every CD he owned. He should pull over somewhere, he thought; the sleeper bunk behind the cab called to him. He must really be exhausted, if that paper-thin cot was appealing. He wouldn't stop on the side of the road, though. He'd tried that before, and a snake had wound itself up inside the engine. The memory of that burning stench was enough to make him at least try for a civilized, snake-free area.
He saw a hint of neon float up out of the darkness on the road ahead. As he approached and the moss-laden trees thinned, the lights grew brighter and more numerous. A bass line thumped along, half heard, half sensed like the vibrations of the earth under a massive, plodding beast. The neon sign read "Cloud Eight Bar and Grill." Joey pulled into the parking lot and leaned on the steering wheel, taking a measure of the place. It might have been an old barn at some point, or it might have been constructed to look old. The corrugated tin roof certainly looked sad enough, and the wood on the narrow front porch sagged treacherously. The lights were bright, though, and the parking lot was packed. A trio of pretty girls disembarked from an old pickup and went inside, laughing. If they were comfortable, he decided, it must not be too bad. After all, in this part of Louisiana, it was probably the only place within miles to dance and drink with a crowd. He packed the old paranoia away and got out. He'd have just one beer, to justify his presence in the parking lot and to shake off the stiffness from driving his semi for so many hours at a go.
The bar was smoky, dark, and jammed full of people. The music coming through the cheap speakers was raspy and twanged, loud enough to drown out every voice. Pretty young things danced in the middle, the seemingly endless energy of youth driving them through song after song. The next layer of dancers out were middle aged--divorcees looking for their next ex, plump rose hips after the loss of their bloom. Along the edges of the dance floor the wallflowers lurked, looking for a partner, or hoping to be found. And then Joey's usual station in such a place--the men and women at the dark oak bar, perched hunching on the stools like tired buzzards, concerned not at all with the mating ritual of the dance. They were there on drinking business.
Joey sidled up between two seats and asked for a Coors.
"Really? You look like a Budweiser kind of guy to me," said the bartender, a fat, bald man who reminded Joey ridiculously of one of those inflatable children's toys that were weighted at the bottom, and who sprang back up whenever they were knocked down. He smiled impossibly wide.
Joey had no idea what a Budweiser man ought to look like, or why he fit the bill, but he shrugged. "I don't care for horses," he said.
"Are you kidding? Those things are huge."
The bartender laughed and got him a Coors. "Don't see many new faces around here."
"Just passing through," Joey said, and handed him a few bills before turning back to the crowd. He gradually became aware that the people on either side of him were staring. He met their gazes, one after the other, but neither seemed inclined to look away. The woman smiled, wide and toothy, before Joey broke off the staring contest and edged off toward the wall of booths.
It wasn't any better over there. Leaning against the wall, everyone who passed him looked at him long and hard... and smiled. It would have been okay if it were just the girls, if surprising. With several days' worth of scruff on his face, in need of a shower and bleary-eyed, he wasn't at his best. Some girls liked the bad boy look, with his boots, tattoos, and hair in need of a cut, but it was not a universal taste. But now, it wasn't just the good girls on the lookout for a badass time who smiled; it was the middle aged women, the old men. They all smiled. Wide. Toothy. He couldn't escape that word; it echoed through his mind every time he saw a new flashing grin. Toothy.
He finished off his beer and looked for a trash can to put it into. He found one, filled to overflowing, and set the beer bottle on top. He turned and bumped the shoulder of someone sitting in a booth. A girl with coarse black hair and a pale, pretty face looked up at him and, to his relief, didn't smile. Instead, her eyes fluttered wide, and her mouth opened in surprise. He stared down at her, then said "Sorry," and started to move away.
"What're you doing here?" she said.
"Leaving," he answered.
"You better!" She wasn't angry.
"Yeah," he said noncommittally, and headed for the door. His heart sank; it was closed, and the bald bartender was locking it. He turned back to the girl; his heart sped up. How long had it been since he'd really been afraid? How longer still since he'd been afraid, and not quite known why?
"Is there a back door to this place?"
"Yep," she said. She walked toward the bathrooms, and he followed. The crowd watched them, and Joey tried not to watch the crowd back. Each step took a long time. Down the row of red cracked-vinyl booths, around the corner, under the neon "Exit" sign to a hallway. Five doors. Two to the bathrooms. One to the office. One to the kitchen. One escape. He walked down the hall, toward that last door, following the one woman here who didn't smile.
The music stopped, smack in the middle of "Bad Moon Rising." Joey looked over his shoulder. Smiles had been replaced with hungry grins that stretched back farther than any human mouth should. Soft, peach skin grew hard and coarse, like a bed of river stones. He saw scales, and claws, and hissing tongues, and viper fangs, and reptile snouts. The men, the women, the girls and boys of the club crowded toward the hall, still cautious, still stalking, their mammalian movements giving way to a collective reptilian slither. The nearest man flicked out a forked tongue, tasting the air ahead of him. A pretty girl in a halter top opened her jaw all the way back to the hinge, her teeth a row of short, stubby spikes. She hunched low, watching him with an unlidded eye that had swung around to the side of her face. She snarled; she charged. The tension broke. The rest of the crowd surged into the hall behind her. Joey ran.
He hit the door at a run, past the dark-haired girl, and tumbled down the steps into the parking lot. He was on his feet immediately and skidded in the gravel around the stinking dumpster in the back, only to turn right around and try the other direction. A roaring half-reptile woman, still in her green print dress, lurched after him. No good; a trio of massive serpents came around the corner of the building.
"Relax!" a voice yelled in his ear.
This ridiculous command spun him around, and he stared into the face of the dark-haired girl, her eyes now a peculiar polished amber. She grabbed him by the shoulder with a long-nailed hand--no, a long-clawed hand.
"Relax and it won't hurt so much!"
He just screamed. She rolled her eyes back and a wave of shuddering heat came off of her. He screamed again, this time in unspeakable pain, but his voice faded into nothingness, shrank as he shrank, and the world expanded around him, until it seemed that he was a tiny creature in a land of giants. Bipedal alligators, lizard-men, coiling, sidewinding snakes, and towering over him as the monsters converged, an enormous black fox.
The fox scooped him up in its mouth and ran. Their flight was swift, and he could hear nothing but the roar of the wind past his ears, his huge paper-thin ears, and his heart felt like it would burst with terror, if the sharp teeth digging into his fur--his fur?--didn't kill him first.
Then he fell to the ground, and though it seemed like a long way, the impact didn't hurt. He bounced. He rolled onto his stomach, paralyzed, and looked up at the fox. She grinned her vixen-grin down at him and laughed as only a fox can. She nudged him with her nose, and again that shivering heat. And he was himself again.
He sat curled up on the ground while the girl with the dark hair laughed, wiping away tears. The events of the evening railed against his mind, until at last he had to accept them as they were and face the present. The first thing he did was scowl at the girl.
"That was funny, was it?"
She steadied herself. "No, not really. But I have to laugh."
"Go fuck yourself."
"Hardly a way to talk to someone who just saved your life."
Joey replayed the last few minutes in his head and realized that yes, she had just saved him, even if it had been in possibly the most undignified method by which one could be saved.
"Did you have to turn me into a mouse? You did turn me into a mouse, right?"
"A rat. All the better to carry you, my dear."
He thought on that, then said, carefully, "Thank you."
"That's better. You're welcome."
He wanted to disbelieve it all, wake and find it a dream, even if upon waking he found that he had fallen asleep at the wheel and had crashed his semi into a tree and was bleeding out all over the floorboards. Surely anything would be better than this universe-twisting place when men and women mutated into vipers and alligators, where fox-women carried his rodent-self away to... where was he?
He looked up, really looked, and saw an overgrown lawn dotted with large rocks. No, not rocks... tombstones. He groaned.
"It's one of the few places they won't go."
"Perfect." He stood up, and realized with a jolt that he was naked. "I'm naked in a cemetery. Usually I would find this interesting. But lady, I want to get back to my truck and get the hell out of here." And put on some clothes. He would feel so much safer with his clothes on, even if it was just an illusion of safety.
"I hate to break it to you, but they'll have trashed your truck."
"Goddamn it--can we go look and make sure?"
"You really want to go back there, cowboy?"
He thought for a minute, then shook his head. "No, I guess not." He pointed at her, a most undignified gesture. "Hey, you're naked too."
"Nice of you to notice. That's the thing about shifting--you get a big shape, you rip your clothes to shreds. Better to be little, and hop right on out of them."
"If you say so."
"I do. Baby shifter, why don't you come back with me to my home for the night? We can talk, you can sleep, you can borrow some clothes, and if you want, you can be on your way tomorrow."
There was an implication in the tag end of that sentence. If he wanted. If. There was not a possibility in his mind that he wouldn't want to be on his way, right now if he could. But naked in the dark in a strange forest populated by monsters? He would have to cling to his rescuer and hope she hadn't saved him with the idea of making a meal of him herself.