The warehouse was a menagerie of costumes, each section sorted by genus and each rack coordinated by color. Equines began with a snow white palomino and ended with a midnight Shetland, all clean and neatly organized. The kingdom stretched an acre and was replete with all manner of material, a jungle dense with cotton and polyester. A map would be helpful, Nina thought as she surveyed the sales floor. She was there upon the suggestion of her palmist, Lady Lazarus. The lady said a connection with her animalistic other could cure her anomie and renew her faith in the future. Nina was skeptical, but wanted to believe her.
“Where do I begin?” she asked Jed, a potbellied salesman with popsicle fingers and a pin that said Spirit Expert.
“Your guide needs to speak to you. This is not a process you can force. Concentrate. What is the shape of the creature that speaks to your being?” Jed pointed at Nina’s chest as he began his pitch, a well-worn spiel.
Nina closed her eyes and found herself surrounded by skyscraping redwoods, the ground striped by sunrays and shadows. The setting was familiar: Sequoia National Park. She had been there twice — once on a motor-homing family vacation and again on a mind-expanding trip in college. What beasts roamed this forest, she wondered. Who scoured the earth for acorns and carrion? And how could she track down her double and assume its form?
Jed nudged into Nina’s space and whispered, “Breathe in the air. Can you smell it? Or are you underwater? Near a reef, maybe. See that pod of dolphins? Are you in there?”
Nina ignored his prodding. She needed to find her double without interference, by cosmic design. She spotted something woolly and golden brown in the middle distance, its head obscured by a tree trunk. She crept toward the animal cautiously, lest it be rabid or predatory. She was hoping for a playful cub or an endangered wolverine, unlikely as that could be. When she was a stone’s throw away, she was able to identify it. A cougar. Or mountain lion. Or puma. Why were there so many names for the same thing?
Jed was still hovering by her side, listing species in his irksome chirp. His breath smelled of salmon and whiskey. Was he drunk on the job? Did he earn commission for his hectoring? She tried to block him out as she channeled her inner feline and approached the cougar, eschewing her usual shuffle. The cougar was pawing at a squeaking chipmunk, its death rattle shrill and expiring.
When the cougar saw Nina, it lifted its nose and sniffed, accepting her. Nina reached out and gently stroked the cat’s head. The cougar purred softly, and Nina felt invulnerable. After a minute, the cat stood up and stretched. Nina could see that it was female, that it was her. They had the same taut cheekbones, the same sharp chin.
The cougar opened its mouth and flexed its jaws. Nina held her breath, hoping it would speak to her directly. But the cat just yawned, went back to its dinner.
Nina opened her eyes and Jed was inches away from her. She winced.
“Where are the wildcats?” she asked.
“Oh, right this way. Right this way. Wonderful.” Jed was hustling down an aisle and stopped when he realized she wasn’t following. He flapped his wrist, prompting her to hurry, but she took her time getting there.
Nina began digging through the feathery coats, her fingers disappearing into tufts of treated hair. It was like Christmas shopping, but with the incentive of a potential transformation. The cougar costume was where it belonged on the spectrum, next to a Lynx. She plucked it off the hanger and walked to the dressing room. The outfit was tagless and one-size-fits-all, with elastic Lycra lining the skin. Nina tentatively stepped through a hole in the neck and pulled the mask over her face. When she looked in the mirror, she saw the reflection of the Sequoian of her mind, yet the principal features of a human remained. To remedy this, she knelt down on all fours and evaluated herself again. The problem was her posture. Her butt was too high and her limbs were uneven, while the tail fell to the floor, flaccid. The suit was imperfect—that was obvious. But she retained a sliver of hope that she could grow into its skin, become wild and free again.
Back in her customary attire, Nina draped the costume over her arm. Jed was standing outside the door, waiting for her. She was appalled that this pudgy little man wouldn’t give her a modicum of privacy. As she glared at him, he snagged the suit off her arm and scurried to the register. She clamped her molars and headed his way at a crawl.
Once at the counter, the Spirit Expert said, “Thanks for coming in today. Your total is eleven twenty after tax and a fifty percent discount.”
An incredible price, Nina thought, a day saved. She smirked as she opened her wallet and fished out a bill.
Jed sniffed and chuckled. “Sorry, ma’am. That’s eleven hundred twenty. You couldn’t have thought—”
“A thousand dollars?” she scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I can’t afford that. And even if I could—”
But before Nina could finish her sentence, her stomach began to rumble. Her preternatural instincts had returned. Her fury percolated from a hiss to a growl. Claws grew from her fingers. She snatched the suit back, nearly swatting Jed with her paw. He cowed behind the counter and whimpered.
“Take it. Take it. It’s yours,” he said, his face blanched.
Nina cackled. She did not need his approval. The costume had consumed her, and the cougar had emerged. Their skins had fused, her was blood warmer. She had found her lodestone, an alchemical cure. As she walked out of the shop, dressed in her new body, she felt reborn.
Ryan Patrick Mooney is a fiction and arts writer from Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the young adult novel Anti-Hype and a contributing film writer for Tiny Mix Tapes. His short stories have appeared in the Pacific Review and the Higgs Weldon. A new story will be published by The Offbeat in 2017.
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