Come on, Amy, were leaving.
Amy groaned and set down her pencil. At the moment her desk contained a lamp, storage shelves, a few souvenir roller coaster snapshots, a drawing pad, and a National Geographic. The latter was open to a page with a running cheetah. The top page of the drawing pad tauntingly displayed a half-finished sketch of the cheetah, daring Amy to defy her mother and finish it, yet making fun of her predicament at the same time.
Okay, okay, Im coming. She reached for her black hoodie, hurriedly yanking her arms through the sleeves as she trotted out to the front room. Her mother and her little sister Lauren both stood there expectantly. Im ready. Lets go.
The late October air bit at Amys cheeks when they ventured outside. She didnt care much for the cold. Admittedly, she could get overheated sometimes, usually during the sunny months, but right now she craved a blue sunny sky. She had promised herself that when she was old enough, she would travel to Africa and take a sub-Sahara safari.
Get over it, she told herself sternly. Its not even December yet. If only her boyfriend Charlie could come with her. Theyd keep each other warm in this weather and she wouldnt be bored out of her mind wherever they were going today.
Suddenly she had an idea. Her mother had mentioned that they would be driving several towns east. Plenty of time.
Hang on, Mom. Almost forgot something.
She dashed back into her house and seized the materials from her desk.
On longish car trips, Amy often tended to bring her drawing tools along. Why waste otherwise pointless time? She had long ago learned to cope with the jittering of her mothers old Ford and conquered her carsickness. When the scenery was beautiful, though, she would quietly set down her distraction and turn her gaze to the window. That was the case on this cloudy Sunday.
Though she was sixteen and a half, Amy was reluctant to learn to drive. She knew that you had to keep all your attention on the road. It was a safety thing. But if you were focused on the road, how could you notice the beauty around you?
Her face fell as they entered the city. It hid the natural world
and it reminded her why they were here.
So where is it that were going again?
Its a little-known costume shop that I heard about from a friend, her mother answered. Doesnt get much business, but the costumes are handmade and supposedly very beautiful. I think its called The Second Identity or something like that.
Amy sighed. She hated costume shops. You always saw the same cheap, kit-looking outfits, no matter where you went. She preferred to design her own costumes. Unfortunately lacking her mothers gift with the sewing machine, these tended to consist of old sheets, cardboard, papier-mâché masks, and staples enough to slice you into several pieces. But she still preferred them to the store-bought junk.
Where is it? she asked as they parallel parked and got out of the car.
Next block that way, her mother stated, pointing to their left.
Lauren looked up at Amy. Race ya! And with that she took off, long blonde hair trailing behind her.
Amy shook her head. Not a chance. She pulled her brown hair out of its high ponytail and took off after her little sister.
She loved to run. Her friends at school had repeatedly asked her why she wasnt on the track team. Her answer varied from time to time: Im not much for team sports, Cuts into my time, Im and artist and a musician, not an athlete. But they had a point. In sprints, she could beat any of her friends, hands-down. It took a mere six seconds to catch up with Lauren.
But upon entering the shop in question, her jaw dropped. This was too unreal. For one week before Halloween, it was oddly deserted. But the costumes were nothing like what she had pictured. They were simply extraordinary. That was the only word to describe them. The clothing portions actually looked like clothing, the skin like skin, and the scales, and the fur! The fur was amazingly realistic. It was hard to believe they were all hand-made. Yet it seemed the only explanation for their exquisite beauty. She knew that anybody who bought a costume here, no matter what they chose, would put everybody else on the block to shame. And they were all great deals. Why wasnt this shop more popular?
While Lauren looked through the princesses and unicorns with her mother in one corner of the shop, Amy stroked the striped fur of a tiger costume on display. She and Charlie both adored big cats so much. Hed always been fascinated with tigers.
According to him, there were even times when wanted to become a tiger. If only he could see this costume. He would love it so much. Maybe she should buy it for him.
There was one cat in particular that Amy had always loved too, the one that she admired and dreamed of, the big cat that never seemed to get the attention it deserved. Might a shop as amazing as this have it? She set the tiger down and walked up to the counter.
There was a relatively old man with a beard behind the counter. She supposed he was the maker of these costumes. He eyed Amy with interest. She faltered. Why was he looking at her like that? Why was she even considering sharing her secret obsession with a stranger?
Excuse me, sir, she murmured, but would you happen to have any cheetah costumes?
Im sorry, but not at the moment, the man told her. Was it just her, or did the man sound pleased? Theyve never really been in demand. But if you would like one, Im sure I could have a custom job done before Halloween. Would you like that?
Amys face lit up. Shed never thought to find a cheetah costume anywhere, yet this nice man was offering to make one just for her
it was too good to be true. I would love that very much, sir, she managed to blurt out.
I thought so. He gave a knowing smile. Come on into the back room. Ill take some measurements.
Drethan had been watching the girl since she had set foot in the store. He had seen the feline grace with which she walked, seen her almost effortless speed, seen the cheetah sketch she had dropped. A prime subject.
The measurements were just a ruse. If he offered to design a custom costume without the wearers dimensions, it would be sure to start suspicions. And getting this close to the customer allowed him to get to know the person much better.
The girl looked to be about sixteen. She wore dark blue jeans with a slight flare and a teal green three-quarter-sleeve sweater. It was a very basic outfit, but she needed no more. She was naturally beautifula person who didnt fuss over her looks, yet was probably unaware that she wouldnt have had to anyway. Drethan often wished there were more people like that in the world.
This young woman had a delicate face with high cheekbones, thin brows, and deep brown eyes. Her long brown hair hung free, but she had a blue hair tie on her right wrist. She had come into the shop with her hair down, so he assumed that she had let it down to run. So she liked to run. That was good.
He had only caught a glimpse of her sketch, but it was very well drawn. A fellow artist. He was starting to like this girl.
She was thin, but seemed quite strong. During the measurements she stood like a normal human, but he had seen her on her toes earlier. Very catlike. This girl was practically a human cheetah already. Interesting. He hadnt yet met a subject who embodied their animal, but this would make a good experiment.
As soon as she had stepped into the back room, Amy hadnt been able to speak. If the ones in the front were great, these costumes in the back were unbelievable.
There was no rhyme or reason to their arrangement in the roomsome were on hangers, some in boxes, some folded and sitting on any available flat surfacenor to their subjects. She did notice, though, that they were all animals. No princesses, no pirates, just animals. There were a lot of mythical creatures, though. She counted at least seven dragons, all of different colors. There were even a few dinosaurs.
There we are, the man said as he wound the tape measure and set it down on what appeared to be an ironing board. Your cheetah will be finished by the thirtieth.
The day before Halloween. I dont think Ill be able to come pick it up, sir, she faltered. Maybe she should learn to drive.
Not a problem. I can deliver it to you.
Oh, would you? My name is Amy Mandel and my address is 624 Valley View Avenue. I live in Williamston.
The man jotted this down on a scrap of paper. Thanks. Pleasure doing business with you.
Lauren had finally settled on a pale blue fairy costume. The dress was of a sheer silky fabric that came in two layers in the bodice and three in the skirt. The wings were translucent blue and had silver swirls on them. There was a realistic flower wreath to be worn like a crown, as well as a thin wand with a large blue star on top, which she figured would have a light inside. Amy could already picture the costume waving delicately in the wind. She had no doubt of the mans skills.
It wasnt until they were all in the house that Amy realized she had left her magazine and her sketch in the shop. Great. Shed put a lot of work into that sketch! And shed forgotten to buy that tiger for Charlie. She could have smacked herself. Shed been so wrapped up in the notion of her own cheetah costume, the costume of her dreams, that she had forgotten to consider her love. She knew in her heart that the tiger would have been just as dear to him as the cheetah was to her. But wait. If he didnt know about it, he wouldnt be mad
The rest of the school week passed in a daze. She came on time to every class and turned in all her homework, but she didnt really take anything in. She played her flute with more gusto than normal, though. This was partly because the skies were clearing, and she loved the sun. But it was also because of the coming weekend.
Amy had always loved Halloween. But she was excited for a different reason this year. She couldnt wait to see the costume. It would be gorgeous. Every trick-or-treater would envy her big cat. Maybe. She hoped she wasnt raising her expectations too high.
On Friday Charlie cornered her after school.
Have you planned anything this weekend? he asked her a few minutes later.
They were seated on a cozy bench behind the school library. It was a lovely view.
Mom wants me to trick-or-treat with my sister, she sighed. Maybe you could come with us? You live just a few blocks away.
I could. He looked at her with his lovely hazel eyes. But I dont have a costume.
Oh. Just great. He just had to remind her. Even if it was unintentional. If only he knew. But hang on. She was Amy Mandel, the Halloween girl! She could whip up a quick costume for him, and he wouldnt even know. You like capes, right?
Ive got an idea. You wear all black, with a cape, and Ill make a mask for you.
Hmm. I guess that would work. Youre good at masks.
Thanks. What would you like as a mask?
Wait, dont tell me. A tiger?
He chuckled. How did you know?
She smiled. Who doesnt?
Meet at my house at seven on Sunday.
It was Saturday afternoon. Amy had just finished carving a tiger face into her jack-o-lantern and was washing the pumpkin slime off her hands when the doorbell rang. She squealed with excitement and bolted to the door, quivering with excitement as she turned the knob. She was so glad that her mother had just taken Lauren to her piano lesson.
There it was. The box. Somehow whoever had delivered it was already gone. But she didnt care. She seized the box and bolted up to her room, locking the door behind her.
When she finally managed to cut the tape offit kept sticking to the scissorsthe first thing she saw surprised her. There at the top of the box was her missing sketch, and right below it the magazine. She smiled. The kind man had found it and returned it to her. A part of her mind wondered how he had assumed these were hers. Probably because the magazine article, the sketch, and the costume were all cheetahs.
The costume was just as amazing as she had pictured. She stroked its fur lovingly, and a surge of excitement shot up her arm. The cheetah was just her size. There was a slit down the belly for her to put the costume on. The incredibly lifelike mask was joined to the main costume and had lenses in the eyeholes that made them look just like cheetah eyes. The feet seemed awfully long, though, at least for a person. She wondered amazedly if he had built in some sort of well-concealed stilt mechanism so that her legs would look like real cheetah legs. The arms and legs looked like they would fit her snugly, so she stripped down to her briefs and her bra before sliding into the suit.
She could tell something wasnt right as soon as her feet reached the cheetahs feet. They seemed to tingle. But why? As she pulled her arms through the sleeves, she realized that the paw-shaped gloves didnt fit quite right either. But then the tingly sensation started there too. She felt oddly warm.
Suddenly she began to hear sickening crunching sounds. She couldnt quite feel her feet correctly. They seemed
hot, as if they were supposed to be in pain but werent. And they were still crunching loudly. What was going on? Why was the costume grabbing onto her and making weird noises? She turned and promptly tripped on her own feet. She looked into the box. There was a piece of paper at the bottom that she hadnt seen before, written in a fine hand.
Do not panic, the note said. My name is Drethan and I am a magician of sorts. I am watching you now. Your cheetah costume is now molding itself to fit you and shaping you to fit it. In a few moments you will have temporarily become a cheetah
Oh, no. If Amy had been confused before, she was totally scared now. Do not panic? How could she not, when the belly of the cheetah was now separating into sticky, stretchy tendrils and pulling her in? How could she not panic when her entire body was changing shape?! It was all too disorienting
she fell to the ground, squeezed her eyes shut, and tried not to think of anything. It didnt work. She could tell now that she was being completely transformed. She tried as hard as she could to ignore the popping noises that were creeping up her body
her spine seemed to be lengthening
the hood-like mask was already pulling itself over her face
she felt the presence of something pushing itself into her mind
If only that Drethan character had warned her sooner! But if he had, she wouldnt have believed him
Her entire body seemed to be realigning itself now
her hips shifted with a terrible grinding noise
she winced in pain as her shoulders twisted and her chest began to pull itself outward
And then it stopped.
Amy opened her eyes. She must have passed out. Nothing had changed for several minutes, so she raised her head and looked wearily at herself. She was lying on her side. Her chest was way deeper than a human chest. The too-long feet looked fine now, as did the front paws that lacked opposable thumbs. And look, there was the tail, curled around her long feet. Without quite realizing which muscles she used, the tail gave a twitch. This was too crazy. She didnt feel like she was wearing a costume at all. She felt like she wasnt wearing anything.
Shakily she raised herself on all fours. Everything was perfectly positioned. There was no need to crawl on her knees, and her head was angled differently on her neck. She looked down her nose. It seemed a bit longer and a bit lower, and it was black at the tip and along the sides.
She suddenly realized that she was hearing quieter sounds, smelling more scents, and seeing different colors. An orange leaf outside her window caught her attention immediately. Her ears almost involuntarily rotated backwards to hear the floor creak. And she could smell the pumpkins as if they were in front of her. Her mind felt somehow different, and she remembered the presence that had pushed itself in earlier. It seemed to feel excited.
Im a cheetah.
Amy peered back inside the cardboard box. The note was still there. It took her a moment to find the place where she had left off.
You are now the owner of one of my transformation costumes, it said. There is no need to pay me. The ordinary costumes in my shop, such as your sisters, have no magic, so do not fear for her. The special ones are fueled by desire. For example, the cheetah costume that you are wearing now works on only you because you strongly desire to be a cheetah. They have living essence in them, but need a wearer to feel whole. In an hour or two, the costume will be satiated and let you go, unless you wish to remain a cheetah for longer than that. I cannot yet guarantee that there will be no side effects, such as needing to wear the costume every so often, though I can assure you that it does not have a free will and will not try to force you into anything. (That happens every once in a while.)
I am not the original creator of these amazing costumes. Rather, I make new ones and study them and their relationships with their wearers. I will hopefully be keeping an eye on you to see how the costume works with you. I am personally quite proud of yours, seeing as its not sentient. I try to avoid that. The process is difficult to perfect, however, so if you know of anyone with strong feelings toward a particular animal, please send him or her my way. I could always use more test subjects.
Best wishes, Drethan.
So she was a cheetah now. Even with the evidence right there in front of her, the concept was hard to grasp. Well, if she was going to be stuck like this for at least an hour, she might as well go all out.
Obviously she wouldnt be able to go downstairs and out the front door, for risk of being seen. So she trotted over to the windowamazing how the quadruped motion suddenly seemed so natural!and rose to her hind legs, pushing the window open with her forepaws. For a moment she almost lost her balance, but soon succeeded in propping herself up on the windowsill. In an obscure way, she found it amusing that a perfectly natural position as a human was so inconvenient for so many animals.
The new presence in her mind prompted her to jump onto the sill, which luckily extended relatively far out to hold the flowerbox. There was the old tree, stripped of all but a few leaves, one of which had waved by her window a minute ago. This was a risk, but a risk she was willing to take. She tensed her legs and sprang.
It surprised Amy how easily she reached the tree trunk. Cheetahs could sure jump far. Smiling, she slid at a comfortable pace down the tree, using her claws to keep her from falling. She had a feeling cheetahs werent meant to climb trees, but oh well. It worked.
The Mandel house was at the end of their street. It wasnt exactly a cul-de-sac, but the street did end right there. Beyond was a huge wooded park. Not perfect, but it would do.
As soon as she started running she felt better. She sternly reminded herself not to sprint and waste her energy, but found she didnt need to. Her new mind already knew that shed wear herself out quickly if she tried to go seventy. That was for catching prey. Right now she was comfortable with thirty. It was still faster than shed ever run before, that was sure.
If only there werent so many trees. This dark wood was nothing like the hot, open savannah. But luckily it wasnt too hard to avoid the trees. And right now Amy didnt care in the least. Running like a cheetah felt almost satisfying, in a way. That new section of her mind that held her new instincts felt happy, content
whole. She thought about what Drethan had said and realized that this cheetah costume relied on her desire. Well, shed be sure to give it what it wanted. This was what she had wanted for years, and now her dream had come true! She couldnt wait to take this baby trick-or-treating
Amy skidded to a stop. Trick-or-treating?! This suit was worthy of much more than something as mundane as Halloween. And it was way too realistic. If she took to the crowded streets like this, how would people react?
Come on, Amy, she told herself. Youre the costume girl. Havent you always said that costume creativity was at the heart of this holiday?
True. She would have to go home and stash this transforming wonder in her dresser and make a regular costume for tomorrow. She had to get started on Charlies mask anyway.
She had almost forgotten. Suddenly she began to question herself. The two of them had confided their darkest secretstheir big cat dreamsin each other, and now she was going to take her dream-come-true for herself and leave her love in the dust? How could she even think that way? They did everything together. She was not going to pride herself above him tomorrow, and she hoped she never would.
She felt a sense of reluctance coming from that new corner of her mind, as if the costume didnt really want to leave her, but it peeled itself away easily enough. For a few moments Amy had to experience the dizzy sensation of pulling her own skin off and having her body contort and rebuild itself at the same time. But when it was done she had to feel impressed, even grateful. Drethan had done well. If the costume had had too much of an awareness, or sentience, or whatever the term was, it wouldnt have let her go, and it would probably be controlling her, or maybe even talking to her. Thank goodness it didnt. The emotions were enough.
It felt good to have hands again. She quickly pulled her clothes back on and sat down at her desk. She had two masks to make before tomorrow night. They would both go as black cloaked figures with big cat faces. Her new cheetah suit would remain a secret.
But wait. That didnt sound fair either. She wasnt going to leave Charlie behind while she began her own adventure, that was sure; but did that mean she would have to sit tight and leave him in ignorance? She would hate to do that to him. They trusted each other with everything. Didnt he dream of becoming a tiger, just like she had dreamt of becoming a cheetah?
She got up and retrieved Drethans letter from the box. Her hopes were confirmed. The last two sentences were still there. Test subjects was an interesting term to use, but this was all in the interest of study and improvement for him. And the test subjects got what they wanted most. Everyone was happy.
Smiling, she pulled out a pen and some lined paper.
Dear Drethan, she wrote, I have to say that I am very pleased with the cheetah costume that you made for me. Couldnt be happier! Its been my dream come true. But I suppose you get that often. Congratulations on crafting such an effective and amazing costume. In fact, its almost too good for Halloween. Im sure you understand.
I hope its not enough trouble to ask this of you. My dearest friend Charlie is particularly attached to tigers, just as strongly as I am to cheetahs (or perhaps even more). His birthday is November 3. Would it be too much to ask you to have a special tiger ready for him by then? I know he would love it, and Im pretty sure that hes obsessed enough with tigers for the costume to work on him.
Oh, and thank you for returning my sketch. I missed it.
It was a half-hour until Charlie was due to show up. Amy had just tied the elastic to her two finished cat masks when the doorbell rang. She jumped out of her chair. Why was he so early?
To her surprise, it was not her boyfriend there on the porch, but another cardboard box. Already? Shed just sent the letter yesterday. She pulled it inside and cut it open eagerly. Inside there was another note sitting on top of the most beautiful tiger costume in the world.
It has been my great pleasure knowing you, Amy, the note read. I am glad the cheetah works for you. As far as Charlies birthday gift goes, Ive had this tiger transformer in my stash of unused costumes for a long time now. I made it thinking that tigers were popular, as they indeed turned out to be (Ive sold very many normal tiger costumes), but nobody seemed enthusiastic enough to turn into one. Judging from your assertions about your friend, though, I am glad to give this tiger to you free of charge. I can use that hangar for something else now.
With a smile, she took her masks and the tiger costume and dragged them up to her room. The costume was stashed into her closet. She would wrap the gift tomorrow. Right now she had to get changed. She pulled herself into a black long-sleeve shirt and black pants. Her mother had been perfectly willing to cut out and sew a black cape for her, which she now slung across her back and fastened around her neck. She pulled the elastic band of the papier-mâché cheetah mask around her head and looked in the mirror. The effect was very nice. The masks were always the best part of her hand-crafted costumes. This anthro mask-only style was a new idea to her, but it worked very well. No staples.
Her next action was almost automatic. Without quite knowing why, she bent down to open the bottom drawer of her dresser. Her cheetah costume was carefully folded in a plastic bag in the corner. She stroked it, and suddenly she felt a subtle twinge of emotion. The costume felt sad, lonely
it missed her. She promised that she would wear it Wednesday, and the faint sorrow immediately became joy. She smiled and closed the drawer. She was becoming quite attached to the thing, just as it needed her.
She picked up the tiger mask and walked back down the stairs, right as the doorbell rang.
While Amys mother stayed home to distribute candy, she and Charlie took Lauren along the block. She imagined how odd it must seem, a little blue fairy escorted by two towering black figures with animal faces. But nobody seemed to mind. She was just glad that Charlie had loved his mask. Its beautiful, he had said earlier. Amazing job! She was glad he thought so. She was glad that she didnt look better than him.
After an hour and a half, they were just heading back to the house. Amy decided to ask him.
Your birthdays this Wednesday, correct?
Did you want to do anything special after school? Go out to dinner, see a movie, anything?
Not particularly. You know me, Amy. Im not much of a date person.
Perfect. I was hoping you could just stay at our house for the afternoon.
Really? Sure, I could do that.
Great. Well bring you home. Ill have your present ready.
Amy could barely contain her giggle of excitement as they entered the house a few days later. She couldnt wait to make her loves dream come true, just as hers had.
Thanks for the ride, Mrs. M! Charlie told her mother.
Youre welcome, Charlie, was her pleased reply.
Amy took Charlies hand. Come on up to my room. Well get your present.
He chuckled as she dragged him along. Will I like it?
Well, youll probably be a bit scared at first, but Im pretty sure youll love it.
When they reached her room, Amy walked over to her desk and picked up Charlies gift. She had wrapped it in a cute Happy Birthday wrapping paper that was way too childlike for him. There hadnt been much choice, though. And she hoped he wouldnt mind.
Next she headed for her dresser and pulled open the bottom drawer. There was hers. She pulled the plastic bag out of the drawer, closed it, and turned back to Charlie.
Lets go, she said, taking his hand again. I want to do this outside.
Charlie looked confused. O-kay?
She led him down the stairs, out the back door, and into the wood. It was so nice, having their backyard connected to the park without the troubles of a fence. Within a few minutes they were well out of sight of the houses. She turned to Charlie.
It may sound odd, what Im going to say, she told him. Its past Halloween, but my gift to you is a costume. For Halloween I made you a tiger mask, but the tiger costume Im giving you as your present was not made by me. Yet know that I give this to you with love and hope that you love it.
Charlie smiled in amusement and tore open the package. He gasped. Oh my gosh, Amy, this is beautiful! Thank you so much!
I didnt make it.
I know. But still!
Good. Now you go ahead and get changed here. Ill go over that way behind the trees and change into mine so we can both have privacy. Now, this is going to sound weird, but I have to say it. No matter what happens when you put the tiger suit on, dont panic and dont fight it; Im right there nearby.
She ignored his bewildered look and trotted off with her cheetah. She ducked behind a large tree and pulled it out of the bag. Beneath her fingers the cheetah twitched with anticipation. She smiled and began to strip.
When she pulled it on this time, it wasnt nearly as uncomfortable as before. They seemed to have broken each other in. She tried to ignore the odd noises, but the pain wasnt nearly as unbearable as before, and the transformation seemed to go along much faster. She welcomed the cheetahs presence into her mind, glad that it now felt happy again. She twitched her new tail around, just for the joy of it.
Her new ears twitched backwards to hear crunching sounds behind her, along with thumps and a stifled yell. She flinched. Poor Charlie. At least in the future it would be much easier. She knew that for a fact.
After a few minutes the noises stopped. She stepped out from behind her tree to see an amazing sight. A real tiger lay on its side on the ground, stretched out in front of her. He seemed to be unconscious. She walked over to him, sat down, and nuzzled him gently.
His sharp gasp made her jerk back. His eyes opened slowly and blinked a few times. They were yellow tiger eyes, but she could still tell that this was Charlie looking at her.
What do you think? she whispered to him. Do you like it?
His eyes widened. Amy? But
Yes, Im a cheetah. And look at you! Youve got to be the most handsome tiger Ive ever met.
He raised his shaggy head, still looking a bit sleepy. What happened?
The costumes are magic. As soon as I got mine I knew that you had to have one too.
Charlie sat up, fully awake now. Why?
We do everything together. I couldnt stand the thought of having you miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
He seemed to finally be taking this in. He stretched out an arm and examined himself. Wow, Amy, this is
its great, I cant describe it
A dream come true?
He turned and looked into her cheetah eyes. Exactly.
She gave his face a licksomething told her that was how cats kissed each otherand stood up on all fours. Come on, Charlie. Lets run. Ill go easy on you.